Two stories crossed my desk within the same week recently that told an interesting story.
In one, The New York Times detailed how both the trucking industry and the railroad industry are using law enforcement to support their stands in the battle over whether the upcoming highway bill will loosen federal restrictions on size and weight to allow trucks to more efficiently move freight.
In the other, a lengthy press release, I read about the saga of Cold Train, a promising intermodal service for refrigerated freight. According to a $41 million lawsuit filed by the former owners of Cold Train, it had to shut down because the railroad could no longer deliver the timely turnaround times needed to make the service a success.
If the rail industry can’t deliver on a service like Cold Train, why does it keep fighting so hard to keep any extra freight from going over the highway by truck?
Back in the ‘90s, before truck/rail intermodal became such an important part of many fleets’ and railroads’ businesses, the battle between trucking and railroads got nasty. The railroads bankrolled the safety advocacy (and anti-trucking) group Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, or CRASH.
Yet over the years, railroads and trucking developed a more congenial working relationship, as trucking companies started putting more and more of their long-haul freight in certain lanes onto the rails.
The railroads pulled funding for CRASH in the mid-1990s as part of a compromise deal in the fight for longer, larger rigs as intermodal shipments started growing. (However, CRASH is still out there bashing trucking; in 2013 it accused trucking of “slaughtering” thousands of people each year.)
Now, it seems, the rails vs. trucks road rage is back.
That’s because while most of the (much-postponed) reauthorization of the highway bill being debated in
Congress has focused on how to pay for highways, these bills always contain a catch-all of new highway-related laws. And trucking, in the face of a capacity crunch only expected to get worse with the driver shortage and new safety regulations that will decrease productivity, would like to be able to haul more freight per truck to offset those factors.
The rail industry doesn’t want that, because it would mean less business for the railroads.
So once again, we have the two sides fighting over which mode is safer and which mode is better for the environment. And not necessarily fighting fair.
As The New York Times piece explains, the railroad industry, through the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, has paid for various law enforcement officials to tell Congress about the dangers of longer and heavier trucks on the nation’s highways. But those officials often don’t realize railroads are behind these efforts. CABT apparently has replaced CRASH as the railroads’ front man, as it is largely funded by the Association of American Railroads, according to the paper.
The Times claims trucking hasn’t exactly been on the up-and-up either, funding a recent report finding that trucks with twin, 33-foot trailers would be more stable than the twin, 28-foot trailers now allowed on federal roadways, but not making it clear who paid for the report.
Meanwhile, as the bickering goes on, our country continues to face traffic congestion, higher fuel consumption and more environmental pollution.
The authors of a non-partisan study by the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver point out that there is no Congressional mandate to “replace the fragmented modal players into a single, integrated, seamless, intermodal transportation system.”
Now just imagine: What could be accomplished if all the time, money and effort spent on both sides were poured into efforts to improve infrastructure and planning for all freight movement?