"Welcome to Virginia" sign along northbound Interstate 81 entering Washington County, Virginia...

"Welcome to Virginia" sign along northbound Interstate 81 entering Washington County, Virginia from Bristol, Tennessee. One group wants to put trucks on rails so they bypass the interstate highway through the state entirely.

Photo: Famartin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

As Virginia lawmakers work to try to address congestion problems on I-81, including a controversial toll proposal that critics say is unfair to trucking, one creative proposal has come up that would put trucks on trains – drivers and all.

As the Roanoke Times reports, several members of the Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization really liked the idea put forth by Rail Solution. The nonprofit says instead of pouring money into widening I-81, the state should double-track the Norfolk Southern rail line that runs alongside the highway to carry “through” trucks that don’t need to make a stop in the state.

Envisioned is a service that could run the 600-mile corridor between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and allow truck drivers to sleep on the train. At terminals on each end, truckers would drive their rigs onto a train with perhaps 30 truck positions, and the train would go once it reached a certain number of trucks, such as 30.

The problem is, it won't work, says Dale Bennett, presiden and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association. Bennett's been tied up working with the legislature on the I-81 issue, saying “things are happening fast and furious,” so we didn’t have a chance to chat, but he did send me a copy of a letter he wrote to the editor of the Roanoke Times.

That letter says the Times' article “failed to mention the most critical aspect of this proposal: It won’t work!”

The letter notes that Rail Solution, a coalition founded in 2003 to push freight rail as an alternative to widening I-81, has managed to convince several town and county councils, elected officials and various environmental groups that its concept is feasible.

“What is curious is that I have not seen anyone who would actually pay to use the service, i.e. trucking companies and shippers, voicing their support for this concept,” Bennett writes. “There is also not explanation of how and who would pay for the expensive improvements to the privately owned rail lines.”

The idea of loading a truck onto a train, waiting for an undetermined amount of time for other trucks to join it, relying on the train to speed its way to its destination, and then offloading on the other end, is out of step with the present day reality of the trucking industry.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, Bennett points out, I-81 carries 32,000 trucks per day. To capture just 10% of this traffic, they would have to run over 32 trains a day carrying 100 trucks at a time. Given loading/offloading times, that just isn’t physically possible.

On top of that, he writes, “today’s shippers demand same-day or next-day delivery, and on-time performance that railroads have never been able to come close to matching. It’s time to face the reality that the nation will continue to rely on trucks to deliver 70% of its freight well into the future, and we need to ensure that our highways are up to the task.”

It's not the first time Virginia has looked into the idea of solving I-81 issues by pushing more freight to rail. There was a study done a decade ago in the state, “Feasibility Plan for Maximum Truck to Rail Diversion in Virginia’s I-81 Corridor.”  This study looked at various ways to divert truck freight to rail and determined the most feasible was simply improving conventional intermodal rail. The study found that the feasibility of putting actual trucks on trains, as opposed to intermodal containers, so called “open technology,” was unknown, “and would require extensive and potentially costly follow-on studies.” It also noted that “the anticipated capital cost in Virginia per diverted unit is quite high” compared to pushing for more use of and better conventional intermodal use.

It seems lawmakers will go to any lengths to avoid a simple solution to transportation funding: raise the fuel tax.

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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