Mother Nature, believing that railroads didn’t have enough problems as listed decided to pour gasoline on the fire with the record winter in 2013/2014. Across the entire US record snowfalls and temperatures were recorded of -40 or lower in the Midwest. Class 1 railroads cannot operate a typical 100 to 150 car train in such conditions and were forced to run trains at 50-70 cars adding even more strain on the system with lack of locomotives and crew available.
Tank car loadings are up from 250,000 car loadings in 2010 to an estimated 800,000 in 2014 in the US representing a significant growth, but not when compared to total weekly car loadings. For the week ended Oct. 11th there were 571,000 total car loadings in the nation, and a total of 22,548,321 carloads since the beginning of 2014. Given this oil traffic represents less than 3% of the total traffic handled by Class 1 railroads. The biggest issue is there are hazardous material speed limits set by the federal government of 50 mph instead of the maximum speed of 80 mph that a freight train can reach. The government is also discussing reducing this even further to 40 mph, which would slow down traffic at the absolute worst time for the current problems being faced.
What can be done to solve these issues? Well, the first and the biggest issue is national and state level support for expansion of lines, to the point that there needs to be a national rail plan. However, this rail plan cannot simply focus on the US, and must also focus on the rail systems of Mexico and Canada as well with them being our largest trading partners.
It would solve major issues with reduction of oil consumption, reduced pollution, and decreased congestion/traffic on the highways which are currently bankrupt. In the short term, the single biggest issue facing the railroads is Chicago where all of the railroads meet. The average speed of freight trains in Chicago is 3 miles per hour due to basically a 6-way intersection of 6 major highways without any over or underpasses.
To solve this issue CREATE was formed to build overpasses/underpasses, reduce car intersections, and allow for the continued movement of all trains without having to stop. However, this program is about 2 billion short in funding and the Class 1 railroads already gave their 30% of the $3.2 billion in funding. Illinois is in massive debt and Chicago is in massive debt as well showing no signs of either government supplying any of the 2 billion still required.
This is a major obstacle that is creating a massive bottleneck for all freight traffic and needs to be solved. If 50 of the largest companies all contributed $20 million each to fund 50% of the remaining $2 billion it would help all parties involved. Billions of dollars were thrown at political campaigns this election season, but given how useful Congress has been in the last decade (the opposite of progress is congress), we will likely see no solution to this problem without major pushes. A new Governor was elected in Illinois and several congressmen representing the Chicago area were up for re-election this year. This is an issue where the politicians can look good solving passenger/freight traffic and reducing number of car intersections, while companies can look like good corporate citizens by reducing environmental pollution and helping products get to customers quicker.