Freight High-Speed Rail Infrastructure

Freight as Passenger Rail’s Worst Enemy — Or Something Else?

» The American freight rail system is often cited as a world model that must be protected from the intrusion of passenger rail networks. But comparisons with passenger-heavy Europe are not as meaningful as have been suggested.

Among those who argue against the public funding of improved intercity passenger rail in the United States, the notion that such improvements would reduce the viability of the freight rail system is frequently cited. The argument goes like this: Passenger and freight rail are in competition for the same infrastructure, so encouraging people to ride the trains would make it more difficult to transport their goods. The end result could be a minor improvement in passenger mode share towards the railways and a significant mode shift of freight away from the railways, to the highways.

The American freight rail network, it is argued, is one of the best in the world, able to move more goods over a longer distance than trucking can, partially because in most of the country, rail passenger services are basically nonexistent. The decreasing use of intercity passenger rail in the second half of the 20th Century appeared to correspond with an increase in freight by train.

Similarly, the comparison with Europe, where passenger rail has a far higher mode share, seems particularly informing: There, rail accounts for less than ten percent of freight ton-miles, compared to 38 percent in the U.S., according to a 2005 Harvard study by Jose Manuel Vassallo and Mark Fagan. Since 1995, the rail share for freight in Europe has declined from 20 to 17% while it has increased from 33 to 38% in the U.S. The European emphasis on passenger rail suggests a negative influence on freight rail, which implies that if the U.S. wants to maintain its freight system, further investments in passenger networks could be counterproductive.

Yet a closer read of the available data suggests that this story is specious. Though trucking accounts for a larger percentage of freight shipments in Europe, the U.S. actually moves a larger amount of goods (by ton-mile) by road than its European peers (1.7 million ton-miles versus 1.3 million), despite having a smaller population (310 million vs 380 million). How can this be? In order to consume what we consume, Americans rely on goods that are moved longer distances. And U.S. inhabitants are also larger consumers of material goods that require shipping; indeed, the country’s 6.5 million annual ton-miles of freight dwarf the 3.1 million in Europe.

Most significant perhaps is the American reliance on coal as an energy source; it accounts for almost half of overall power production in this country, compared to about 16% in Europe overall (and even less in some countries like France and Spain). Related is the fact that Europeans simply consume less energy — less than half as much on a per-capita basis and almost as little even in the wealthiest countries like Germany. For historical and logistical reasons, coal can be moved more efficiently by train, which explains a large share of the difference between American and European freight transport patterns. The coal moved by American railroads alone — about 1.5 million ton-miles, representing 23% of American goods movement — is equivalent to about half of all European freight shipments, according to the Harvard study, based on 2000 information.

More recent data suggests that the emphasis of American freight railroads on coal shipments has only become more pronounced, accounting for 47% of tons moved on the railways in 2007. Wyoming, of all states, is the leading state for outbound shipments of freight… because of the coal that originates there.

So the U.S. reliance on an incredibly polluting, inefficient power source has upped the use of trains for freight. But that is no success story in itself, since renewable forms of power production require no forms of material movement to and from production facilities. Less transportation — if not needed — is more efficacy from an economic and environmental perspective.

The Harvard report also indicates that the fact that European rail networks are sometimes not interoperable — Spain and France, for instance, have differing track gauges — structurally reduces the appeal of shipping freight by train, even though trucking is quite expensive (because of relatively high fuel taxes and frequent tolls). The ease of moving goods on the European coast means far more goods there move on the sea than in the U.S.

Thus this data does not demonstrate that Europe’s low freight rail mode share was “caused” by the continent’s excellent passenger services, the argument so frequently cited by campaigners against passenger rail investment. Rather, the evidence suggests that the reasons for Europe’s differences are multifarious in origin, with the effects of access by passenger trains only playing a minor role. In other words, the lack of a really strong freight rail system cannot be easily attributed to the existence of well-performing passenger trains.

On the other hand, the evidence for Europe’s differences do not “prove” anything about the feasibility of an improved passenger rail network in the U.S. nor does it discount the considerable investments the American freight railroads have devoted to improving their infrastructure, much of which occurred with little public aid. Implementing improved passenger rail networks on existing corridors cannot be done easily, nor should it interfere with the ability of existing freight companies to operate (even if they are transporting coal…). And European countries need to do more to guarantee the movement of freight on railways, which are more efficient than their truck-based counterparts.

Nonetheless, when it comes to freight rail, the comparison between the U.S. and Europe is inappropriate.

Image above: Intermodal freight in Indiana, from Flickr user vxla (cc)

165 replies on “Freight as Passenger Rail’s Worst Enemy — Or Something Else?”

Maybe European railroads carry less freight than in the US also because those railroads have been government-run and are more costly and less efficient than US freight railroads, which almost always have been privately-owned?

Right-wing privatization-madness bullshit, Chris. Absolutely and entirely false. The Russian railways, which were *always* state-owned, carry an enormous amount of freight very efficiently. And were particularly efficient under communism…

Here are some of the reasons Europe-west-of-Russia carries so little freight by train:
(1) Buffers-and-chain couplers. This is the big one. Coupling and uncoupling European freight trains is a tedious process involving a man walking between cars and attaching or detaching a chain by hand.

Both the US and Russia use knuckle couplers. This vast improvement in coupling speeds up the operation of freight services massively, and makes them cost a lot less. This is understood and Europe is trying to switch to knuckle couplers, but is having an “installed base” problem. If they succeed at switching, they will probably have an immediate boost in freight usage.

(2) National borders. Until the Schengen treaty (quite recent), freight trains frequently had to stop at every border for customs, crew, and engine changes — a slow, tedious process which made them little faster than trucks. And there are a *lot* of national borders in Europe. Other consequences of national borders: there are gauge differences going from France to Spain, and going into the former Soviet Union, loading gauge differences going from the Continent to England, and electrification differences across practically every border.

(3) Canals and shipping. For heavy bulk freight, the waterways of Europe are very heavily used. The US lacks comparable waterways along key trade routes so it uses railways instead. (The waterways are preferable for slow, not-time-sensitive freight, as they’re more efficient.)

(4) Clearances. Freight likes nice large clearances, such as the American doublestack clearance or the Russian clearance. Europe-west-of-Russia has relatively small structure gauge for tunnels, bridges, etc., and so — much like the portions of the US with limited clearance, which includes the NEC — is less attractive for freight.

It is not as bad as it sounds…

to 1: The coupler issues do indeed exist. However, it s not the handling of the link and hook couplers which is the problem (definitely not when we are looking at block trains). It is their limited strength. On flat lines, you may get up to 2000 metric tons which can be handled, for mountainous lines, you end up with about 1400 metric tons as maximum. Such trains are less efficient (if you look at a simple train) than 4000 to 8000 metric tons monsters. Of course the lighter trains are quicker, and can therefore mix with passenger trains.

to 2: The Schengen treaty concerns only the free movement of people. It has nothing to do with goods; goods are handled under other EU-internal treaties. The real borders in railways are the different legacy systems (line voltage is only a minor of them; signalling systems and operation rules are much more a hindrance to cross-border operation.

Things are improving, but that takes time. And there are still too many “egos” involved…

There’s a third mode of transport that gets left out in the trucks vs. trains debate: boats. One reason a lot of stuff goes by train or truck in the USA is because of the geographical barriers to shipping stuff by boat from one side of the country to another.

Also… the rail lines used for coal transport are usually not the ones used for passenger transport. Coal mines and coal power plants tend to be located far from where people live.

No, coal moves on many corridors which also host Amtrak and/or various commuter rail services. The real issues are track capacity (most RRs have degraded their mainlines since4 the Staggers Act of 1980) and scheduling/dispatching skills. Rail freight travels at pitifully slow speeds. check here for ##

What is unique about the evolving face of Freight transportation is the embrace of tax dollars by Norfolk Southern and CSX to support new corridor routes in the East that specifically target containter traffic. Think Heartland and Crescent Corridors. Even a more unique quote I recently read but can’t recall where and confirm, UP’s intention of running container trains on its refurbished route between St. Louis and Chicago. The same route that has +1 billion in funds waiting to upgrade passenger service to 110 mph.

I think railroads are starting to see a definite benefit when federal gov invests in rail corridors that not only make them competitive with trucks for short haul container traffic but add capacity. Also thinking of Missouri’s and UP plan for modest improvements between KC and St. Louis as well as replacing spans on an underutilized bridge across the Mississippi. The question is? Will freight railroads start getting vocal about it and articulate some clear benefits of Feds modest involvement in rail to politicians.

That’s what all those TV ads are all about, and CSX’s sponsoring of NPR, and websites devoted to specific projects, and lots of print media coverage of every little step forward with CREATE, and….

Indeed, boats too. No idea how much is transported on European waterways, but there’s a good network for heavy goods, mostly from France to the Russian border or the Black Sea, also connecting major sea ports.

Well, the “arc” of European cannals usable for current freight needs is in fact no better than Mississippi-Illinois-Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River/Hudson River system. If you e.g. count cargo going through much touted Main-Donau Kanal, it’s just a fraction of the load on railways and roads serving the same direction.

:::shaking forehead:::

Your analysis is wonderful example of how static analyses fail.

As nations become richer, their consumption increases (almost a tautology). We are a richer nation, we are going to consume more. As Europe grows richer, they are going to consume more. Do you really think that some day Europe is going to hit some breaking point (maybe 6.5MM ton-miles?) where 30% of their freight will just magically shift to rail?

Here is a clue: freight rail shares are decreasing and have been doing so for 40 years in Europe, despite the fact that they have been getting richer and increasing freight volumes for those 40 years. Those increases go somewhere, and with the exception of the shift from fossil fuels to other fuels (the pipelined kind and the nuclear kind mostly…alternative energy has only made a difference in the last 5-10 years) that “somewhere” is on rubber tires.

The simple fact that our rail freight shares have been so similar for nearly 100 years, and have only diverged after significant rail policy divergences, shows that our freight systems ARE comparable, regardless of how many straw men you can erect.

If you want to deny that passenger rail is the reason for their terrible freight performance, there needs to be better alternative theories.

“The simple fact that our rail freight shares have been so similar for nearly 100 years, and have only diverged after significant rail policy divergences”
[citation needed]

Our freight rail shares have been different since the railroad was invented. Passenger and freight receipts in the UK were about even for most of the 19th century, whereas freight receipts in the US during that time typically amounted to 10 times the revenue from passenger service.

Freight modal share refers to the share of all freight transported…not the share of freight relative to passenger service on a rail line.

Believe it or not, I actually like that paper quite a bit, because there is a lot of good information in it regarding the policy differences between the two regions.

But I don’t trust the conclusions from their analysis because it is entirely premised on the idea that demand for a specific form of freight transportation is not affected by relative transportation costs, and is entirely determined by the freight that gets shipped. That assumption alone is almost egregious enough to throw the entire analysis out the window.

The large developed nations with the highest freight rail mode shares (Canada, US, Russia, China) also have the lowest relative freight rates.

But worse so, they don’t explain any methodology for arriving at their conclusions. There is no statistical explanation, estimates of accuracy/inaccuracy, etc.

In fact, they only estimate the effect of policy after they have thrown out heavy freight rail’s only real competitor from the analysis: waterway shipments. A relatively costly rail system will push far more heavy freight (the real mover in ton-miles metrics) to barges and container ships than it will to roads.

I’m sure I would have come to the same conclusion if I had made assumptions that unrealistic, but I refuse to make those assumptions.

Your analysis is wonderful example of how static analyses fail.

As nations become richer, their consumption increases (almost a tautology).

Critiquing a static analysis with a tautological one that begs the question at hand is hilarious.

As nations become richer, their consumption increases (almost a tautology). We are a richer nation, we are going to consume more. As Europe grows richer, they are going to consume more. Do you really think that some day Europe is going to hit some breaking point (maybe 6.5MM ton-miles?) where 30% of their freight will just magically shift to rail?

I was laughing at the proof by assumption that more $$$ consumption means more tons consumption means more ton miles freight services for consumption, as if trends from a couple of centuries growing material consumption toward resource limits can be blindly projected forward into a century of resource limits. Its like an ecological economist’s caricature of the worst excesses of mainstream economic reasoning about energy policy and transport policy.

We have become more resource efficient in terms of resources needed per unit of production since the beginning of time. We have survived several population explosion resource crises where resource a eventually gets replaced by resource c. We have seen productivity expansions in the last 100 years that are exponential that of the rest of human history combined. And yet, despite the fact that we are becoming more and more efficient with resources, consumption still increases with wealth.

Now you can accuse me of not being creative enough to imagine a perfectly sustainable world, but at least my argument has the entire history of humanity as its empirical evidence. Your argument has nothing but a history of intelligent people predicting things that sound rational but always being proven wrong.

You still don’t know what you’re talking about, Danny.

Consumption measured *how* increases with wealth?

Hint: not measured by weight. Measured by weight, consumption only increases from poverty through to middle-class status. Then consumption stops being in increased weight and starts being in goods of *higher value per kilo*.

The economist doesn’t agree with you Yonah:

Specifically, the current regulatory approach which forces freight railroads to provide a hidden subsidy to Amtrak is an inappropriate means to extend passenger rail. If there is a desire to extend passenger rail onto freight tracks then it should pay the market value of the use of the tracks in a deal free of regulatory coercion. Otherwise we very much to do face the the displacement of economically valuable, congestion relieving, fuel efficient and environmentally sound freight rail for little-used intercity passenger rail.

You make some interesting points about the contrast between Europe and the United States, but I’m not sure they’re fully convincing. Mode share by boat in higher in the U.S. than in France, while a little lower than Germany or Italy. The difference in the use of coal doesn’t fully account for the different mode share of freight rail. Nor do your arguments explain why freight rail has declined in Europe in an era when the cost of trucking should be leading it to increase. A good question for Europe, and even more so for China, is why so much money has been invested in passenger rail while freight, with greater possibilities for economic growth and fuel efficiency has languished.

“The difference in the use of coal doesn’t fully account for the different mode share of freight rail”
[citation needed]

Why is a citation needed? Yonah did not claim that the coal mode share fully accounts for the difference, he also pointed to the lower average miles traveled of European freight.

The claim that coal mode share does not fully account for the difference is both quite likely true and quite certainly beside the point.

The Economist’s analysis fails to take into consideration *where* the freight rail traffic is located. A very basic search will show you that freight rail traffic is predominantly based in Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. The only areas where freight rail traffic is great enough to potentially sway rail’s mode share in the freight industry *and* high-speed rail is a consideration are east and west out of Chicago, and east out of LA.

Funny, if WY, NE, IA and MO are such a big deal than why do 2 of the 4 big players in the industry more or less not serve them?

In simplistic terms; First Fact is that BNSF & UP are conglomerate of western & grainger (grain belt) railroads and CSX and NS are a conglomerate of eastern seabpoard railroads. Second fact, WY is origin of a large chunk of the coal traffic combined with the fact that most of that coal is routed through NE, IA and MO to reach powerplants. Third, Add the fact that BNSF & UP send a lot of their transcon container traffic passes through IA & MO fields on its way to Chicago after being sorted and rerouted through Kansas City.

Personally, I think consolidation is due in the US freight industry and bet that Buffet is itching for the opportunitiy. We will see 7 Freight railroads go down to four in quick order, Two transcontinental US roads (combination of BNSF and NS, UP and CSX are vice versa), Two Canadian roads reaching farther into US and Mexico with CP buying KCS which already owns a Mexican Railroad and CN as they consolidate their varied US roads such as Wisconsin Central, etc.

Don’t be so sure about it. Right now, CSX and NS have the flexibility of connecting to the tracks of either UP or BNSF. If there are additional mergers, then they’ll lose this flexibility.

China DOES invest in freight rail–part of the reason it’s building high speed lines is to increase capacity for freight on older lines. China’s freight rail system trumps the US in modal share and total volume, and ties in terms of billion tonne-kilometers. The world leader in freight rail modal share is Russia, which boasts a passenger network stretching from coast to coast despite a larger area and lower population than the US. Japan’s modal share is a little under half of the United States, but its passenger modal share is 90 times higher.

Freight rail in China is excellent, but from the very beginning the rights of way were wide enough to split freight onto different tracks. If Europe had that luxury, their passenger traffic wouldn’t be a problem either.

Interesting paper – they claim that water has 79.3% mode share of passenger transport (by passenger * km) in Germany (table 2, p.24), ten times that of rail.

Perhaps the Germans really do walk on water…

Who named the Economist experts on Freight Rail?

Yonah gives 3 compelling reasons why freight rail grabs a larger percentage in Europe than America, and no flavor of the day study can shove them aside:

1. Coal takes over 40% of freight traffic in America, because coal is burned in America as an energy source to a much larger degree than Europe.

2. Differing track guage in so many EU countries that will not be solved for decades, at best

3. Its cheaper & faster to ship high volume payloads by sea in Europe than through the Panama Canal of the Americas.

Lastly, there is no reason to think Europe will increase % coal shipments relative to America because they are much more aggressively developing Renewable Energy.

I find Yonah’s argument not compelling because:

1. Even taking the difference in coal out of the numbers, and looking at the difference in freight by boat, there still appears to be a significant gap, by my back-of-the-hand calculations in freight rail modal share.

2. I have yet to see a single comparison of European with American freight rail which did not characterize most of European freight rail as a mess and seriously deficient in comparison with the United States.

3. Given the tremendous investment in combining the passenger networks of the various countries in Europe it is a valid question as to why similar effort has not been made to combine the freight networks.

What is the relevance of (2) to Yonah’s argument? “Freight rail is a mess” is an observation. “Freight rail is a mass because of X” is an argument. If freight rail is actually a mess because of Y and Z, the observation holds even though the argument does not.

1. The gap is small (20% of the total gap) – read the paper Yonah references.

2. Sure. Why is it obviously a consequence of passenger rail?

3a. The big investments, e.g. ETCS, apply equally to passenger and freight rail.

3b. The major intercity passenger routes are intranational, with a very small number of exceptions such as Paris-Brussels and Paris-London. Organizational interoperability is still atrocious, but it’s less of a problem for passenger rail than for freight rail.

I noted up top the actual reasons freight rail in Europe-west-of-Russia is a mess. Buffers-and-chain is the biggest, to my mind (horrendously inefficient).

In referencing China I was speaking of the criticism of it’s freight rail intermodal links with inland cities discussed in articles such as this one:

Such arguments are often made in discussions of traffic jams of coal-filled trucks headed to Beijing or the vast gap between the wealthier and trade-connected coastal cities and the impoverished interior. Perhaps you can refute such arguments, I’m no expert and am just quoting others.

If there is a desire to extend passenger rail onto freight tracks then it should pay the market value of the use of the tracks in a deal free of regulatory coercion.

There’s just one case of your scenario where there free market leads to true market price – if there are more freight railways competing by offering access to their lines in the same corridor for lowest fee. Any other case means some artificial price that is either tax or subsidy to private carrier (the former seems more probable because politicians are easier to corrupt than private company managers).

I appreciate your response to what I think is the core issue in the United States to the question of whether passenger rail expansion threatens freight. I would respond by saying that freight rail lines should be treated as private property that the government should only be able to use for passenger service if it either comes to a mutually beneficial financial arrangement or makes use of eminent domain.

The “mutually beneficial arrangement” is an option that is quite dangerous to the major vested interests of the status quo, best fended off by ensuring that passenger rail is sufficiently underfunded to create artificial zero-sum and negative-sum games, even in situations where win-win outcomes are otherwise feasible.

A lot of these rail lines that these freight lines are used to have far more passanger trains on them in the 1920’s and 1940’s then they do now and these railroads didn’t come crashing to a stop back then. So why would they come crashing to a stop now with a few more passanger trains running on them now that they don’t even come close to the passanger levels in the 1920’s?. Such as say you had a freight line is a 120 years old and it had say six passanger trains running on it a day in the 1900’s though the 1950’s and they start running only two Amtrak trains on it a day one eatch way?.

If passanger trains are really the demons that they are on the freight system they could add extra sets of tracks to some of these railroad beds that had their double and triple tracks and four tracks ripped up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. A example would be the double track railroad bed that runs across New York State that used to be a four track wide railroad in the 1920’s.

It’s an interesting question, I think Europe has more of a political aspect to consider… the old shipping containers don’t vote but commuters do type of issues, whereas America’s railways are predominately privately owned and more specialized.

I don’t see a good technical reason why America can’t have both a good freight and passenger system. Just build more tracks.

A few thoughts:
1) “Europe” is always so poorly defined. Does it include just the EU, or also poorer eastern European nations?

2) I’d love to see mode share for Europe and the US excluding coal. Can anyone provide this?

3) Passengers benefit from fast tracks… and so does freight! CN runs container trains at 100 km/hr+ (65mph+) on the Toronto-Montreal corridor, which works out just fine for the passenger trains. The difference is that a lot railfreight is much less time sensitive than passenger traffic, so the benefits of going from 40mph to 60mph are mostly felt in better productivity – your locos can haul 50% more traffic per year at 60mph.

4) Average trip lengths for freight are much higher in the USA than any European country (or teh UE as a whole), because it is bigger. No EU country is more than 650 miles long – less than New York – Chicago! Road always does better than rail at short distances. I’d like to see a mode share break-down by distance for the EU and the USA… can anyone provide that?

Tom – your point #3: You need nearly double HP/ton to run at a steady 60 mph vs. 40 mph! So, locomotive productivity would go down….

No you don’t. You need it to accelerate at the same rate, but the extra horsepower needed to run at higher speeds is incremental. If you can handle not starting and stopping as much it is very easy to run at higher speeds.

Danny, in actual practice, that’s not how it’s done.

If you raised the speed limit from 40 to 60 mph in a typical North American freight route, you’d get very little running time reduction without adding power.

You power freight trains to achieve running times between locations or to just be able to creep over the ruling grade w/o stalling, not for a certain acceleration rate. Generally, reducing HP/ton is the “lever” that gets pulled to improve train fuel economy.

If you have what is generally a 40 mph railroad, you’d probably wind up with schedules that would allow train speed to creep up to 40 on the level stretches. If you upgraded to 60 mph, you’d have to double the power to take reasonable advantage of it. The HP/ton that will allow 60 mph on level tangent track is nearly double that that will allow 40 mph.

Yes, this is why electrification is an integral component of Steel Interstate proposals.

Institutional impediments to long haul electrification can be eliminated by creating the Corridor Development Bank institution that overcomes them.

Yes, this is why electrification is an integral component of Steel Interstate proposals.

How, exactly, is electrification supposed to greatly increase the horsepower to weight ratio or otherwise greatly increase the speed of existing freight traffic?

Electric locomotives don’t have have to drag around tons of fuel and tons of diesel engine?

Electric locomotives don’t have have to drag around tons of fuel and tons of diesel engine?

That doesn’t mean that you can achieve great increases in overall HP/ton figures or speed. The AC6000W has an HP/ton ratio of 32.6 tons, the electric IORE is 36.4 (wiki numbers for both). An 11% difference in HP/ton isn’t going to vastly speed up American freight rail.

And the dollar cost of the power is lower.

And the dollar cost of catenary maintenance and capital investment is higher as is the cost of delayed trains when the overhead fails for whatever reason and takes out an entire line. Railroad diesel is about $2.22 per gallon as of 2010, it’s simply not expensive enough to justify electrification unless you can get extremely low electrical rates by owning your own coal/hydro/nuclear plants.

Wikipedia for source also.
ALP46a weighs 92 tonnes ( if I did my arithmetic correctly ) and produces 5600 kW. Most of the Prima diesel electrics weigh 90 tonnes and produce 2200 kW.

Umm…HP/Ton should be calculated for the entire train…not just the locomotive. A light and powerful electric locomotive might make a difference for smaller container trains or passenger trains, but it won’t make a dent in the performance of a 10,000 ton bulk train.

So you are saying it merely useful for the majority of the freight market share, as opposed to a large amount of low value per ton bulk freight.

With a small 50 car train of 40 ton containers on 5 ton flatcars, you are looking at 2250 tons to haul around. Two locomotives will add another 350 tons at least.

Doubling the HP per ton of the locomotives (which is unrealistic according to the locomotive stats that I have seen) would be the equivalent of dropping one of those locomotives weight. Congratulations on your 6% increase in power to weight. Maybe Don can tell us what that means in terms of increase in average speed without changing the number of stops. I can’t imagine it making anything more than a tiny improvement in rail competitiveness with trucks.

2) I’d love to see mode share for Europe and the US excluding coal. Can anyone provide this?

Read the link in my earlier comment.

The difference is that a lot railfreight is much less time sensitive than passenger traffic, so the benefits of going from 40mph to 60mph are mostly felt in better productivity – your locos can haul 50% more traffic per year at 60mph.

It doesn’t work so nicely – because productivity gains are outweighed by far bigger energy consumption. In addition, if you count padding needed for reliable scheduling of the pool, the productivity gain isn’t that high. And last but not least, the best way to increase average speed ain’t raising of top speed, but eliminating any slowing of running speeds, let alone pauses. All combined, fast freight makes real sense only for light valuable cargo.

Ad 4) – see the link again.

No EU country is more than 650 miles long – less than New York – Chicago!

This argument doesn’t make any sense in fact. European manufacturing economy is very well integrated, no real border exist for it. Big wage differential over small distance also helps this, it’s pretty economical to make several moves during manufacturing process
but these moves almost universally cross “interoperable realm” borders.

BTW the biggest hurdles for European rail interoperability aren’t popular voltage systems, but it’s signalling systems, different rulesets (and exams), different official languages (imagine engineer who knows 3-4 languages that would be needed for 1000 km train run) and work regulations (once engineer crosses the border for more then few minutes, his wage multiplies).

All combined, fast freight makes real sense only for light valuable cargo.

And the dominance of light valuable cargo in terms of the value of the freight shipping service is why truck freight in the US so totally dominates rail freight in dollar value terms, even though rail freight carries so much ton-miles.

In dollar value terms, doesn’t that “only for light valuable cargo” translate to, “fast freight makes real sense only for the majority of the value of land freight shipping services in the country that freight rail is presently locked out of or relegated to bit player status”?

Agriculture isn’t very valuable. Potato futures are about $200 per ton right now, onions not much higher. Even a single computer is worth more than that (heck, individual phones are more than that) and you can stack 48 pallets of them in a single truck container. That’s the sort of thing that is meant by light and valuable.

What Paulus said ~ “onoins and potatoes” is looking on an ad hoc basis at bits and pieces, but the market share and the mode share are two very different stories.

Railex right now today is out competing – on delivery time – trucks. For those nice lightweight expensive commodities, onions and potatoes among other thing.

Again, agriculture is neither lightweight nor expensive. A single 48′ truck filled with laptops at a thousand dollars each carries more value than 120 refrigerated boxcars full of potatoes (at the aforementioned $200/ton figure).

And the trucking company or railroad don’t charge by the value of the product they charge by the weight of the product.

And transit speed and reliability of dock to dock delivery schedule. If it was nothing but dollars per ton-mile, rail would dominate market share in long haul freight.

Well from this article, coal accounts for 43% of rail freight, 23% of total freight, and rail has a 38% modal share, that calculates out to a modal share of about 20%.

Of course in order to compare adequately, we would need to subtract out coal and peet in Europe, but I wouldn’t know where to begin there. I would estimate that at about 15% of freight rail ton-miles, but that is an estimate at best.

Another point: the USA’s railroad companies primary purpose in life is not to move freight. Their primary purpose is to maximise profits/shareholder returns from the available assets, just liek any other company.

Given that, if hosting a passenger train make more money that not hosting a passenger train (and maybe running a freight train instead), then the railroad company should welcome the passenger train. Anything else would a dereliction of duty to its shareholders.

So, the answer is very simple and capitalist: pay the railroad enough money.

This is the elephant in the room with regards to Amtrak. The real reason why Amtrak gets such poor treatment from the Class I railroads is because Amtrak pays next to nothing for the use of those tracks.

Of course if they paid enough for trackage rights there are two real options for the freight railroads…reduce service or expand capacity.

How much does Amtrak pay? In other words, is Amtrak really underpaying, or are the freight railroads just extracting maximum rent from Amtrak knowing that the mountain state Senators will pay?

While Amtrak does make track usage payments to owning freight railroads, it does not pay an “access fee” for such use. The Railroad Passenger Service Act of 1970 grants Amtrak priority access to freight railroads’ rights-of-ways and requires that Amtrak compensate owning freight railroads only for the incremental cost (rather than a negotiated market cost) associated with accommodating intercity passenger services over
their tracks.

In other words, they pay enough to cover their hard costs, but not enough to compensate for lost capacity if that capacity were truly to be utilized.

Now I’m sure there is some rent extraction, but if it exists, it is in the form of overstating hard costs, which is something that is auditable.

The ‘real market’ cost would be the one that you pay any time a service is only offered by one company: “You wanna use this line? Pay one billion dollars! Don’t wanna pay? — well though shit, try running your train somewhere else”.

Actually no. Market prices have less calculatory rigor than hard costs, but they are nowhere near what you are talking about.

A market price can be fairly calculated as a price that a) covers all long term and short term costs, and b) is low enough to operate the line at maximum capacity. In the event of a line already being at maximum capacity, the market price is the replacement cost…in other words the price that would offset the earnings from normal operations.

You may not believe that greedy rich people would succumb to calculating market prices in such a methodological way…and they very well could do what you are talking about. There may be some game theory elements that allow for posturing positions, but the rational response will follow those methodologies almost perfectly.

market value would be determined by how much the public would be willing to pay to get access. Given how much the public already pays for an Amtrak train already, and how much the public generally likes to overspend on all sorts of things, it seems that the freight rail roads would squeeze us for all we got.

It’s not reasonable to assume that quasi-monopolies would give you the market value you describe. I also don’t believe there’s any incentive to run at full capacity – if it results in lower margins.

You can keep saying that all you want, but even in quasi-monopoly situations there is going to be a break point where demanding more money will bring you less benefit. Yes, it is absolutely reasonable to assume that. Time Warner has an absolute monopoly on cable services in my area, and yet they don’t demand that I pay a billion dollars a month for cable access.

A market price is a profit maximizing strategy. When they are underutilizing a line, a fair market price brings more profits. When they are utilizing a line at capacity, a fair market price brings more profits.

The only unreasonable assumption here is yours…you are the one assuming that profit-seeking railroads wouldn’t act in a profit-seeking manner.

BTW, running at capacity may or may not reduce your margins, but if your pricing is appropriate, it ALWAYS results in higher total profits.

The price somebody asks is similar to viable alternatives. If there is no viable alternative, then the price goes up to the breaking point, as you say. For your Time Warner cable, that breaking point may only be a small factor bigger than service in a competitive market – yet it’s low because there are viable alternatives (satellite, going to the movies, having no cable).

If you’re really set on a product, that ‘breaking point’ can go up pretty high. Just consider the case of the $10 drug now $1500 after FDA grants monopoly.

It’s not a good idea to put the public in a position where it can only provide a service by buying some product from a private company – but it’s possible to get it only from that company.

The ‘billion dollars’ was just to make a point about leverage. In reality they won’t ask that much, of course, but it may still be significant.

You omitted the elasticity of demand. If the marginal revenue at the price which is low enough to operate the line at maximum capacity is less than the marginal cost, that is not the profit seeking market price. If the price that operates the line at maximum capacity is out beyond the range of elastic demand to the firm, it cannot be the profit seeking market price.

The optimal markup on marginal cost as a multiple of marginal cost is: {|Ep|/(|Ep|-1)} … it cannot be defined independent of demand characteristics, and require setting price somewhere within the elastic range of firm-demand.

You omitted the elasticity of demand. If the marginal revenue at the price which is low enough to operate the line at maximum capacity is less than the marginal cost, that is not the profit seeking market price.

“…a price that a) covers all long term and short term costs, and b) is low enough to operate the line at maximum capacity. In the event of a line already being at maximum capacity, the market price is the replacement cost…in other words the price that would offset the earnings from normal operations.”

BTW, running at capacity may or may not reduce your margins, but if your pricing is appropriate, it ALWAYS results in higher total profits.

This is taking for granted a preceding capacity decision for that state of the market, so its only punting the quantity to offer decision given anticipated demand from the shorter term to the longer term.

And of course is taking for granted no substantial demand side shocks between anticipated demand and realized demand.

Of course if you toss in enough constraints, you can turn a claim that is sometimes true into one that is “always true for the circumstances I had in mind”. That is, in any event, more defensible than making flat-earth assumptions of an unending cornucopia of resources to use as an energy source for the freight transport system.

Capacity is based on decisions to rip out perfectly good rail lines, such as tearing out two tracks from the four-track New York Central right-of-way.

I have no problem with Amtrak paying a small track usage fee and no access fee to freight rail companies because Amtrak yields a public good.

From my perspective the freight companies got a great deal from the public with no cost land grants in the 1800s and freight trains take signal priority over autos at railroad crossings. Their productivity advantage is subsidized by the driving public who waits for a train to cross.

You may not have a problem with them paying low fees, and I’m sure most people don’t. Riders do though, even if they don’t know it. They are the ones that suffer when Amtrak pays prices that are too low.

As far as the “great deal” that the freight companies got, you can rest assured that they have paid it back several fold by now with their higher than average property tax rates.

The signal priority issue has nothing to do with policy or favoritism at all…it is a pure property rights decision. In fact, when the ROW is owned, they don’t even have to let autos cross at all. In my hometown, after about the fourth crossing accident in 3 months, UP shut down the crossing and there was nothing that the local government could do about it. Luckily UP was willing to sell air rights so they could build a bridge.

For what its worth Norfolk Southern revenue and carload figures for Q1 2010 indicate that the RR generated an average $1,200 in revenue per carload.

My cocktail napkin calculations suggest that this is about $15 per passenger in a full 80 seat car.

The reason freight does badly in Europe is not because of passenger trains, as a fact of infrastructure, but because freight has suffered many decades of neglect and abuse by state run railroads. Passenger has more political support, both in the US and Europe and so publicly owned railways have focused there. This entire argument could be recast as private ownership favors freight, public ownership favors passenger.

Tom’s right that if passenger trains made more money for US railroads they would get more welcome. An example of this is California’s Capital Corridor between Sacramento and the bay area which, alone in the Amtrak system, pays 3 times more per car mile and in return enjoys far better on-time performance and the benefit of capital improvements with a cooperative railroad. I would suggest that it’s worth paying more to gain better on-time performance.

But you haven’t mentioned the biggest argument for why we can have both good freight and passenger on the same network: because we had it before! The United States had an excellent railway network until the 1950’s when it was unprepared to resist competition from highways, stifled by inflexible regulation and unions. From an infrastructure and service perspective it worked quite well. The trains ran well and on-time. We’ve dismantled most of the lines and the capacity that we had then, but we could (with money) put it back.

The wonderful railroads that foamers pine for were slow. Not much faster than driving on the local streets that passed for US Highways. There are some lines that are faster now than they were in the 50s. The Northeast Corridor. The Empire Corridor between NYC and Albany. There’s probably a few more.

The empire corridor? If they can manage to run the train on schedule (fat chance, considering it is Amtrak), they run at an average speed of 60mph, which is no faster than the 20th Century Limited.

Albany to New York is consistently 2 hours and 30 minutes. An hour faster than it was in the 50s.

Maybe so for the 50’s, after decades of price controls, an attempt at nationalization, and burdensome regulation that almost brought all of the railroads (freight included) to their knees.

But then again, the fast railroads that “foamers” pine for weren’t the slow ones you are talking about, but rather the fast ones. The 20th century limited ran that route, they averaged 60 mph just like today, but they did it with steam engines. I don’t know about you, but I find that to be pretty embarrassing.

And you might want to check the facts about Amtrak’s on time performance. 85.2% with a very liberal 15 minute window definition.

Danny, you know who’s running Amtrak slowly?

*The freight railroads*. It’s actually illegal behavior, but they often do it anyway. Train speed is limited by dispatcher, not by engine.

The early Amtrak schedules, which were the same as the NYC schedules, I think, for a GCT to Alb-Renss trains with stops at Harmon (incl. engine change), Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff and Hudson were 2:50.

They were lengthened to 3:00+ when the late 70s trackwork and cab signalling were underway and then shortened to 2:40- using Turboliners.

Amtrak’s end point measurement tolerance is 10 minutes for routes less than 250 miles.

But on the other hand, Chicago-Minneapolis service was 6-1/4 hours in the 50’s and over 8 now* and the Hiawatha between Chicago and Milwaukee ran at over 100 MPH, about 15 minutes faster than today.

*Twice the time of the Beijing-Shanghai service but half the distance…. Frowny Face

Bottom line: Freight railroads are in business to make money. My belief is that intercity passenger trains need to run on their own dedicated lines. Between Chicago and St. Louis, for instance, work is underway to bring passenger train speeds up to 110 mph, but as far as I’m aware, this is on a single track freight rail line. Improvements being made may include siding extensions and perhaps there will be portions of this line that will be double track. As such, meets will occur whereby one train will be directed into a siding so that another may pass or vice versa. Upgrading the line to 110 mph passenger train operation, meanwhile, will no doubt benefit the freight railroad, otherwise why even do it? Which comes back to my original point: Freight railroads are in business to make money.

@Yonah: “So the U.S. reliance on an incredibly polluting, inefficient power source has upped the use of trains for freight. But that is no success story in itself, since renewable forms of power production require no forms of material movement to and from production facilities. Less transportation — if not needed — is more efficacy from an economic and environmental perspective.”

I’m not sure what you are trying to say here.

Have to agree whole heartedly with the comments that US Freight railroads are like any other business in terms of bottomline. It is the very basis why Warren Buffet bought BNSF outright, he saw a undervalued company with pricing power!!

That being said, you can also say that US Railroads are as opportunistic as anybody else when they get capital investment on someone elses dime, even when it comes from the Feds and involves passenger trains. Yes, UP might conside Amtrak’s long distrance trains are a distraction on some of its lines and certainly would agree with the hidden subsidy part as any other owner of real property would declare.

But using federal funds to upgrade the Chicago to ST. Louis line is very much embraced by UP and is very much opportunistic. First, it is an underutilized asset that provides access to Chicago off UP’s heavily traffic line between KC & St. Louis (St Louis also provides Eastern US connectivity to CSX and NS that goes around Chicago). At the same time, this railline runs past the huge new global logistics park outside of Joilet, IL – THINK CONTAINERS. UP will run container trains on this line in the near future, and the lighter freight on a upgraded speedway will have value to the owner even if it shares with 110 mph passenger trains.

Don’t be surprised if any additional HSR grants will go towards replacing RR spans crossing the Mississippi in St. Louis. Currently Amtrak uses UP’s big Muddy’s crossing on their heavily used bridge. However, the last reallocation of HSR funds includes paying for the engineering to replace two track span on a railroad bridge in N. Louis. The bridge is currently speed restricted and limited to one train on it at a time even though it is double tracked. Replacing these spans on behalf of Amtrak with federal funds will open up significant capacity for the freight railroads just as adding a lead traffic into St. Louis Amtrak station kept the Missouri River Runner/Texas Eagle out of yard restricted trackage in downtown St. Louis and will make things easier on UP/BNSF before crossing the Big Muddy.

Can someone clarify that the 110 mph Chicago-St. Louis Emerging HSR project is to upgrade the entire route to 2 tracks + occasional sidings for slower freight?

The MRRS model is a new track through heavily used freight areas and 10 miles in new passing track per 50 miles track in lightly used freight areas.

Of course, the entire path has to be suitable class of track, signaling and 110mph rated level crossings.

Yonah is trying to say that getting off coal is a good thing, and that replacing coal with renewables will mean less transportation overall (because you don’t have long trains full of wind and sunlight). And therefore that “We haul lots of coal” is *not* a sign of a better economy.

In Europe much of the freight is shipped by canals. The river and canal system in the US is not as extensive as in Europe, hence there is a need to ship more freight by rail.

I’ve heard that before, but the Harvard Study quoted above gives barges a 4% freight mode share in Europe, over %12 in the US (see page 12, Table 1). I guess all the Ag products moving down the Mississippi add up…

Coastal shipping in Europe has over 40% of the freight mode though.

List of canals in the U.S. (Wikipedia article)

not as extensive??? Would you like to run that past the Army Corp. of Engineers ?

If you define “island” as a sub-continent sized body of land that can be circumnavigated by a boat then the eastern U.S. from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean is an island. Start in Portland, ME, sail up the St. Lawrence River / Seaway, across the Great Lakes, transit the Chicago Sanitary + Ship Canal, sail down the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, follow the Intracoastal Waterway on around Florida (bypass NOT available – see “Cross-Florida Barge Canal” in the above list), and back up to Maine.

Part of the reason the Rio Grande / Bravo and Colorado Rivers don’t carry much traffic is that they get sucked dry for irrigation. But most of the rest of the major rivers get enough traffic to justify locks and bridges built to accommodate the barges and ships.

P.S. The St. Lawrence Seaway is a canal system that uses American and Canadian locks to link inland ports on the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Wikipedia lists it as a Canadian canal.
St. Lawrence Seaway (Wikipedia article)

You’re mistaking river with sea transport. The US has a higher mode share of river transport than the EU, but the EU has a much higher mode share of seaborne transport.

Agreed, but that is a merely function of geography. Within Western Europe countries, you are never more than 450 miles from the nearest coast point.

In US, there is a large scale of West Coast traffic to points east of the Mississippi. There is no way to efficiently move traffic around the Rockies but going through the Panama Canal!

Even Texas – Northeast traffic requires quite a detour via FLorida Keys, through an area that is affected by hurricanes and severe storms for 4 months each year.

It depends on the origin in Asia. Sometimes the shortest route to Chicago lets say, is through the Suez Canal and an East Coast port.

But that’s the *whole point*. Western European geography means they can ship non-time-sensitive freight coastally and by canal, so they don’t need freight railroads for that purpose. Whereas the US does. Hence, the US has more freight railroads.

Also affecting the freight transport in the US is the lack of real river and sea-bound freight, thanks to the Jones Act.

Again the 2005 Harvard Study gives > 20% freight mode share to Barge and “Coastwise” shipping in the US, so perhaps the Jones Act isn’t the problem.

FYI – Jones Act (Wikipedia article)

While the above act makes it more expensive to ship via water there is still a lot of U.S.-flag traffic. Most major rivers in the U.S. carry barges loaded with bulk commodities (coal, wheat, stone, etc.) and oversize items that wouldn’t fit on road or rail (e.g. pre-fab housing, rockets, pipe). So while coastal traffic is way down the river barge traffic only stops for floods and extreme storms.

Thanks for bringing up this important and timely topic Yonah – I completely agree that the passenger rail vs freight rail is an oversimplification.

I think there is also something that needs to be added here, the oil supply context. Just last week, the US and several European countries dipped into their emergency oil reserves because of a minor supply disruption (Libya). The age of cheap and plentiful conventional oil is over. It is also worth noting that European countries have admitted that they need to do much better on transport to meet GHG reduction targets.

What is possible has also changed. It is now possible to run trains (both freight and passenger) much closer together safely and reliably with modern monitoring and control systems. The Swiss PULS 90 project is probably the state of the art in mixed freight / passenger capacity optimization. e.g.

Given global warming and the peaking of conventional oil extraction, major improvements to rail service are needed in most countries including Canada and the US the near future. Electricity is the best transportation energy we have, and trains already run on electricity. (I touch on this briefly in Transportation Transformation –

The technology exists, it is more a matter of developing the political will to shift to electric rail from trucks and airplanes.

“Thanks for bringing up this important and timely topic Yonah – I completely agree that the passenger rail vs freight rail is an oversimplification.”

Why isn’t it anything but spot on? Simple physics dictates that it takes a different set of rails to run a light passenger train at 120mph than it does to run a unit coal train at 45 mph.

There are many reasons why you wouldn’t want to run a mile long coal train over tracks used by 120 MPH trains but it’s relatively simple to construct tracks that both could use.

Serious question: is there any railroad, including China Railways, that is happy running 200 km/h passenger trains on the same track used by coal trains with 35 metric tons per axle?

I’ve seen a study which says that slab track can actually handle that just fine. I don’t think anyone has put it into practice however(and you would want to separate for other reasons anyhow).

Seems that in Germany, the max axle load is 25t. Freight cars seem to have 4 axles a lot of the times – i guess this would make rails cheaper, and freight and passenger more compatible, but would also make freight more expensive.

What rail system builds for 38 short tons per axle?

Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and the Virginian Railway both operated 2-6-6-6’s which came out to 39 short tons per axle. The above, ATSF, PRR, and a couple others also operated a number of 38 tons per axle 2-10-4s “Texas” class.

What rail system builds for 38 short tons per axle?

Ore railroads. Electrified ore railroads.

What rail system builds for 38 short tons per axle?

No fair asking trick questions.

US Class 1s.
Axle load for 263,000 pound cars is 33 tons. For 268,000 it’s 33.5, for 286,000 it’s 36 and for the 315,000 pound cars it’s 39 tons.

You COULD run typical freight and passenger together on Class 6 track, but you wouldn’t want to pay for the maintenance to keep it at Class 6! There was a very interesting article in Railway Age that showed some results of a track maintenance cost model that had train type and traffic density as inputs.

The way you might want to go about it would be quasi-separate tracks. For example, in upstate NY, you could plop down a third, Class 6 track next to the existing two Class 4 tracks (and meet CSX’s 30′ separation requirement) and install interlockings every 20 miles or so to allow meets between the passenger trains using the high speed tracks. One of the passenger trains would just have to trundle along at 80 mph for the 20 miles between interlockings.

If the arrangement had CSX do the maintenance and operation of all three tracks, they could occasionally decide to use the high speed track for freight to work around track work, etc, but they’d be on the hook for the alignment damage, so you know they’d limit the use to keep their costs down.

Back in the 90s, NY was pushing Conrail to allow higher speeds and Conrail’s response always came in two parts. One was to spend money to eliminate the bottle necks and slow-running portions (such as the 30 mph running through the Dismal Swamp) and the other was to pay for a third track. NY has yet to show up with money for either.

Why should New York show up with the money? South Dakota didn’t show up with the money when I-90 was built. Or show up with the money when the levees were built. Or show up with the money for essential air services, Or show up with the money for rural electrification, rural landline telephone service or rural cell phone service. Or…

Tax money gets sucked out of New York State and distributed to all the places that complain about how much money gets spent in New York. None of them want to examine that flow of cash closely.

This reasoning, taken to its extremes, one could argue that Upper State never showed up money for anything built there, so NYC should not be required to “show up the money” to build 2nd Ave. subway…

Why should NY show up with the money? They were the ones asking Conrail to host the improvements, perhaps? Now, where NY would get the money to fund the improvments – that is a different question!

Sorry, Don, but you’re being a ideological jerk; Adirondacker’s point is spot on. New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and California in ascending order of contribution/reception between them pay for the Federal excess contributions to 25 very petty small Red states.

I should have also said the your idea for the separated third track on the old fourth track roadbed is an excellent one. Just don’t let your Tea Party ideology get in the way of your engineering skills.

Sorry, Don, but you’re being a ideological jerk; Adirondacker’s point is spot on. New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and California in ascending order of contribution/reception between them pay for the Federal excess contributions to 25 very petty small Red states.

That’s completely irrelevant to what he said however.

Where did I EVER say the money shouldn’t come from the Feds?

If it’s NY’s project and they get 90% of the money from the Feds, so be it! It’s STILL a NY project and the conversation was between NY and Conrail!

The biggest reason this bogus “conflict” between passenger and freight is bogus is that there’s plenty of room for parallel freight and passenger tracks.

In fact, there used to be parallel freight and passenger tracks on the Pennsylvania Railroad Mainline and the NY Central Mainline until short-sighted idiots ripped half the tracks out.

Now, UP and CSX are demanding totally unreasonable things in order to restore those tracks, such as “keep it… 1000 feet away from us! And build a concrete wall between those passenger tracks and our freight tracks!”

This sort of behavior demands the government coming down on them hard: ordering them to hand over the empty trackbeds and shut up about their unreasonable “separation” ideas. But we don’t have a functionaing federal government.

CSX is “demanding” 30 feet separation – completely doable in places where there once were 4 tracks.

What CSX does NOT want is having to maintain class 6 standards on the existing double track AND any additional liability for minor derailments/shifted loads, etc. that might impinge on the “high speed” track.

Really, nothing has changed since the 1990s. NY wants higher speeds – has no money to spend. Any “negotiations”, at this point, are strictly academic.

I can’t trust a website whose main mission is social (reverse) engineering like “Stop the Pave”.

The decreasing use of intercity passenger rail in the second half of the 20th Century appeared to correspond with an increase in freight by train.

Not true. Freight and passenger modal shares both fell after WWII, and freight only rebounded because of the Staggers Rail Act that (mostly) deregulated the freight market. Freight’s rebound had nothing to do with declining passenger traffic.

Producing power by coal is inefficient? You can call it a lot of things but you’ll seem more sensible claiming the Earth ain’t round than burning coal isn’t effecient.

It’s efficient if you’re trying to produce maximum electricity at minimum cost ex externalities. It’s not efficient if you’re trying to produce maximum electricity with minimum cost to public health and the environment.

And coal is not even the most economically efficient option if you ignore the massive negative externalities. (Obviously if you include the externalities, as you should, coal is dreadful.)

Hydro at Niagara Falls is supremely efficient, due to very long lifetimes of the machines, and zero cost of fuel.

The efficiency of solar is dependent on device lifetime (because like most renewables the fuel is free), which is actually unknown at this time, since panels from the 70s are still operating. But often seems to be conservatively underestimated.

Roughly 33% thermal efficiency for single cycle coal power plants. The average could be expected to rise if coal fired power plants were charged their full cost instead of free riding on uncharged external costs, since some of the least energy efficient plants would be the first ones to shut down given full-cost pricing of coal.

A combined cycle gas power plant can reach 50% thermal efficiency or more, because the exhaust of the first stage turbine is hot enough to power an efficient second stage boiler generator.


The UP’s freight route between St. Louis and Chicago is NOT the old Alton line through Springfield and Bloomington that is being upgraded for Amtrak. Freight moves via the NYC/C&EI route through eastern Illinois.

Yes, the UP owns the Springfield line but for freight the C&EI route is vastly superior. It enters Chicagoland at the extreme eastern edge of the Chicago Switching district, with direct physical connections to CSX, NS, and CN. It has almost no cities through which is passes and the 80 miles east from St. Louis is the super high capacity New York Central line on an embankment for much of its length.

Understand that part, what is unique about the money being plowed into Chicago-St. Louis route even though it is not superior as a freight route from the west is the almost the equal amount of private money at this point poured into the Globabl Logistics Park outside of Joilet. First BNSF and now UP is coming to the plate. Its only a matter of time before a big share of the goods coming into Chicago will be handled through this park. And what is the best place to run trains into this park for UP, it is on the very line that will host 110 passenger trains from my understanding.

That being said, I think the Midwest has a unique opportunity in the fact that their is an abundant number of railroad ROW’s (built for every little grain elevator every built in the midwest) that will not only continue to support an impressive private freight system but allow for consistent, frequent and auto if not air competitive passenger rail. Midwest is already host to its own Amtrak owned line in Michigan, an all around agreement in CREATE to untangle Chicago, heavy commuter presence radiating out of Chicago with pratically all the players, and now a full scale rebuild/expansion of an existing rail line to St. Louis. Midwest with some additinoal funds from the feds and consistent support from State Governors can have an effective and reliable third transportation network in the near future.


Joliet is only fifteen miles west of Chicago Heights, where the joint CSX/UP trackage from the south crosses the EJ&E. If UP wants to serve Global Logistics, they’ll just negotiate rights with CN to get there. That part of the J is mostly cornfield running and used to be double tracked throughout so a big increase in trains wouldn’t cause the conflict that CN’s desire to reroute through trains to and from western Ontario off the line north of Lake Superior to the US route is raising in the western Chicagoland suburbs.

There’s an arrow straight transmission line corridor about five miles long directly from where the J angles north at Manhattan to the UP Alton line about a mile north of the wye for Global Logistics. THAT’s the way for UP to serve the facility. It directly connects with the speedway to Arkansas, Texas, and Mexico, without having to navigate the congestion through East St. Louis and worry about the Amtrak trains on the Alton.

Yes UP may run a few ultra hotshot I/M trains from California via the Golden State route bound for complete off-lift at Global Logistics through Springfield but my money is on the C&EI route. It is a freight manager’s dream.

Christopher Parker,

The reason that the Capitol Corridor has excellent on-time results is that it’s a double track, reverse signaled line with very little freight north of Martinez. Even south of there freight traffic is pretty light. There just isn’t that much industrial activity left in the Bay Area, and most trains serving the Hayward to San Jose belt that does still exist come over Altamont to stay out of downtown Oakland.

There isn’t much industrial activity left in the Bay Area? Have you ever been there? Take the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, and before you see a single highrise building in Oakland, you see miles of port piers, containers, trains, trucks, warehouses, and smokestacks. I was a truck driver in the Bay Area when I was working my way through school…and I can honestly say there is more industrial activity in the a few square miles of the East Bay (even excluding Fremont/Hayward and Martinez) than there is in my current Cleveland.

The real answer to why there is little freight on that corridor is that the freight rail has been diverted to other tracks. Most freight from the area that is routed through the corridor that parallels I80 is actually routed through and consolidated in the Central Valley. When track fees are high enough, rerouting freight becomes a real option.

For the sake of both arguments. I would tend to say that the Bay area has been and will always be in a port town which dispersed people and goods to Northern California and points east. Where as Cleveland was very much a steel town with raw materials coming off lakers and heavy steel leaving by rail.

What has changed dramatically in San Fran is how the port has functioned, form the numerous piers lining San Fran that once hustled goods into the region one boxcar at a time one steamship up the Sacramento River at a time to the container berths in Oakland to autos arriving/leaving in Richmond. Every morning not only do I see the Capital Corridor trains whiz by but also UP container trains stacked and ready to blast up the Seirra Nevada’s or returning back to the Port of Oakland as well as the string of auto carrier cars in BNSF’s Richmond yard. In either case, the new mix of unit trains coming and leaving Oakland and Richmond are much more favorable to the Capital Corridor.


Container ports aren’t industrial activity. The are transportation facilities. Sure, they fill unit container trains, but Oakland/Richmond is the third largest west coast container port (1.7M TEU), enormously behind LA/Long Beach (10M+ TEU) and a bit behind Seattle/Tacoma (2.4M TEU).

As Tim noted above (“ready to blast up the Sierra Nevadas”), for UP there’s a nasty wall of mountains 90 miles away and another east of Salt Lake City that trains from LA and Seattle don’t have to climb.

As a result, even though UP owns the vast majority of trackage in the East Bay, BNSF gets nearly 40% of the outbound hauls. Their trains do not use the Capitol Corridor and are free from passenger trains through the Oakland Hills to just east of Martinez where the San Joaquin’s join.

My basic point is that there are very few “drag” freights left serving the East Bay cities through which the Corridor passes. Not that there’s NO interfering freight service, just relatively less than fifty years ago given the governmentally funded improvements to the rail infrastructure.

And finally, there hasn’t been much freight traffic on the Coast Route since the 1960’s when the “lettuce bowl” trains were replaced by trucks, the decline of manufacturing in the South Bay began and most importantly the Palmdale Cutoff was opened through Cajon. The UP runs two or three trains a day over the Coast Route these days and basically keeps the route open between Salinas and San Luis Obispo as a relief for Tehachapi and to run the Starlight (e.g. keep it off Tehachapi).

Oakland isn’t the west coasts 3rd largest, it is the west coasts 2nd largest.

The biggest reason why you don’t see as much freight on the Capital Corridor line as you did before has a lot less to do with there being less freight and a lot more to do with this:

They have slowly been increasing the importance of the Lathrop intermodal yard because Oakland has been growing in importance and Lathrop is an ideal dispersal/aggregation node between north south and east routes, while still interacting with the central valley routes which is UPs most important intrastate corridor.

When the Capitol corridor started paying up, it was easy to route more traffic through the Central Valley.

“Oakland isn’t the west coasts 3rd largest, it is the west coasts 2nd largest.”

If you’re going to split Seattle from Tacoma, be sure to split LA from Long Beach as well. Oakland is still third.

I think this article from Yonah focus on the wrong explanatory factors. As many have discussed above, geography and flows within US and Europe are very different.

However, I want to focus on the fact it is more productive to compare each country with its own limitations for potential use of more freight traffic.

For a starter, most HSR lines are unable to host cargo trains (Italian and German HSR being the exception).

In most European countries, during day time the railways are forbidden territory for freight. The Benelux, Germany and Switzerland operate some mixed corridors, but those are meant for high-speed cargo trains moving around 70-80mph, not that different from regular non-HSR high-speed trains and usually running on electric locos. And those trains must be short, due to block signal restrictions, there are no 100-car long trains in Europe, which means more labor costs. Slow freight must travel by night only.

In case of disruptions or track work, those are preferably done at night, which means further disruption for freight services. However, as moving freight by road is more expensive due to fuel taxes, tolls and more stringent labor laws for truck drivers, it still pays off to cope with those restrictions when a transport company must chose how to shuffle stuff around the continent.

The whole point about use of coal in US or higher consumption in US is moot, in my very humble opinion. Coal cannot travel efficiently by truck. If rail capacity to shift coal wasn’t there, the likely result would be more power plants near coal sources, and the use of transmission lines to carry electricity on wires, not coal on tracks.

In US, as costs for truck freight are lower, pushing measures (shorter, scheduled and faster cargo trains, priority for passenger traffic etc) to increase passenger rail transport would, more than in Europe, promote a shift of cargo to highways. We’d end with a mostly deficit-generating services carrying low-one-digit percentage of total pax*miles traffic, and have a considerable increase of truck traffic on the Interstates.

Some incentives could be created to engage private railroads on sharing the right of way to allow for more tracks to be placed there, including some reduction in liability should a derailed freight train (much more often occurrence in US than in Europe) hit a passenger train.

Finally, there is the price incentive. It Amtrak were willing to pay competitive track fees, I’m sure the freight railways would be willing to collaborate. The gotcha is that, for freight railways operating large networks, the rippled effects of collaborating with Amtrak with – say – a Denver-Omaha 4x daily pax train, could be felt all over its network.

Up to the point where unscheduled, low and long trains remain the norm, the opportunity costs to run a fast passenger train are very high, and I doubt Amtrak would have financial support to pay those track fees.

Finally, we ended with this egg-and-chicken problem: only a program massive enough on part of Amtrak to run many trains a day to a variety of destinations in a freight company network would create enough of a money chunk on access fees to justify, financially, the change of operation philosophy of the freight railroad towards one that is less conflicting with rail passenger. But Amtrak doesn’t have the resources or support to launch, for instance, a € 15bln. program to create a large network of trains operating out of Chicago to MO, IL, WI, OH, IN with 8-12 daily trains on major routes to justify a decent amount of investment on track modernization.

At the same time, many of those European freight corridors see as much as 40 trains per day.

The statement about “forbidden for freight during the day” may be correct in some very few cases in Europe. But in most of the cases, there is a mix between freight and passenger (intercity and regional).

Because of the limited train weight (the limit is to be found with the couplers), the trains have to be shorter, and as the main network is electrified, even a single “freight” locomotive has enough power to run that train at 80 to 100 km/h. That’s the normal speed of a freight train; there is no “slow freight” (anymore).

For Switzerland, high power rating is needed because even flat lines have grades up to 1.5%, and the most important freight line (Gotthard) has grades up to 2.7%. The maximum train weight (because of the couplers) is around 1300 tonnes, and that is hauled by a pack of two locomotives rated together at around 12000 kW. And that gets those trains over the grades at 80 km/h, not much less than the limit for passenger trains (the reason for this speed limitation are rather tight curves). In other words, a freight train and a passenger train stopping a few times have the same time slots over the route. And at busy times, you have 3 passenger trains plus 5 or so freight trains per direction within the hour.

Again in Switzerland, there are lines where you have 4 passenger trains per hour and direction, and there are still one or two time slots for freight planned in during the day (becuse those freight trains are mainly construction materials, and therefore short distance, and they must be processed during the day).

It all gets less an issue when a line is less loaded. If you have one passenger train per hour, you have a lot of capacity for freight, without issues.

“Because of the limited train weight (the limit is to be found with the couplers), the trains have to be shorter,”

Ka-ching. Confirmation of my belief that the couplers are one main reason there’s less freight in Europe than in the US.

Are we accounting for the difference in “freight” statistics between Europe and the USA? According to this website, Europe counts local construction materials as freight, while the US ignores this, leading to an artificially lower truck mode share and highter rail mode share:
“‘Road’ freight in the US statistics means ‘intercity truck traffic’, excluding all the delivery and construction site traffic. “

Taxing rail routes by rail/track miles rather than route miles has decreased the double-track mileage in the US over time. Today’s Amtrak Empire Builder struggles to maintain a schedule on a single track route with sidings. Originally the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha exceeded 100 mph when the line was double tracked. This line was known for having “SLOW TO 90” signs at some points. For photographic evidence of the long-gone double tracking, please see “Speed War” of Classic Trains “Fast Trains” issue (Feb. 2009), especially page 24’s Wisconsin Dells photo showing Hiawathas 2 and 3 side by side. Today’s Wisconsin Dells station is served by a single-track line.

People forget that at one time there was once a lot more passenger & freight train service. People also over look that there is less trackage too, for the USA the peak was in 1916. The USA is missing 100,000+ miles of rail line & the UK is missing 10,000+ miles rail. The problem is political, roads are not judged on a profit or loss basis while rail lines are.

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