American Railroads and the Environment

It’s high time for another one of my pet peeves. This commercial by CSX, one of the big railroad companies, annoys me no end:

In America, you can’t count on commuter trains as an alternative to driving in most places. But that doesn’t mean there are no railways. There are about 140,000 miles of railroad in the US.

texas rail map

This map just shows railroads inTexas. Sure, Texas is bigger than France, and there’s lots of empty space in the west on the map, but that’s because in reality there’s lots of empty space in west Texas. In general, the railroads are pretty much where the people are.

The problem is that all these railroads are owned by freight rail companies. And they don’t share their railroads with commuter trains.

So yeah, in itself moving a ton of freight 420 miles on one gallon of fuel may sound environmentally friendly, but consider all the time those railways are empty. Think of all the car fumes that could be avoided if those railroads were used efficiently by both freight and commuter trains.

I’ve looked on the the website of the Association of American Railroads (basically a lobbying group for railroad companies) for information about how often trains utilize any given stretch of rail, but I couldn’t find anything. Lots of info about number of units a day, broken down into everything from boxcars to shipping containers and what they carry, but nothing about the actual frequency of trains on rails.

Judging by questions people ask on forums, a lot of the freight traffic through densely populated areas takes place at night.

I drive up and down Mopac–one of Austin’s two major north-south arteries–a lot, and at varying times of day, and I occasionally see a freight train moseying down the line.

What I do see a lot of, during rush hour traffic, is this:

railroad on Mopac

Mopac jammed in both directions with cars, and a perfectly good railroad in between, not being used. While on the radio the reporter is talking about the city council discussing whether or not to spend several million dollars for a few more measly miles of new commuter rail in Austin.

Another option being discussed is buying the stretch of rail along Mopac from Union Pacific. I imagine UP would ask an amount at least equal to the cost of rerouting their railroad around Austin, so it wouldn’t be cheap. Though I suppose it would be cheaper than moving Mopac over to make room for a commuter railroad next to the UP railroad. Now that would make for a silly picture!

If we’re all serious about the environment, then it’s time to make the freight rail companies share the rail with commuters. That’s how tomorrow should move. It’s how Europe has been moving since the 1830s. Try and keep up, America!

I would love to know what you think, even about old posts.

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