Railroads could have key role in combating pandemic

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Refrigerator cars could play a role in delivering the COVID-19 vaccine, particularly to rural areas. (Photo by Scott A. Hartley)
Two days after announcing that they found their experimental COVID-19 vaccine to be 90% effective, the partnership of U.S. firm Pfizer and German firm BioNTech said they are beginning the process of establishing the supply chain logistics that will allow rapid delivery of as  many doses as possible across the U.S. This could start as soon as next month pending U.S. regulatory approval. Other firms developing potential vaccines will need to do the same if and when their candidates are approved, and major mobilization may also be needed to deliver large quantities of protective gear and potential rapid at-home COVID-19 testing kits.  

Pfizer and BioNTech say they will depend on DHL, FedEx and UPS’s combination of air and truck networks to distribute the vaccine from their production facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., but might there be a role for trains to play in perhaps the greatest global material shipping mobilization of our time? If so, railroads will need to act fast to take advantage and contribute their unique assets and capabilities towards the overarching cause of freeing America from the shackles of this virus.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty of distributing this particular vaccine is that it must be stored at negative 80 degrees Celsius, requiring special dry-ice containers. Pfizer says it has developed a dry-ice box that can maintain an internal temperature of around minus-70 degrees Celsius for up to seven days. But refrigerated railcars might extend that longevity and make it easier to get the vaccine to parts of the country that don’t have stationary cold storage capability or the kind of facilities necessary to vaccinate large numbers of people.

The traditional refrigerated boxcar or shipping container comes to mind, but Amtrak has a number of surplus baggage cars (some of which have been sold off but could be leased back from their new owners) that could be retrofitted for cold storage. One advantage of baggage cars over freight cars is that they can do passenger train speeds and could be moved by Amtrak trains as well as freight trains.

The Dr. Vagon mobile clinic train, showing traversing the Mexican countryside, could be a model for delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine in rural areas. (Screenshot from YouTube video posted on Ferromex website.)
Trains might be particularly well-suited to meet the demand for vaccination, testing, and treatment in more rural areas where on-the-ground medical infrastructure is lacking. Medical equipment could not only be delivered to these areas by rail, but the trains themselves could serve as mobile clinics. A model for this exists south of the border: Dr. Vagon, a doctor’s office on rails, has been serving remote regions of Mexico for several years. Ferromex, one of Mexico’s three national freight railroads, operates the train with funding and support from a number of corporate and foundation sponsors. Its purpose-rebuilt passenger railcars from a variety of origins provide free medical and dental care with on-board exam and operating rooms, laboratory and pharmacy, plus sleeping accommodations for the medical professionals and support staff who travel with the train for two to three-month tours of duty. Russian Railways also operates a hospital train, based out of Novosibirsk.

If Amtrak and U.S. freight railroads could cooperatively marshal their resources to play a visible role in helping to bring an end to this pandemic that has taken so much from so many of us, it would bring lasting awareness and credit to their reputations in the eyes of a public that generally has little familiarity with railroads and how they help make our way of life possible. It should be seen as a generational patriotic undertaking similar to the role railroads played in winning both World Wars.

Now is the time for as many rail industry stakeholders as possible to reach out to the companies that are making and distributing vaccines and other materials as part of the COVID fight, as well as to those on President-elect Biden’s transition team and key Congressional committees and in state governments who are already finalizing their plans for ramped-up vaccine, test kit and PPE delivery. Let us think outside the box as to how railroads’ vast resources can best be put to use in this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime endeavor.

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients have included Herzog Transit Services, Inc. and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators. He also works with travel companies to help organize and promote charter train trips in the US, is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his current or former clients or associations.

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