Is One of America’s Oldest Modes of Transportation Part of the Solution to Its Infrastructure Woes?
It’s been over 210 years since the steam engine locomotive was invented—the single-most important development of the Industrial Revolution that put the United States on a trajectory to becoming the world’s leading economic superpower. In fact, without rail, there may have been no Industrial Revolution, and the United States would not hold this position today.
While a significant amount of U.S. transportation infrastructure is built and maintained by public money through the Highway Trust Fund, rail enjoys the somewhat unique position of being funded by privately held companies. This is especially advantageous at a time when the U.S. Congress is unwilling and unable to pass a long-term transportation bill to fund desperately needed infrastructure projects.
Perhaps it is because of this that rail is experiencing a resurgence of sorts as the go-to freight transportation option for today’s manufacturers who risk losing market share or even going out of business when other modes of transportation—water, air, highway—fail to provide an efficient means of delivering product to market.
And it’s not just freight rail that is lightening the load on highways, airways and waterways. Passenger rail service plays a vital role as well. As more and more people choose rail as a means of travel, highways become less congested, making room for more freight trucks to move through the network.
Companies like Amtrak have doubled ridership over the past decade and both freight and passenger rail are making significant investments in upgrades.
Jason Reiner is assistant vice president of industrial development for Norfolk Southern Corporation, which operates 20,000 rail miles in 22 states, mostly east of the Mississippi. He says while congestion on the highways means more business for Norfolk, any breakdown in the transportation network has both a positive and negative effect on rail.
“We are an alternative to congestion,” he said. “In fact, we market that. Your truck drivers are sitting in traffic too long, your product’s not moving, you can’t find drivers. And so you have a truck and an interstate that’s wide open, but you don’t have a driver behind the wheel. The railroads offer an alternative for that, which is good news, bad news. It moves the challenge.”
“Now, where we have capacity, we just picked up a bunch of business because the interstates are full, but now we start to have infrastructure challenges,” he said.
It’s at those times, Reiner said, when investment decisions are made.
“We make investment decisions based on need so we can respond fairly quickly,” he said. “If we see a need arise, and we see congestion, as a private entity, we can make fairly prompt investment decisions based on standard business practices.”
There are two types of investments Norfolk makes on an ongoing basis to keep up with demand for their service: the addition of siding so that trains can run in both directions, and in increasing capacity at rail yards so cargo cars can be mixed and switched quicker, and get on their way to their destination faster.
Norfolk recently invested some $160 million to increase capacity at its Bellview, Ohio rail yard— the largest investment the company has made in an infrastructure project in nearly 20 years. And while private investment by freight rail companies is helping to ease congestion throughout America’s transportation network, some argue there is even more potential to do so by investing in passenger rail service.
One such person is Marcia Hale, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton and current president of Building America’s Future, a nonpartisan infrastructure coalition that studies infrastructure issues in the U.S. and advocates for the need for immediate investment.
Hale says the addition of high-speed rail, like what is found in Europe and Asia, could be a game-changer when it comes to alleviating congestion on highways, waterways and airways.
“I have always contended that if more Americans traveled to Europe and saw their high-speed rail trains, they’d say, ‘Why don’t we have that here?’ Hale said. “And if we could only get one high-speed rail line in this country, then Americans would say, “Why not here?’ We can’t just keep building highways everywhere. If we’re going to build them, we need to keep them upgraded.”
Hale says European countries fund high-speed rail projects through a so-called “infrastructure bank,” established decades ago to provide private funding for infrastructure projects. She says Mark Warner, U.S. senator from Virginia, has introduced a bill to establish a similar infrastructure bank but, so far, it has not moved in Congress.
There is, however, evidence high-speed rail could be coming to America, and soon. Hale says two highspeed rail projects are currently being discussed by private investors: one extending from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and the other from Dallas to Houston. She says if these projects come to fruition, it could alleviate a significant amount of transportation congestion, especially at airports.
“Some of the biggest proponents of high-speed rail are the airlines,” she said. “While you would think the airlines would be competitors, at least in Texas, they don’t see it that way. There are many flights between Dallas and Houston and many of those gates could be freed up if you had true high-speed rail in that area of the country.”
Hale says not only would high-speed rail serve to alleviate congestion, it could be a boon to manufacturing in other ways as well.
“If you get one of those lines up and running, I think it would be quite an eye-opener,” she said.
“And just think of the jobs that could be provided in manufacturing engines and cars and rail lines and the steel that’s needed.”