Experts: Railways Heading For a Crisis
While the nation’s attention is focused on air travel congestion and the high cost of fuel for highway driving, a crisis is developing under the radar for another form of transportation—the freight trains used to deliver many of the goods crucial to the U.S. economy. While trucks are still the prime movers of aggregate materials, rail is continuing to gain market share, according to Pit and Quarry magazine. Industry statistics show that more than 35,000 railcars serve the U.S. aggregate market today. The crowded rail lines mean those in the aggregate industry could face even more transportation challenges. The nation’s 140,000-mile network of rails devoted to carrying everything from cars to aggregates is already groaning under the strain of congestion, with trains forced to stand aside for hours because of one-track rail lines, according to an Associated Press report. And it’s probably going to get worse over the next two decades, according to an analysis of government and industry projections.
The damage to the U.S. economy could climb into the billions of dollars. Higher shipping costs would raise prices for everything from lumber to grain. One analyst said the rail crunch could add thousands of dollars to the price of a car. Congestion around the country has remained chronic, even as the ailing economy has led to a 3 percent dip in freight train traffic in the first few months of 2008 year compared with the previous. And a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report warns demand for freight trains is expected to double over the next 25 years. The problem is that there’s no room. Already, delays hamper the existing rail freight network. A lone train stopped in Chicago can force other trains to stop or slow as far away as Los Angeles or Baltimore. Other modes of transport can’t pick up the slack. Trucking faces its own congestion problems, a shortage of drivers and high fuel prices. Ships and barges can’t reach large parts of the country. Airplanes couldn’t begin to carry the millions of tons of coal, waste, chemicals, grain and cars hauled by trains.
The Chamber says expanding capacity on the more than 150-year-old U.S. rail system would cost $148 billion over 30 years. Private rail companies would have to pay most of it, with federal and state tax dollars covering much of the rest. For more on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, click here.