The Future of Michigan Railroads

Aug 23, 2011

A few weeks ago, I talked about efforts Michigan is making to improve passenger rail service between Detroit and Chicago, efforts which include buying and upgrading a portion of the track.

That prompted some enthusiastic response from people who said they were eager for more passenger rail service.

Not just to Chicago, that is, but everywhere. Some were older listeners, who had fond memories of Pullman cars and traveling the nation by rail back in the day. Others were romantics or environmentalists or people not in love with automobiles.

There do seem to be a lot of us who are tired of fighting roads and traffic jams and paying four dollars a gallon for gas. This got me to wondering whether railroads are in fact mostly a part of our romantic past, or an important segment of our transportation future.

Yesterday I went to see a man who ought to know. Bob Chaprnka has been president of the Michigan Railroads Association for more than twenty years. Part of what he does is make sure the Michigan legislature is aware of the freight railroads’ interests.

That makes him sort of a lobbyist, except that the railroads really don’t want very much. They do want to discourage any attempt to re-regulate them, and they wouldn’t mind a little financial help from state and local governments in maintaining the grade crossings, where they intersect with roads.

But otherwise, they are fine. They aren’t about to reenter the  passenger service market anytime soon, however, for one sad reason: “They couldn’t make any money at it,” Chaprnka said.

The railroads were losing money when they were required to provide passenger service, they were liberated, in a sense, when they were deregulated in nineteen-eighty.

That left passenger service to the government-owned Amtrak, and allowed the privately owned freight railroads to do what they do best. Today they are not only thriving; they are an important part of Michigan’s economy; if anything, they are becoming more important. “Railroads can move a ton of freight four hundred and twenty miles at the cost, on average, of one gallon of diesel fuel,” Chaprnka told me.

That is extremely cost-efficient. Deregulation may have drastically inconvenienced airline passengers. But it dramatically brought down the price of shipping freight by rail. The cost is now less than half of what it was thirty years ago, adjusted for inflation.

Today, some things that used to be sent long distances by truck -- clothing, for example -- are more likely to go by rail. The fastest-growing segment of the industry is the intermodal shipping of sealed containers, and railroads are getting an increasing share of that too.

Railroads do have to spend a lot of money maintaining their tracks, and one big impediment to expanded passenger service is that in many places, the track isn’t good enough to allow trains to go very fast. While regulation clearly didn’t work, it might seem reasonable to require the railroads to maintain their tracks to a higher standard. It may never make sense for today’s big freight companies to offer passenger service. But given volatile fuel prices, I’m not convinced that there may not be a resurgence in train travel.

When and if that happens, the rails ought to be ready.

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