Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

Trains Across America?

without comments

This is interesting to me. As is the case with much of what I write on this site, I know very little about trains, but like very much to travel on them, and have often thought the U.S. would be better off with more of them. Excellent memories of traveling on trains within the cities of Washington, New York, and Chicago, as well as longer trips around Europe, have only been augmented by articles from the perspectives of enviros and others in favor of more rails connecting American cities.

So it’s interesting to read an article, insightful and objective, that discusses some of the drawbacks and difficulties of long-distance passenger trains here at home. Even in my desire for more of this potentially efficient means of transport, I’m not advocating anything silly or polemic like the elimination of air planes. But for trips from Minneapolis to Chicago, San Francisco to L.A. (though I’m not sure why anyone would want to leave the one for the other), or from Missoula to Seattle, trains could provide convenient travel between urban centers, and with much less energy use per person per mile than planes or even one or two people driving by car.

Still, this article from The Economist illustrates how difficult it might be to make this move, and the importance of letting the free market work in order to ensure an efficient and effective system.

American railways

High-speed railroading

America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it

Jul 22nd 2010

UNION STATION in Los Angeles has been restored as a fine example of the Art Deco architecture that typified California in the 1930s. It has served as a backdrop for many Hollywood films, from “Union Station” (naturally) to “Blade Runner” and “Star Trek: First Contact”. It was the last grand station to be built before America’s passenger railways went into what you might call terminal decline.

[…]

Staggering progress

Amtrak’s passenger services are sparse compared with Europe’s. But America’s freight railways are one of the unsung transport successes of the past 30 years. They are universally recognised in the industry as the best in the world.

Their good run started with deregulation at the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration. Two years after the liberalisation of aviation gave rise to budget carriers and cheap fares, the freeing of rail freight, under the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, started a wave of consolidation and improvement. Staggers gave railways freedom to charge market rates, enter confidential contracts with shippers and run trains as they liked. They could close passenger and branch lines, as long as they preserved access for Amtrak services. They were allowed to sell lossmaking lines to new short-haul railroads. Regulation of freight rates by the Interstate Commerce Commission was removed for most cargoes, provided they could go by road.

The paragraph above reminds me of Ayn Rand. I dig Atlas Shrugged.

The $34 billion purchase last year by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), one of the seven main freight railways (see chart 2), opened many Americans’ eyes to the industry’s significance. That America’s shrewdest investor should place his biggest bet on BNSF focused attention on how the country’s railways have been quietly boosting the economy by sucking costs out of many supply chains.

Coal is the biggest single cargo, accounting for 45% by volume and 23% by value. More than 70% of coal transport is by rail. As demand grows for the lower-sulphur coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, it has to travel farther. In response railroads have invested in more powerful locomotives to haul longer coal trains: since 1990 the average horsepower of their fleet has risen by 72%. Yet energy efficiency has also improved.

[…]

The corridor, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in modern America, was completed on time and on budget for $2.4 billion by a public-private partnership considered by many to be a model for other rail schemes, such as California’s proposed high-speed passenger line.

[…]

The trouble for the freight railways is that almost all the planned new fast intercity services will run on their tracks. Combining slow freight and fast passenger trains is complicated. With some exceptions on Amtrak’s Acela and North East corridor tracks, level crossings are attuned to limits of 50mph for freight and 80mph for passenger trains. But Mr Obama’s plan boils down to running intercity passenger trains at 110mph on freight tracks. Add the fact that freight trains do not stick to a regular timetable, but run variable services at short notice to meet demand, and the scope for congestion grows.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

July 22nd, 2010 at 10:50 pm