December 18, 2005


One is by rail; two is by sea: The United States must prepare for the inevitable day when fuel oil supplies run short. If the White House won't lead, the states should. (The Roanoke Times, 12/18/05)

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine's transportation listening tour has brought out the rail enthusiasts along the congested Interstate 81 corridor.

The need for massive improvements, including dedicated truck lanes and expensive tolls, could be avoided if only truck traffic were diverted off the highways and onto the railroads, chants the rising chorus of rail enthusiasts.

They have a point.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 18, 2005 9:08 PM

In Canada, CN Rail has already expanded its track by 12% and still they are running at full capacity and have raised their prices, cuz the cost of fuel so completely outweighs the convenience of trucking. What Kaine is calling for is what the mkt is already starting to do anyway.

Nice to see pols jumping in front of moving trains, tho :)

Posted by: ras at December 18, 2005 9:34 PM

Behold the Bladerunner:

Posted by: Jason Johnson at December 18, 2005 10:52 PM

My cousin, who works for Union Pacific, said the gas price hikes in the fall were great for taking trucking business off the highways and giving it to UP, but that's simply market forces at work (and if UP would dual-track its east-west main line, the way BNSF is doing right now, it would inrease its attractiveness to shippers even when the fuel prices don't force truck traffic onto the flatbed rail cars).

Posted by: John at December 19, 2005 12:05 AM

How long would it take a railroad to deliver an LTL shipment from the east coast to the west? A month? Trucking companies routinely do it in less than a week.

Truck delivery allows US companies to turn on a dime. This nimbleness saves everybody money.

Posted by: Pete at December 19, 2005 7:59 AM

They will all become moot when Star Trek like transporters are developed later this century.

Posted by: AWW at December 19, 2005 9:27 AM


That is the genius of the bladerunner idea I linked to above. Semis would be able to load conventionally, drive onto rail, where their fuel costs are slashed 4 or 5 times. Once they are as near their delivery point as they can get by rail they would simply drive off at a grade-level crossing and continue on the surface streets. Of course we would probably need a lot more rail routes if this were to be widely adopted.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at December 19, 2005 12:04 PM

I bot NOrfolk Southern last year - got some at 30, IIRC.

Build, build, build, transport, transport, transport.

I knew I should have bot Boeing.

Posted by: Sandy P at December 19, 2005 12:52 PM

Trucks off our highways would save us a bundle in repair costs.

Posted by: Sandy P at December 19, 2005 12:53 PM

Unless these are coal burning steam engines, they're not going to fare much better than trucks if the oil runs out.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2005 12:59 PM

We ARE NOT running out of oil, not now, not 100 years from now.

We are running out of CHEAP oil, i.e., that costing less than $ 25/bbl to produce.

If anyone wants me to re-post the lengthy supporting facts/arguments for those assertions, let me know.

Absent that, you can take my word for it - we're running out of topsoil faster than we're "running out" of crude oil, and there's a bigger shortage of clean water than there is of oil deposits.

Everyone reading this blog will be dust before oil becomes scarce due to non-political reasons.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2005 1:33 PM

Then why do we import it?

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2005 4:13 PM

The bottleneck is the truck/rail interface. The amount of time the trailer sits idle waiting to be loaded onto the next train. For long-haul, cross continent trips, it is faster to load onto rail. (That's because intermodal trains run at the highest priority, even making Time Zone Boy's beloved passenger trains get out of the way.) But for shorter haul, it becomes faster to keep the trailer moving.

If you ship by UPS ground and watch your package move across country, you will often see it get to Chicago or Omaha and then disappear for a few days. Here in the Northwest, it reappears in Portland. What happened is that the Union Pacific has a intermodal unit train (the other profitable kind of train the railroads love: a whole train loaded and unloaded by single customers at each end. Often loaded with coal or grain.) dedicated to moving UPS packages. Once in Portland, they get put back on trucks for their next leg, even to Seattle, because of that terminal waiting time would be much longer than the 4 hour drive. I'm sure there are similar trains going to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and BNSF

The railroads do what they can to cut that time waiting down, but can only do so much. The nice thing about things like the fuel spike is that it forced some customers to consider waiting an extra day for their deliveries in order to save on fuel/shipping costs, and that shrunk the radius of the range where truck have an advantage. By adding more shippers, the railroads can also offer more trains between different destinations and more often, also cutting back on that waiting time.

(Amtrak has tried adding an express service to its trains, but it's been a huge money loser, and if it weren't for Congress subsidizing and insisting on it for political reasons, they'd have dropped it years ago.)

As for double tracking and such, the rule of thumb is that it can handle three times the capacity of a single track. But there's very little savings on maintence costs as you often still have to provide two bridges or overpasses, etc, and have a right-of-way that's wide enough, which can be a problem in mountainous terrain. And all the town you go through just don't like the idea of even more fast trains rumbling through at 60mph while sounding their horns every half hour. So you deal with the NIMBY's, too. (After 60 years of talking about it, downtown Reno finally solved that problem by putting the mainline in a several mile long trench )

And why do we import oil? (Just asking that question lends credence to the charge of being a closet Leftist). For the same reason we import bananas and coffee and automobiles and running shoes: It's easier cheaper to let them furriners dig it out (or grow them or build them) than to do it ourselves. )

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 19, 2005 5:26 PM

Unfortunately, all our cities and industrial areas have been designed & optimized for truck traffic for the past 50 years. The parts of my hometown that were originally rail-served are all gone, and the rails all torn up and rights-of-ways built over. There is literally no way to run rail spurs into the current shipping sources -- they're too spread out, instead of the compact industrial blocks of the older rail-era industrial sites (which have been torn down for office and trendy condoes).

To top it off, my informant inside a major railroad tells me the "I'm an MBA!"s in company HQ found out they can make more short-term by tearing up track and selling railroad real estate to developers. Boosts quarterly earnings (less overhead plus one-time $$$ from the real-estate sales) to fund those six- and seven-figure bonuses for those same "I'm an MBA!"s.

Posted by: Ken at December 21, 2005 4:21 PM