Anyone within the continental United States who has recently traveled by plane knows how much havoc bad weather can wreak on the country's transportation system.
Much of the country -- and a significant portion of the electronics supply chain, I would imagine -- ground to a halt last week as snow blanketed the central and eastern portions of the United States, and major airport hubs, including New York, Chicago, and Boston, were shut down.
As I was anxiously awaiting news of my flight status last week (on time!) I recalled a conversation I had with a colleague in the UK during last year's volcanic eruption in Iceland. While most, if not all, flights in Europe and the UK were grounded for an indeterminate period of time, my colleague didn't miss a day of work; nor were shipments between the UK and Europe stymied. Why? The British and European rail system. Neither rain nor snow nor, as it turns out, volcanic dust keeps the British railway from the swift completion of its appointed rounds.
Trains are not as sexy as airplanes or even ocean liners, but they are the workhorses of the infrastructure. Every time a new offshore region is touted as the next manufacturing hub, infrastructure is the first thing that comes up. In the electronics manufacturing industry, infrastructure is key. So today when the US government unveiled its $53 billion plan to upgrade and build intercity passenger-rail networks, I was interested. Not only would this upgrade boost the electronics industry -- non-automotive transportation is a fairly big electronics market -- it would improve the infrastructure. Then I reread the article and the words "intercity" and "passenger" finally sunk in. Not that this is a bad thing: Too many US cities don't have commuter rail systems.
But I was also thinking about the nation's infrastructure. As it turns out, there are only seven railroads operating in the US that meet freight railroad standards, according to TrainSpottingWorld:
Railroad companies in the United States are generally separated into three categories based on their annual revenues: Class I for freight railroads with annual operating revenues above $277.7 million (2004 dollars), Class II for freight railroads with revenues between $10 million and $50 million in 1978 dollars, and Class III for all other freight railroads. These classifications are set by the Association of American Railroads.
In 1939 there were 132 Class I railroads. Today, as the result of mergers and bankruptcies, there are only seven railroads operating in the United States that meet the criteria for Class I. Although Amtrak qualifies for Class I status under the revenue criteria, it is generally not considered a Class I railroad because it is not a freight railroad. As of 2003, there were 141,961 miles (228,464 km) of standard gauge rail tracks in the United States.
The US rail upgrade plan is getting flak already, so don't sell the car just yet. Maybe seven freight railroads are enough. Any thoughts?