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Now Is the Time for New Vision for America's Transportation

Lately, there has been a great deal of discussion in Washington and around the country about a new, national freight and passenger transportation policy. While many of the details of how we transform the landscape of our nation's transportation network are unclear, industry leaders of all modes agree on one thing: the existing system is broken. Despite the general lack of a national policy, however, a picture of a new, "intermodal transportation network" is beginning to develop. Ten years into this 21st Century, we realize that we must produce a sustainable, ethical and holistic intermodal freight and passenger transportation network for our country. We are seeing a glimpse of the future; and the future begins now.

The Interstate Highway System served us well during the era of "cheap fuel" of the last century, but today we have a population that has doubled in 50 years and could reach 400 million by 2050. Population density will continue to be a mobility problem. Consequently, we now have a deteriorating and badly congested transportation infrastructure that cannot meet consumer or shipper demand. In addition, we now have a global economy that requires an interconnected, intermodal transport system that uses all modes of transportation. The solution to meeting this century's challenges lies in building "Interstate 2.0," a holistic, ethical fuel-efficient, intercity, rail freight and passenger transportation system that is seamless in nature; connects our center cities, ports, airports, bus and transit lines; creates jobs; and sustains our environment. It is a logical and necessary next step forward -- one that will require a working partnership between the federal and state agencies and the private sector -- especially the freight railroads and the passenger rail segment. This large public works project will also be a key player in creating long-term jobs and economic prosperity.

While this new, intermodal transportation system would utilize the existing freight rights-of-way (ROW) for safe passenger transit, these two transportation sectors are not mutually exclusive, as some in the freight industry fear. We must remember that as far back as 1912, when all of our cities were still developing due to railroad expansion, approximately 80 percent of intercity passengers were riding the trains. So was 80 to 90 percent of the nation's freight. It was a shared rail system. By the 1970s, however, with a rapidly growing population, a very mobile society, low gas and diesel prices, and an increasing love affair with automobiles and airplanes, the new highways became the darling of the federal and state governments, and freight and passenger transportation segued to the nation's highways and airports. The nation felt it was in "Fat City." Unfortunately, we had built a mobility system on a finite, largely foreign, fossil fuel source and we priced it cheap!

The U.S. can no longer afford the lavishness of the past nor the almost myopic "single mode" mindset that got us to where we are now. Today, with a global economy in recession, massive energy and environmental concerns, and a badly stressed, underfunded and congested U.S. transportation system, it is once again necessary for passenger trains to operate on the ROW of freight railroads. We have a huge 240,000-mile rail ROW network in North America that both government and private railroads have invested in for 150 years. In most cases this rail network connects all of our major center cities and ports, but not our major airports. It is, however, after years of downsizing, probably operating at only 20 to 25 percent of its real capacity. By double- or triple-tracking at least 20,000 to 30,000 miles of the railroad's main lines, with grade separations, we can create an ethical, rail-based, transportation system that will transform our infrastructure landscape in the next 20 years. This new, intermodal transportation system would not only greatly alleviate congestion and increase freight capacity but create millions of new jobs, helping to sustain our economy more than the Interstate Highway program did in the 1950s.

So how do we make this ethical transportation policy a reality? First, we have to accept the fact we need it. Then we determine a method to pay for it. We supported the Interstate Highway System with a "Highway Trust Fund" that generated increasing gas tax revenues. It is about to expire and consumption is going down. To replace it, I strongly recommend that Congress put into place two, new, intermodal trust funds to pay for this new "Interstate 2.0." There would be a distance tax for intermodal freight movement (by ton) and another for passenger miles traveled. It could be implemented as a cents-per-mile-traveled basis rather than cents-per-gallon-used basis.

Historically, this nation has had a "single mode" mentality, dealing with over-the-road, rail, air and marine transportation separately under the guidance of state agencies. With a new, holistic, intermodal transportation system in place, we should reorganize our state DOTs so they have two separate departments. One would be responsible for the administration of freight transport; the other would oversee the administration of passenger travel. We can no longer afford to administer an effective transportation policy on just a highway-mode basis; we must manage it in a holistic manner. States could then lease or build high-speed track on the private railroads' ROWs to allow new, modern, high-speed, intermodal freight and passenger trains to share the railroad's main lines and dramatically increase capacity.

The Federal Railroad Administration is developing new Intelligent Rail System Systems that will utilize modern safety technologies, such as digital communications, sensors, GPS, and Positive Train Control systems, to make this intermodal system work effectively. High-speed rail tracks could be grade separated just like the interstate highways so we can very safely run passenger trains at 110 to 125 mph and freight trains at up to 90 mph.  This may cut highway fatalities by at least 50 percent and drastically reduce the stress, wear and tear, and cost of maintaining the highways, thus extending their life. This new, ethical transportation policy builds upon the strengths of each mode, will reduce injuries and deaths, will be much more environmentally benign, will not waste fuel, will lend itself to electrification, will not cost too much to use, and will provide ongoing economic sustainability. It is a win-win transportation policy.

In summary, this holistic vision for an intermodal infrastructure is a reality-based national transportation policy for the 21st Century. It encompasses all modes of transportation and builds a long-lasting, sustainable, and energy-efficient transportation system that will reliably move people as well as freight, increase freight capacity, and protect our environment.

Carmichael ( is founding chairman of the board of directors of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver and a former federal railroad administrator.

Source: Intermodal Transportation Institute

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