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Unclogging rail traffic key to fuel efficiency

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When the Department of Transportation doled out $1.5 billion in infrastructure grants last week, one of the largest checks went to a rail overhaul in the Chicago area, the New York Times reports. Almost all of the country's freight railroads converge there. The region handles so much cargo that only three cities outrank it: Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai.

And like O’Hare, Chicago’s
infamous airport, it’s reviled for its traffic.

"When there’s delays
at O’Hare, it impacts the whole nation’s air transportation," said Joseph
DiJohn, a freight analyst for the Urban Transportation Center at the University
of Illinois at Chicago. "Likewise, if there’s delays in freight here, it
can impact the rest of the nation, backing up trains. This is not a local
project, it’s a project of national significance."

In 2003, DOT, local
governments and the rail carriers teamed up to form a plan. CREATE, as they
called it, would encompass dozens of projects to help trains, cars, trucks and
pedestrians flow past one another. That could mean double-stacking trains,
building more clearance under bridges, building overpasses for roads and rails
or improving traffic signals.

The problem: money. The
estimated project cost was $3 billion, but as of last year, the project was
nearly $2.6 billion short. A $100 million grant from DOT’s TIGER program will
go to the most urgent projects. Non-federal sources will kick in another $62
million.

It was one prominent
example of "intermodalism," a common term in Secretary Ray LaHood’s
DOT. The concept is that people and goods can move in different ways — by
truck, boat, plane or train — but that each one has unique strengths. In
congested zones like Chicago, the thinking goes, those strengths go to waste. Careful
investments, it’s argued, can save time, energy and carbon — all by letting
people use the transportation mode that is most efficient.

Will Schroeer, state policy
director for Smart Growth America, said the Chicago investment will show that
unclogging just a few parts of the transportation system will make the whole
thing run smoother.

The railroads will be the
first to enjoy the reduced traffic, he said. But soon the effects will ripple
out to the city’s commuter trains and motorists, who will blow by crossings
where they once had to wait. Pressure on the city’s urban train, the L, will
ease.

"This is not about
making freight cheaper for shippers. This is about strengthening the
communities and the economy that are going to be served by these
projects," he said.

The freight sector makes up
a small portion of national greenhouse gas emissions — roughly 7 percent —
but it may lead the administration’s efforts to make transportation more
efficient nationwide. The top three TIGER grants, which add up to $300 million,
went to CREATE and two other freight rail projects. Many of the remaining
grants also devote funds to rail and barge shipping.

Road investments featured
relatively lightly, which may signal a change in the freight sector overall.
Over the last 20 years, according to DOT, more freight has shifted to trucks
and planes, which are faster but less energy-efficient than trains and barges.
As truck efficiency has dropped — partly owing to stronger engines and devices
that control other emissions — the freight industry’s carbon footprint has
swelled.

Meanwhile, the freight
railroads have launched a campaign to brand trains as the most energy-efficient
way to move goods. High-profile ads in recent years have boasted of moving
"a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel."

At least at the White
House, some are buying it. In an e-mail, a DOT spokesperson referred to
"the public environmental benefit" of rail: "Shifting traffic
from truck to train — reduces emissions and is more energy-efficient."

That’s true, if the modes
are compared strictly, said Jim Kruse, director for the Center on Ports and
Waterways at the Texas Transportation Institute. In a 2007 report, Kruse and
his co-authors found that trucks are one-third as efficient at moving a ton of
goods for a mile compared to railroads and inland barges, which use the
nation’s rivers to get around. So if large portions of freight were diverted
from trucks to trains, would it make a dent in the nation’s carbon footprint?

A January DOT report found
that keeping freight emissions roughly level from 2005 to 2035 would take a
suite of policies, and that a 20 percent shift from trucks to rail would
contribute only a small gain. The much larger potential gain, it said, would come
from doubling truck fuel economy — a goal unlikely to be achieved without a
price on carbon.

Nevertheless, Kruse said,
other countries have begun subsidizing moves away from trucking, sometimes to
cut carbon emissions, and sometimes to reduce congestion. In Quebec and some
European countries, if a shipper can prove he chose to use rail rather than
trucking, he is eligible for a check. But Kruse and others said trucks and rail
aren’t necessarily in a zero-sum game.

"What trucking can do
that no one else can is, it can go anywhere," he said. "Barges can’t
do that because they have to be on the water, and railroads can’t do that
because they have to stay on the rail line. Nothing can work if the trucking
system doesn’t work. Nothing works.

Other observers added that
barges and rail aren’t for shippers in a rush. These vehicles move much more
slowly than trucks, and their rails and waters don’t always reach the freight’s
final destination. Typically, a truck drives the last leg.

Schroeer, of Smart Growth
America, said the trucking industry is beginning to believe it can maintain its
role in the freight system even as other modes become better connected. For
now, at least, the leading industry group is not so sure.

Clayton Boyce, a spokesman
for the American Trucking Associations, said the TIGER grants overlooked
hundreds of highway bottlenecks identified by DOT itself. The TIGER selections
"serve to highlight the much greater need for extensive reinvestment in
our National Highway System that carries over 70 percent of the freight by
weight that keeps our economy functioning," he said.

Might the improved rail
system, at least, clear the highways and make it easier to be a trucker?

"No, not really,"
Boyce said. "If you think that railroads would decrease highway
congestion, you drank too much of their Kool-Aid."

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