Plan Sees Rails Losing Market Share to Trucks

Railroads are expected to lose market share to trucks over the next quarter century a new federal plan predicts.

The National Freight Strategic Plan released last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation projects that rail freight volume will increase 25 percent by 2045, but trucks will see their freight load increase by 32 percent.

The 118-page report said railroads in 2017 handled 1.4 percent of the nation’s freight in terms of total value while moving 9.3 percent of the tonnage and 26.9 percent of the ton-miles.

As for types of freight that railroads are expected to handle, the report projects that they will haul less coal and crude oil in the coming years, but shipments of ethanol may increase.

Agricultural and natural resource freight shipments and intermodal also are expected to increase.

Over the next 25 years the trucking industry is expected to encounter worsening highway traffic congestion and driver shortages.

The plan offers few railroad-specific recommendations although it does commend the CREATE program in Chicago, a $4.6 billion public-private partnership that is working to improve the region’s railroad infrastructure.

It also urges policymakers to update and eliminate unnecessary regulations; improve collaboration among transportation modes and federal, state, and local governments; and invest in systems that can provide transportation planners with better freight data.

Transportation systems may change in coming years due to the development of autonomous trucks, aerial drones, and such technology such as 3D printing.

The plan said the development of positive train control is expected to largely be finished by the end of 2020 but does not mention how it might lead to autonomous trains or one-person crews.

Nor does the plan make any recommendations for resolving rail congestion in such terminals as Chicago, Kansas City, Memphis, Atlanta, Houston and Cincinnati.

Railroad economist Jim Blaze told Railway Age that the plan raises several questions, but he described it overall as vague and lacking in data and a well-defined funding stream.

Blaze noted that the placed concedes that DOT lacks the data necessary to drive smart innovation.

“That’s not a good starting point for planners,” he said.

Blaze also said the plan claims that safety it the agency’s top strategic goal, but that is not addressed until page 86.

Some of the data shown in the play is outdated, Blaze noted, and there is no research and development plan put forth even though R&D was among the 19 theoretical ‘to do’ boxes shown in the plan.

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