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Increased Role for Rail

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Since the government likes to mandate so many things, I've wondered for years why it doesn't mandate a greater use of rail for long distance shipping.

Railroads have been advocating "piggy back" type service since the 1930s.  Today's Union Pacific's "Z" trains can move 55 5-unit double stack containers from Seattle to Chicago in about 100 hours, using far less fuel than the 550 trucks would consume, and in far less time.  Even with the reduction of non-productive raillines across the country, there are few places that are not within about 50 miles of a major railroad.  Long distance freight could move by rail, with the cars left at terminal facilities.  Trucks could then pick up the containers and deliver them that last 50 miles or so.

The "pro" argument is a dramatic decrease in fuel consumption.  CSX is running a TV commercial that claims it can move one ton of freight 400 miles on one gallon of fuel.  That seems a bit excessive, but it is far better than an 18-wheeler can do, which gets at best 10 miles to the gallon.  It removes the long haul truckers from the highways, reducing traffic congestion and wear-and-tear on the infrastructure.  It increase railroad employment, and creates employment for the short-haul truckers.

The "con" argument is about taxes and employment.  Even though more containerized shipment would increase railroad employment, it would not increase it by the 550 truckers would be unemployed if all of their loads were moved by rail.  Some of them would find employment as short-haul truckers, but there would probably still be a net decrease in employment.  Additionally, the long-haul truckers pay a lot in fuel and road usage taxes.  We've all seen those signs on the back of 18-wheelers that indicate this vehicles pays $4,000 annually in taxes.  That is a lot of money going into government coffers, so government isn't likely to do anything that encourages a shift away from long-haul trucking.

Another negative is the condition of American railroads.  While many of them have been doing serious track maintenance in recent years, many long stretches of track remain single-tracked.  The Kansas City Southern mainline runs about 1/2 mile from my home.  It only has two passing tracks long enough to handle through freights between Leesville and Sulfur, a distance of about 70 miles.  They run trains northbound for 4 hours, shut things down until the last train clears, and then run southbound for 4 hours.  The trains are about 20 minutes apart.  They would have to double track the entire distance to increase throughput beyond its current level.  That would be an expensive proposition.

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Seattle is a major hub for shipping containers by train,

An abandoned line over the mountains was rebuilt a few years ago.

It is still fairly steep but container trains do not normally have a lot of tonnage.

It is a single line most of the way to Spokane.  Normally 3 trains go over the mountains in the AM and 3 come back in the PM.  No other trains use the line.  The coal train on this route stopped hauling coal about 10 or 12 years ago,  It still sits on its spur near the Black Diamond mine.  At least it did when I Goggled the line a few months ago. There are still a lot of spurs that once served farming and mining areas that are in place mostly on the East side of the mountains.  Some farms still ship grain.  One farmer bought the spur to his farm to keep it in operation.  He also has a number of grain cars parked on his spur that I can see on Goggle.  I don't know if he owns them or not.

There are 2 other routes used one over the mountains, the other along the Columbia River that are used for container trains.  There maybe other routes as well.

But trucks still haul the majority of cargo in my area.

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