Our Amazing US Freight Railroads

If I hear someone say one more time that “It’s too bad about the railroads, that we abandoned them. We need them now” I will scream.

As someone who has studied and observed American railroads for 30 years I would like to set the record straight.

The United States today has far and away the biggest, most powerful and most efficient railroad system in the world – our freight railroads. No other nation even comes close. This system is privately-owned, carries freight only, connects every city in America, moves 1.9 TRILLION ton-miles of freight per year, takes zero subsidy from the government except for the rare public-private partnership, generates $55 billion a year in annual revenues, has 140,000 miles of track, 22,000 locomotives (many of them state-of-the-art units), 1.5 million freight cars, 200,000 employees, is three times as fuel-efficient as trucks, is many times as labor-efficient as trucks, and carries 50% more freight in ton-miles than American trucks do.

US railroads carried 427 billion ton-miles of cargo annually in 1930. Thus today they carry more than 4 times as much with only about 12% of the number of employees of 1930 on the same corridors of track!

Wow… that’s efficiency!

Our four main freight railroads today are Union Pacific and BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) in the West, and CSX and Norfolk Southern in the East. Kansas City Southern along with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific (both now private) also operate medium-sized systems in the US. Hundreds of other regional and local lines, all privately owned, connect up the system. Union Pacific’s massive Bailey Yard in North Platte, Nebraska is by far the largest railroad facility in the world.

Today our big intercity freight railroads run on passenger-train schedules. Hundreds of freight trains daily leave their point of origin at a specified hour and arrive at their destination at another specified hour, often covering hundreds or thousands of miles in between. And the railroads keep scrupulously to those schedules.

These railroads carry the bulk of America’s heavy long-haul freight over trunk lines of ‘ribbon rail’ which are quarter-mile-long ‘ribbons’ of steel rail welded tight at each end to make smooth track extending for hundreds of miles. No more clickety-clack on 60-foot-long sections of track bolted together at the ends.

These rail ‘superhighways’ increasingly run on pre-formed concrete crossties that last much longer and hold the rail tighter than the old wooden ties. This increases efficiency and reduces wear.

Today our freight trains carry every type of vital cargo – new cars, car parts, consumer products from Asia, coal, chemicals, lumber, grain, scrap steel, new steel, frozen and refrigerated food, oil, bulk food products like corn syrup, plastic pellets and myriad other products that American industry uses every day.

And without this efficient system the American economy would collapse. So we should stop expecting these railroads to be anything but a corridor for freight. Amtrak should be taken off these tracks immediately so that the freight system can grow unhindered.

To read a great summary about American railroads go here

Yet most Americans do not even know that this system exists. They think that we let the railroads go to seed. Why is this so?

Because the Media Left in America never talk about the railroads, that’s why. Those media are too busy slobbering over Charlie Sheen or Dancing With the Stars or ‘global warming’ or some other left-wing sophistry to inform Americans about this crucial part of our industrial infrastructure.

And because freight railroads operate behind the scenes and are not glamorous, like a slick European passenger train. Yet they carry freight with world-class efficiency.

Meanwhile the media template is that we must have Euro-style passenger trains, and that the lack of such trains means that we no longer have a railroad system.

Baloney. And this template is simply a way for the Media Left and the Democrats to advocate for construction of a massively expensive taxpayer-funded high-speed rail passenger system that would be constructed, operated, manned and managed by overpaid, over-benefitted and over-pensioned unionized government employees who will kick back huge amounts of campaign contributions to the Democrat party.

And if this high-speed system is ever built – which most of it won’t – it will never, ever save any energy or time. It will consume much of both along with lots of taxpayer wealth, as all such systems globally do. Currently Amtrak on average runs below the passenger load needed to make for efficient travel, either financially or energy-wise. That is why Amtrak needs a $1.5 billion annual subsidy while moving only about 4% of the passenger load (27 million tickets a year) of the private-sector airlines (750 million tickets a year) which take zero subsidy.

So imagine that the US decides to build a high-speed rail line between New York and Washington, DC. It might save an hour over the fastest Amtrak train. Yet it would require a brand new track corridor to be built that would plow through thousands of suburban neighborhoods in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland; would require the razing of tens of thousands of buildings and homes and businesses and involve disruption of hundreds of towns; would draw in vast amounts of taxpayer money; and would lose trainloads of money every year. Even Japan privatized its famous government-run Bullet Trains after only 23 years of service because the system was losing so much money.

At the same time the US freight railroad system operates efficiently on track corridors that have existed for more than 100 years. Hardly any new freight corridors have been established since the big intercity trunk lines and all the regional railroads and branch lines of the late 19th-early 20th century were laid out. Yet the freight railroad system is moving with tremendous efficiency without government subsidy on routes laid down more than a century ago.


But it has not always been so great. By the 1970s most of America’s freight railroad system was in a shambles. And while the casual observer would blame this on the construction of the Interstate highway system, that is false. There are more Interstate highways than ever today, yet the American freight railroad business is growing and becoming more prosperous every year on routes laid down mostly before 1900.

And these railroads are expected to become even busier and more profitable in the coming decades if fuel costs continue to rise for trucks, and since the trucking industry is on the verge of a new wave of more government regulation, and is facing a driver shortage.

In fact even in recessionary America, the freight railroads are starting again to run up against capacity constraints. There is something called “fluid capacity” under which the trains can keep rolling smoothly. And without continuing upgrades to the current system – which are ongoing – trains can still roll, but they may end up unable to reach their destination because of congestion in urban terminals and yards, i.e., “fluidity” falls off.

Thus the railroads are adopting every new technology possible including sophisticated signaling systems, car-tracking programs and a new computerized train guidance system that will monitor every train’s location through GPS and monitor every train’s speed to optimize its track time. As this system is refined, trains will move even more efficiently than they do now.

Double-tracking and triple-tracking of busy corridors also is helping to move traffic efficiently, along with installation of new crossties and rails and switches that allow trains to change tracks at higher and higher speeds.

Freight trains have taken on the trucking industry and are winning. Truck trailers, separated from the driver’s cab, can be placed on train cars that can move those trailers with very high levels of efficiency and with many fewer workers. After all, each truck requires one driver. But a train of 70 cars, each carrying two truck trailers, only requires two men to operate.

And that is why the freight railroads will continue to gain ground on trucks – even on shorter hauls – something considered impossible back at the time of the construction of the Interstate highway system.

So in light of the fact that the Media Left do not want Americans to know about our railroads, it is important to note that it was forces from the socialistic Democrats that caused the freight railroads to collapse in the 1960s and 1970s in the first place. Even the mighty Southern Pacific, ‘the railroad that built California’, was suffering. Here’s why:

*Labor unions strangled the railroads for decades with endless strikes and outrageous wage/benefit/pension demands and work rules.

*The federal government dictated what tracks the railroads had to maintain, often taking years to determine if one unprofitable line or branch could be abandoned or sold off.

*The federal government required the freight railroads to continue operating their passenger services after World War II even though most Americans used their cars and those passenger services had tiny ridership numbers that were draining the railroads of huge amounts of capital. Amtrak finally took over all passenger service in 1971 and has been losing money ever since.

*And worst of all, the government actually set the rates that railroads could charge for hauling freight.

Then in 1980 the Staggers Act deregulated the freight railroads. And contrary to the dire predictions from the Democrats, the railroads began to thrive like never before. The unions were reigned in and the government got out of the railroad regulation business.

Here are some amazing statistics from the Association of American Railroads about freight railroads since 1980:

*On average US freight railroads today move a ton of freight 436 miles on a gallon of fuel.

*Railroads today are safer than most other industries – even safer than grocery stores!

*Train accidents are down 71% and rail employee injuries are down 80% since 1980.

*Freight railroad productivity is up by 2.5 times since Staggers.

*Average freight railroad rates are down 54% in inflation-adjusted terms from 1981 to 2007.

*Railroads now spend $20 billion a year on upkeep of their tracks and other operating systems.

The big new profit center for railroads is ‘intermodal’ which first takes truck trailers on the rails. This system has nowhere to go but up. It is growing steadily as highways become congested.

And in the newer form of ‘intermodal’, container ships coming in from Asia and Europe can have their standard-sized containers transloaded onto trains for transport on land, often in ‘double stack’ configurations.

This CSX ‘double-stack intermodal’ train originated in New Jersey and is heading west out of Albany, New York bound for Chicago. The blue CSX containers are domestic East Coast trailers that will be delivered by truck in Chicago.

This train originated at the New Jersey port across from New York City and also is bound for Chicago. The containers came by ship from Europe (the dark orange ones are German and the light orange ones are British) and will be delivered to their final destination on the roads by trucks.

In fact now that the Panama Canal is being upgraded to handle the big Asian cargo ships, many of those ships are going to be unloading at East Coast ports like Charleston, South Carolina rather than in Los Angeles. And trains will then take the containers inland – to the South or to the Northeast and Chicago – from the East Coast rather than from the West Coast.

One of the major upgrades of track in the last several years has been Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor project in which several dozen tunnels were modified to accommodate high double-stack cars that are going to run between the Atlantic Ocean port of Norfolk, Virginia and Ohio/Chicago.

Go stand by a high-speed freight train route in your state and watch these amazing trains. You will immediately understand how the perception that “the railroads are dead” is a complete fabrication. They are more alive than ever in American history. Some trains now are up to 2 miles long while some coal trains weigh in at 15,000 tons.

Here are four more facts about our freight railroads that should give us food for thought:

*If environmentalists were not blocking nuclear power, we could replace all of our coal-burning power plants with nuclear plants. And then we could eliminate more than 50,000 individual coal-train movements annually from our freight system. Since coal trains are long and heavy and often are slow-moving and go long distances, they tie up our freight railroads. If the coal trains all were eliminated by nuclear power, we could take millions more trucks off of our highways with a much more efficient and profitable freight railroad system.

*If Democrats would allow us to eliminate long, cross-country Amtrak routes that burn large amounts of fuel and that cost large amounts of taxpayer dollars, our freight rail system all over the nation would not have to “give way” to Amtrak trains and would be much more efficient, taking millions more trucks off of our highways.

*If environmentalists would stop obstructing new freight railroad facilities and tracks like they tried to stop BNSF from double-tracking a super-busy New Mexico stretch called Abo Canyon, the freight railroads would be much more efficient, and save us more time and energy.

*Meanwhile the same Democrats/environmentalists push for a boondoggle high-speed rail passenger system. It makes no sense.

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