When it comes to infrastructure improvements, logistics folks can be a skeptical lot, and with good reason. For more than four decades, the professionals responsible for moving the materials and merchandise we all use each day have repeatedly seen their interests take a back seat to the interests of commuters and other motorists who are moving, for the most part, only themselves.
It's frustrating, yet understandable. As the old political saw goes: "People vote. Freight don't."
So it's probably no surprise that in the logistics community at least, President Obama's Jan. 28 announcement that the federal government would begin work on a nationwide high-speed passenger rail system was greeted with a collective shrug. After all, what were the chances that a major rail passenger initiative would offer substantive benefits for freight?
Actually, it appears the chances are pretty high.
In order to bring the vision of a national high-speed rail program to fruition, existing tracks will have to be enhanced, upgraded, and in many cases, replaced. Compared to today's trains, the high-speed trains need flatter beds and straighter lines. And in most cases, they require dedicated track—that is, track that's clear of slower-moving freight trains. It seems logical to conclude that building new tracks to accommodate high-speed passenger trains will free up more of the existing lines for freight.
Rail advocates love the idea. As they see it, the benefits cannot be overstated. Making greater use of trains, which are substantially more fuel-efficient than trucks, would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and significantly decrease carbon dioxide emissions. On top of that, it would likely go a long way toward relieving highway congestion—by some estimates, a single fully loaded freight train can carry the same payload as 280 trucks.
Of course, it's a very big leap from visualization to realization. Consider that the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds the president pledged in January is just a "down payment" on a longer-term rail passenger project. The total cost of building out the 13-corridor project proposed by the government would actually run much higher. Although estimates vary, one source, CNNMoney.com, puts the total price tag at "close to $100 billion."
And it wouldn't even be a truly "high speed" network—one made up of rail lines devoted exclusively to trains traveling 150 to 220 mph. What the government has proposed is something far more modest. Although its plan does call for building some high-speed rail corridors (notably in California and Florida), most of the projects involve nothing more than upgrades to existing track to raise average speeds—which currently hover around 80 mph—to 90 to 110.
Trouble is, trains moving at a relatively poky 90 mph are unlikely to have much appeal for travelers. Some contend that in order to attract passengers for trips between 50 and 600 miles in length, the trains would have to move at speeds like those in Europe and Asia—150 miles per hour and up. But building a national network capable of handling "bullet trains" wouldn't be cheap. CNNMoney.com puts the cost at almost $500 billion.
Given the growing public outcry over government spending, it's hard to imagine that funding for such a high-speed rail network would be approved anytime soon. It's also hard to imagine that much progress could be made with just $8 billion in "seed money."
But it's nice to imagine it happening. After all, for logistics folks, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.