30.5.08

RUNNING OUT OF TRACK. What happens if freight car loadings double in the next 25 years?

Railway executive Matthew Rose stood before fellow industry leaders, pointing to a map meant to tell the future of the U.S. rail freight network. It was drenched in red — east to west, north to south.

The blotches illustrated areas where, by 2035, traffic jams could be so severe trains would grind to a halt for days with nowhere to go.

"For those of you who've ever seen a good rail meltdown, this is what it looks like," Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., said as the crowded hall shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. "It's literally chaos in the supply chain."

The missing capacity isn't only on the rails.

Other modes of transport can't take 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. And hauling freight by rail remains far more fuel-efficient than trucking.

Many politicians are joining rail executives in sounding the alarm.

"The amount of money we're investing nationally is pathetic," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said during a recent congressional hearing on congested freight routes. "We're heading toward fourth-world infrastructure."

Others suggest the railroads are being alarmist.

Kenneth Kremar, another Global Insight analyst, said talk of a looming crisis serves industry interests as rail companies jockey for more money from Congress. He said investment in larger, high-tech train cars and computer systems that better pace trains should help avert logjams.

Amtrak, which shares the rails with freight trains, is also feeling the pinch. Its long distance trains were on time just 42 percent of the time last year, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.

There is likely to be political maneuvering, particularly if passenger train operators intend to add new routes. Union Pacific got that third track into Elburn as a condition of adding the Metra service.

The article did not mention whether repeal of the cartel-era railroad speed limits or asking the trucking companies to pay for their rights-of-way were discussed at this conference. In the world of rail infrastructure upgrades, the Harsco Track Renewal Train is parked east of the coal dock in DeKalb. Last season, the train worked through Creston.

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