INVEST in America Act’s Impact on the Freight Rail System
The hot topic in Washington this summer has been infrastructure with discussions ranging from policy to price tags. While a significant investment in America’s infrastructure is long overdue, a wide range of policy changes are also in play that could achieve political goals at the expense of our infrastructure systems. One of the more overlooked industries when it comes to these discussions is our freight rail system.
Typically hidden in the background, most people’s interaction with freight rail is seeing a train along the side of the highway. What they might not realize is that freight rail is America’s oldest and most efficient infrastructure network. Unlike roads or water systems, freight rail is almost entirely privately owned, operated, and maintained. Yet, this vast infrastructure system is subject to just as much politicization today as it was a century ago when it was the nineteenth-century version of the tech industry.
As a result, the House of Representative’s version of the infrastructure bill, the INVEST in America Act, includes a number of policy changes aimed at pursuing climate and labor-related goals, ironically at the expense of the efficiency of the railroad network. Furthermore, many of these changes contradict the larger goals the bill seeks to achieve.
For example, the Act seeks to further climate change-related policies but the provisions that work towards this come up short. One section would prohibit the transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail. However, there is no corresponding provision prohibiting its transportation by trucks. Instead of limiting the development of the LNG industry, the Act would simply hinder the railroads while pushing the transportation of these materials onto trucks and taxpayer-funded roadways, actually worsening infrastructure. Furthermore, there is no corresponding public safety argument. Hazmat trains reach their destination without incident 99.99 percent of the time and moving these materials on highways risks accidents with passenger vehicles in a way transportation by rail does not.
Other provisions have similar contradictions. The Act would require railroads nationally to have at least two members per crew while simultaneously pushing autonomous vehicle technologies in other sectors that require no crew at all. One provision would require the railroads to replace every locomotive manufactured prior to 2008 in what would be a multibillion-dollar unfunded mandate that would severely impede the railroad’s ability to maintain existing infrastructure.
Closer to home, another provision would require freight trains coming into the U.S. from Mexico to nearly immediately stop once they enter the country and perform a Mexican-to-American crew interchange and safety inspections. The logistical reality of stopping trains upon entry creates transportation bottlenecks and unsafe conditions for railroad workers, inspectors, and the general public. This would mean international trains parked in downtown Nogales cutting the city in two while also constraining trade. Currently, international trains are allowed to proceed up to 15 miles inland before safely stopping at proper yards. The continuation of this safer and more efficient inland system, which has widespread stakeholder support, would promote both trade and public safety.
The crux of the issue is a failure to see the railroads as a crucial component of our intermodal transportation system as well as a key asset in planning for freight increases in the future. Instead of seeing the railroads as monopolistic robber barons, it would be better to leave the 1920’s viewpoint behind in favor of a 2020’s approach. Modern rail works in conjunction with roads, ports, and airports. Industries served by rail may not have access to every Class I rail operator but they do have access to trucks and air cargo options. Indeed, all of these options must work together to give our supply chain resiliency. The railroad’s ability to help ease congestion, move freight in an environmentally efficient manner, and provide good jobs should be seen as a benefit worth preserving by allowing the railroads the ability to operate and invest in themselves, without onerous regulation.
Instead, we should view our railroads as partners. Local communities and stakeholders would be wise to see freight rail as a worthy investment to help further public safety and develop relevant economic development projects. Unnecessary attacks ironically only hurt our best-maintained piece of infrastructure.