Highway and Rail Congestion

Both highways and railroads in the U.S. are chronically congested. Truckers face severe driver shortages and high fuel costs. Railroad capacity was drastically downsized during the build-out of the Interstate Highway System, and cannot currently absorb extra freight from congested highways. But population and transportation demand will continue to grow.

Double-tracking a single-track rail line can increase capacity seven-fold in only 15 feet of space, often already in place. Public/private projects focusing on new rail capacity are safer, cleaner, can be added more quickly, and have a far less disastrous environmental impact than road-building. The Highway Trust Fund is nearly bankrupt, and increasingly will be needed to maintain the proliferation of roads and bridges constructed over the past 50 years.

The Steel Interstate Answer

Somewhat analogous to what the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System did for roads, the Steel Interstate would comprise a national network of high-capacity, grade-separated, electrified railroad mainlines. This would be the backbone for movement of both goods and people for decades to come.

The Steel Interstate directly addresses three problems in the rail industry today. First it would add significant new capacity by rebuilding key rail corridors to Steel Interstate standards. Secondly electrification helps wean the U.S. transportation sector from its near total dependence on oil. Many different means exist to generate electricity, including renewables. And third, it holds promise of national passenger service using shared infrastructure. Ubiquitous 79-mph passenger trains can benefit far more people than hugely expensive, high-speed rail that is practical only in a few densely populated corridors.

While the Steel Interstate concept is national in scope, it has particular applicability to the I-81/I-40 Corridor between Harrisburg and Memphis where trucking density is among the highest in the nation. This color handout describes more fully this advocacy.

Two Problems

  1. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being plowed into automated vehicle research – cars and trucks that drive themselves. In some cases these concepts involve technological upgrades to highways to provide guidance systems. Manifest justification lies in claims that 93% of vehicular crashes stem from human error, and computer control can eliminate this.

Completely apart from the profoundly scary prospect of such computers programmed by fallible humans is that such automated cars and trucks would wed the nation to reliance on highway transportation for the indefinite future.

  1. Smitten by current low prices for natural gas, the railroad industry is experimenting with locomotives fueled by liquid natural gas (LNG). LNG-powered trains like electrified ones would require vast new infrastructure investment. However railroad electrification is commonplace around the world so the technology is safe, proven and available. Safety is a major concern with creation, storage, and use of a high-pressure cryogenic liquid fuel. Some critics have claimed that it would take as much electricity just to compress and cool the LNG as it would to power the trains directly. If railroads opt to go with LNG, they will have bet their future on a single fuel, whereas electrification gives access to a wide choice of fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables. An intelligent compromise exists for the railroads whereby they benefit from using cheap gas to generate electricity, then use the electricity to power trains.

Two Promises

  1. Seventy-five percent of the Millennial generation say they aspire to a lifestyle that does not require a car. Their ideal is the 15-minute walkable community. Thus to be generationally savvy and attract coveted young professionals there is increased competition among cities and states to make their areas bikable, walkable, and with good public transportation. Most significant is that a sprawl of congested expressways is likely to be a total turn-off.
  1. RAIL Solution depends on alliances with other groups to spread our influence and message. This has become easier as environmentalists have increasingly embraced the advantages of rail. Just this past month, for example, we have worked with the Sierra Club in California to help craft freight rail provisions for the California state rail plan. Even with our Board member on the West Coast, we would not have this reach without networking.

Looking Forward

As always the challenge for us as a small non-profit advocacy group is how to get our message out and build support for our goals. At our Annual Meeting in November RAIL Solution’s Board voted to explore hiring a full-time executive director.

Last year we mentioned our good fortune in receiving a major estate bequest from long-time participant Richard Rusk. We want to use these funds in a way that will make a real difference and be a tribute to Rusk’s loyalty, vision, and generosity. A leading contender at this point is the full-time executive director. If you know someone who is a real self-starter, can work well independently, and is interested in the issues we deal with, please e-mail David Foster for more information and a job description.

RAIL Solution has helped develop the freight rail program for the Transportation Research Board’s January conference in Washington, DC. It focuses on making railroad intermodal service more truck-competitive to take more trucks off the highway. We are also working with American Railway Engineering & Maintenance of Way Association and Amtrak on the first ever Steel Interstate symposium in Washington in early February, where David Foster will be the kickoff speaker.


Thank you for supporting RAIL Solution and
making our rail advocacy possible

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