Greater City Providence

Freight Rail First

Phillip Longman of Washington Monthly has a great article discussing how getting tractor trailer trucks off of our highways and the cargo they carry onto expanded freight rail should be a top national infrastructure priority. The freight infrastructure system has long been neglected and, in a sense, the freight companies have been expected to pay their own way while being asked to build the road and air infrastructure of their trucking and airline competitors with their taxes.

In addition to being potentially lower cost, more environmentally friendly, and more efficient, Longman notes that perhaps the best part of investing in freight rail is that it avoids triggeringly the coming culture war between auto and mass transit users while stealthily putting into place the infrastructure needed for a more passenger rail dependent society. He concludes:

… the proposal has an additional political advantage: it doesn’t involve pricing or guilt-tripping people out of their automobiles. Electrifying and otherwise improving rail infrastructure would indeed facilitate the coming of true high-speed rail passenger service to the United States… [and] its success wouldn’t depend on persuading a single American to take the train instead flying or driving. Indeed, with its promise of making driving more enjoyable and less dangerous, the proposal bridges the divide between auto-hating, Euroland-loving enviros and those who see access to the open road as an American birthright.

It’s a great read as Longman details the life, death, and future potential of freight rail. An NPR interview with the author can be found here.

Bret Ancowitz


  • Contrary to what that article may imply, railway express shipping is not dead. Amtrak still offers station to station shipping at amazingly reasonable prices. Last I checked, it was $67 to ship 100 pounds across the country. While it’s not door to door, that has its own benefits too: you can pick your package up at the station at your convenience, rather than waiting around at home for UPS to deliver it at some unspecified time, or hope that they will agree leave it outside, and hope it doesn’t disappear before you come home.

  • Where practicle/feasible, this country should invest in rail that can support both freight and passenger services. Why do we have to use dedicated lines for each in places that have limited frequency services. RI is a great candidate – the P&W lines between Quonset and Woonsocket offer a prime opportunity for shared use (and from what I hear, is being looked at).

  • The Oil Drum had a long post examining the merits of electrifying the rail system, coordinated with rebuilding the electrical grid and installing wind turbines along the railroad ROW in the midwestern states. Among other things, it discusses the railbed needs for high speed passenger vs. medium speed (and much heavier) freight, and where the trade offs make sense to jointly use railbed (100 mph passenger/ 70 freight) and where it makes sense to separate them. The article promised an executive summary, but it has yet to appear. I would like to be able to bombard our congressional staffers with an easily digestible version.

  • I think we have the perfect test case for how to run an intermodal rail line. The NEC between Pawtucket and Quonset has high speed rail, slower commuter rail, freight, and we could throw DMU rapid transit between Woonsocket and Quonset into the mix. We may need to lay some more tracks, we’d need some stations developed on the Woonsocket line, and of course we need the cars and people to run them. Sheldon and Jack should get us some money for that.

  • And we have a great candidate to provide the mixed service: P&W railroad. They already have the rolling stock to start service tomorrow if they wanted. Not the best passenger stuff, but good enough (and already in-inventory) for basic commuter services. Station stops would be needed in 2-3 places between Woonsocket and Providence (I’m thinking Cumberland, Lincoln, Smithfield areas) and a terminal at the Quonset end. The city and the airport are already in place. The future Cranston station could play a role in this too, but could ‘financially’ be tied to the MBTA extension anyway.

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