Tags: rail | network | economy | snow

Journal of Commerce: Nation's Rail Network Is Getting Bogged Down

By    |   Monday, 28 July 2014 02:44 PM

Bottlenecks are holding up the nation's rail traffic, but higher volume from a recovering economy isn't the cause.

Harsh weather can't be blamed as it was when rail service tanked last winter, Lawrence Gross, a rail expert at FTR Transportation Intelligence, wrote in the Journal of Commerce.

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"The snow melted long ago, but service continues to sputter, showing little improvement from levels seen during the depths of winter," he wrote.

Rail service actually started to slow down before last winter, according to Gross.

The four-week average speed for intermodal trains peaked in early 2013 at 33.4 miles an hour and since then has “seemingly been riding the down escalator,” hitting an eight-year low of 28.3 miles an hour during the July 4 holiday week.

When rail service becomes poor, Gross said the first signs usually appear at yards and terminals because trains aren't dispatched on time. “Clogged terminals mean there’s nowhere to put arriving inbound trains,” he said.

When terminals back up, the chain reaction means that trains get parked on the mainline.

The rail industry is also seeing a surge in volume, although much of it is of the intermodal variety, where truck trailers rather than boxcars are loaded onto trains, according to Gross.

“Utility coal stockpiles need rebuilding, and mountains of grain from last year’s bumper crop need to move. Some of the growth is volume shifting to intermodal because of the shortage of over-the-road drivers.”

But he said overall rail carload volume in the U.S. excluding intermodal is actually down more than 6 percent from pre-recession levels, even though railroads have invested billions of dollars in their networks since then.

Gross said the main reason for the deterioration of U.S. rail service is a shortage of crews and locomotives, both long-lead items that can’t be ramped up quickly.

Government regulations appear to be having an effect on locomotive production. Gross said the scheduled implementation of tougher federal emission standards from the Environmental Protection Agency next January is clouding the 2015 locomotive outlook.

In addition, Reuters reported the U.S. Department of Transportation this month proposed rules that would require rail companies to upgrade their tanker fleets, especially for shipments of crude oil, and make other safety upgrades to their equipment including new braking systems, along with mandating slower speeds for some cargoes.

The federal rules could affect railroads, drillers, refiners and railcar makers, according to Reuters.
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Bottlenecks are holding up the nation's rail traffic, but higher volume from a recovering economy isn't the cause.
rail, network, economy, snow
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2014-44-28
Monday, 28 July 2014 02:44 PM
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