Learning to conduct — on the rail trail

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Updated Dec 14, 2009

My “Learning to drive” post from last week about the then-upcoming Blueprint America series special on the rail/truck debate garnered thoughtful comments that, since the special’s release, appear that much more prescient. “Little” David Obermark, who blogs here, noted the historical precedent for the inadequacy of rail to handle increased volumes of freight — at least with the dollars it now generates to reinvest on its own. “Back during the Clinton economy,” he wrote, “back when us truckers could not handle the demands of our economy’s freight hauling needs, many shippers tried rail. The result? The rail system couldn’t handle it either. The logjam kept the rail system from efficiently delivering freight for even existing customers. At least if you could find a truck to haul the freight, it got delivered on-time….”

A commenter posting only as Richard, who says he worked for a time for a firm that repaired intermodal container chassis, concurred in part, noting a perhaps more worthy competitor to the trucking industry: “There are logistics problems with sending freight by rail. There can only be so many hubs to direct this freight to, and no communities are going to want the congestion and pollution resulting from traffic going in and out of these hubs…. The real alternative to truckload and rail freight is cargo ships along the coasts and barges on inland waterways. These methods are far more efficient than rail.”

Transportation activity in the U.S. House is part of the Blueprint America program, and that activity, mostly surrounding the House transport committee and the drive behind chair James Oberstar’s insistence on the intermodal emphasis experts recommend for future government investments in transportation, is sure to in the coming years have an effect on dollars coming to all manner of infrastructure improvements. Whether shares of those dollars, collected primarily from fuels taxes, will shift at all from roads to rails is yet to be determined.

“Personally,” Obermark writes, “I do not have a problem if a sliver of the fuel taxes I pay as a truck driver go towards mass transit. I do have a problem with any portion of my taxes going to fund my direct competitors [freight rail companies]. Would we subsidize rail construction from taxes from trucking that the railway companies would have complete ownership of, for example?This is a complicated subject, and I will admit that self interest and my concerns of personal solvency in the current economy affect my opinions. I wonder just how truthful others involved in the argument will be… If America invests money in the extremely consolidated rail industry, what guarantee is there that the industry will not use the money invested to rake the taxpayer over the coals? With the trucking industry the competition is so fierce that it is actually cutthroat. The only thing right now holding the consolidated rail industry in check is the competition from the cutthroat trucking industry.”

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Others weighed in on this and other issues in the special, embedded below in case you missed it. The main site is here if you’re having difficulty viewing.