Monday, March 23, 2009

The trade-off between passenger and freight rail

Normally Robert Poole at the Reason Foundation makes my blood curdle, but his blog post at the Reason Foundation brings up a very good point, if it is indeed true: because of Europe's emphasis on passenger rail, they only ship 10% of freight by rail, compared to a figure of 41% in the United States. I'm not entirely sure of the significance of this when all is said and done, but it's a fascinating fact.

So in fact, what the new federal funding will mostly be used for is upgrades to the existing shared passenger/freight tracks, aiming to get Amtrak trains up to speeds of 90 to 100 mph rather than today’s 60 or 70 mph. But that raises the question of getting the best use out of America’s existing railroad infrastructure. While it’s possible, with lots of passing sidings and expensive signaling systems, to operate both fast passenger trains and slower (and much longer) freight trains on the same trackage, the performance of both is hindered. U.S. freight railroads still have serious difficulties attracting time-sensitive freight, because rail freight takes so long (an intermodal trip from Tacoma to Columbus or Cincinnati takes 7 to 12 days) and is so uncertain (i.e., from 7 to 12 days!). Today’s high-tech, just-in-time logistics system cannot operate with such long times or with large schedule uncertainty, which is why so much freight moves by truck instead of rail.

In contrast with the United States, European countries over the last 50 years have opted to use their railroad networks primarily for passenger service (except for the new, separate HSR lines). If you compare goods-movement in Europe (the 27 EU countries) and the United States, you find that as of 2005, rail carried only 10% of all freight ton-miles in Europe, compared with 41% in the USA. Trucks in Europe handled 45% of ton-miles, compared with 30% here. That different mix of goods transport (other categories include pipeline, inland waterway, air freight, and coastwise shipping) has consequences for GHG emissions. In response to my query, Wendell Cox pulled together preliminary estimates of goods-movement GHGs for Europe and the United States and posted them here. (These are preliminary estimates, and Cox welcomes feedback.) What they show is that the GHG intensity of goods movement in Europe averages 193 grams/ton-mile compared with 155 grams/ton-mile in the United States. In other words, the current U.S. policy of using its railroad network mostly for freight is “greener” than the European policy of using its network primarily for passenger service.

Thus, by putting more 100 mph passenger trains on existing railroads, we risk thwarting the hoped-for shift of more freight from truck to rail.

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