Ride the Freight Train

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Phillip Longman has a piece in The Washington Monthly making the case for increased investments in high-quality freight rail. I think this is about right. There are certain kinds of trips that are — if the trains exist — intrinsically better-suited to passenger rail than to driving or flying. But that’s a limited set of trips, especially in the United States which is relatively sparsely populated. For freight there’s a similar calculus, but you wind up with a different answer, and there’s a much wider set of trips that are best done by rail. Which is one of the reasons why in even our current pathetically train-deprived state a great deal of freight shipping happens on trains. But we could be doing much more. He observes:

By all rights, America’s dilapidated rail lines ought to be a prime candidate for some of that spending. All over the country there are opportunities like the I-81/Crescent Corridor deal, in which relatively modest amounts of capital could unclog massive traffic bottlenecks, revving up the economy while saving energy and lives. Many of these projects have already begun, like Virginia’s, or are sitting on planners’ shelves and could be up and running quickly. And if we’re willing to think bigger and more long term—and we should be—the potential of a twenty-first-century rail system is truly astonishing. In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emission by 38 percent and oil consumption by 22 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 13 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.

One appealing thing about freight rail investments is that there’s a greater potential for interim steps that make a difference. Since there’s already a lot of freight rail happening, there are plenty of places where smallish improvements would increase usage and capacity a great deal. And then when the small improvements have piled on, that creates a bigger rail infrastructure that can also support passenger projects like commuter rail lines.

One word of caution I would offer about all this, however, is that while we certainly should try to get stimulus money to fund good infrastructure projects, we shouldn’t think of infrastructure spending as primarily a stimulus issue. A genuinely good infrastructure investment is worth making whether or not there’s a need for short-term stimulus. And just spending on infrastructure for the sake of spending can get you a lot of pointless garbage like we’ve seen recently in Japan which isn’t what we want. And people who have worthwhile projects to advocate shouldn’t invite people to think of the projects as make-work by talking about them exclusively in terms of the stimulus. This freight rail stuff would be worth doing in a totally normal economic climate.