Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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