Menus Subscribe Search

High-Speed Rail Will Impact America’s Freight Trains

• June 15, 2011 • 4:00 AM

America’s very successful freight train system will have to make some compromises to accommodate high-speed rail, but those needn’t be the end of the world.

The recent controversy over high-speed rail in America has obscured one fact about trains that defines — and pretty well explains — the main trend in rail traffic in the U.S. and Europe over the last few decades: Americans move a lot more freight by train than Europeans.

That’s a good thing. Moving cargo that way keeps trucks off the road. And the European Union’s emissions-reduction goals for the year 2020 have forced Europeans to admit to using more commercial trucks than they’d like, in spite of their own high fuel prices.

“Europe’s dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo,” is how The Wall Street Journal put it in a survey in 2007. That’s true in the sense that passenger rail service is good in Europe and cargo rail service is not — governments have focused on one and not the other. But it’s not (necessarily) a zero-sum game.
[class name="dont_print_this"]

European Dispatch

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

[/class]
Europe’s dependence on trucks actually stems from the fractured nature of continental rail networks, a challenge that passenger train firms also haven’t solved. Spain and Portugal still run passenger trains on narrower tracks than the rest of Europe, and France has just started discussing how to link its TGV system with the (newer, more compatible) Spanish high-speed tracks.

Since Europe is also more crowded than the U.S., finding the land for new factories close to train lines has traditionally been tougher. For decades the continent was also divided by the Cold War, so a good long-distance cargo system failed to develop between the east and west. The U.S. also doesn’t have the same niggling differences in language and national rolling stock.

But even in the two decades since the fall of communism, there’s been more business for American cargo rail companies and less of it for their European counterparts. “Between 1995 and 2005,” as The Wall Street Journal points out, “the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73 percent from 68 percent, while rail’s share fell to 17 percent from 20 percent.”

During about the same period, the railroads’ share of the U.S. freight market rose from 33 percent to 38.2 percent. (The American trucking business also grew its share, from 25.4 percent to 28.5 percent.)

The whole point of the European Union is to smooth out inevitable cross-border problems like track gauge and language confusion. The EU has been on the cargo-rail problem since the ’90s, and a few new projects — like a long, dedicated new corridor with no road crossings between Rotterdam and Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley — have EU support. But Europe should be further along.


Also on Miller-McCune.com, how the idea of high speed rail died in Texas while thriving in Spain during the 1980s.


Where freight and high-speed passenger trains use the same track, of course, they don’t mix well, for the same reason that a Porsche on the highway can’t move fast if it gets stuck behind a semi. So The Economist last year argued that more high-speed rail in America could actually harm the U.S. rail-cargo network, which it described as “one of the unsung transport successes of the past 30 years … universally recognized in the industry as the best in the world.”

There won’t be a problem on new and largely dedicated high-speed lines like the one planned for California. But it will get complicated on the not-quite-as-high-speed, “inter-city” passenger lines planned for the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern cities around Chicago.

Right now, American cargo trains can move flexibly, sometimes without a strict time schedule, according to customer demand. If they share the rails with too many passenger trains, they’ll need to be more strictly organized, with expensive new train-control systems.

Cargo carriers have howled about the cost, but the main problem — from their point of view — is a threat to their dominance in certain corners of the country. Part of the federal support for high-speed rail will fund little rail spurs or pullouts to let trundling cargo trains cool their wheels while an inter-city train full of businessmen blows past.

Germany dealt with these problems in the 1980s and ’90s, as it slowly laid its high-speed system over a first-class freight network. This isn’t uncharted territory. Germany now has the best cargo system in Europe, as well as excellent (if not lavish) high-speed rail.

The map of planned American inter-city lines should also be sparse enough to ease the cargo carriers’ minds. Change is unpleasant, of course, and American freight trains will become pricier and less flexible around certain major cities if they have to make room for good passenger service. But things will have to change enormously before America has to fear lapsing back to European freight standards — especially since the shambles in Europe is so unique.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.