While the COVID-19 crisis has sidelined much of the U.S. workforce, it has also shown just how important many of our family members, friends and neighbors are in keeping America running.
Lost among the well-deserved praise for workers on the front lines of healthcare and emergency response is the critical role the logistics sector is playing in curing and comforting our nation.
Americans working in warehouses and distribution centers, and transporting goods on the roads, rails, waterways and in the skies, are working tirelessly; often spending days at a time away from their homes and loved ones so medicine, food, and other vital cargo reaches those who need it most.
One particularly important set of hidden heroes in the fight against COVID-19 are the 150,000 Americans who work in the freight rail industry. Railroads are carrying a huge portion of all of the goods being moved across the nation in response to the coronavirus emergency.
At this moment, America’s rail workers are crisscrossing the country to transport medical supplies, food, oil for energy and gasoline, and lots and lots of the most elusive product of all . . . toilet paper.
In fact, freight rail is the primary mode of transportation in making toilet paper — as well as boxes used in the skyrocketing number of Amazon.com deliveries.
Pulp is shipped by rail to paper mills that produce products like toilet paper and boxes.
And freight railroads move these needed goods with no stops at filling stations and rest areas, and without the large crews needed to operate airplanes.
As a result, trains create fewer interactions with the public and, thus, fewer opportunities to spread COVID-19 than air cargo or trucking.
Still, freight rail companies aren’t taking any chances.
Norfolk Southern Railway purchased more than 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for its employees. Additionally, the company has worked to stagger shift to allow for greater social distancing, and is cleaning and disinfecting many work areas twice a day.
Union Pacific, the world’s largest freight rail company, has donated thousands of N95 masks to hospitals. The company has also been a crucial link in the supply chain for Dow, which makes antiseptics; disinfectants, detergents, medical gowns and gloves for hospitals.
Nearly half the railcars on a recent Union Pacific train traveling from Angleton, Texas, to North Little Rock, Arkansas, were filled with Chevron Phillips Chemical-produced polyethylene, the key component for manufacturing plastics used in pharmaceutical and medical device packaging.
While railroads are transporting products that will save lives, the industry has also managed to save Americans’ tax dollars.
At a time when Washington’s solution to combat the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus is a $2.2 trillion taxpayer-funded bailout, the privately owned freight rail industry is helping to hold our country together without additional public money.
Congress transfers an average of $20 billion of taxpayers’ money into the Highway Trust Fund every year to repair damage to highways and bridges caused by semi trucks. Freight rail companies, in contrast, pour billions of dollars of their own money in maintaining America’s 140,000-mile rail infrastructure.
As more and more Americans are impacted by stay-at-home orders and shelter-in-place directives, railroads will become increasingly important to our country.
Truckers are already finding services like restaurant, truck stops and rest areas hard to come by.
As fewer of these amenities remain, it will become more difficult for semis to stay on the road. Additionally, as more commercial flights are grounded each day, less room is available for passenger airline freight. As the long haul trucking and airline industries are able to carry less of the load for America, freight railroads will be there to pick up the slack.
For 150 years, in the face of wars, natural disasters and pandemics, America has relied on railroads to deliver the cargo needed to get the country through its toughest times. Now, as we face another great national challenge, the rail industry will once again prove it is up to the task.
Drew Johnson Drew Johnson is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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