Rail Network Could Face Major Congestion in Coming Decades

WASHINGTON — Congestion on the nation’s rail network is expected to increase over the next two decades and could eventually pose a major problem, members of Congress warned.

Since deregulation of the freight railroad industry in 1980, Class 1 freight ton-miles have increased 93 percent, while miles of track have decreased 40 percent, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., said. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the demand for rail freight transportation will increase 88 percent by 2035, and their studies estimate that an investment of $148 billion in infrastructure expansion will be needed over the ext 28 years to keep pace with economic growth and to meet DOT’s expecteddemand, the Congresswoman added.

“Unfortunately, as freight movements have grown, so have the conflicts between freight and passenger trains, even though under existing federal law, Amtrak trains have priority over freight trains,” Brown said during a hearing last month. “This demand for space in the rail system has also caused unintended consequences for shippers.”

Freight traffic on U.S. railroads in 2007 was the second highest on record, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), following only 2006.

“Additionally, there is growing demand on the rail network for more than just freight movements,” U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said during last month’s hearing. “In 2007, Amtrak moved 25.8 million passengers, the fifth straight year of record ridership. Additionally, commuter rail providers recorded 460 million trips in 2007.

“Congestion, heightened concerns over global warming, and rising gas prices will continue to push the demand for these alternatives to highway travel, and Amtrak and commuter rail must be able to continue to expand to accommodate their growing ridership,” Oberstar added. “Amtrak and commuter rail utilize portions of the freight rail network to provide service. However, their capacity needs are different from those of the freight railroads, meaning different capacity investments will be necessary if we want to continue to favor these modes.”

To help ease the congestion, some members of Congress are looking whether federal legislation needs to be passed, according to Oberstar.

“Unlike other modes of transportation, there is no dedicated stream of funding for rehabilitating, reconstructing, or expanding our nation’s rail network,” Oberstar said. “Some legislative proposals to deal with capacity concerns are circulating in Congress, including one to provide the railroads with a 25 percent infrastructure tax credit. I am currently reviewing that legislation.”

— Railfanning.org News Wire