DOT's first national freight plan offers few rail recommendations

Document anticipates railroads will continue to lose market share
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A Union Pacific intermodal train heads north near Longview, Wash. The DOT's new national freight plan anticipates rail intermodal traffic will continue to grow.
TRAINS: David Lassen

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation’s first National Freight Strategic Plan projects that railroads will continue to lose market share to trucking over the next 25 years, despite worsening highway congestion and challenges recruiting and retaining truck drivers.

The plan, unveiled today and available here, says rail tonnage will grow 25% by 2045 but trucking tonnage will rise 32%. The report notes that, as of 2017, railroads hauled 1.4% of the nation’s freight when measured by total value, while moving 9.3% of tonnage and 26.9% of ton-miles.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao outlined goals that include improving safety and resilience of the national freight system, modernizing freight infrastructure, and supporting innovation that will improve freight performance.

The plan calls for updating and eliminating unnecessary regulations, improving collaboration among modes and federal, state, and local governments, and investing in systems that can provide transportation planners with better freight data.

It also recommends targeting federal spending to support freight projects that provide significant benefits to the national economy. The plan touts the CREATE program in Chicago, the private-public partnership that aims to make $4.6 billion in improvements to rail infrastructure.

It also calls for prioritizing projects that improve intermodal connectivity, particularly on first- and last-mile connectors at ports and major trade gateways.

But the plan, like the video conference announcing its release, is light on railroad-specific recommendations. In a 42-minute video featuring Chao and representatives from the various modes the transportation department oversees, Quintin Kendall, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, spoke for less than a minute and a half.

Kendall noted the critical role railroads play in moving freight, including how Class I and short line railroads form an important link from rural areas to metro areas and ports. He also emphasized the need to improve grade crossing safety.

Railroads will haul less coal and crude oil in the coming years, the plan says, while shipments of ethanol may rise and new regulations are expected to permit liquified natural gas to be hauled in tank cars. Agricultural and natural resource freight shipments are also expected to rise, as is intermodal traffic.

An eastbound BNSF freight meets a Metra train in Hinsdale, Ill. The DOT's first national freight plan has few rail-specific recommendations.
TRAINS: David Lassen

The freight plan points out that short lines often rely on various federal programs — including Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loans, the 45G tax credit, and Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grants — to maintain their physical plant and make investments necessary to support industry standard 286,000-pound carloads.

The development of autonomous trucks, aerial drones, and other technology such as 3D printing may change transportation in the coming decades, the plan says. While the plan mentions that the railroad industry will fully deploy positive train control systems by the end of 2020, it does not specifically mention the potential for autonomous trains or one-person crews.

The plan notes highway congestion will become a more serious issue in and around cities, where fast-growing e-commerce is increasing traffic in already busy urban areas. The report briefly mentions railroad choke points, including gateways such as Chicago, Kansas City, and Memphis, and congested areas around Atlanta, Houston, and Cincinnati, but makes no recommendations addressing potential rail congestion.

The plan notes the need for more resilient transportation systems in light of increasingly disruptive weather events, including floods, tropical storms, winter storms, and wildfires. Since 1980, the frequency of billion-dollar disasters related to weather has increased from an average of two per year to more than 100 per year, the plan notes, with damage amounts adjusted for inflation.

The 118-page plan includes several stock images of railroads, three of which picture trains outside of North America – including the lone rail image on the plan’s cover. And Chao’s video introduction of the plan included footage of what appeared to be a European intermodal train.

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