Railroads make eco-friendly comeback

Is the horse-drawn carriage next? It’s 2008 and the once-dying freight railway industry is “enjoying its biggest building boom in nearly a quarter century, a turnaround as abrupt as it is ambitious,” gushes The Washington Post ( 21 April 2008 ). The boom is “largely fueled by growing global trade and rising fuel costs for 18-wheelers,” the article says. However, with the boom comes a concern about a return to the robber barons (and anti-competitive pricing) of the 1800s. Excerpts:

In 2002, the major railroads laid off 4,700 workers; in 2006, they hired more than 5,000. Profit has doubled industry-wide since 2003, and stock prices have soared.

This year alone, the railroads will spend nearly $10 billion to add track, build switchyards and terminals, and open tunnels to handle the coming flood of traffic. Freight rail tonnage will rise nearly 90 percent by 2035, according to the Transportation Department. [Actually: 88%.]

[T]he changing global market has fueled prosperity — and the need to add track for the first time in 80 years. Soaring diesel prices and a driver shortage have pushed freight from 18-wheelers back onto the rails. At the same time, China’s unquenchable appetite for coal and the escalating U.S. demand for Chinese goods, means more U.S. rail traffic is heading to ports in the Northwest, on its way to and from the Far East.

The zeitgeist has even dropped a “green” gift in the industry’s lap. A train can haul a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, about a 3-to-1 fuel efficiency advantage over 18-wheelers, and the railroad industry is increasingly touting itself as an eco-friendly alternative.

But rail customers are complaining about the kind of price-gouging not seen since the robber barons of the 1800s, leading to antitrust suits and calls for re-regulation of rail prices. The rail industry counters that it’s using the same kind of “differential pricing” that airlines use today (i.e., higher prices where they have market power).

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Related:
Railroad news: Shippers say lack of antitrust enforcement hindering rail competition

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