While I have long been a fan of rail transport, I am not a fan of doing things simply for the sake of doing them. Many of the modern rail projects often seem to be just that. Here I will present a plan that is rather bold and would, I believe, have a major transformational impact on transportation in the US and bring about huge economic benefits for generations while making our country stronger in the process.
One of the reasons why our railroads are in poor shape compared to other countries is because in many ways we are still stuck in the 19th century mindset of how railroads are built and managed. First let’s use the highway system for comparison and contrast. Imagine if Federal Express, in order to deliver packages from Boston to Chicago had to build their own road. Even though roads already exist, those roads do not belong to them. They must build and maintain that road and in so doing become not only in the freight hauling business, they are also in the road construction business. This road construction and maintenance operation adds to their cost of hauling freight. No competitors use that route but if for some reason they do, they must pull over to the side and allow the owner’s traffic through. Any competitor on that route is automatically at a disadvantage.
Now, I am not proposing a system such as Europe or Asia where the government owns all the rail traffic but something of a hybrid model where we duplicate the success of our highway system and extend that success to the railways. First, imagine a long haul rail route from coast to coast or one from border to border. Imagine that rail bed is owned by the people but anyone may put trains on that line. Traffic is dispatched in a model something like the air traffic controls system where all carriers are given equal access. This route could also be electrified and powered by nuclear energy giving a reliable power source at a stable cost. In case of a crisis situation where other fuel sources are interrupted, we could still transport vital goods, services, and passengers from coast to coast.
So now let’s imagine several of these long haul lines being owned by the people much like the interstate highway system but also like the highway system, the traffic that operates on these routes is privately owned. The barrier of entry to getting into the freight or passenger business is reduced because one does not need to purchase a right of way and build/maintain a rail line. Current trucking lines could also purchase locomotives or possibly contract to a locomotive service who would pull their cars of containers that can be switched from truck to rail to ship. Where the highways or ports intersect with these lines we can build inter-modal transition yards where goods can be moved from road to rail or ship. Now maybe UPS can drive trucks to the rail line, place the container on a UPS rail car and ship that car coast to coast.
In addition, now that the cost of building and maintaining these rail lines are spread across all of the users of the line, we can begin upgrades that increase speeds. If we made a world class engineering effort, we could shoot for a modest goal of a national coast to coast 100MPH corridor. This would require bridges, tunnels, and massive upgrades. We could double track portions that are currently single tracked and run the slower very heavy freight out of the way of the faster traffic. Currently existing freight and transportation companies could become inter-modal. If Chicago is socked in due to a blizzard, people could be placed on a sleeper train to Denver or Pittsburgh on a train owned by American or United. An ad hoc “traction” company could have locomotives on standby and pull mixed trains of cars owned by smaller firms. It basically allows nearly anyone to get into the railroad business.
Such a system would reduce costs, increase competition, and would be a strategic asset as those same rails could be use to move defense related trains in an emergency. High speed segments for handling passengers could also be created but again, the use of the rails would be open to any company that wanted to get into the business of moving passengers. This would be a uniquely American design for a rail system leveraging the best of government stewardship where that part makes sense and unleashing private enterprise to use that asset to the benefit of everyone. It simply takes our success with our highway system and expands that same concept to the rail system. The road is publicly owned but the rolling stock is privately owned with equal access to all comers.
We don’t need to build a new rail system from scratch to do this. That is one aspect of the current rail boondoggles. For example, California wants to build high speed rail from San Francisco to LA but we already have rail right of way between San Francisco and LA. Rather than build a new one at huge public expense, in this case it would be a GOOD use of eminent domain to obtain the current right of way from the owner, allow the owner to continue to use the route, upgrade the route to support faster speeds, and open the route up to competition. Rather than having the government in the train business, we should have the government only in the business of the rails themselves and let private industry compete over those rails just like the highway system.