Today’s railroad emphasize innovation and safety | Don Brunell

In January, the American Association of Railroads or AAR published its first-ever state of the railroads annual report focusing on the industry’s economic value, innovations and emphasis on safety.

The nation’s railroads have been around for about 180 years and maintain 180,000 miles of track. Trains move over 51 million tons of freight each day which is about 40% of the nation’s freight.

Rail has been a vital transportation link in Pacific Northwest since 1883. That year President Ulysses S. Grant drove in the final “golden spike” in western Montana thus completing the northern transcontinental railroad.

Today, we would be hard pressed to live without trains. Even Boeing, the world’s premiere aerospace company, transports 737 fuselages from Wichita to Renton by rail.

In 2014, the Washington Council on International Trade estimated railroads contributed an estimated $28.5 billion to our state’s economy which is nearly 10% of our GDP. The council adds that rail transportation produces 243,000 jobs and $13.4 billion in household income.

Washington state exports totaled more than $90.5 billion, making us the nation’s largest exporter per capita. Trains transport those products to and from seaports and carry nearly a fifth of our state’s freight tonnage. Even our garbage is railed to eastern Washington landfills.

AAR reports railroad workers are well paid. Annual wages and benefits now total $116,830.

In total our country’s railroads have spent over $600 billion since 1980.

That is a reversal from 50 years ago when railroads where bleeding money from excessive regulations, high labor costs, dilapidated track and equipment, and competition from truckers.

Finally, in 1970, railroads reached the tipping point. The Penn Central filed for bankruptcy which was then the nation’s largest. It was losing $1 million a day and trains slowed to 10 mph to keep railcars and engines from sliding off the poorly maintained track. Eventually, the federal government restructured Penn Central forming Conrail which cost taxpayers $2.8 billion.

Since 1980 railways have been rebuilding. AAR reports key indicators of progress are train accident rates, rail worker injuries and railroad cross collisions—all of which dropped by 80%.

Railroad have become highly innovative. For example, they have installed sophisticated ultrasound inspection systems to locate weak rails and trackside detection systems to identify malfunctioning wheels and axles as trains pass by. Workers make repairs to avoid costly mishaps.

In the near future railroads plan to start up revolutionary technology to analyze a host of real-time conditions, including train speed and track composition, and automatically stops a train before certain types of accidents occur.

BNSF leads the industry replacing older locomotives with less polluting, more energy efficient models. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, of all the greenhouse emissions from transportation, freight rail accounts for only 2.3%.

Railroads are buying better rail cars. For example, new oil tankers have thicker steel shells, better thermal protection, stronger hatches and reinforced valves. That technology can apply to other cars shipping flammable, explosive and corrosive cargo.

Finally, railroads are not only investing heavily in training their workers and first responders especially those dealing with hazardous cargo. They established a Crude By Rail and Emergency Response center in Pueblo. CO, and cover the training costs.

No system is fail safe and tragically we learn from deadly derailments such as occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 where 47 people perished.

Just as we modified our space shuttles and procedures after the Challenger and Columbia disasters, we have to continually improve train, trucks, ships, barges and airplanes to make them safer and more environmentally friendly.

America’s hallmark has been its innovation by creative people. In the case of railroads, it is nice to see it coming from the private sector.