Railroad Resurgence: Uptick in freight hauling could mean changes for tracks near Truckee | SierraSun.com

Railroad Resurgence: Uptick in freight hauling could mean changes for tracks near Truckee

Greyson Howard/Sierra SunA Union Pacific freight train climbs up toward Donner Summit on its way east.

As fuel prices continue to soar and United States ports become increasingly congested by global trade, transportation officials say the freight railway industry will see a powerful resurgence in the near future.

However, before the country’s antiquated shipping mode can consider the coming boost in train traffic, changes must be made to the outdated tracks and tunnels, including the Union Pacific rail line over Donner Summit.

The California Transportation Commission is currently working with the Union Pacific Railroad on the Donner Project, a plan to construct 9.3 miles of second main track and to increase tunnel clearances for double-stacked freight trains, said Zoe Richmond, public relations director for Union Pacific.

Raising the height of the tunnels would allow the double-stacked cargo containers to travel over Donner Pass rather than the current route through the Feather River Canyon ” a shift that would reduce travel time by 75 miles, Richmond said.

However, the impact from more frequent freight traffic on Truckee is uncertain, Richmond said.

“If this were to happen, people may see more trains go through the Truckee area that currently go through Portola,” Richmond said.

The tracks that snake through the Sierra Nevada and descend into downtown Truckee currently transport an average of 15 to 20 trains per day, and Richmond said the Donner Project could cause that number to increase.

But the Town of Truckee remains optimistic that the railway resurgence will not trigger more car traffic issues, particularly at the Bridge Street Crossing near downtown’s Commercial Row.

“We’re hopeful that the ability to do double-stacked cargo containers would allow an increase in freight movement without increasing the number of trains,” said Town Manager Tony Lashbrook. “But the jury is still out on whether or not we’re going to see more trains.”

If Truckee sees a more freight trains passing through, the town has established some contingency plans, Lashbrook said.

In 1996 when Union Pacific bought out Southern Pacific Railroad, one expectation of the merger was that train trips would triple over the Donner route. In response, the town constructed the McIver Crossing to regulate traffic in the downtown area; however, the town has yet to see a change in train traffic, Lashbrook said.

“We’ve enjoyed the benefits of having two additional crossings ” McIver and the bypass ” which means less gate-down time at Bridge Street,” Lashbrook said.

In addition, the town has explored constructing an under-crossing that would connect East River Street to Donner Pass Road, but the project remains on the back burner until future traffic issues arise, Lashbrook said.

If approved, preliminary engineering and design work for the Donner Summit track improvements and clearance project could be completed by early 2009, with construction starting in the spring, Richmond said.

The project would cost an estimated $86.8 million, and would be split between Union Pacific and the California Transportation Commission, she said.

Improvements to the Donner Summit track would relieve highway congestion on Interstate 80 generated by 18-wheelers, and would also lower fuel consumption and emissions, Richmond said.

A train can haul a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, which is roughly one-third the emission of a truck, Richmond said.

In addition, every one train that is loaded at the Port of Oakland can eliminate 750 trucks moving eastbound cargo, she said.

“We’re already starting to see a resurgence,” Richmond said. “As the ports in the U.S have become more important, the rail lines have become more important as well.”

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