Possibly complicating efforts to build a high-speed rail system in California, Union Pacific Railroad has told the state's High-Speed Rail Authority it won't sell its rights-of-way for the planned 700-mile bullet train network.
In a letter dated May 13, an executive for the Omaha-based freight hauler wrote that the company "does not feel it is Union Pacific's best interest to have any proposed alignment located on Union Pacific's rights-of-way."
"We've always had to safeguard our right-of-way for expansion, not only with the high-speed but also with the commuter rail operations," explained the railroad's spokesman Mark Davis. "It's an issue across the entire system."
As skyrocketing diesel prices have made shipping by truck more expensive, there's pressure on the nation's freight rail network to move more goods on a system that has done more contracting than expanding in the last half-century.
"I can never say `never,' but what I can tell you is that right now is that our infrastructure is at or near capacity," Davis said.
Authority officials say the statement, which was echoed by representatives of the other major freight railroad serving California, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, would have little or no impact on the $43 billion plan to run 200-plus-mph trains between the Bay Area, Sacramento and Southern California.
"We've never assumed that we would take the railroad right-of-way," said Mehdi Morshed, the authority's executive director. He added that the system's planned routes "have always been adjacent to them, but not necessarily on, their right-of-way."
Quentin Kopp, chairman of the authority's governing board, insisted that the letter was insignificant: "We had expected this, and we knew about this for months. It doesn't in any way delay or deter us."
The development seemed to convince some of the authority's critics that — that the authority's environmental study for the Bay Area was fatally flawed because it banks on using the freight carriers' rights-of-way.
"The study's invalid because they have all these rights-of-way that they have no access to," said Richard Tolmach, president of the Sacramento-based California Rail Foundation.
Tolmach and others from the Sacramento area and San Joaquin Valley, while favoring the high-speed rail network, have criticized the authority for its December decision to run the bullet train through Gilroy and the Pacheco Pass — rather than through the more developed Livermore Valley and Altamont Pass.
Tolmach also charged that high-speed rail backers have claimed that the freight railroad land would be available as part of their effort to drum up support for a $10 billion high-speed rail bond measure voters are to decide in November.
Authority board member Rod Diridon said in a voice message that "Union Pacific will have to figure out a way to deal with what is best for the public," and that the public need will prevail in the end.
He also suggested that Union Pacific's refusal to work with high-speed rail was "a very firm foundation from which to begin the negotiations."
Morshed said that railroads often balk at selling their land, but have a history of changing that position when it suits their corporate interests.