» 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)