Sat Jul 24th, 2010 at 07:17:30 AM EST
From time to time, opponents of passenger rail transport in the USA bring up comparisons between US and European railfreight, noting the priority of passenger trains in Europe but ignoring all other factors, to conclude that passenger rail would bring problems to efficient freight rail. Now the European elite weekly with a US libertarian soul, The Economist, did it.
American railways: High-speed railroading | The Economist
America's system of rail freight is the world's best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it
The title and subtitle are already highly misleading. Then there is this chart:
Does this chart tell that the US is best and HSR or passenger rail in general would be bad for railfreight? No, what shouts at me from that diagram is something quite different... for details, follow me below the fold.
First, let's get down to basics:
- High-speed rail (HSR), as used around the world, usually includes newly-built dedicated lines (for 250–350 km/h) – in which case long-distance passenger traffic is moved off the conventional line, freeing up capacity. Which obviously benefits railfreight. In fact increasing railfreight capacity (either by freeing up the capacity on old lines or letting fast freight share with HSR the new tracks that bypass cities and old slow sections curving along rivers) is often an explicit part of the motivation to build HSR lines. (You have to read deep down in the article to find a recognition of this.)
- They should be honest. If a line's capacity is scarce, it's not just intercity rail that freight railroads don't want a priority for, but any kind of passenger rail: an all-stopper local train, especially if running every hour as customary in Europe, will be a constraint, too, even if the speed difference is less. Especially on a single-track line on which passenger trains in opposed directions have to meet, too.
Second, how narrow-minded is it to declare US railways the best merely on price criteria? This ignores the often desolate state of infrastructure, maintained just at the level required for traffic (or speeds are reduced to maintain operation without track renewal); and unwillingness for significant investments into it.
Bare-bones infrastructure maintained just on the level needed for current traffic volumes to roll was an obvious problem in the most recent time of economic boom: lack of capacity reserves meant that a lot of track sections turned into bottlenecks, creating a traffic jam of freight trains (above all for UP).
The lack of electrification is also noteworthy. This maintains fuel dependence, prevents higher speeds, and a higher energy efficiency of braking (electric locomotives can feed braking energy back into the catenary).
If US and European railfreight is compared, the much lower market share and the higher prices in the EU are noted. But, what is the point to compare these? There are some basic differences here:
- US railfreight benefits from the geography of US transports: production, population, and import/export points are relatively concentrated and at greater distances from each other, thus transport is concentrated into relatively few, long corridors (in particular the "transcontinental" routes), ideal for concentrated bulk transport. In the EU, production, population, and ports are much more dispersed, so transports over the same distances have to distribute between much more departure/destination points.
- The biggest difficulty for European railfreight is not priority behind passenger trains but borders. The ideal distance for railfreight transport begins somewhere in the 700–1,500 km region, which in Europe would typically cross borders. However, as a legacy of nation states, borders mean a lot of technology and rule changes: track gauge, rail inclination, platform heights, electrification system, signalling, traffic rules, vehicle approval, rules for and rights of staff. Not to mention the instrumentation of these by incumbents for market share protection. The EU-supported standardisation process is a herculean task, and only getting up to gear now.
- The legacy of 19th century rail construction that included more superstructure than in the USA, and the close integration in often historical built-up areas, make efficiency-boosting by significant increases in loading gauge (cross section; as was done by US railways when they adopted the practise of double-stacking containers) or axleload (the weight falling on a single pair of wheels; exceeds 22.5 t on a very few lines in the EU but normally above 30 t in the US) economically infeasible and politically impossible.
Now, what the article in The Economist really argues against is upgrading existing lines for faster intercity rail. The Obama administration defined new categories like "Emerging HSR" and "Regional HSR", which include lines upgraded for speeds as low as 90 mph. However, it isn't necessary at all that railfreight would not benefit, too.
- If the upgrade includes a capacity increase (double-, triple- or quadruple-tracking), that of course benefits railfreight, too.
- If, however, no extra tracks are added, the potential that a freight train is banished to a siding to let a late express train pass is counterbalanced by the elimination of speed restrictions (where trains have to slow down and then accelerate again, wasting time and fuel and brakes just like in sidings).
- Not to mention the free-of-charge possibility of electric traction if the upgrade includes electrification.
These points get me back to that chart:
Forget the top, look at the bottom. Which countries are listed there alongside the USA? Canada, India, China, Russia – right, all countries that, like the USA,
- are big without problematic internal borders,
- have freight transport flows concentrated into relatively few long corridors.
It is true that as colonial heritage, India's railways have been built with two different track gauges (a broad gauge of Scottish origin and the
Capemetre narrow gauge), however, there is an on-going gauge conversion program (from narrow to broad), which already affected most main corridors with heavy freight traffic. In Russia, there are two electrification systems in a patchwork pattern (one DC the other AC), however, that problem has been long addressed with multi-system locos.
Now, while cheap railfreight countries India, China and Russia are similar to the USA in the above points, in others, they are similar to Europe:
- lots of passenger transport run on the same tracks – in fact, in each of those countries, the share of passenger rail in passenger transport is higher than in Western Europe;
- most main corridors are electrified (in China, even freight-only railways connecting mines and ports);
- there is strong state investment into infrastructure and vehicles...
China in particular is noteworthy. While China already has the world's longest HSR network, on long stretches of track, freight trains share tracks with expresses running at up to 250 km/h. (Also see The new high-speed superpower.) Furthermore, as most new rolling stock both in the freight and long-distance passenger sector, and indeed even tracks, has a significant European (or Japanese) import component, cheap domestic production is less of a price factor than one would think from the situation in other sectors of industry.
If you want to see the world's best freight railways, depending on what you focus at, look at China or Switzerland.
:: :: :: :: ::
Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.