should the Sierra Club support freight railroads?

The Sierra Club was recently approached by Growth Options for the 21th Century, a group that wants to increase federal funding to expand freight railroad capacity.

My general feeling is that we should be very wary. The law of unintended consequences starts coming into play pretty quickly.

The railroads are multi-billion-dollar corporations with well-funded lobbyists and growing traffic volumes, including I might add, Powder River coal.

According to the June 2006 issue of Railway Age, the 141,641 coal carloads are 41.1% of the 344,772 carloads transported by all major U.S. railroads in 2006 to-date. Coal volume grew by 11.1% at the same time all other categories declined in volume (except for agriculture products). By signing on without question, the Sierra Club may be signing on to help make coal-fired plants more cost-effective.

The Sierra Club should not be in the business of providing a direct corporate assistance to any corporation unless the environmental movement extracts some sort of meaningful concession for something that the corporation would not otherwise do.

Freight railroads have not been a friend of passenger rail and the price of help in getting money should be a changed attitude.

For examples:

  1. Minnesota’s Northstar commuter line which will begin operation on BNSF tracks from Big Lake, MN to Minneapolis was scaled back from 18 trains/day to12 trains/day. It was originally supposed to extend to St. Cloud, MN. The line in question is part of BNSF’s transcontiental route. Any improvements on that route should allow for the originally planned 18 trains/day. Those lost 6 trains represent 1200 more cars each day being driven.
  2. The UPRR has been causing the Coast Starlight to be running up to 12 hours late.
  3. The Coast Daylight project has been hampered by UPRR’s refusal to even state that they would permit it to run even if the state of California does contribute money toward improved infrastructure.

According to the May 2006 issue of Trains Magazine, January 2006’s tardy top 10 are:

number of trains on-time On-time performance
Coast Starlight 1 1.6%
California Zepher 7 11.5%
Crescent 9 14.5%
Sunset Limited 4 14.8%
Silver Service
Palmetto, Silver Meteor, Silver Star
30 16.2%
Auto Train 11 18.3%
Carolian 12 19.4%
Capitol Limited 21 33.9%

Just one on-time Coast Starlight for the entire month of January!

From another Sierra Cluber:

Between June 30 and July 6, UP alone accounted for 1800 minutes of delay along the 124-mile Cascades Amtrak route (2 Cascades passenger trains/day, heavily subsidized by Oregon) between Portland and Eugene OR.

Recently, the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP) wrote to the Surface Transportation Board urging enforcement of 49 USC 24308 (c), which requires Amtrak trains be given ‘preference over freight transportation…except in an emergency.’

Their letter reads in part:

Host railroads cause the majority of delay minutes. Amtrak’s April report, available on-line, shows that 54% of all delay minutes on long-distance trains that month were in two categories: “freight train interference” and “slow orders.”

In June, 2006, for example, just 15% of trips of the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight, which primarily uses UP, reached final destinations less than four hours late; the comparable figure for the Sunset Limited (UP) was 32%. On the shorter New York-Florida line (mostly CSX), only 57% of trips (including Auto Train) reached final destination less than three hours late. During the month, more than 100,000 passengers rode Amtrak trains that reached their final destinations over four hours late; the overwhelming majority of these passengers were on routes that use CSX or Union Pacific exclusively or primarily. By contrast, the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief (BNSF) and Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder (BNSF and CP) were on time (no more than 30 minutes late) 63.3% and 80.0%, respectively.

This suggests that UP and CSX do not take seriously 49 USC 24308(c), which requires that Amtrak trains be given “preference over freight transportation…except in an emergency” or where the Secretary of Transportation, in response to a railroad’s application for relief, has “established the rights of the carrier and Amtrak on reasonable terms.”

The fact that BNSF can post numbers that are so much better than UPRR and CSX’s proves that the tardyness is caused by corporate indifference, not by any inherent Amtrak issue.

Any Sierra Club legislation support should be tied directly to a requirement that any improvements make it possible to increased passenger rail service over the right-of-way (ROW) improved with federal dollars and that increased passenger service be permitted or on a parallel ROW. This would allow for the case of shifting freight traffic off of one ROW to make room for passenger rail.

The Sierra Club should know who is funding Go21 before we sign-on as well. We need to know who we are getting into bed with.

We should also not be forced into a false either-or choice of funding freight-only improvements at the expense of passenger rail or having more trucks on expanded highways. And certainly, we should demand that the above numbers be improved!

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7 Responses to should the Sierra Club support freight railroads?

  1. Pingback: Just wondering…. » Blog Archive » September Coast Daylight report

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