Back in mid-2003 two old archenemies - the American Trucking Associations and the Association of American Railroads - agreed to bury the hatchet and work toward common goals. Both signed the peace treaty as Congress got set to reauthorize the current transportation funding program.
It made sense. After all, the two industries are intermodal partners. Their history of bickering - largely over truck sizes and weights and whether rails deserved public money and more freight - only confused the issues for lawmakers.
Under the 2003 treaty, both parties effectively agreed to support keeping the rules at status quo.
Fast-forward to now. As Congress prepares to debate new transportation funding, ATA is back to seeking a higher weight limit on trucks. AAR is back to lobbying against it. AAR tempers its opposition by saying any weight limit increase should be accompanied by higher truck taxes. ATA indicates higher taxes might be acceptable in return for more productive trucks.
But wait. As these more conciliatory discussions go on, AAR has re-launched one of its oldest weapons: the public relations attack. On July 1, it issued a press release citing findings of the Congestion Relief Index, an annual study of traffic congestion in urban areas of the country. Its findings:
Freight trains are at least four times more fuel-efficient than trucks.
A train can move one ton of freight 436 miles on a gallon of fuel.
One intermodal train can take nearly 300 trucks off the highways.
The release says shifting 25 percent of freight from trucks to trains by the year 2026 would cut air pollution by more than 920,000 tons per year and save the average commuter 41 hours and 79 gallons of gasoline annually.
When you spoon-feed reporters stuff like this, it's a slam-dunk. Stories lauding rail efficiency, based on the AAR release, have popped up all over the country. One said the rails aim to show that "rail is to shipping what the Toyota Prius is to the morning commute."
Sen. Ted Carper (D-Del.) piled on with an op-ed piece for The Hill, a newspaper aimed at Congress. Headlined "Freight Rail Deserves More Federal Support," it made liberal use of the study's findings.
First off, the study and its conclusions are nothing new; it's been updated over the past seven years. The bottom line is that the railroads admittedly want public money (referred to in the study as "increased public-private partnerships, as well as tax incentives"). Impressing on lawmakers that trains are warm and fuzzy compared to trucks just creates confusion and takes time and energy to diffuse.
In fact, rails will never match the efficiency of trucks, particularly in urban operations, where virtually all the congestion is in the first place. Rails can't compete in areas other than long haul. And switching 25 percent of freight to rails? Not gonna happen.
Maybe ATA and AAR can work out a funding proposal to both their satisfaction. That would be nice, but only a start. Congress, particularly Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) must first be convinced that heavier trucks won't be a safety problem.
Oberstar chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and DeFazio heads the Surface Transportation Subcommittee. Neither leans toward bigger and/or heavier rigs.
AAR's sniping at trucking is just one more hurdle to passing a decent funding program.
Oh, and have you seen CSX's snappy new slogan? "If it's going to be in your life, it'll probably be on our trains."
Somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it as "Good stuff. Trucks bring it."
E-mail Doug Condra at email@example.com, or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.