Are freight trains replacing long haul trucks?
March 2, 2009 1:25 PM   Subscribe

FreightTrainFilter: Living near train tracks in Greensboro, NC, I've noticed that there's an increase in the amount of double-stacked trailers that you would normally see being hauled by rigs on the interstate. Is this related simply to fuel costs, or are there other factors at work?

Also, are there new tracks being built around the country anywhere? I've been traveling a lot by train recently, and noticed that most places there's just one track- meaning that when two trains want to use it, one has to wait for the other to pass, which can sometimes be ages. Plans for expansion?
posted by lifeofthunder to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total)
The FHWA Freight Management and Operations website may be of interest to you as well as the phrase "Intermodal Freight Transport".
posted by collocation at 1:49 PM on March 2, 2009

Interesting question. I've studied this, but it's been a few years since I've been up on the material so my knowledge may be out of date. Quick answers:

1) Rail is (almost always) cheaper than truck-based transport, but can take longer; with the economy being what it is, I'd assume that shippers are willing to wait longer if they can save money on shipping. If I have time, I'll pull the statistics up tonight (there's a lot of available statistics via DOT and others on the web.)
2) There is almost no new track. In fact the overall track mileage has been declining in the last 30+ years as non-mainline rail is abandoned or transformed via rails to trails. Amtrak is particularly prone to delay as they are generally lower-priority than freight trains on railroads that the freight rail companies own. (I do want to clarify that abandoned rail is not in locations that would help with traffic congestion.)
posted by theclaw at 1:50 PM on March 2, 2009

theclaw is right on #1.

#2 The issue is taxes. Railroads are taxed on miles of rail. South bound lane equals double taxes.
posted by notned at 3:36 PM on March 2, 2009

Best answer: Well, rail freight volume is down nationally around 10-30% from last year. That includes intermodal, which has lost about a quarter of its volume. As much as 30% of rolling stock is idle on sidings.

It's entirely possible your particular line has seen an increase -- for instance, perhaps a new intermodal terminal opened up, or the customer mix has changed. Or maybe you're seeing empty intermodals.

As for new tracks, in general the track mileage has been declining by a staggering rate. But then, railroad mileage peaked in 1916, if you can believe it. The rail industry was overbuilt and redundancy was common. As companies merged to create large regional carriers, they didn't need many of the routes they acquired.

Today, Class I railroad trackage has declined to around 94,000 miles. New track is probably primarily limited to local improvements, such as Canadian National turning the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern^ into a Chicago bypass.

One of the largest expansions that I know of is the Canadian National subsidiary Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern building a 280-mile Powder River Basin line to open up access to Chicago for Wyoming coal fields. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota is concerned -- about noise, hazardous waste, and derailment potential -- because the DM&E main line runs practically right past them. As a result the proposal just for CN to buy the DM & E has faced a multi-year struggle, even though the railroads were, as they almost always are, there first. But you can see how difficult it is to build a new rail line in Wyoming when people in Minnesota can put a spanner in the works.

In general, though, railroads in this country are still a little overbuilt, and most companies acquire trackage by lease or by purchase of the company that owns it, typically a smaller Class II railroad. We have a successful railroad in the Midwest called the Wisconsin & Southern, but almost all of its trackage was abandoned by the Milwaukee Road or Chicago & Northwestern long ago. The state stepped in to keep the customers in service and the W&S has very generous public support.

In any case, rail freight is not generally time-sensitive, as that role is fulfilled ably by road and rail transport. (Coal doesn't expire.) Double tracks were a feature of urban zones, but primarily on passenger lines, and just aren't needed. In fact, rather than spend money to build a second track, railroads are probably more often tearing up a second track. Modern computerized operations are much more efficient and the wait on a siding is just part of the business.

My brother -- who works in the heart of the Midwest (!) for one of the Canuck rail companies -- often finds himself waiting on a siding as his federal work window expires and the railroad will exchange crews by taxicab, even in the middle of nowhere. It's just the way things go.
posted by dhartung at 10:11 PM on March 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, a short line tax credit extension just got passed through congress late last year, which will help subsidize rail rehabilitation and expansion. Furthermore I work for a national association of railroad contractors, and they are doing incredibly well right now as an industry. Despite what others in this thread are saying there is a lot of rail being built right now, and there are some big plans for the future, with high speed rail and freight corridor expansions planned nationwide.

Look up RT&S and Railway Age for more information.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:46 PM on March 3, 2009

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