Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A hat-tip to ARRA for the freight rail boom

The Wall Street Journal's Betsy Morris reports on an investment boom in freight rail and freight rail infrastructure that's aiding the nascent comeback of U.S. manufacturing.
Welcome to the revival of the Railroad Age. North America's major freight railroads are in the midst of a building boom unlike anything since the industry's Gilded Age heyday in the 19th century—this year pouring $14 billion into rail yards, refueling stations, additional track. With enhanced speed and efficiency, rail is fast becoming a dominant player in the nation's commercial transport system and a vital cog in its economic recovery.

This time around, though, the expansion isn't so much geographic—it is about a race to make existing rail lines more efficient and able to haul more and different types of freight. Some of the railroads are building massive new terminals that resemble inland ports. They are turning their networks into double-lane steel freeways to capture as much as they can get of U.S. freight demand that is projected to grow by half, to $27.5 billion by 2040, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In some cases, rail lines are increasing the heights of mountain tunnels and raising bridges to accommodate stacked containers. All told, 2013 stands to be the industry's third year in a row of record capital spending—more than double the yearly outlays of $5.9 billion a decade ago.
As the examples of infrastructure upgrades in Morris's article suggest, freight infrastructure is financed mostly by private capital.  The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's  $8 billion in high speed rail grants, while focused mainly on passenger service, do include projects that improve infrastructure for freight rail, however. Describing rail upgrades in his book on the stimulus, The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald illustrates how passenger and freight rail infrastructure are often intertwined:  

The Englewood Flyover will also save suburbanites over twenty minutes a day on their commutes, and start untangling the spaghetti bowl of convoluted tracks that carry one fourth of the nation’s freight through Greater Chicago. Throughout the area, I saw similar workaday projects that would add capacity and subtract choke points: sidings to allow faster trains to pass laggards, grade separations to avoid conflicts with cars, advanced signal systems with automated crossovers to replace hand-thrown switches. The goal is to make Chicago the hub of a truly competitive Midwestern rail network— not by building new bullet-only lines from scratch, but by gradually improving the existing network (p. 357).
Grunwald also notes "unprecedented" federal support in ARRA for freight infrastructure specifically (usually, again, the province of private companies):
At the same time, projects like the Englewood Flyover and that bridge in Missouri will help freight railroads, which move our stuff around the country less expensively and more fuel-efficiently than long-haul trucks, and maintain their tracks on their own dime. This is another untold story of the stimulus, its unprecedented aid for freight upgrades that will unclog the arteries of our commerce— including a $ 100 million TIGER grant for further untangling of Chicago’s spaghetti bowl. Shifting cargo from gas-guzzling trucks to trains that can move a ton of freight 457 miles per gallon is one of the most powerful ways to reduce oil dependence and promote economic competitiveness (p. 358).
A complete list of ARRA high speed rail awards is here. They include many upgrades to track, signal systems and crossovers.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! We need more good news like this.