By Noel T. Braymer
Without a national system for freight rail service, we can’t have long distance rail passenger service. Without rail freight service, there is no railroad to run long distance passenger trains on. The situation the railroads are in now aren’t like slowdowns in the past from normal business cycles.The Shale Oil Bubble has popped and is not likely to be repeated. Also coal, a major keystone of the railroad’s business is not likely to come back either. We’ve seen this happen before. After World War II, many of the factories in the Mid-West and East Coast were replaced by new factories that ran on Natural Gas or Oil. This created the “Rust Belt” starting in the 1960’s and lead to the bankruptcies of several coal shipping railroads, particularly the PennCentral. Much of the anti-passenger service policies of the railroads was because they were losing money as their coal business went downhill. The result of this in the 60’s and 70’s was the lost of much of the passenger rail service in the Country. While coal traffic was able to stabilize after the 60’s supplying electrical power plants until recently, that market is now drying up. We can’t afford what happened to the freight railroads in the 60’s to happen again!
Expanded rail passenger service should be seen as a friend of freight railroads. In California, the State has paid to make major improvements to the railroads for better rail passenger service. While the freight railroads may not have “needed” these improvements for their freight service, these improvements help the railroads to operate more efficiently. An example are grade separation projects that are largely paid for by tax dollars. While a major benefit for the public, they also reduce the delays caused by grade crossing accidents which save the railroads money. In many cases additional tracks for passenger service in California has reduced freight congestion as well. The building of the Colton Flyover mostly with public funds at the former grade crossing of the UP and BNSF mainlines has made it easier for Metrolink trains to travel without delays between San Bernardino and Riverside. But it has also cleaned up what use to be major freight train congestion between the UP and BNSF. This in turn has improved air quality in the Colton area.
In many cases the public have bought railroad rights of way for expanded and improved rail passenger service. One example of this is most of the railroad between San Diego and Ventura is publicly owned and maintained. For the railroads their costs are reduced from not owning rail lines with modest freight traffic. But they are still able to use theses publicly owned rail lines to serve their customers. There has been much discussion of tax credits and other financial aid for the railroads that can be given if they allow more passenger service on their tracks. If this is done by encouraging track upgrades this can not only be used for more rail passenger service, but also for improved freight service. Track improvements are needed if the railroads want to carry more truck load freight. The question here isn’t the railroads competing with the trucking companies. What is needed is greater cooperation between the railroads and trucking companies combining truck and train service to provide a more economical and less polluting ways to transport freight than the way we do now.
Before that can happen, several bottlenecks in the current rail infrastructure needs to be fixed to speed up delivery times carrying trucks by rail. The railroads can handle the long distance transport of freight more economically than long distance trucking. But for pick up and delivery of freight, trucks are often the faster and easiest way to move freight over the first and last 100 miles for destinations than shipment by rail alone.Upgrading the railroads can save taxpayers money. More passengers and freight on trains means less wear and tear on already busy roads. Upgrading existing railroads is cheaper than buying land and constructing expanded freeways. New, clean locomotives hauling trains will emit far less than the hundreds of trucks needed to carry the same amount of freight over the same distance. The point is passenger rail service in this County needs a healthy rail freight service. Government involvement can insure that better rail service is available for both freight and passengers. Cooperation between government, the railroads, trucking industry and passenger services can and should work to the advantage of all.
What we don’t want is to see the loss of right of way and infrastructure on the railroads like we did in the years after World War II up to the end of the 20th Century. Once a right of way is gone, it is hard to recreate after development is built on it. We were lucky that the public bought and kept in service as many old railroads as we did in the 80′ and 90’s. But we can’t afford now to allow what happened to the railroads in the past to happen again. To prevent this we need to insure that the railroads make as smooth a transition from depending on Coal and Oil traffic to more high value, time sensitive business. We need to save and improve our railroads and their rights of way now, because if they fall apart or disappear, it will be near impossible to recreate them again.