Freight Modernization Trends Accommodate Rail’s Growth
Innovations in train safety, power, and scheduling keep freight rail relevant—and face labor and political opposition
Last article I wrote about “HyperPorts”, a technology that would transfer freight using Hyperloops. While these are in planning and development stages in some countries, the idea of carrying freight via 600+-mph pods still seems like a distant dream. In this piece, I will discuss some freight rail reforms that are more incremental, realistic, and politically likely—and how even they face resistance.
Freight rail already has some built-in advantages that make it the optimal way to move bulk cargo through the U.S. It is more environmentally friendly, carries more tonnage per trip, and is better equipped to run specific goods like crude oil. Recently, innovations in freight rail have improved the system, but disputes between providers and labor unions feature prominently.
Positive train control
One innovation shaping both passenger and freight rail has been the implementation of positive train control (PTC). Federally mandated in 2008, the modernized signaling system is now up and running across all Class I trackage in the U.S. PTC is a remote operation system that can be used to control multiple aspects of trains, for example by automatically halting them when they’re about to collide. It is thus a form of automation and could reduce the need for crew sizes, lowering costs, and increasing the number of trains that can run. As the American Association of Railroads, the main lobbying organization for freight carriers, argues: “PTC monitors speed restrictions, communications and track signals to prevent certain train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by human error, rendering the conductor’s in-cab responsibilities redundant.”
Freight railroads have long had a de facto policy of at least two crew members being present on a train. In some cases, there have been up to four members. But there have been moves within the industry to reduce crew sizes due to PTC, which has rankled labor unions.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLE-T) argues that the increased “demand on operating crews” from PTC will actually require more staffing. The journal Labor Notes further writes that reducing staffing would pose dangers for lengthy trains because having an additional staff member can more easily access problem areas during an emergency.
“What is obvious to our members is that the railroads want to slash operating crews and use those ‘savings’ to pay for deployment of PTC,” stated BLE-T.
One example BLE-T points to was a 2013 train explosion in Quebec that supposedly resulted from an under-manned crew. But the overall case that one-person crews reduce safety is dubious. Marc Scribner, a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, notes that Federal Railroad Administration officials could not point to data showing that one-person operation is inherently more dangerous.
Nonetheless, artificially inflated crew sizes are likely to continue on freight rail (as they have on passenger trains). But there is still nothing to stop carriers from leveraging PTC technology to improve fuel efficiency, train diagnostics, and more.
Another innovation is in power sources, with a recent advance towards locomotives powered through battery rather than just diesel. General Electric and BNSF, working together, recently tested a freight run from Barstow to Stockton. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the “experimental battery locomotive, coupled with two diesel locomotives...achieved an 11% reduction in fuel consumption...An upgraded future operational version is expected to improve fuel efficiency by 30%.”
Were battery-powered locomotives to scale, these benefits would be crucial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and urban air pollution. But the technology is in its infancy—one former Union Pacific rep compared this California test to the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.
Battery-powered locomotives may still be more feasible, though, than the electrification of freight rail through catenary wire, which has been another long-time hope of rail advocates. Unlike most passenger lines, freight trains have to traverse hundreds of miles or more on trips. As analyst Paul Druce writes, doing so would create inflexibility or require wiring for hundreds of thousands of track miles, with questionable benefit over cost. Deploying battery locomotives, even on a partial basis, could cut emissions more cost-effectively.
Precision scheduled railroading
Most of America’s Class I freight train industry has shifted to precision scheduled railroading (PSR). PSR is a practice of operating freight rail on fixed schedules, as is done with passenger rail, rather than dispatching trains patchwork based on existing demand and inventory. PSR ensures that cars are always moved according to delivery schedules to reach optimal train capacity. This has led to efficiencies in operational ratios but reduced the need for labor.
Unions again point to safety concerns from reducing crew sizes and blame PSR for increased layoffs.
Freight rail, long a staple of American logistics, continues to grow as an industry, with a projected 60% tonnage increase between 2015 and 2027. Yet it faces competition from trucks, airports, and pipelines, and internal challenges, such as cost increases that have far exceeded inflation. Innovations such as positive train control, battery locomotives, and precision scheduled railroading are what will keep freight rail competitive. They have already happened in spite of labor unrest and federal regulations that sometimes resist the technology. Expect these tensions to increase in coming years as the speed of change accelerates from low-hanging-fruit reforms to groundbreaking ones like HyperPort.
This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content manager Ethan Finlan.