Five Ways Freight Rail Moves our Cities Forward

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This is a guest post by Michael Gaynor, assistant vice president of field operations for GoRail.

As Americans, we see transportation as freedom. Give us a car and the open road, a bustling transit system, or bike lanes for miles. Transportation connects us to people and opportunity—and good infrastructure can make our lives better. This notion doesn’t end at the modes that move people.

Freight trains are often the forgotten side of rail infrastructure, chugging day in, day out across our cities to deliver goods we rely on. Everything from consumer products to food to energy resources moves by rail.

As infrastructure sits top of mind for policymakers at all levels of government—and we approach reauthorization of the federal highway program in 2020—it’s useful to reflect on our strengths. Privately funded freight rail is one of these strengths, an infrastructure asset that delivers stronger economies, more jobs, less congestion and cleaner skies – all of which impacts municipalities. Here are five ways trains are driving cities forward.

  1. Helping businesses compete domestically and abroad.

When I hear the far-off bellow of a train whistle or sit at a crossing, I think about the economy in motion—what’s on the train and where it’s all going. Goods made in my hometown, Columbus, Ohio, will seamlessly travel to destinations across the country (and eventually the world).

Businesses benefit when they have access to the nationwide rail network, which carries approximately one-third of inter-city freight and U.S. exports. U.S. freight railroads are the most productive and affordable in the world. Shippers today can move about twice the freight they could for the same price they paid nearly 40 years ago. When businesses can move more, and move it for less, it makes them more competitive in the marketplace. Efficient businesses in turn create jobs and spur local development in cities and communities coast-to-coast. Analysis shows that U.S. railroads today support 1.1 million jobs nationally.

2. Reducing wear and tear on U.S. highway infrastructure.

It’s probably no surprise to hear that a single freight train can carry the load of several hundred trucks. Every year, freight railroads remove more than 122 million truckloads from our roads, cutting down on traffic for drivers.

Taxpayers also win when freight is moved by rail rather than over our publicly funded highway infrastructure, where the average big rig only pays for 80% of the damage it causes. In contrast, rail freight moves along a network that is built, maintained and operated by private investment (about $25 billion annually over the last several years). With the Congressional Budget Office estimating that the Highway Trust Fund will be depleted by 2021, it’s clear that freight rail is an important tool for alleviating some of our infrastructure burden.

3. Reducing the carbon footprint of freight transportation.

By design, trains have an efficiency edge on moving a lot of freight over long distances. This inherent advantage, coupled with technological advances, means that railroads today can move a ton of freight 479 miles on a single gallon of fuel, double what was possible in 1980 and four times the efficiency of trucks.

Cleaner locomotives, engine shutdown and startup systems and advanced trip planning software also minimize rail’s carbon footprint. If just 10 percent of the freight shipped by the largest trucks were instead moved by rail, annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States would decrease by about 17 million tons—the equivalent of planting 400 million trees.

4. Collaborating to stop track tragedies.

A tragic statistic: a person or vehicle is struck by a train every three hours in the United States. In fact, 95% of all rail-related deaths involve drivers going through a closed crossing or a person trespassing on the tracks—a statistic often more apparent in cities. U.S. railroad companies have prioritized their work with partners like Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit public safety education and awareness organization dedicated to reducing incidents near tracks.

Railroads are also strong advocates for the Section 130 program, which provides federal funding to eliminate hazards at highway-rail grade crossings. This funding, more than $230 million annually, helps states improve, upgrade and install new active warning devices at grade crossings. Combined with public safety campaigns, Section 130 has helped reduce grade crossing collisions by 39% since 2000.

5. Safeguarding communities and training first responders.

Safety is at the very core of railroading culture. This value is reflected every day in the operations and protocols of the railroads that travel through our communities, and innovation has furthered the mission. Today’s trains rely on smart sensors that constantly monitor the health of railcars, locomotives and track, gathering vast amounts of data that can be used to spot patterns and predict problems before they happen.

Prevention must also be balanced with response planning. From “table top drills” and training exercises to information sharing and the development of local emergency plans, U.S. freight railroad companies train tens of thousands of first responders every year, including hands-on sessions at the Transportation Technology Center Inc. (TTCI), a facility run by the Association of American Railroads dedicated to the development of new rail technology and safety training.

As we look to the future of transportation, a centuries-old industry is innovating to meet the demands of tomorrow’s economy. Freight railroads will continue to be an asset for cities across the country—seamlessly moving our goods while cutting congestion, pollution, roadway wear and taxpayer burdens.

About the author: Michael Gaynor is the assistant vice president of field operations for GoRail, a national nonprofit grassroots organization that unites rail stakeholders with community leaders and the public in support of rail solutions to tomorrow’s transportation challenges. If you’re interested in learning more or joining our advocacy ranks, please contact Michael at mgaynor@gorail.org.