More Freight Rail Could Reduce Road Congestion

Published October 1, 2007

State and national policymakers are missing an important part of the solution to reducing traffic gridlock: putting more trucks on trains, according to the author of a soon-to-be-released report from The Heartland Institute.

“If we could get more work that trucks are doing onto rails, that would be good from a traffic congestion perspective,” said Wendell Cox, a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international public policy firm that specializes in transportation issues.

Cox is putting the finishing touches on “Solving the Freight Rail Transportation Bottleneck,” a report describing how the nation could increase the capacity of the freight rail industry without unfairly or unduly burdening taxpayers or others who do not directly benefit from freight rail services. The report will be available in the fall.

Big Potential

Cox said there is considerable potential to maintain or improve the reliability of the nation’s freight system by using freight rail to move more truck trailers and containers. The rail and trucking industries have already teamed up to do this on what are called “intermodal” trains. Intermodal shipments represent the fastest-growing market in the railroad industry.

But there are signs the growth cannot continue with the nation’s current rail infrastructure. Freight train average operating speeds dropped from 24 miles per hour in 1990 to 21 miles per hour in 2000, reflecting at least in part constrained capacity, according to Cox. The problem is especially bad in the Chicago and Los Angeles areas and along the East and West Coasts.

“Think about Chicago when the Edens Expressway was rebuilt 20 years ago. They didn’t add one inch of new capacity,” Cox said. “To work more efficiently, Chicago and other major cities need more freeways, but nobody is building them. We need to find ways to get what vehicle demand we can off the roads.

“The trucking industry has done a great job,” Cox said. “They’re very productive, and the safety record is incredible when you consider they’re hauling double trailers and the average long-distance truck occupies the space of three-and-a-half cars. But this is the problem. Given our tight road capacity in urban areas, we cannot afford to see truck traffic double. In the long run, trucks are going to be a much bigger issue with traffic congestion.”

Passenger Train Priority

Much of the freight rail bottleneck problem can be linked to how passenger and freight rail systems are treated. Federal law requires freight lines to give priority to passenger trains, Cox noted. This slows the movement of goods by freight in favor of passenger trains, which account for less than 1 percent of passenger travel nationally.

“Rail and local transit do a good job of taking people to a few places like downtown Chicago,” Cox said, “carrying more than one-half of work trips. But if you look at Schaumburg [a suburb northwest of Chicago], that is the state’s second-largest employment area, and larger than downtown Portland or San Diego. Less than 0.5 percent of workers get to Schaumburg by rail.

“I’ve been concerned that the operation of passenger trains interferes so much with the efficiency of freight rail that it does more harm than good,” Cox said. “People must understand that it may sound good from a theoretical stance to force railroads to take more passenger trains, but the number of people who would be moved from cars to trains would be virtually nil, and the diminished competitiveness of the railroads would divert more freight to crowd the already crowded highways.”

Because freight rail lines linking cities hundreds of miles apart already exist, there is great potential to develop higher-speed freight trains and increase freight rail capacity, according to Cox. Truck trailers could be loaded onto trains and hauled nearer their final destination, playing to the strength of freight rail to haul large volumes of material over long distances, and the strength of trucks to drive to wherever the final destination may be.

The result would be fewer highway miles occupied by tractor-trailer rigs–and more room on the roads.

Priority Limits

Cox recommends minimizing traffic congestion by making it possible for railroads to concentrate their resources on freight movements. His recommendations include federal legislation to relieve the freight railroad industry of its burden to give priority to Amtrak passenger service, and to allow the railroads to charge Amtrak fully allocated costs for their use of infrastructure.

Any expansion of passenger rail service on freight rail infrastructure should be allowed only upon an administrative law finding that the additional passenger trains will have no detrimental effect on the competitiveness of the freight railroad system or the corridor involved, Cox said.

Investment tax credits, accelerated depreciation allowances, and tax-exempt bonds also could provide new resources for infrastructure development, Cox said.

“These measures would improve the competitive position of the railroads relative to the trucking industry without involving taxpayer subsidies or increased government interference in the investment decisions of railroads or in their operation,” Cox noted.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.