Why the Industry Should Support the US Railway Initiative

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?

10 comments on “Why the Industry Should Support the US Railway Initiative

  1. eemom
    February 9, 2011

    The US is long overdue for an overhaul of its railway system especially high speed railway.  The US is way behind the rest of the world when it comes to high speed railways.  Any upgrade to our railway system would be marvelous.

  2. Jay_Bond
    February 9, 2011

    The U.S. railway system is a life blood of the American infrastructure that most people overlook. I agree that we are way behind many developed countries when it comes to fast people movers. With the size of the U.S. many people just don't realize all the cost advantages of using railroads to haul freight over the use of semis.

    There is a large increase in the number of semis on the road to haul freight from manufacturers to suppliers to retailers. All this increased traffic is clogging the roads and adding to the pollution with all the diesel smog and causing roads to be destroyed by all the excess weight. Freight trains can carry large amounts of materials over longer distances for less cost.

    When nasty winter weather hits and the highway systems get shut down, product sits. This causes delays in shipments throughout the supply chain. All of this ultimately affects the customer.


  3. AnalyzeThis
    February 9, 2011

    Given the subject matter of this site, I very much doubt any of us is going to argue against the importance of freight railroads in the U.S.: there is really no getting around the fact that it is and will remain a very important part of our economy for many, many years to come.

    I think the debate around passenger rail is more interesting. Also, there is some crossover with freight, because — in the northeast at least — there are many instances of passenger rail sharing tracks with freight, which sometimes causes logistical difficulties.

    Anyhow, I'm a big fan of passenger trains and have not flown in about a year. However, the main reason for this is because I live in NYC, and where I travel to most of the time is easily accessible via rail.

    When I lived in Southern California, I never even considered using rail.

    And that's where the disconnect lies: certain pockets of the country are well-suited for a passenger rail system, but outside of those pockets the utility of them is often very, very limited.

    I don't think this situation will change all that much long-term. Areas that have successful passenger train service will upgrade their systems, areas that have very limited or no passenger train service will largely not even attempt to build a new system.

  4. Parser
    February 10, 2011

    Regional mild weather was giving a boost to build airports and establish air traffic. Additional problems for long stretched railway system are continues small earthquakes.


    In Southern California and it is very rare for people to take trains. Popularity is increasing. Now there are plans to build a bullet train connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco Bay Area. There were also plans to off load heavy truck traffic near Long Beach by using freight trains to East Los Angeles and there reload to heavy trucks for local distribution. I hope these plans will be materialized. 

  5. seel225
    February 10, 2011

    US investment towards railways is a good initiative. With inter city rail networks, the travel time between the cities has to bee reduced in order to attract more passengers. The railways is best alternative way of transportation in northeast and mid west especially in winter seaon. In near future , we can see much advanced and high speed trains on US tracks.

  6. Mydesign
    February 10, 2011

       Yes Barbara, it’s the time to look for some alternate path for both passenger and goods movement. Even though we have a good network of rail across the country, most of us preferring flight because of its convenience and speed.  But under certain situations like natural calamities, bad weather etc; this service (air) may get disturbed either by delay or cancellation of service.  If time is not a constrain, we can consider rail as the best alternate mode, for both passenger and goods transportation (cargo). When compare with air, rail is more economic and saftey. I think the rail goods transportation can play an important and vital role is supply chain building.

        Bullet trains, High speed trains and NON stop rail networks can be used for faster access between cities. Similar way for better goods transportation, railway can think (strengthening the existing corridor path) in similar line, like goods corridor with dedicated path and rails for faster movements of container between the source and destination cities.

  7. Ariella
    February 10, 2011

    Dennis, you're right.  Resident on Long Island, for example, usually rely on a car to get around, but they still tend to take a train for a commute to a job in the city. Both the subway system and rail system were affected by weather.  As the NYC subway extends into sections that are above ground, the heavy snows that hit made service unavailable in some areas.  The LIRR didn't run at all for a day or two after the first major snow storm of this winter season.  After another snow, many trains were suspended, though that information was not getting out to the commuters.  The website was down at the time, and even the announcements at the local station did not correspond to reality.  Trains were listed as on time when they never arrived at all, and the train that was announced as suspended surprised people by showing up.  I know that MetroNorth and NJTransit also has experienced problems when faced with challenges like the weather we've had.    It is possible to design trains that can push through snow, but that is not what is currently in place for many commuters. 

  8. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 10, 2011

    An additional thought–passenger railways would go a long way in setting up a better infrastructure should the US ever realize job growth. Would I set up a business in an area where driving is the main transport and roadways are always congested? There are many outlying areas in the US that, if there were transit systems, would be very cost-effective for setting up a business. Any manufacturing enterprise would also need a way to move their products efficiently in and out of these areas.

    I don't see things improving in the air transport system anytime soon. Between security issues, fees, and fewer flights, it is not a dependable system on which to base a supply chian.

  9. Anand
    February 11, 2011


     You are absolutely right that trains are the workhorses of the infrastructure. But how will you decide how many freight railroads are enough ?  I think one of the key features that will decide this  answer is “Is the current rail systems are being utilised efficiently”. If they aren't there is lot of scope to improve them. Because excessive infrastrcutre building might hamper the efficiency and might turn counterproductive.

  10. Mr. Roques
    February 13, 2011

    What percentage of big markets are covered by those 7 class I railroads? (rough estimate). How are the other cities getting supplies? freight planes? 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.