There’s a Simpsons episode in which Lisa is on a nostalgia kick and is making a video on that theme…but real-world events keep getting in the way. For example, she is down by the tracks, doing an elegiac voice-over along the lines of “these lonely railroad tracks, where the trains come no more” when 4 or 5 diesel units thunder by with a mile or so of freight cars in tow.
I was reminded of this episode by some recent discussions in the blogosphere and elsewhere. In debates about high-speed passenger rail, it’s pretty clear that many if not most people conflate “trains” with “passenger trains” and think of freight-rail, if they think of it at all, as a vestigial holdover from the railroads’ glory days. The many people who remark on U.S. passenger-rail inferiority vis-a-vis Europe rarely notice that the situation looks a bit different when it comes to freight. And in reviews of the new movie Atlas Shrugged–the principal protagonist of which is a railroad executive–there have been suggestions that it might have been better to switch the action to something more modern, rather than continuing the book’s focus on “1950s industries,” as one commenter called them, such as railroads and steel. One newspaper reviewer, describing the film’s setting, called it “2016 in an alternative retro-future where everything has the look of mid-20th-century modern, the Internet apparently was never invented (people still read papers!), and trains are how goods get from coast to coast.”
Actually, there’s nothing very retro about goods getting from coast to coast via train. Here are some statistics on various transportation modes. Intercity domestic freight market share in ton-miles (2005 data) is 38% for rail, 25% for truck, and much, much less for air. And “coast to coast” and other long-distance routes are specifically those on which rail has the greatest competitive advantage. UPS, for example, ships packages going over 750 miles via rail when feasible.
Lots of interesting data at the Association of American Railroads site. This report shows total rail ton-miles hauled as having increased from 592 billion in 1950 to 932 billion in 1980 to 1820 billion in 2007. And this analysis indicates that rail shipping charges are down by 54%, in inflation-adjusted terms, from 1981 (when deregulation occurred) to 2007…the same document contains a comparison of rail freight charges in the U.S. with those in other countries, showing our costs to be about 2:1 lower than those in France, China, and Japan. Intermodal (moving shipping containers or truck trailers on rail cars) has more than quadrupled since 1980.
(Disclosure: I’m a stockholder/bondholder in several railroads)