Intermodal madness


Recently, a pro-H.S.R. piece appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Long-time columnist Bob Ray Sanders indicated his strong support for a "bullet train" project, linking various metropolitan regions along the "Texas Triangle," including Houston, San Antonio, Austin and "Dallas/Fort Worth" (however that location is eventually defined).

Certainly, my general opinions concerning this type of issue (institute a national policy first, followed by conventional services, prior to developing true H.S.R.) have often been discussed here. Occasionally a new wrinkle is added to the mix, however, and must needs be addressed.

Responding to the column, one on-line commenter went straight to the Wendell Cox playbook for his information. [Save possibly for Randal O'Toole, where else might one go for the best in anti-passenger train propaganda?!]

Back in 2001, Mr. Cox wrote a paper entitled "Freight Rail's Potential to Alleviate Traffic Congestion," published for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The study's basic idea was that commercial truck traffic appears to increase overall freeway congestion more than the presence of parallel railroad passenger service reduces it; therefore, the most cost effective approach to traffic reduction would be to concentrate on infrastructure improvements which lessen the presence of tractor/trailer rigs on existing highways, leaving more lane-miles open (especially during rush hours) for personal motor vehicle use.

With that in mind, one alternative proposal would create an inland port near Dallas and operate dedicated intermodal freight trains between the Port of Houston and the north central Texas region in lieu of any new passenger trains - either the restoration of conventional service or the establishment of a true, dedicated high-speed line.

Now, U.S. railroad freight operations are among the world's best. In fact, considering North America as a whole, we arguably have the world's best freight train services, anywhere, period!

So, what's wrong with taking freight off the public highways and placing it on trains, leaving automobile drivers where they are? As with many of Cox's ideas, the concept seems pretty logical at face value.

Unfortunately, his plan ultimately serves only to eliminate rail-based passenger alternatives. It would do nothing to reduce urban traffic congestion (ostensibly its primary goal), nor would it improve the lot of either the commuter or the shipper.

I must admit: based upon his report, Mr. Cox and I agree that "all potential passenger and freight alternatives" should be "routinely" considered when planners begin their assessment of future needs. I also support his idea that funding for improvements "should be equally available to passenger and freight projects based upon their comparative effectiveness."

Of course, one reason for those feelings may simply be my insistence that, often, the distinction between "freight" and "passenger" railroading is an arbitrary one. Furthermore, even though the presence of passenger trains can undermine the efficiency of freight service along a given route (at least when the union is handled poorly), railroading should never be perceived as an "either/or" proposition. The successful operation of modern freight service over main line routes should in no way preclude the addition/expansion of fast, frequent, marketable passenger train service.

At any rate, Cox quickly begins to lose me when he speaks in terms of a quantifiable reduction in automobile traffic congestion. Even new freeway construction cannot guarantee that! "Congestion relief" is a gift given those who choose to ride the train, not those who choose to remain on the road.

Cox's report is quite clear: "While trucks carry a large volume of shipments between cities, their impact on traffic congestion is greatest within urban areas." Even if intermodal container trains were helping to reduce over-the-road truck traffic, "recurring traffic congestion is largely an urban phenomenon."

Even worse, "trucks consume considerably more roadway capacity in urban areas [when compared to private motor vehicles] because of their larger size and slower acceleration characteristics."

Any intermodal containers carried by train will still need to be trans-loaded onto truck trailers for final delivery - and added to the urban traffic mix, thereby increasing congestion in the areas where its negative effects are already most acutely felt! Furthermore, it is in these same urban areas where a disproportionate number of tractor/trailer collisions occur in relation to miles traveled (approximately one-third of all wrecks involving large commercial motor vehicles).

So, in the example given, how can intermodal freight trains help alleviate roadway congestion in urban areas, the location of Texas' worst traffic nightmares?

That's just it. They can't.

Truck traffic will not go away in our lifetimes; we've already backed ourselves into a corner whereby the majority of warehouses and large businesses are completely highway dependent. The only way to physically reduce the number of motor vehicles is to completely eliminate their use for certain journeys...and that will happen only with expanded PASSENGER train service!

Even today, an Amtrak traveler arriving at Dallas' Union Terminal can make direct connections with DART services to reach his final destination, never once adding a motor vehicle to the city's already crowded roadways. Conversely, an intermodal container arriving in Dallas on a freight train will be transferred to a truck for final delivery, every time. Which alternative offers the best chance for "congestion relief"?!

The greatest public gain for the least public investment can be derived through incremental improvements to conventional passenger service along existing rights-of-way, developing routes which offer a reasonable alternative to the private automobile - at least for certain trips.

A practical alternative to motor vehicles, of all sorts, is desperately needed to help address energy, environmental and economic issues, safety concerns, land use patterns, the transportation requirements of an aging population and the like. Instead of doing whatever is necessary to preserve the status quo just a little while longer, we should be investing in our future. Autocentrism should be relegated to the second half of the twentieth century where it belongs. ALL forms of transportation - even passenger trains! - should be part of the mix when making our plans for tomorrow.



  • I could dismiss the blather of Wendell Cox and Randy O'Toole by pointing out simply that they are Wendell Cox and Randy O'Toole.  But that would be a cop-out.  Instead, I'll reply briefly and simply that both gentlemen (?) are more insidiously evil that they want to have us recognize.  Their over-riding philosophy of government is to spend nothing anytime on anything.  For passenger rail, they say nice things and then put the knife in.  Neither has a following beyond his dislike of passenger rail.  I doubt either really knows anything about passenger rail.  It suffices that passenger rail requires a significant public subsidy if it is to be developed, and just the mere thought of a subsidy is enough to send Cox and O'Toole into a rage.

  • Hundreds of thousands of light + heavy industrial facilities and office parks are either adjacent or close enough to rail mail lines to take a look at a possible spur and siding connection.

    The same situation exists for retail strip mall centres that could be likely hook-ups for passenger rail.

    Billions of square feet of under-utilized or vacant industrial and office facilities could come back to life given the RAIL-OPTION.

    With 16 million linear miles of single lane roadway in the USA---take a million miles and convert it with slab track to get things rolling along on the energy efficient IRON HIGHWAY.

  • Good question: who pays presently for the billions of square feet of now abandoned or under-utilized facilities that once generated jobs and tax revenue for local cities, counties or regions?...

    A 1% interest loan from Deutsche Bank, the Bank of Japan or Donald Trump might be possible---this would be a way to get the USA rolling along, back on the right track.

  • And why would Deutsche Bank, or any other bank, lend money for 1%?  They at least understand that they are expected to earn profits, which you do not do at 1%.  Trump?  Come on, grow up.  The man is a fraud; he rents the use of his name but uses other people's money.  You need to understand that facilities become "underused" because the business is changing, or the management wasn't good enough to make the business prosper and expand.  Again, I say, don't confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.  That's the nature of almost all of your ideas at this blog.

  • When the railroads build ramps in area's away from the city like the new ones in the Chicago will help with some of the congestion. The Union Pacific new ramps are in Rochelle and Joliet IL. The BNSF new ramp is also in Joliet.  In todays times most tractor trailer pick up and deliveries are out of the cities not in it like years past when we where a manufacturing country. If posible most truckers will route them selves away from congestion not in it.

    Railroads make money with long haul intermodal. So I doubt you will see international containers moving from the port of Houston into central Texas on rail.

    Adding more rail siding as Railwayist states is only pipe dreaming. Bulk rail still has it's place but not for the majority of the commodities that move intermodal.

    I believe we'll continue to see more passanger trains. But doubt they will have much effect on urban congestion.

    The bottom line. Too many cars and not enough road!!

  • Elevated, surface and subway narrow gauge could help with some urban and suburban automobile & truck aggrivated congestion situations.

    Horse drawn trolleys could give OPEC a real fit!

  • A special thanks to all those who've expressed an interest in this piece so far.

    I may have inadvertently stepped on a few toes in the process of critiquing Wendell Cox's work. I trust everyone knows my desire to see a resurgence in passenger service will never surpass my belief in and appreciation for our freight-oriented industry.

    A couple of guys have asked me to provide a link to Mr. Cox's original study. It's:

    There were several bits of information in Cox's thesis which weren't germane to my essay, but were still highly entertaining. One was his contention that, when it comes to new passenger train projects, they "should generally not be considered, except in corridors that already have significant passenger rail volumes."

    Catch 22!

    That titbit reminded me of an ancient study which, if I remember correctly, was conducted by the Texas D.O.T.'s predecessor, the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation. [I've slept too many times since then!] The question of the day was if a market existed for direct passenger train service between Texas and Colorado.

    Just for the record:

    1. The single most popular vacation spot for people in north central Texas is Colorado. The Rocky Mountains provide snow games during the winter and a respite from unrelenting heat during the summer. There are seven full time, year 'round ski shops in the Dallas area - and Denver consistently ranks among the top five commercial airline destinations from D/FW. The official Colorado Tourism Office is even a radio sponsor of Texas Ranger's Baseball!

    2. Since Amtrak has offered service to Dallas (March of '74), Colorado has remained one of the top three locations which generate requests for transportation, yet are not directly/efficiently accessible by passenger train.

    Granted, I'm paraphrasing the state's work, but the basic result was that there is no market for passenger trains between Texas and Colorado because, if there was, those trains would already be in existence! The fact they weren't proved such a service would not be successful.

    As the late Jack Parr would have said, "I kid you not!"


    P.S. A few years ago, just for grins, I put together an overview for an auto-train type service between Saginaw, Texas and Pueblo, Colorado. Among other benefits, the terminal pair allows for multiple possible routes, auto handling facilities at major junction points, and a logical way to avoid the seriously congested Joint Line.


  • DHEIS:

    UP's existing (and BNSF's planned) facilities are pretty far south of downtown Dallas and, being on the south end of town, are located in relatively undeveloped (and, therefore, generally untrafficked) areas. However, I still see two main problems: Dallas' unabated sprawl inexorably tends to reach out toward any new development(s) - even the manufacturing/warehousing/freight transportation kind - and the final destinations for containers-on-chassis will either require a trip into town or along one of the city's highway loops. At any rate, they'll be heading right into the maddening congestion which is Big D traffic.

    I agree that truckers avoid all this stuff, if and when they can. That's one reason we're seeing more and more tractor/trailer rigs using the local toll roads.

    Everyone - all modes, in both freight and passenger service - would love the long haul! The Port of Houston to "Dallas" railway intermodal plans I knew of a decade ago were built upon the supposition that some sort of taxpayer support would be involved. I'm not sure any type of direct operational subsidy was ever publicly discussed. I do remember something about government-owned rolling stock, though. Unfortunately, I never actually saw these plans, nor do I know what happened to them. Tex-DOT was definitely involved and at least one inspection train was operated on the BNSF. This would have been around the same time as the release date of Mr. Cox's study. Was that simply a coincidence? Hmmm...

    The "bottom line" may even be simpler still: too many cars, period! After all, we'll never be able to build enough roads to eliminate traffic congestion. I'll stick with what I said earlier: "'Congestion relief' is a gift given to those who choose to ride the train, not those who choose to remain on the road."



  • Coulda, woulda, shoulda.  That seems to be the Railwayist response to everything.  Just once, Railwayist, try to think something through to at least the second sentence before you hit "send."  

  • BNSF and UP built new intermodal facilities where they did because local politicians blocked their plans to build them considerably closer to Chicago.  As intermodal has grown, railroad dray traffic is caught in the same congestion as all-highway traffic.  

  • "Unfortunately, I never actually saw these plans, nor do I know what happened to them."

    Wow! How cool is _this_?!

    Look what I just found (courtesy of Texas A&M's Texas Transportation Institute):

    "Enhancing Intermodal Service through Public-Private Partnerships in Texas"

    One of the things which has thrown me off the scent all these years is the fact this study was performed in cooperation with the Federal HIGHWAY Administration.

    This HAS to be the Houston/Dallas intermodal report I referred to earlier. The Cox study predated this project, but not by much.

    I know what my bedtime reading will be this evening!


  • Garl: You are far kinder to Cox and O'Toole than either deserves.  Their anti-passenger rail essays really are anti-tax screeds.  Passenger rail is simply something convenient for them to use in their broader campaign against government programs and subsidies for rail passenger service.  Amtrak has required subsidies for 40 years and other passenger operations, including commuter and local transit also require public financial support (subsidies is such a nasty term).  While I wish it were different, I also accept the fact that they will not pay their way.  It is up to those who advocate passenger rail programs to persuade people that the public's money will be well-spent and that the benefit of having the service will outweigh the cost. Simply stating that it would be nice to have, as Railwayist does, accomplished nothing.  

  • Can distribution centers for Wal-Mart use a Piggy Packer to unload there own trailers instead of rail yard to distibution center to store and back in reverse? google rail runner.

    Likewise can we get people to live near the train station in traditional towns and out of the suberaban cul-de-sacs?

  • Physically, I suppose one could use a piggypacker wherever they wish - as long as they pay the carrier its cost plus profit for putting its trains at the customer's facility instead of at an efficient intermodal facility.  But, why would you want to do that?  The object is to be economical and efficient. As ujsual, Steam, you offer a high-cost solution, which means it is not a solution at all.  Perhaps you might use spell=ceheck in the future, although "there" meant as a possessive will not be caught.  There is no substitute for having learned some of these things in school.

    You think we should force people to live in cities near train stations?  You could do that, I suppose, but you'd better have an army to protect you and to herd people at gun point.  If they wanted to live in central cities, they could have and would have done so.  From a railroad standpoint, your suggestion (I'm being gentle) would lead dto more people using rail service and thus increasing the needed subsidy.  You try to get new subsidy dollars out of the tea party people and the cowardly politicians who fear to anger them.  You have not been at this blog for several weeks, and I must observe that you don't seem to have learned a think while you were away.  Do be sure to take your meds.