In his address to the 15th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, Gil Carmichael, head of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver, said any realistic discussion on the future of transportation must include the role of railroads
within that system and new technologies to enhance the environment and create economic efficiencies.
Carmichael stressed that, while the global movement of freight is sharply focused on speed, safety, reliable scheduling, and economic efficiency and builds on the strengths of each mode, and it is the freight railroad that offers the high-speed, long distance, lowest cost transportation artery on land. Cargo ships provide ocean transport of containers. Trucks provide local feeder service at origins and destinations. Cargo airplanes deliver high-value, specialized freight. Overall, the operational and economic efficiency of freight's intermodal network dramatically conserves fuel, reduces other environmental impacts, and is significantly safer.
"Railroads are essential to the global business environment we live and work in and are vital to its future growth," said Carmichael. "Today, a doublestack container train can replace 280 trucks, run at speeds up to 90 mph, and afford as much as nine times the fuel efficiency of container transport by highway. In North America alone, a majority of existing railroad rights-of-way have excess capacity that is capable of being expanded to include additional freight lanes as well as inner-and intra-city high-speed mass transit. With advanced technologies and careful planning, it is reasonable to foresee a doubling or even tripling of capacity of the existing route structure without having to acquire additional land."
Carmichael pointed to several options for enhancing this worldwide intermodal infrastructure. "Historically," he said, "petroleum has been available at relatively low cost. Equally important - or perhaps more so - it provides a portable source of motive power. Sometime in this century, however, the fossil fuel supply will start to fall dramatically. Building more highways is definitely not the solution. An Intelligent Transportation System is."
He believes that if fuel-cell technology will eventually deliver a reliable power source at a reasonable cost, it likely is the most desirable outcome and could be adopted by both the railroad and highway modes. But that source also is a finite fuel. A third option, with the most promising future supply, is electricity - and in the foreseeable future, the railroad mode is the only candidate for large-scale benefits from electrification among the commercial transportation modes, he said.
"The major sticking point is the source of fuel for the electricity," he said. "It would be foolish to install an electrified delivery system for power generated from natural gas, for example, because the gas could be delivered directly to the locomotive. But a rail system run on power from nuclear, solar, wind farms, tides, and other fuel sources could, in 20 or 30 years' time, have very strong appeal and possibilities."
Carmichael said, however, that regardless of fluctuations in oil prices, intermodal freight movements make the most sense. It remains the energy-efficient, global, service provider and still represents the lowest-cost option for international container movements.
"The success we have achieved in intermodal transportation points the way to what, I believe, is the most promising strategy for North American transportation improvements, for freightand passenger, in the coming years," Carmichael emphasized. "I call that strategy Interstate II. In the last century in the U.S., we built Interstate I, the 43,000-mile, national highway system. Interstate II is a vision of 30,000 miles of truly high-speed, intercity/port travel that is based upon the steel wheel on a steel rail, not pavement. It would partner the superior safety and efficiency of rail transportation with the strengths of the existing intermodal system, enhanced with new Intelligent Transportation Systems. With GPS and the new PTC technology, we should be able to very safely include passenger trains at speeds up to 125 mph and help alleviate bottlenecks and congestion."