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Visionary, long-term thinking needed

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, April 08, 2016

You may call me a dreamer, but I envision a future where rail plays a much more central role in the movement of passengers and freight throughout the US. For the sake of a livable planet and the health of our communities, I foresee the role of automobiles and trucks eventually being limited to providing first and last-mile connections, with cars primarily being used for shared ownership and ridesharing services. An interconnected rail network will provide most medium and long hauls of people and goods, with nearly every city, town and village having a passenger station and a freight depot or transloading facility. 

Example of a decaying Main Street of a railroad-served town: Home, KS, located on the former St. Joseph & Grand Island Railway, now a little-used part of UP's Hiawatha Subdivision. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM / Flickr.com.
The process of expanding and reviving the American railroad network in this way would also mean the economic revival and physical restoration of Main Streets in many small towns and cities along rail lines. These walkable centers were originally built around rail depots, but so many have been largely abandoned and fallen into disrepair thanks to decades of government policy favoring highway and road transportation in many subtle and not-so-subtle, direct and indirect ways. Yes, the individual choices of people and businesses played a role in this shift, but the context in which those choices were made is far from being a “free market.”

Achieving this vision will require long-term commitment and inventiveness amongst nearly all firms and stakeholders within the railroad industry. Particularly, it will require greater cooperation between passenger and freight rail carriers and their associated ecosystems of contractors, consultants, suppliers, lawyers, insurers, investors, etc. Achieving this paradigm shift may sound like pie in the sky. But the possibilities of mutual benefit to both sides of the industry are tremendous.

The concept of head-end package express and other small-load deliveries on passenger trains should be revived. A modern-day Railway Express Agency (which was the FedEx of its day) is needed, perhaps as an offshoot of a FedEx or UPS. This should be done such that freight railroads do not view passenger trains carrying revenue cargo as competition or incursion into their turf, but rather as partners and sources of increased revenue and capital investment. If designed and executed well, this could provide a sustainable source of revenue to make more passenger services commercially viable.

Putting the railroad industry on a path to this scale of development will also involve significant change in government policy and regulatory approach. This will involve breaking down the silos between how different parts of the industry are regulated and funded, as well as policies that make road users pay their share of the full costs of road maintenance and of the external costs that their choice imposes on society. It will also necessitate putting passenger rail on a level playing field with other passenger modes with a dedicated funding source, as well as regulatory and oversight reforms that encourage passenger and freight railroads to work as partners rather than adversaries.

Finally, railroads will have to up their game in terms of fuel efficiency in order to truly offer a less energy-intensive service than buses and trucks. A presenter at this week’s American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association convention pointed out that railroads still emit 1.7 times as much air pollution per ton-mile moved as trucks that meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s current standards. This figure factors in the much greater average tonnage trains can haul on a single gallon of fuel than trucks, and even accounts for railroads having a locomotive fleet that mostly complies with the EPA’s Tier 4 emissions standards. 

Whichever fuel solution proves most cost-effective — be it even cleaner diesel engines, a transition to natural gas as the primary locomotive fuel, or a major investment in electrification of main lines — railroads and locomotive manufacturers will have to decide on and commit to a course of action promptly. Otherwise, either regulators will force the issue, or railroads will lose out to trucks as shippers, port authorities and supply chain managers become more energy and environmentally conscious. The same goes for passengers, with some studies showing a lower energy intensity per passenger-mile for intercity buses than for Amtrak (which is already more energy-efficient than commuter rail).

The original railroad builders of the 19th century were dreamers who had lofty ambitions. Today’s proponents of the rail mode need a similar level of visioning and long-term thinking in order not just to ensure that the industry thrives, but also to ensure no less than the ongoing viability of the American economy and standard of living in a world that faces increasing resource constraints and the growing threat of climate change. Are we up to the task?

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