New rule would reduce rail efficiency and hamper emissions cuts

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US railroads stand out as a clear partner with the Biden administration’s commitment to cut emissions, rebuild infrastructure and address lingering supply chain issues.

Among other things, the railroads self-fund the infrastructure and move a ton of freight nearly 500 miles on a gallon of fuel. But short-sighted regulation being considered by the Surface Transportation Board — the agency that oversees the economic regulation of freight railroads — could make the railroads less efficient and undermine the administration’s priorities.

In Colorado, 14 freight railroads operate over 2,636 miles of track and host two Amtrak passenger routes, the Southwest Chief and the California Zephyr, which also use freight rail. Rail freight has a significant impact on our state’s economy, supporting thousands of jobs and connecting Colorado manufacturers and producers to markets near and far.

Amtrak's California Zephyr passenger train arrives in Glenwood Springs, Colorado en route to Denver in May 2021. The train shares tracks with freight trains in Colorado.

The regulation in question, known as mandatory reciprocal switching, or “forced access”, would require the switching of rail traffic between the railroads, with the government imposing when, where and for how much a railroad must open its tracks and its infrastructure to a competitor. railway.

Forced access would reduce the efficiency of rail and further complicate our supply chain. A wagon change can take six days and 68 separate train operations. When you consider the 1.5 million rail cars moving on the U.S. railroad system at any given time – including 140 million tons of freight shipped to, from, and through Colorado by rail each year – it becomes clear that more switches will compromise rail service.

As a stable “middle mile” in the North American multimodal freight transportation system, railroads have been hailed as one of the strengths for stepping up their game to meet changing demand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Forecasts predict large increases in freight transport demand over the next decade. Intermodal is a particular area of ​​growth, with Colorado’s state rail plan emphasizing that expanding intermodal connections will be essential for state businesses and quality jobs. But forced access, according to the Intermodal Association of North America, would reduce network speeds and cause service to deteriorate in the United States.

While other modes of our interconnected logistics network rely on federal funding to meet growing demand, freight railroads operate almost exclusively on self-funded infrastructure. They collectively invest an average of $25 billion each year in their tracks, equipment and technology.

New regulations that compromise rail service would reduce this investment and lead to more goods being diverted to highways and trucking, further damaging publicly funded road infrastructure. It would also set us back in terms of meeting Colorado’s Sustainable Development Goals: the amount of freight moved by rail each year results in 7.7 million fewer truckloads on Colorado’s roads and 2.5 million tons of less greenhouse gases. Why impose new regulations that would ensure that fewer goods transit through the most sustainable means of transporting them by land?

Finally, the settlement would affect passenger rail operations in Colorado. Amtrak opposed forced access in 2016 due to the potentially disruptive impact on its operations. Now it is working to expand the service with new funding under the bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

As Colorado and the country grapple with complex issues, it makes little sense to pass a rule that restricts rail service, undermines rail network investment, hampers emissions reduction efforts and further disrupts a chain. of supply already put to the test.

Patrick Sherry is a research professor, director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation and a member of the board of trustees of the Denver Supply Chain & Transportation Institute at the University of Denver.

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