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Railroads should speak with one voice

[From July, 2001 RailwayAge “Point of View: The industry should speak with one voice.”]
Why should passenger railroads support H.R. 1020, the Railroad Track Modernization Act of 2001, a bill designed to assist short line and regional freight carriers? It has nothing to do with practical politics making strange bedfellows, and everything to do with defining the public interest in the national flow of freight and people.

Railroads, freight and passenger alike, are headed toward a new crisis whose roots date back to the 1950s, when the U.S. government made a core decision to construct interstate highways designed to accommodate freight by truck and two-car families. Rail was simply left out of the program. This put the freights on an economic iceberg that is slowly melting, with passenger railroads facing the dominance of highway and aviation. Through the highway network, there is an ongoing massive subsidy to trucks and cars that creates a cost structure that makes it difficult for railroads to compete for business. This can be addressed only by requiring highway users to pay fully-allocated infrastructure costs-or by providing a public subsidy to rail that is roughly equivalent.

Small railroads see their infrastructure under enormous strain from heavier freight cars. Class I’s are not generating returns adequate to replace capital, and some have begun to advocate public investment in infrastructure where there are public benefits. Along with this, Amtrak is asking for $12 billion in bond revenues. Transit has pushed its way to the table of federal transportation investment and speaks with some authority. The result is that there is no single voice speaking for the rail industry.

The time to confront the issue of modal equity and public benefits is now. Eisenhower’s decision to build highways was a magnificent commitment. However, there were serious unintended consequences. As a direct result of the tilt to highway, many social benefits in the movement of people and freight by rail are lost. The full potential of passenger rail is not realized. Only a fraction of the potential of freight rail is utilized.

What do passenger and freight have in common? We both relieve highway congestion, save energy, and save lives. We share infrastructure. Together we should push hard to carefully design a new federal investment strategy that will end capacity constraints that currently exist, clearing the way for passenger and freight users to better co-exist. That can only be done with a massive federal investment that rivals the current commitment to highways.

Unfortunately, each element of our industry approaches Washington with an attitude of “every mode for itself.” The AAR and APTA are not concentrating on a program of national good that will increase the capacity of existing rights-of-way. Rather, they have taken the fight for commuter railroad access on freight lines to Congress. This is not productive.

Like APTA and AAR, ASLRRA and AAR have differences on inter-carrier issues. They were resolved, at least for the time being, in a bilateral agreement. The issues are complicated, emotional, and under continuing discussion. We are now working on a common legislative program that includes H.R. 1020. Likewise, ASLRRA will aggressively support federal investment in Class I infrastructure that yields public benefits.

APTA and AAR should pursue a similar program, since investment in rail can lay the foundation for a new transportation policy that embraces the rail mode as a full partner. Combined, our infrastructure needs are huge and cannot be met from internal cash or in the private marketplace. The only way to accomplish this in Washington is to build a grand coalition. Between Class I’s, short lines, and commuter railroads, we have the makings of a grand coalition. Our allies are waiting to be asked. James Brunkenhoefer of the United Transportation Union has pointed out that rail labor will be a major beneficiary of any program to build infrastructure to grow traffic. The UTU has endorsed H.R. 1020. The National Railroad Contractors Association actively supports it. And progressive Class I leaders-David Goode of Norfolk Southern, Paul Tellier of CN, Matt Rose of BNSF-are reevaluating their position with regard to partnerships with government.

If we can craft a unified approach and advertise it, the public will support us, and we will prevail. We should not be modest. There is little appetite for new highways or airports. We must design a plan to rebuild America’s rail infrastructure by promoting mobility through first-class commuter service, high speed intercity service, and reliable freight service. It can be the first great public works program of the 21st Century.

Ray B. Chambers, chairman of Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell, is legislative representative for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association and a Transportation Fellow of the Discovery Institute.