Losing one’s train of thought …

Alameda Corridor Chief Executive John Doherty is in a position to know what’s what when it comes to transporting intermodal containers by rail. His $ 2.4 billion corridor was designed to take some pressure off the LA/Long Beach port complex, and if it weren’t for his expertise and the relief provided by the corridor, those port officials would be headed for the looney bin.

Mr. Doherty cleared the air earlier this year when he stated that trains today, “can’t compete against trucks on trips under 800 miles. It takes $ 200 to truck a container 20 miles, but it’s $ 450 on a train.” He has the figures to prove it, so that should settle any questions about relative costs.

But folks have short memories. In today’s journals and newspapers, logisticians of sorts are now touting the dubious advantages that railroads have over trucking operations. And speaking of ‘costs’, here’s a sampling of what you may have read:

• Deregulation permits railroads to determine where and when to operate and how much to charge.
• Legislation has made it possible for investors to realize an acceptable rate of return on their investment — if they’re lucky.
• On-dock rail service is needed. It’s much more productive than having truckers hauling containers.
• For many reasons, more long-haul trucking business will shift to rail. Rail will play a bigger role in providing linehaul service.
• Ports and railroads are working to develop more on-dock rail, and to eliminate or reduce truck drayage traffic.
• Railroads are working to increase capacity through projects such as double-stacking containers, lengthening rail sidings and double-tracking main lines.
• The use of trucks instead of on-dock rail generates concerns about highway congestion, safety, security, air quality and other issues.

Whatever the cost of this transition to rail service turns out to be, the taxpayer will be forced to shoulder the burden. The above observations were submitted by pundits who have no regard for costs, however, and who grasp at straws instead. They can see the problems clearly enough, but continue to ignore the cause. Tunnel vision reveals only the disastrous effects of mismanagement and these undesirable effects are mistakenly viewed and treated as the cause of the system’s failures.

It’s the trucker, of course, who’s to blame for “highway congestion, safety, security, air quality and other issues”. So let’s get rid of as many truckers as possible, they propose … just as the Southern California officials are attempting to do with their “Clean Truck Plan”.

But these highly paid officials are also grasping at straws. If they had devoted any time at all to research, they would understand that railroads aren’t the way to erase the harmful effects that have been caused by their own selfish obsession to “grow the ports”.

If these officials had looked into reports issued by their own State of California with respect to rail accidents, they’d be changing their tune. In 1999 alone, there were a total of 753 rail-related accidents resulting in 134 deaths and 603 serious injuries. That’s just in California, and it represents an enormous amount of cash reparations.

Nationwide, and in spite of the fact that the Association of American Railroads has claimed that railroads have an excellent overall safety record and one of continuous improvement, the month of January 2007 provides a more forthright sampling of railroad operations. In that one month, 220 reported accidents involved:

• 535 locomotives,
• 12,054 railcars,
• 610 railcars carrying hazardous material,
• $ 17,639,564 of equipment damage,
• and $ 8,338,634 of track damage.

The eventual cost incurred as a result of fatalities and injuries related to these accidents won’t be determined for some time, but they’ll greatly exceed the costs shown above. Lawyers will see to that.

As for performance, Monica Isbell, a transportation consultant based in Portland, conducted a survey of 21 Oregon companies dependent on rail service, and she provided these findings:
• All but one of the shippers experienced service problems with the railroads, some indicating that these issues were severe, long-standing and persistent. Problems included an insufficient supply of cars, failure to deliver empties when needed, loaded railcars that are not picked up from the rail spur when requested, delays in getting shipments to customers, sometimes forcing discounts or cancelled orders, and unresponsiveness of the railroads in solving problems.
• While rail service has declined over the past few years, rates have increased, often dramatically.
• Service from the shortlines was rated slightly higher than Class I lines by respondents. Isbell said shippers understand that the shortlines often are unable to make improvements because of the service failures of Class I lines. (A Class I railroad is an interstate line with annual operating revenues greater than $ 256 million. Shortlines operate intrastate.)

“Most of these companies feel powerless to change the situation, and they are afraid to complain for fear it could jeopardize further their already substandard service,” Isbell said. All the shippers believe service will worsen, or at best, remain the same, she added, “… because they don’t believe the railroads will invest enough to meet the growing customer demand”.

“Captives and cornering the market … that’s America, I guess,” a shortlines official complained.

It all boils down to cost. The cost-per-mile, the costs of “infrastructure” expansion, and the costs of lack-luster performance (i.e. accidents and incidences), all indicate that the transition from trucking to rail is illogical. But how else to “grow the port”? Only with our “in-house” trucking!