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Steel Train

Proposed high-speed rail project extends to Memphis.

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In the future, Memphians traveling east may have the option of ditching their car keys in favor of cheaper and greener high-speed electric trains.

Virginia-based RAIL Solution, a grassroots group advocating rail as the most efficient form of transportation, is proposing high-speed freight and passenger service along Norfolk Southern's Crescent Corridor line.

Dubbed the Steel Interstate, the pilot project features a system of electrified, high-capacity rail lines designed to move freight and passengers on the same tracks at speeds competitive with interstate highways. The 1,000-mile line would stretch from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Memphis, passing through Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Huntsville, Alabama.

The Steel Interstate comes on the heels of Norfolk Southern's groundbreaking for the $129 million Memphis Regional Intermodal Terminal in Fayette County April 29th, as well as the refurbishment of the Crescent Corridor rail line. Norfolk Southern and RAIL Solution are meeting next week to discuss the proposed project.

If the Steel Interstate becomes reality, rail terminals would have platforms allowing truck drivers to drive their rigs onto a train. Rees Shearer, chairman of RAIL Solution, said the rail alternative could lessen the emissions from diesel-run big rigs now traveling on I-40 and I-81.

In a 2005 study, the Tennessee Department of Transportation found that 31 percent of emissions produced in the state came from car and truck exhaust. Of that percentage, freight traffic, with nearly 250,000 long-haul trucks traveling on I-40 every day, was the fastest-growing source of emissions.

"[The Steel Interstate] concept allows rail to integrate with trucks, complementing their service. It's win-win," Shearer said.

The pilot project uses a combination of public and private funds to improve existing rail alignment and electrify it.

The high-speed rail would allow freight operations to move at an average of 80 miles per hour and passenger operations at 110 miles per hour.

Shearer said climate change, efforts to reduce emissions, and the transition from foreign oil to domestically produced energy all support the decision to move toward the Steel Interstate system.

"What are the consequences for communities like Memphis, and the entire nation, if we're not prepared to make the transition from petroleum?," Shearer asked. "We're currently hostage to oil. If we continue to depend upon oil, we're not economically or militarily secure. The movement of people and freight with domestically produced energy is in our best interest."

"It's the only [transportation] infrastructure that could fuel and pay for itself, which reduces the cost for shippers and improves air and water quality," said Steven Sondheim, a board member of RAIL Solution and the Sierra Club's National Transportation Leadership Team.

"The only possible competition would be to convert semis to run off of natural gas, but that's impractical and inefficient," Shearer said.

With an estimated 200 high-speed trains scheduled to run daily on the Crescent Corridor under the Steel Interstate plan, Memphis would have the chance to participate in creating "the premier intermodal transportation in North America, which would serve as a model for the rest of the country," Sondheim said.

"Memphis would also improve their connections with the East Coast, particularly cities like Atlanta, as well as the richest market in the U.S.: D.C. to Boston."

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