Amsterdam Dresden Freight Light Rail Paris Zurich

Opportunities Abound for Transporting Goods by Tram — If Properly Coordinated

» Though a proposal in Amsterdam has been abandoned and freight transport in Zurich and Dresden is limited, Paris considers options for using its new tramways to move goods to stores.

There was a lot of excitement in the transportation press in mid-2007 when Amsterdam signed a deal to allow the transport of local goods by tramway beginning in 2008. In theory, fifty light rail trains operated by a company called CityCargo would move freight from warehouses to local stores without interruption along the city’s existing and extensive passenger tracks, reducing the need for trucks in the city center by half while cutting down on pollution significantly. A network of 600 electric trucks would move the freight minimal distances from the trains to the stores.

Unfortunately, the company fell short of its goal to raise the €150 million necessary to commence operations and the city refused to subsidize the project, so the project died even before the project could come into being.

Needless to say, the concept still has currency in European cities that are looking to reduce traffic and clean the air and which have tramway tracks running through some of their most congested areas. In 2001, VW implemented the CarGo tram between a logistics site and an automobile factory in the center of Dresden, creating a carbon-free mechanism to transport parts along 3 km of passenger lines. Zurich uses CargoTrams — old tramway vehicles, such as those pictured above — to move recycling. Vienna attempted a similar experiment a few years’ back, but never implemented it despite successful results. These projects are of limited scale, so their effects have been similarly small.

A new experiment called TramFret in Paris, however, could transform the way cities think about moving goods from place to place by establishing a regionwide system by which freight like groceries can be moved between distribution facilities and stores by electric tram. Experimentation will begin next month, with full implementation possible by 2014; positive results could show that rail can play an important role in moving freight not just at the intercity scale but also within regions, a market now completely dominated by trucks. But the success of the project will require significant coordination between competing stores and it will need to be carefully planned to as to avoid conflicts with passenger transit routes.

Under Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, the French capital has been a pioneer in all things transport, introducing huge bike-share and car-share networks, building dozens of miles of reserved bus and tram lanes, reducing speed limits to 30 km/h in many neighborhoods, and allowing reverse-direction bike riding on most small streets. But these projects have largely avoided the issue of cargo transport so far, despite the fact that one million daily deliveries are made each day in the Paris region, 90% by road; those trips produce 25% of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions and 50% of particulate releases — as well as consuming 20% of all road space. A successful TramFret could thus improve quality of life significantly.

The Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR), the Paris city planning study office, has conducted a study on the project and has led thinking about its implementation, which is increasingly relevant considering recent public policy choices. The Paris region, called Île-de-France, has begun a significant investment in new tramway lines (much like American light rail) and by 2016 expects to have 105 km (65 miles) of them in operation, carrying about 800,000 people a day (there are currently 26 miles of trams in operation, carrying about 350,000 people a day). Unlike metros or commuter rail, which Paris has much more of, the street rights-of-way offered by tram could allow much almost direct small-scale delivery to stores. With so many tram routes, many stores could be linked up for reduced truck deliveries. In addition, the French government plans a pollution tax on tractor trailers beginning in 2012 that should encourage the movement of goods off the road.

APUR suggests beginning with the existing T3 and T2 lines, which roughly run around the southern and western sections of the city. A new distribution facility would be created at the future terminus of the T2 line at Pont de Bezons, to which grocery stores would bring their goods from other facilities throughout the region. The APUR study suggests that within 500 meters of the two tram lines are 128 grocery stores representing the four largest chains in Paris (Casino, Carrefour, Monoprix, and Franprix, along with their subsidiaries). Trains would each carry the equivalent of three to four truckloads of goods, which means there would likely have to be dozens of trains each day to handle the needs of all these stores.

In order for implementation to occur, the tracks of the two lines would have to be connected at Porte de Versailles, but that will require just a few hundred feet of new track. But new sidings for freight trains to stop would have to be built*, not necessarily an easy proposition considering that the tram lines have been built in dense urban areas. In addition, stores would have to acquire small electric trucks to move goods the final few blocks from the trains to stores. [Note: the study suggests that short rail extensions directly to stores be built so this final step is avoided, but it is my (perhaps unfair) presumption that it would be more simple to implement trucking from distribution points along the line than it would be to go through the regulatory process required to build these line extensions.] All this would necessitate a huge degree of logistical coordination to work efficiently, but better web-based mobile tracking of goods could make it possible.

There is some precedent in Paris for using rail lines for intra-regional goods transport. The Monoprix brand uses the RER D passenger rail line to move goods from a suburban distribution location to a facility in Paris, from which trucks move goods to their final destinations during night trips. Over a year’s period, this eliminates 10,000 trips by trucks and reduces the emissions of carbon and NOx by about 50% over previous conditions. These are hardly negligible results.

Experimentation will begin this fall on the T3 line. Empty trams will be placed with normal headways between passenger trains to see how much capacity is available on the route for more trains (it already carries 112,000 daily riders with high frequencies). APUR will follow up with economic studies beginning next year.

There a number of questions to consider: Will there be enough reduction in pollution and congestion within the center city to justify what is likely to be a more complicated distribution procedure? After all, what right now is a relatively simple truck-from-warehouse-to-store process would be replaced with a journey for goods that requires a truck or train from the warehouse to a logistics facility, to a tram, to a local electric truck making the final trip to the store. Even if trams are cheaper than trucks to operate (because they use electricity and can transport more goods per driver), it’s hard to imagine that these tram-freight trips would be cheaper overall, especially since these trains would have to operate around the passenger train system and in coordination with competing stores.

If tram freight is more expensive than truck freight, does it deserve to be subsidized? Under a typical economic model, the answer is up to the externalities freight rail eliminates. If moving goods by tram reduces congestion or pollution by an amount that is larger than the price difference with the trucking status quo, the public has a societal interest in encouraging its use — unless congestion and pollution of those trucks are appropriately taxed, which they are not. But a source of funds would have to be identified to make such subsidies.

There’s the final question of whether improving freight access by rail into the city is more important than encouraging transit-oriented development. A new distribution facility for the rail line will have to be near the rail line. Would it be more environmentally friendly in the long-term to build high-density housing where that facility would be, even if it required goods to be trucked to it?

* Having them stop at passenger stations at night is possible, but doesn’t seem ideal.

Image above: Zurich’s CargoTram, from Flickr user Sven Dowideit (cc)

Chicago Freight Intercity Rail

At the Heart of the U.S. Freight Rail System, Chicago Advances Grade Separation

» A grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will speed up both passenger and freight trains by eliminating delays caused by a grade crossing.

Chicago is at the center of the American freight rail system, handling 40% of U.S. rail freight on 500 daily trains. It forms the primary junction of the four biggest American freight rail companies — BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific — in addition to the two big Canadian carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. But the complex and intertwined web of tracks that brings trains into and out of the city is hopelessly out of date and causing congestion that limits the number of both freight and passenger trains that can run there.

Last week, ground was broken on the Englewood Flyover, a major element of CREATE, a grand scheme to eliminate such delays in the Chicago area. CREATE — which stands for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program — is a series of 67 individual projects that would speed up freight, commuter, and intercity rail by increasing trackage along heavily used routes and eliminating intersections between competing roads and rails.

Thanks to a significant federal grant, some of those delays will be eliminated.

The Englewood Flyover, but one of the hundreds of infrastructure projects reliant on funds from Washington, is designed to reduce train conflicts for the 130 trains that run through the intersection of the Metra Rock Island District commuter rail line and the Norfolk Southern/Amtrak line just south of 63rd Street and near I-90/I-94 on the South Side. Rock Island trains run between Joliet in the southwest suburbs and LaSalle Street station in the Loop; Amtrak trains connect Union Station with destinations in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

The two corridors currently intersect perpendicularly, meaning that trains can only pass through on one corridor at a time. A new bridge will not only separate the operations of the two rights-of-way, but will also increase the number of tracks on each line.

At $133 million, the Englewood Crossover is no major project when it comes to typical American infrastructure (one may question whether this cost is too high for a bridge and a few hundred feet of tracks), but the cumulative effect of similar investments is an improved rail system both for freight and passenger users.

Though this project is all about improving freight systems, the large majority of the project’s funding ($126 million) originated with the federal government and the DOT’s high-speed and intercity rail passenger program, the same funding source that has been much-maligned by GOP governors in states like Florida and Wisconsin. Illinois’ Jobs Now! program* will fund the remaining costs.

The CREATE project is far from the only intercity and freight rail improvement project being funded through public sector financing. Though the high-speed rail program, with its marquee projects such as the link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has commanded much of the discussion and controversy in recent months, more mundane improvements will play a significant part in keeping the country moving.

Earlier this month, CSX announced that one-third of its major National Gateway improvement project is either complete or under construction. This project is designed to create a double-decker freight corridor between Mid-Atlantic sea ports and the Midwest. The major program will cost almost a billion dollars by itself and will have a majority of its costs paid by public sector sources.

Meanwhile, slow-speed Amtrak celebrated last Thursday its highest ridership ever: 30 million riders in fiscal year 2011. It may not have the class or the efficiency of its counterparts abroad, but the national passenger railroad has steadily increased its role in the lifestyles of Americans — by almost 50% since 2001. But it faces annual grilling sessions in Congress by conservatives who think the government should get out of the rail business.

Neither the freight rail system, nor the passenger rail system, nor even the highway system, could survive without subsidies from the federal government.

Bipartisan “agreement” in the Congress in September produced a deal that will fund intercity rail projects at just $100 million in Fiscal Year 2012 — not enough even to afford the small Chicago project, not to mention the dozens of similar improvements that are vitally necessary to keep the U.S. rail system in a state of reasonable repair. Projects like the Englewood Flyover have little to nothing to do with true high-speed rail investments, but they have a lot to do with making sure people and goods can continue to get around as they have for the last century.

* A state-level stimulus funding program that is intended to eventually pump $31 billion into Illinois’ economy. In addition to funds for roads, schools, and more, $3 billion will be distributed for transit improvements, $550 million for intercity rail, and $322 million for the CREATE project.

Image above: Amtrak passenger and Union Pacific freight trains near Chicago’s Loop, from Flickr user vxla (cc)

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)


New Heartland Corridor Increases Freight Capacity Between East Coast and Chicago

» When the government contributes millions to upgrade the freight railroad system, shouldn’t it ensure competition along the route?

The reopening of completion of renovations along Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor last week will undoubtedly improve the transport of goods between the East Coast and the Midwest. After $321 million in investments, double-stacked freight trains will be able to travel directly between Norfolk and Chicago in just two days, shaving 250 miles off the existing route — until now an impossibility.

It’s exactly the kind of infrastructure the United States must develop to encourage the use of efficient and environmentally sustainable railways for the transport of goods.

And yet the manner in which the project was funded raises important questions about the role of the government in financing transportation infrastructure and puts in question just how competitive the current freight market really is.

Though Norfolk Southern, one of the nation’s largest railway operators, contributed a large percentage of funds, the federal government as well as the States of Virginia and Ohio played an important role in financing the project. Washington chipped in a total of $111 million to the program, Virginia added about $9 million, and Ohio threw in a bit less than $1 million. Some of this money also went to the creation of a new intermodal freight terminal in Columbus and the relocation of the Commonwealth Railway at the Port of Virginia, not a Norfolk Southern program. Construction began in 2007.

The overall scheme has been portrayed as a public-private partnership that will aid both in the delivery of goods by rail (and reduce the negative effects of truck use on major highways), but also in the economic development of ports on the East Coast and the overall industrial capacity in the Midwest. In terms of economic growth, that’s the good news.

But the American government’s propensity to both advocate the private ownership of infrastructure and then use public funds to improve those facilities is quite problematic. If the U.S. is committed to the current (inefficient) system in which a natural monopoly such as a railroad system is held in private hands, it should at least ensure that there are regulations encoding open access to said network.

That, however, is not the situation here. Indeed, Norfolk Southern has not only received a series of solid grants to pay for improvements but it will also be the sole direct profit taker here. This means, in essence, that a number of government entities have chosen to direct public funds towards capital facilities in the hands of one corporation — and that business is motivated by money-making, not the public interest. Nor is the Heartland Corridor the exception to the rule. Earlier this year, for instance, the U.S. Department of Transportation distributed $98 million in TIGER funds to the National Gateway project, run by CSX.

Though one could make the argument that these projects provide economic development benefits to the parts of the nation they touch, growth in one place seems destined to take away from another. If the Port of Norfolk expands because of this investment, what will happen to the Port of Savannah? They are substitutes, not complements. If the U.S. government is to decide for whatever reason that expanding trade in Virginia is a higher priority than doing so in Georgia, it should have a strategy to encourage a multitude of investments headed in that direction. With these funds seemingly being handed out willy-nilly (in the absence of a series national transportation plan), there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason for this project’s funding over another one.

Moreover, the federal government must take a more active role in setting guidelines for how railway lines are utilized after they have received a burst of public funding. This is an important issue when it comes to the creation of improved intercity passenger lines, but it is just as valid for the freight industry. If there is a significant investment made in one company’s infrastructure, that business should be required to pass some of the profits from that facility back to the government.

An alternative, of course, is encouraging freight line owners to open their corridors to a variety of operators, competing to offer the lowest rates to customers. This would improve the benefits to the public as a whole and therefore make the investment more valuable from a societal economic perspective. As it stands now, however, most of the economic advantages will be directed to the shareholders of one company.

Update, 14 September: Reihan Salam has an interesting piece up critiquing what I wrote here. His argument that one solution could be having Norfolk Southern pay the government back for its contribution seems right-headed to me. Indeed, this might be an ideal example of how an infrastructure bank could work well.

Amtrak DOT Freight High-Speed Rail Infrastructure Intercity Rail

U.S. Withdraws Proposed Freight Rail Regulations But Fails to Address Conflict with Future Passenger Service

» Freight companies rejoice now that they won’t have to pay for passenger train delays.

It was inevitable: Distraught by the possibility of having to increasingly open up their tracks to passenger trains, the freight railroad companies have staged an open rebellion against a proposed U.S. policy that would have penalized them if they caused delays.

The rule, which was proposed in May by the Federal Railroad Administration, would have enforced “stakeholder agreements” that went along with funding for new or improved intercity rail routes advanced by state governments. In exchange for a public investment in track, signaling, and the like, freight rail companies would be required to ensure that passenger trains aren’t delayed by oncoming traffic or slowed-down cargo trains.

In the Omaha World-Herald earlier this week, reporter Joe Ruff described some of the opposition to these rules. D.J. Mitchell of BNSF railways, suggested that the situation was stacked against the freight companies since their existing lines simply are not built for trains running at speeds higher than 90 mph whereas the Obama Administration has been adamant in pushing projects that increase maximum speeds to 110 mph along freight corridors. Meanwhile, Ruff quotes Bob Turner of Union Pacific, who argued not only that the passenger trains could delay freight traffic but also that “It’s out land, it’s our rails… This is about the government regulating what happens on our property.”

This was a sad reaction from an industry that could potentially benefit handsomely from the infusion of significant federal dollars. The freight railroads have operated mostly without government help for decades. Yet Washington clearly did not approach this situation with the necessary tact, failing to inform the industry of the proposed rules changes… before they were proposed, which evidently is the way things are supposed to work.

Joseph Szabo, head of the FRA, concluded that the rules were a mistake, and pulled the regulations out of consideration, a move veteran transportation insider Ken Orski dubbed as “sensible.” Orski concluded with a hope that Mr. Szabo “do no harm” to the freight industry, a message most people can agree with but one that provides little sense of what direction the government’s future initiatives need to point. But the decision also seems to suggest that the federal government is unwilling to mess with the freight industry no matter the costs. Is that an acceptable position for the future of the national transportation system in general?

The fundamental problem is that the U.S. government has failed to produce a guiding document that lays out the national goals for the railway system, both in terms of both freight and passenger movement. The national rail plan, whose preliminary draft was released last fall, is by all evidence likely to be a manifesto of vague, uncontroversial ideas, with few specific “plans” for the country’s future mobility. This means that the manner in which the DOT awards intercity rail grants — generally on a state-to-state basis, without much consideration of national needs — is likely to be the way it’s done over the next few years as well.

It also means, in more direct response to the issue posed here, that the government has failed to mediate a compromise between the proponents of freight and passenger rail service. The difficulties raised over the recent proposals by the FRA are only the start of things. For the future of American intercity rail, the government has a responsibility to take further steps to coordinate policy so that it benefits both sides of the rail equation, but it has not done so thus far.

As I discussed last month, despite the fact that allowing trains of different speeds (freight trains are slower than high-speed trains) would (and does) cause problems, there is significant ground for compromise that would allow both services to be improved substantially over the next few years. Notably, were the government to encourage joint use of tracks in city centers by rival freight companies, other inner-city corridors could be devoted to passenger rail without much of a problem.

But that won’t be possible unless the federal government abandons the hands-off policy it seems to be enforcing through its recent decision; at some point, if freight railroads benefit from national investments in their tracks, they should face penalties if they prioritize their trains over passenger vehicles. Freight companies may own the tracks, but if they’re getting funding for improvements, they have to compromise to allow passenger trains to operate effectively.

It’s time to develop a dialogue between freight railroad companies and advocates of improved passenger rail. Improvements for both don’t have to be set in opposition to one another.

Image above: C&NW freight train, by Flickr user vxla (cc)