Rail once again received the highest mark of any U.S. transportation mode from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

The accolade in the ASCE’s 2021 infrastructure report card underscores that the industry is poised to play a major role in far-reaching plans for improving the environment and the nation’s economic recovery. As ASCE notes, “freight maintains a strong network largely through direct shipper fees — investing on average over $260,000 per mile.”

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Moving Towards a Sustainable Future

The top grade for rail is good news for emerging efforts by the Biden administration to mitigate climate change as a top policy priority. “The world must be put on a sustainable climate pathway to protect Americans and the domestic economy from harmful climate impacts, and to create well-paying union jobs as part of the climate solution,” the administration said in one of its first executive orders.

That fits the very definition of freight railroads — an unexpected part of the climate solution that directly supports thousands of union jobs and can meet the increasing demands of an economy on the rebound. Railroads are a responsible, non-partisan solution to mitigating the transportation-related causes of climate change.

Railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume (measured by ton-miles) — more than any other mode of transportation — but only 2.1% of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even more impressive, U.S. freight railroads, on average, move one ton of freight more than 470 miles on one gallon of fuel.

These sustainability creds are made possible by railroads’ commitment to innovating technologies, investing in new equipment and pioneering more efficient operations. ASCE highlights freight rail’s innovation in the report, saying “rail technology development continues to focus on improving system efficiency and safety. Industry technological advances include identifying freight car, locomotive, cargo, and track problems before accidents, damage or delays occur. Numerous track and infrastructure improvements have been advanced including the use of defect detection vehicles, which detect internal flaws in rails; improved metallurgy and fastening systems, which have enhanced track stability; and research to extend rail life, reduce maintenance costs, and improve safety.”

Railroads are also central to climate goals because they can take freight off highways — reducing congestion, road deterioration and emissions. Analysis shows that if even just 25% of highway freight currently moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, annual greenhouse gas emissions would fall by approximately 13.1 million tons — the equivalent of taking 2.6 million cars off the roads for a year or planting nearly 200 million trees.

The question for the new administration and Congress should be: how can we move more goods via rail to combat climate change? Exploring measures that incentivize freight-by-rail movements can serve as a tool to help the environment, not down the road (or should we say tracks) — but immediately.

Top Rail Rating Helps Economic Recovery & Infrastructure

The top rating by ASCE is also good news as policymakers seek to cajole the economy back into a full recovery.

Here, too, railroads are playing an outsized role. Throughout the pandemic, railroads have capably served most major industries and beyond, with rail traffic rebounding to more encouraging levels. Intermodal movements — the containers generally holding consumer goods that also move by truck and maritime shippers — saw impressive volumes in the second half of 2020 due to the accelerated rise of ecommerce. Railroads offer an exceptionally reliable transportation mode for impacted industries, such as automobile and airplane makers, logistics providers or traditional retailers. By maintaining existing policies that ensure continued private rail investment and viability, railroads can help serve industries on the mend and support the overall recovery of the economy.

The administration’s recovery plan centers on a massive, nearly two trillion-dollar relief effort as well as what could be the biggest infrastructure-spending proposal since the New Deal. And there is much to revitalize in U.S. infrastructure. The same report that gave U.S. freight railroads high marks also gave low grades to taxpayer-funded transportation infrastructure. Bridges, ports and roads, for example, continue to age and suffer from overuse. Reflecting their poor condition, ASCE respectively gave these systems grades of C, B- and D.

“It’s time to stop talking about infrastructure and finally start building infrastructure,” President Biden said, reflecting widespread frustration over stalled efforts over the last several years and the sorry state of much infrastructure.

As the ASCE report makes plain, one major difference between freight railroads and other modes of transportation is that railroads are not a burden on taxpayers. America’s freight railroads own, build, maintain, operate and pay for their infrastructure with little government assistance, investing approximately $25 billion annually. Freight railroads stand nearly alone as a stakeholder not seeking large sums of federal dollars in any infrastructure bill.

A Good Deal for Taxpayers

Whatever infrastructure proposal the administration and Congress hash out, increasing the reliance on freight rail is a good deal for taxpayers. That’s because the nearly 140,000-mile freight rail network can take more freight off the roads — and railroads in turn lessen the physical and financial burdens placed on public highways. And with the U.S. Department of Transportation projecting a 30% increase in freight demand by 2040, it’s more important than ever to ensure railroads can continue to privately maintain their critical infrastructure.

U.S. freight railroads are one of the most productive and cost-effective transportation networks in the world, hauling more freight than any other transportation mode and connecting consumers and businesses across the country. But they can — and will do — much more, as the nation turns to this vital industry to arrest environmental damage and nurture economic recovery.