Although the expansion of freight rail in recent years has been almost exclusively privately financed, a little government support could go a long way. Adding one lane to a mile of highway can cost $15 million or more and take a decade to complete, whereas adding a typical mile of rail line costs $2 million to $4 million and can be built in a few years.
Under the MAP-21 transportation bill signed into law this summer, a national plan for freight policy will be developed jointly by federal, state, and business participants. The U.S. Department of Transportation is investing more than $953 million in freight improvement projects, including $354 million for port facility upgrades. Additionally, up to $35 billion in loans and loan guarantees are available for railroad rehabilitation and improvements.
"We don't want a handout—we want a hand up," Dunlap says.
Public investment in freight rail will help to level the playing field for shippers. Being almost entirely privately financed puts rail at a real disadvantage to trucks. As senior analyst Derik Andreoli of Kirkland, Wash.–based Mercator International explains, "Truckers run on a free infrastructure. We would have a completely different landscape if there was equity in infrastructure."
Recent gains in locomotive fuel efficiency, higher capacity freight cars, and reduced rolling resistance can be extended. Some potential efficiency improvements, however, will require systemic upgrades and industry-wide agreement on new technical standards, such as: improved signaling systems; "Positive Train Control" technology that only works if all trains and routes in an area are equipped with it; upgrading more locomotives to hybrid technologies, if government grant support is available; adopting electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, so that trains can travel farther without stopping for routine brake inspections; and implementing integrated monitoring and inspection systems to reduce delays caused by equipment faults.
In the meantime the ongoing transition of freight to rail will permanently cut U.S. oil consumption, improve the balance sheet by boosting exports, open up new economic opportunities and create millions of jobs. Rail built this country by fortifying and expanding the economic link between the coasts—an essential part of U.S. history and development. But railroads are not just the past; they may be destined to become an even more essential part of our economic foundation in an energy-constrained future.