A Day After Their TIGER Win, Freight Railroads Carve Out More Turf

The freight rail industry yesterday claimed the top three awards in the Obama administration’s competition for $1.5 billion in TIGER stimulus grants, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood singling out train shippers for an online shout-out:

chart.png(Chart: AAR)

You know, although passengers and
commuters have human faces, we need to remember that trade depends upon
the safe, smooth, and efficient delivery of goods. Our groceries depend
upon it as well. And jobs depend on it.

This DOT understands that.

But freight companies are hardly resting on their laurels today. The Association of American Railroads (AAR), a Washington trade group that represents freight movers as well as Amtrak, is just out with a report that carves out the industry’s turf in a big way — including a legislative wish list.

Titled Great Expectations, the report positions the freight industry as an economic powerhouse well-positioned to power the nation through a recovery from its lingering recession. Freight railroads generate $265 billion of economic activity per year while emitting 75 percent less than similar shipments carried by truck, according to the AAR.

To illustrate the financial might of the top U.S. freight companies, the AAR produced a chart (above) that compares train shippers’ annual spending on capital infrastructure and maintenance with the highway budgets of major states.

So with the industry riding high from its stimulus victory, much to the dismay of its trucking competitors, what’s standing in the way of a freight renaissance? Government regulations, according to AAR chief Edward Hamberger.

"Select legislative and regulatory proposals are creating an air of
uncertainty at a time when there is already too much of that," Hamberger said in a statement accompanying the report. "When so
much is riding on freight rail’s ability to sustain a healthy national
rail network necessary to help America through to economic recovery,
now is not the time to undermine our financial viability."

The AAR report puts federal policymakers on notice on several fronts. After praising the White House’s multi-billion-dollar high-speed passenger rail program, which is proving a boon to freight firms that control most existing local tracks, the AAR warns: "[T]he development of a world-class passenger rail system must not come at the expense of our country’s existing world-class freight rail system."

Another bogeyman for the freight industry — despite its efforts to play up its own environmental upside — is the prospect of carbon emissions caps that could negatively impact Big Coal. The AAR report effectively lashes coal and freight’s fates together:

The impact of climate change policies on the railroad industry cannot
be weighed without first examining the impact such policies would have
on America’s coal industry. Coal generates close to half of America’s
electricity, and railroads haul more than 70 percent of it.

Freight companies are also lamenting the government’s mandate for positive train control (PTC), a computerized safety program recommended by Congress after a fatal commuter train crash in Los Angeles in 2008. Citing Federal Railroad Administration data, the AAR report puts the 20-year price tag of PTC installation at up to $14 billion and adds that "this well-intended legislation will have negative unintended real-world consequences."

Yet the industry is not wholly concerned with beating back federal measures that could hurt its bottom line. The AAR report makes a concerted push for a 25 percent tax credit that would reward any company spending money on rail infrastructure.

Late Update: Matthew Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity notes that the AAR has a lobbying team well-stocked with congressional veterans and former advisers to both GOP and Democratic presidents. Check out this map for more details.

  • A healthy freight (and passenger) rail system makes sense for the future of America. If we believe that the car-centric based system that has driven American transportation policy since the fifties can be sustained, we are kidding ourselves.

    A sound rail infrastructure is imperative to the long term economic health of America; it’s environmentally friendly, energy efficient and saves the taxpayers money as our highways decay before our eyes.
    Moving freight by truck is one of the heaviest burdens on our roads today.

    According to a 1962 AASHTO study, one 80,000 pound truck does the same amount of damage to an interstate highway as 9,600 automobiles.
    Let’s get the freight on the rails and while we’re at it, let’s get people out of their cars and onto trains and light rail as well.

    As we improve our transportation infrastructure by investing tax dollars in rail, why not leverage this great opportunity to round out America’s transportation system as well by integrating safe and efficient, human powered infrastructure as well; let’s add human powered facilities along the corridors, “rails-with-trails” to allow people to move throughout their communities to their jobs, stores, schools, and the trains stations by biking and walking.

    Adding rails with trails while completing rail construction would add the missing link – the human powered link – to a comprehensive transportation infrastructure in America.

    Many rail corridors were laid out 150 years ago and other than maintenance, little has changed since the early twentieth century. Frequently, rails lines were routed along our river ways creating direct links between cities and ports. As commerce grew, towns and cities sprouted up along the rail lines. A century later, these rail lines are now some of the most direct and efficient transportation corridors in the country.

    As tax dollars are used to upgrade these corridors, organization such as the Virginia Bicycling Federation http://www.vabike.org are asking lawmakers to require that rails-with-trails be developed adjacent to the rails projects as they are upgraded unless there is a compelling reason exists to prevent this.

    With a small set aside of these federal funds, say 2 to 3 percent, of all tax dollars being spent on corridor enhancements be dedicated to providing bike/ ped facilities in a fashion similar the 10% SAFETEA-LU (Section(s): 1113, 1122) set aside.

    Is it safe to walk or bike next to an active rail line or even high speed train? Indeed. According to studies by the National Park Service, Rails to Trails Conservancy, Federal Highway Administration and others, having these facilities actually makes the rail corridors safer by getting trespassers off the tracks and funneling users to designated, safe crossings. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, there are over 200 rails-with-trails totaling over 2000 miles and there has never been a single fatality.

    What are the benefits of rails-with-trails:

    – promotes alternative, active transportation and complete a sustainable, long-term transportation system
    – uses existing real estate corridors (especially in developed urban areas) eliminating the need to condemn land
    – provides direct, shortest distance, transportation lines between many suburbs, towns and cities
    – leverages existing planning and construction efforts and is cheaper than funding “stand-alone” projects
    – provides feeder routes to train stations for passengers by eliminating congestion and car parking, etc. for those riding trains
    – provides maintenance facilities for railroads to access to rail lines when needed
    – provides emergency egress for passengers should a train break down and passengers need to be evacuated
    – provides exercise, recreation and tourism opportunities for citizens
    – are safe and eliminate incidents by getting people away from rails and onto the adjacent paths
    – provide increased security by allowing corridors to be open, patrolled and monitored
    – increase property value for adjacent landowners
    – are consistent with state and federal transportation policy calling for true, “multi-modal” transportation systems

    Rather than just handing over billions of dollars to the railroads, it’s time that citizens ask that rail-with-trail facilities be required as an integral part of taxpayer funded rail corridor expansion projects.

    Let’s not just hand over bushel baskets of money to the railroads without demanding that rails-with-trails be included and every citizen can benefit from their hard earned tax dollars.

    Let’s not squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overall our country’s ancient rail infrastructure and build a comprehensive system which provides vital alternatives to our car-centric system which seems to rapidly going the way of the dinosaur.

  • Scott

    I think the rail with trail idea sounds perfect. I don’t know about having biking near a high speed rail without some sort or large barrier.

    In germany city rail often has bicycle routes alongside, although this is not everywhere…. But they do have way more bike routes than USA, from what I saw over a month.

  • Roger H

    Why not trails along highways? Right-of-Way already owned by govt. I appreciate your enthusiasm but your benefits are highly overstated and not clearly thought out. Same non-real life oversimplifications that are always trotted out. I can’t walk or ride a bike along I-95 so how can walking or biking next to a train be safer?

    Bushel baskets of money are not just handed over to railroads. Money is designated for specific projects, many that involve highway crossings. Other projects involve increasing capacity or improving clearances. These projects are given money because it is many times cheaper than adding highway capacity. The government incurs no additional maintenance costs and no land is taken off the tax rolls. In fact, after the improvements are made to the railroads, increased property taxes are sure to follow.

  • Roger, there are some trails next to highways (for example, the Little Neck Bay trail in Queens, NY), but they’re generally dangerous and unpleasant. Trains produce a lot less noise and pollution than cars, and they derail much less frequently than cars drive off highways.

  • Roger,

    Would you feel safer riding two feet away from a tractor trailer cruising along at 70 mph (while the driver is texting) or biking next to a train 15 feet away, rolling along on a pair of steel tracks? (BTW, here in Virginia, CSX and NS trains average around 25 mph overall.)

    I’d prefer the latter, though I find myself way to often, terrorized by the fomer.

    As mentioned, there are > 200 RWTs and the concept seems to work very well.

    Have I overstated the facts? Look for yourself; here’s a November, ’09 study on how well the concept works in California.

    http://bit.ly/5gprFp

    Do RWTs work next to high speed rail? Alta Planning did an article and found it works fine:

    http://www.bikewalk.org/pdfs/forumarch0104trails.pdf

    I like bike corridors next to highways, too. Unfortunately, with interstate corrdiors, overpasses and cloverleafs make bike/ ped paths quite a challenge to engineer.

    I like dedcated corridors like the Mt. Vernon or W&OD or VA Capital Trail, too, but coming up with new corridors these days is tough especially in urban environments and eminent domain doesn’t seem as popular as it once was.

    Your recommendation of making a few extra dollars off property taxes vs. providing an alternate mode of transportation doesn’t seem to be the wiser, long-term investment to me.

    We all know that one day, perhaps five years from now, perhaps twenty-five, gas will hit $10 per gallon. If we don’t provide some alternate transportation infrastructure (and a way to burn off some of the fat in an increasingly obese society) there are some tough times in America’s future.

    I hope our leaders have the vision to take advantage of the rail invesments and add fill two gaps in our transportation system at the same time.

    Cheers!

  • Here’s a great idea of what we’re hoping to see in the future:

    http://bit.ly/cqMmaF

  • Scott

    Read up on the rails to trails…. Seems pretty cool… This is like I said, exactly what they do in Europe though…. Most every city I saw had accessable bike baths everywhere, not just against rails….But anyways, my main love for this idea is that it will draw peoples attention to rails, and how important they really are…. We like to hide our trains in USA, but in other countries they are proud… I feel we have a lack of enthusiasm for how cost effective they really are…

    I hope one day it will be illegal to have 18 wheelers on highways and interstates… This day is far away though… We would have to make sure every city that needs loads of imports has a freight rail boost which would make it practical…. Only when this happens will it make sense….

    I think we need to really make a push for major road trails…. Although it is much more unsafe to have a trail next to a major road, there are ways to do it safely. One idea is to take advantage of hills on sides of the road… If you build the trail at least 5-6 feet up there will be no consequences when cars crash into the wall. also, tunnels to go under streets are amazing… Imagine riding down a street having almost ZERO intersection stops.

    My other problem is that these things only happen in a couple of states… What about major cities that have almost no biking infrastructure whatsoever????? like Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina…..

    The main question is not feasability for these projects, but more importantly !how the hell to convince your legislators to support them!!!!

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Freight Rail Industry Planning Record Investment in 2012

|
An increase in American exports is helping drive a record-level of new investment in freight rail, according to a news release by the Association of American Railroads. The railroad industry is planning a $13 billion investment in the nation’s freight rail network in 2012. That would round out the biggest three-year period of investment in […]

TIGER III Will Boost Freight Transportation But Not Transform It

|
Of the 46 recently-announced TIGER grant recipients, 18 projects had at least a “substantial freight component,” according to the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. Over $232 million — 45 percent — of this latest round of the popular transportation funding program will go to freight projects. That’s a very impressive share, considering that […]

Will DOT’s New Freight Council Focus on More Than Trucks?

|
On Thursday, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the creation of a new Freight Policy Council, which is charged with coming up with a freight strategic plan. This is a first step toward a sorely lacking national plan around freight. The movement of goods accounts for about a quarter of all transportation-related emissions. Every American is […]

Freight Rail Traffic Hit 20-Year Lows in 2009

|
From Warren Buffett’s acquisition of BNSF to the Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative, the nation is abuzz with talk about a revival of freight trains as an energy-efficient alternative to trucks.  (Photo: TSA) But amid the positive forecasts for freight, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) released data today that showed just how bad of […]

Don’t Believe the Hype About a Boom in Freight Traffic

|
U.S. DOT estimates that total freight volume in the country will grow 45 percent by 2040. If that sounds like a reasonable guess that will help plan for the future, think again. Predictions about freight growth usually turn into justifications to widen highways. David Levinson, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, says at his blog the […]