By: Ian Jefferies, AAR President & CEO

A single golden spike driven into the ground at Promontory Point, Utah, 150 years ago this spring in many ways represented the vision of America at the time.

A vast country still finding its way in the world and healing from a civil war needed unity and craved a path to prosperity. The Golden Spike connecting East and West and establishing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad provided a moment to celebrate and a path forward. With this singular achievement on May 10, 1869, America’s railroads ushered in a new era of commerce, community and connectivity.

No one that day could have envisioned the 2019 version of freight railroads. Locomotives then fueled by coal and wood would one day give way to an American industry now driven by sonar, infrared lasers, ultrasound and drones. A sparse network that tapped the telegraph to expand would become a 140,000-mile digital rail network that today harnesses big data. Nineteenth-century Americans could not have imagined a 21st-century system that has become the world’s model of safety, sustainability and efficiency.

Today, I am privileged to help lead this industry as the new President and CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR). What’s particularly exciting to me is not just what freight rail has achieved throughout our nation’s history, but what our member railroads are doing now to transform their operations to drive the economy and serve the American people. Together, freight railroads are moving us into the future.

I begin my tenure at a time when freight railroads are working to meet the demands of a world that is changing not by the year, but by the minute. International trade and consumer expectations have seen our industry expand and advance at a stunning pace over the past few decades. Since 1980, rail traffic density increased about 200% with no significant increase in the size of the railroad network; locomotive productivity rose 93% and average freight carried per train rose 63%. Looking ahead, the Federal Highway Administration predicts total U.S. freight shipments will increase 35% by 2040. I am confident we will be able to meet that demand because our industry plays the long game.

My path to AAR involved work in industries and institutions that bring people together to make things happen. A tech start-up early in my career provided a window on innovation and connection in the private sector. My work in government — from a mayor’s office to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, the Department of Transportation and the Government Accountability Office — gave me a first-hand look at how policymakers’ decisions affect people and their communities.

Through those jobs — which spanned the world of international trade, infrastructure, economic development and multiple modes of transportation — I gained a well-informed understanding of the unique contributions of America’s freight rail system. From the moment I stepped foot into AAR, and reaffirmed over the years, I saw how member railroads are committed to safety, excellence and investment in the infrastructure and technology that makes our network the best on the planet by far. Because of the criticality of our industry to the nation’s people and economy, we also play an integral role in building consensus and know what’s needed to get things done.

I’m proud to work in an industry whose people are committed to an unparalleled culture of safety. They never rest and never stop evolving and applying innovative technologies to make a safe industry ever safer. Even as a train moves along the tracks at speed, sonar and ultrasound are scouring train components from the ground; meanwhile, drones are employed to inspect the rail network from above. This is how we keep 30,000 locomotives and 1.6 million railcars safely moving on the tracks each day. Freight rail has, over the past few decades, invested hundreds of billions of dollars in private capital — not taxpayer dollars — to become the technology-driven workhorse for the global economy. This stands in stark contrast to the publicly funded infrastructure systems for the nation’s highways and transit systems that stagger helplessly from one funding crisis to the next. Rail does it differently, and for good reason.

Those of you who know freight rail have heard us talk about our focus on safety, sustainability and efficiency. Our mission has not changed, but we are always seeking new tools to do our jobs better. And though I could give you a white paper’s worth of data to illustrate the value of our industry’s investments, these three eye-openers provide a window into freight rail’s remarkable achievements:

  • Safety: 2018 rail safety data continues to show that recent years have been the safest on record for the rail sector, with the train accident rate down 10% since 2009.
  • Sustainability: Railroads moved one ton of freight an average of more than 470 miles per gallon of fuel in 2018, double the average in 1980. Moving goods by rail instead of over the highways reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75%. That’s good for our communities and for the planet.
  • Efficiency: Rail shippers pay, on average, about 46% less today (adjusted for inflation) than they did more than 35 years ago. This will be especially significant as the nation’s economy expands.

Freight rail’s economic impact is clear. In 2017 alone, our sector generated roughly $220 billion in economic activity while supporting 1.1 million jobs. This is only possible because a balanced regulatory environment has given railroads the room to invest, improve and thrive. We have resisted — and will continue to resist — one-size-fits-all policies that hinder modernization, and we’ll support policies that embrace the future rather than fight it.

I can’t help but think about the future of freight rail when I ponder the future of our country. The world’s largest economy needs the most reliable and efficient engine on the planet, and with freight rail, the United States has that engine. Our country never stops creating or imagining or doing.  While the story of the Golden Spike inspires us, even today, I know that freight rail will never be satisfied with yesterday and is ever transforming with an eye toward tomorrow.

When I think of our industry, I think of my family. My great-grandfather worked for the Southern railroad, and I recall my grandfather’s hobby room stocked with model trains, books, videos and other train memorabilia. My family’s love of trains can be traced generations back, and my Dad also caught the train bug. The imprint on me was unmistakable, and the passion still lives in my own house and with my own children. Trains are in the fabric of families like mine, generation after generation.

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