Heck, it’s looking like another rail century!

Now you’d think the most read articles on this attempt at journalism (the standards for blogs are pretty low) would be tomes on the latest and greatest motorcycles and high performance cars, followed closely by articles on old bikes and maybe truckin’. But despite the fact the I haven’t written about railroading in what seems like months, the most popular articles are on railroading. Heck, every day I get a several readers of a heavily opinionated piece I did on the rise and fall of EMD locomotives a year or so ago! And when the most popular topics among gearheads are trains, that says what will be the major mode of transport this century… Rail!

A bit of history is probably in order here… The 1800s are widely considered the century of rail, as railroads grew their webs across the continents at the expense of water borne transport. Then came the 1900s, the century of air, autos, and trucks as overbuilt railroads went belly up. By late in the 20th century every major american railroad was in bankruptcy court or expected to appear their shortly. Subsidized with near free access to the Interstates, truckers could match rail rates with faster service. Thanks to Uncle Sam’s funding of applied research (every wonder why a 707 looks so much like a B-47) and aviation infrastructure, the airlines stole the passengers off the trains while Greyhound picked up the scraps.

Now if that trend line had continued, there’d be no railroads left. But you can’t fool physics, and rail has the advantage of the inherent lower rolling resistance of steel wheels on rail plus the aerodynamic advantage of being able to couple mile long trains of “drafting” railcars together. Aviation doesn’t have to concern themselves with rolling resistance much, but it takes massive amounts of fuel to create the lift to keep a plane from crashing. Therein lies the secret of why the 21st century will be the second rail century… The cheap fuel is gone, the roads are being all but abandoned, and aviation has largely become a cesspool of bankrupt “zombie carriers” and literal “fly by night” under capitalized upstarts flying on easy credit and cheap labor. Meanwhile, the rails are largely the only mode seeing reinvestment- While there’s barely highway funding to patch potholes, BNSF is reinvesting 20% of profits in maintenance and upgrading of their tracks and trains.

And well they should be… Throughout the recession, rail freight and passenger volumes continued to rise. I live along what would charitably be called a “secondary main track”, a single track connecting a couple more important mainlines. But  few years ago you’d seldom see a full mile long train on such tracks, just a few locals with ten or twenty cars and maybe a 50 car through train or two a day. Heck, volume is up to the point that between the unit trains of coal, oil, ethanol, grain, and frac sand several hundred car “mixed trains” pass daily, full of refrigerated, flat, gondola, and just about every other imaginable car except intermodal well cars… Probably would get them too if it wasn’t for a low bridge or three. Not just empties either, saw one mixed freight the other day with “distributed power”- A remote control “pusher” engine at the rear of the train! The same picture is seen all over the world… For example, Florida East Coast recently picked up a bunch of short haul intermodal business because their trucking company competitors couldn’t find drivers to move the trailers at the starvation wages they we’re offering. That’s the same FEC railroad that’s planning to offer passenger service without needing a cent of subsidy. They’ll probably pull it off too, given that Amtrak’s Empire Builder’s fares alone are covering nearly 90% of operating costs. And that’s on a train where scarce high priced sleeping car seats sell out months in advance- Give the ‘Builder a couple more sleeping cars and it’d probably be Amtrak’s first train to turn a profit!

Now of course, not all is sweetness and light on the rails- For example, Canadian Pacific’s new management team is doing their best to chase away customers, just like they did at Canadian National. And no doubt the newbies at EMD’s new Indiana plant are still trying to figure out how to build locomotives, and probably similar manufacturing misadventures are underway at GE’s new Fort Worth plant. But the 21st century rail renaissance is so robust that it won’t matter much- CPR’s jilted customers will move to competing railroads or pay more, and with shortlines running hundred car freights and Amtrak’s fleet pushing two decades age the market can only grow.

Good thing there’s a siding on that track by my home… We may need it!