By Noel T. Braymer
People love to complain about the government. But the fact is we depend on government services for a comfortable and civilized life. We depend on tax supported government services for water, sanitation, police, firefighting, emergency services, courts, educations etc. as well as transportation. Most airports are publicly owned as are ports. Most roads are owned and maintained by government. Do user fees pay for roads? Federal gasoline taxes today don’t cover all of the costs current Highway spending which needs additional funding from the general fund. The roads most people drive on everyday are county roads which are not paid for with gasoline taxes, but paid for often from local property taxes. My point is we never expect roads to make money or other forms of transportation infrastructure paid for by our taxes.There are toll roads. But recent attempts to earn significant revenues from tolls have generally ended in failure and bankruptcies. Many of the toll roads built by private companies in the last 20 years or so local governments ends up bailing out.
Transportation, be it by road, water, air or rail is central to a healthy and growing economy, The first thing government does in an emergency is reopen transportation to bring in emergency responders and supplies. Major cities are always at major junctions of travel; be it by ports, major rivers junctions, at mountain passes and at major crossroads. You know you are in the middle of nowhere when the roads are dirt and have weeds growing on them. The reality today is we can’t build enough roads to keep people and goods moving. Money is short, as is land for expanding roads. Expanding roads actually causes more traffic congestion, it doesn’t relieve because more roads cause people to drive more. What makes more sense is to turn to the railroads as an alternative.
Right now many railroads have major problems. From their beginnings railroads were centered around coal, both to power their locomotives and as a major customer. The market now for shipping coal and oil has crashed. It is doubtful that shipments of either coal or oil will make a comeback for the railroads. But the railroads are too valuable to let them rust and fall apart if we want healthy transportation for this Country. Not only are the railroads hurting, but many the towns and States along the railroads depend on the railroads too for much of their economy. What makes sense and would save the government money is for the government to improve many of these rail lines for expanded freight and passenger service. This will relieve traffic congestion at many locations, speed up travel for freight and passengers, save energy and reduce pollution while making the railroads even safer than they are already.
What about the trucking companies? They are already having trouble finding enough drivers willing to drive cross-country. It seems most people prefer to sleep at home in their own bed than in a cab of a semi-tractor or a room at a truck stop. In order to carry more truck trailers and containers by rail, new facilities and upgraded tracks will be needed to speed up freight by rail. Doing so will reduce the pressure and congestion on roads across the Country and speed up freight transit times. Such improvements can also handle increased trailer and container traffic for hauls in the 400-1000 mile range which would be more economical and efficient with terminal and track improvements.
To run a more efficient truck freight service by rail will require more double tracking, better signalling and speeds generally in the range of 70-79 miles per hour to be competitive with truck traffic today. Such level of infrastructure and operating speeds will also be ideal for Long Distance Rail Passenger service. To get the maximum political support for government to improve the railroads, it must benefit the maximum number of people. Around the county there are plenty cities and towns which want rail passenger service. These places know that improved transportation is critical for improving their local economies. The best way to economically expand rail service and get the most value for the investment is to run both expanded freight and passenger traffic on the railroads. Such upgrades for new freight and passenger service is beyond the capability of the railroads now with their traditional business declining.
These track and signal improvements can make it possible for passenger trains to smoothly and rapidly travel round the country at speeds of 70-79 miles per hour just like the trains with trailers and containers. Such track improvements will remove most of the problems the railroads now have with mixing freight and passenger service on single track railroads which is the norm for most railroads. Who will pay for these new passenger trains? The best money for most travel is on the long distance services. The long distance trains generally operate at a profit in this country covering their direct operating costs. The problem is there are not enough Long Distance Trains running now to cover the entire overhead of the current system. The solution to this is to expand services for increased ridership and revenues to become self-sufficient.
This will mean service to more places and connections between trains opening more travel markets to passengers which will allow people to travel quickly and comfortably almost anywhere in the country. This covers much of America which most airlines flyover but don’t serve. The key to making rail freight and passenger service operate more economically and profitably is to expand it, not try to starve it to prosperity. For that it needs the same kind of government support that other forms of transportation now have.