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What Is the Future of High-Speed Freight Rail?

Chinese and Italian companies are experimenting with high-speed freight rail. How likely is this technology to arrive in the U.S.?

March 26, 2021

There is an ongoing debate, and plenty of interest, about whether high-speed rail (HSR) can work in the U.S. Last summer I wrote a piece for Catalyst about 3 private intercity passenger projects that are getting investor interest in Florida, California, and Texas, respectively. But a recent development from China raises the question of whether this technology can move not just people, but goods—via high-speed freight rail (HSFR). 

RailFreight reports that CRRC Tangshan, an arm of the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation, has unveiled an HSFR line. The vehicle reaches a max speed of 350 kilometers per hour (217mph), and could be a game-changer for the freight industry, due to the increasing demand in both B2B and B2C markets for fast delivery of goods.  

CRRC Tangshan’s development is the latest in a series of rail innovations from China, which has been quickly expanding high-speed rail for over a decade. The freight train utilizes wider doors (just under 3 meters wide) to guarantee rapid stocking of containers. It can withstand extreme shifts in temperature, giving it a wide range of tolerable climates, and operators will utilize software to optimize the unloading process.

Traditionally, freight trains have not needed to prioritize speed, because most of the cargo they carry is not time-sensitive. But CRRC sees a market for faster deliveries, particularly up to the 1,500-kilometer range (a distance which this new train can traverse in 5 hours or less). Chinese transportation and economic official Feng Hao told Railway Gazette that “the pushing power behind the application of high speed cargo trains is China’s booming e-commerce sector and fast pace of urbanization.” 

China is indeed the world’s largest market for online commerce, with sales expected to breach $4 trillion in two years. For these reasons, Feng said that the country would continue to develop HSFR beyond this one trainset.

But China is not the first adopter of HSFR. In 2018, Italian freight carrier Mercitalia introduced its Mercitalia Fast service, bringing cargo between southern and northern Italy in 3.5 hours, with a slightly higher top speed than the Chinese equivalent. While Mercitalia has also cited the desire to stay competitive in the e-commerce market as a basis for having HSFR, the rationale goes beyond that. The European Union, in an effort to meet carbon emission goals, wants to shift more cargo onto trains, and Mercitalia may be responding to that. Upon introduction in 2018, Mercitalia boasted that the train would remove 9,000 trucks annually from the roads—a goal it nearly met. Future HSFR extensions are planned to reach other Italian cities. 

American freight may have larger market share than its Asian and European counterparts, but our freight trains are a long way from becoming high-speed. An industry expert tells me that the interconnected nature of the system, akin to “a large conveyor belt,” makes it difficult for a single train or handful of trains to operate more quickly than others. Instead of raw speed increases for select vehicles, the best practice reforms include improving train punctuality and maximizing in-service time, rather than their time sitting in yards. Furthermore, 70mph is the upper limit of current American rolling stock, and increasing speeds would be expensive.

Also, our infrastructure is not currently in place for high-speed operations. While China and Italy now have existing high-speed track lines for passenger rail—which makes HSFR there more realistic—the U.S. does not have a significant HSR track buildout. Producing this would be a contentious, lengthy undertaking. In theory, America’s Class 1 freight companies could build high-speed tracks on their own property, but it would require investments in new rolling stock, electrification, and training. (The per-mile cost of high-speed track ranges from $2.2-2.6 million.) The cost-benefit analysis of funding all these capital expenditures is questionable.

But in the long-term, leveraging high-speed technology may keep American freight rail competitive with international freight carriers, and with our domestic freight trucking industry. E-commerce is growing substantially in the U.S., and is expected to double in sales revenue between 2017 and 2025. While freight rail has not been historically designed for on-demand delivery, retrofitting it for that by increasing speeds would reduce the strain on highways and airports—especially since rail can move far more freight tonnage on a per-trip basis. A high-speed rail track rollout could thus be as transformative for cargo as it could be for people.

[This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.]