Updated: Rail/Road Math

Update, 10/22/08

OK, I admit that the framing of my question was very local-centric without considering the full path of a freight trip.

But a reader passed along an interesting article that suggests that this can still be successfully managed in a sleepy little rail town called Chicago.

Original Post, 10/20/08:

Jim Young, chair of Union Pacific, was interviewed in a “Q&A” in Sunday’s Oregonian (if it’s online, I haven’t found it).

Here’s an interesting exchange on Commuter Rail:

Q: Do you see Union Pacific getting into the business of passenger rail with the new emphasis on mass transit?

A: There’s an infrastructure challenge on the highways. We are approached by city leaders who want to put commuter rail on the freight rail. That’s a complete mistake. The last thing we want to do is take freight off to make room for commuters. That freight just ends up on the highway.

For example, a load of lumber moving out of the Pacific Northwest displaces two to three trucks. Capacity is so tight, it wouldn’t be a good thing for the environment or the country. I can understand the community’s perspective. But what I have to protect is the freight business.

Is that the right way to look at the trade-off? If a freight car load of timber displaces 3 trucks, would a passenger car displace more than 3 trucks’ worth of cars? Assuming 3 cars = 1 truck for highway space, as long as a passenger rail car has more than nine passengers on it, isn’t that a win?

And wouldn’t the freight be more likely to be able to shift out of the AM and PM peak (if on trucks) than the commuters would be?

How many cars to do we have to remove to cancel the negative environmental impacts of the added trucks?

Seems like the tradeoff is a little more complex than Mr. Young paints it?

Of course, we could always invest in more rail, rather than more asphalt…

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