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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!


Posted in environment, sierraclub, transportation.

7 Responses

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  1. Andy Chow says

    What UP and other freight operators don’t realize is that it is bad business for them to treat passenger rail so poorly.

    UP, BNSF, and CSX are not consumer brands, therefore the general public have little concern about what they do, have very little understanding in regards to the benefits freight rail brings, and consequently less willing to provide government funding.

    Passenger rail like Amtrak is a consumer brand and consumers have direct relationships with passenger rail operators. Voters are willing to spend tax dollars into passenger rail.

    To prove the point about familiarity, most people can name passenger airlines but not cargo-only airlines.

    If UP and freight rail operators are preceived as non-cooperative in getting more passenger rail, more money will go to light rail, BRT, and highways, which the freight railroads get absolutely zero benefit. If freight railroads are cooperative, they will be able to negotiate an arrangment where public monies can help to improve both passenger and freight trains.

    On the other hand, trucking companies have no problem in getting more highway funding because they can argue, and that politicians understand, that highway expansions also help solo auto commuters who vote.

    It is not that hard to get tax monies to help freight rail. It doesn’t make political sense for freight railroads to ask for public subsidy and refuse to fulfill public’s demand for more passenger rail at the same time.

  2. MettaTrained says

    I think it’s more sinister than that. The Bush admin hates Amtrak, and they figure one way to kill it is to let UP have it’s way, putting its freight trains ahead of Amtrak passenger trains, causing delays so that Amtrak is always late, and then the public will stop riding. The bush appointees in whatever dept. oversees Amtrak don’t have their fingerprints aren’t on the corpse. I’d be willing to bet that it’s the same kind of laissez faire attitude that led to the Katrina disaster. Their idea is that government isn’t supposed to work, so they don’t let it work. If the govt. wanted Amtrak on time, they would get UP to give passenger trains priority. They wouldn’t sit back and do nothing.

  3. Nick says

    I hear rumors that Cheney is a big investor in UP and UP has donated many $$$ to the 00′ and 04′ Bush/Cheney Campaigns. I’ve also heard that UP has big ties to Haliburton (Oil Shipping most likely).

    UP and CSX are particularly finiky with rail passenger service for 2 reasons:

    1) UP and CSX are enroaching. UP owns almost all rails in the western US, while BNSF owns only a few mainlines. CSX owns Norfolk Southern aka NS (I think) and has absorbed both Conrail and Seaboard System, all of which covers the eastern US. Which leaves Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, a handfull of branch line operators, and commuter rail.

    2) All that recent job outsorcing has lead to a rise in imports, which has lead to a rise in freight-rail traffic. Soaring Gas prices have also made more companies ship by rail to kill two birds with one stone.

    The result: freight congestion! Often, a passenger train on a host railroad will be stuck on a single track block with 2 approaching freight trains in both directions.

    More rail infrastructure is needed. But there should also be more cooperation between freight and passenger rail.

  4. patrick says

    Norfolk Southern is independent of CSX. Both CSX and NS split up Conrail a few years ago.

    BNSF and NS both have fairly good ability to keep Amtrak trains on-time … because they want to. UP and CSX doesn’t.

    FYI John Snowe, currently in Bush the Lesser’s administration, used to run CSX.

  5. Tom says

    Any realistic look at the numbers suggest that freight rail is inherently pro environment. It is 3 to 4 times as fuel efficient as trucking. Rail has a much smaller footprint then interstate highways.
    Right now, we are under invested as a nation in rail, and all that really needs to be done is to leave them alone. Basically, they are making profits and are ready and able to reinvest in the necessary infrastructure to increase rail vs trucking.
    Rail is currently using hybrids (see the GE Evo Locomotive), and is making major technological strides to become more efficient.
    There are a number of legacy issues regarding railroads which miss the major point. Basically, all they need is to be left alone and current trends will favor growth in rail.
    A lot of people, myself included, would like to see more passenger rail. However, that needs to be treated as a separate issue and the more pressing issue of moving from long haul trucking to intermodal needs to happen.
    If anything needs to be subsidized, its the promotion of low emission coal power plants.
    I’m not sure that anything needs to be done except to keep from allowing special interests from preventing the growth of what is a huge plus for the environment.

  6. patrick says

    Hi Tom,

    Unfortunately benign neglect will not be adequate. In the October 2007, issue of Railway Age, the railroads report needing $148 billion dollars over the next 28 years just to meet the needs for freight. $135 billion is just for the 7 Class I roads.

    This money just represents investment needed to continue to handle the same percentage of traffic that they do today.

    “The study assumes little if any modal shift of freight transport” – David J Hunt lead partner of Cambridge Systematics. Cambridge Systematics did the study for the American Association of Railroads.

    Hunt says that the railroads can fund $96 billion themselves ($3.4 billion/year) leaving a shortfall of $39 billion (1.4 billion/year).

    The study assumes no growth in passenger travel., nor does it anticipate an increase in freight market share.

    However, the study also does not anticipate the (possible) decline in coal traffic. In the same issue, coal for the week ending 15 September was 142,925 carloads out of 338,147 ( 42% ). The report does not report the actual miles traveled so it is difficult to judge actual impact on capacity. However, considering that coal travels in unit trains (which means it does not have to be switched in a yard along the way) I would think that the impact would be relatively lower than 42%.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Just wondering…. » Blog Archive » September Coast Daylight report linked to this post on September 26, 2006

    […] Hutchison (Amtrak) reported that “The Starlight” has been badly bruised by the On-time Performance (OTP) [see this post for more information] with ridership and revenue plummeting and in name (e.g “Starlate”). Amtrak and UP are now in “High Level” meetings addressing the OTP. […]

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