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Why Trains Lose the Battle for Time-Sensitive Freight

July 13, 2000

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The freight world is getting faster all the time. Carriers are being pressured at both shipping and receiving ends to reduce transit times. Trucking is holding its own, but rail carriers are falling behind.
Ed Ellis, an Amtrak vice president, wrote a column in the July, 2000 issue of Trains magazine looking out over the chasm between truck and train performance. He says a team-driven truck can deliver a cross-country load in 60 hours or less. That's two and a half days. Contrast that with the Union Pacific Corp. guarantee that perishable shipments from California will reach New York in eight days by rail.
The fastest intermodal train speeds today average less than 40 mph once the shipment is aboard and starts moving, says Ellis. He says that is because "...most intermodal trains have top speeds of 60 to 70 mph." He says the answer is to "... remove low-speed restrictions and raise the top speed to 80 or 90 mph." That seems like a tall order.

Ellis says, "The railroads aren't exactly in a strong position to begin improving intermodal transit times. Main routes are clogged with ponderous, slow-moving coal and stack trains. The railroads' stock is in the dumper, and the capital markets are no longer interested in the industry. Where will the money be found to add capacity, remove slow orders, eliminate restrictions, and acquire the high-speed equipment needed to regain shipper confidence?"
Another problem the railroads face is what Ellis calls "circuity." He says, "The trucker
takes a reasonably direct door-to-door route. We run from hub-to-hub and often have a
serious out-of-line haul. Truckers can leave directly from any zip code. We can leave
directly from fewer than 500 zip codes, and many trips require a back-haul to the
terminal, which just makes our door-to-door transit time that much worse."
Rail has less than 1.5% of what Ellis says is a $140 billion "expedited, high-reliability,
low-transit-time market." Railroads get $2 billion of that, Ellis says, while trucking
now gets $50 billion.
To find out more on this topic, check out www.trains.com or www.railroadpm.org.

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