On the wrong track

Perhaps you have seen it. An aerodynamic sedan glides down a highway that winds through a picturesque landscape of trees, lush green mountains and lakes. A brilliant sun gleams in a clear blue sky. Soothing music plays in the background. A calm voice begins: “What can a car that gets 50 miles per gallon do for the environment?”

Just an ad for the Toyota Prius, right? Not exactly.

The car ascends a yellow metal ramp. The voice continues: “Not nearly as much as the car that’s carrying it.” At this point, the car drives into an automobile hauler at the end of a long train. “Our trains can move a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of fuel. CSX. How tomorrow moves.”

Translation: “Go after big rigs. Leave us alone.”

Sure, CSX is trying mostly to foster a positive corporate image and shield itself from burdensome environmental regulation. Still, the commercial slyly hints that other modes of transportation might not be as good for the environment as rail.

Other recent railroad industry tactics aren’t quite so subtle. An energy bill passed by the House in August proposed a Center for Climate Change and Environment within the Department of Transportation that would, among other things, study ways “to alleviate such problems as railroad pricing that may force freight off the more fuel-efficient railroads and onto less fuel-efficient trucks.”

Under the final legislation signed by President Bush on Dec. 19, DOT’s new Office of Climate Change and Environment – someone must have noticed that the original name appeared to endorse climate change – would study ways to lower energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. But gone is the offensive clause explicitly favoring locomotives over trucks.

So score a victory for the trucking industry. Well, sort of. The new energy law also authorizes capital grants to Class II and Class III railroads for projects that improve railroad track used primarily for freight transportation, facilitate greater use of rail for freight, and “reduce the use of less fuel-efficient modes of transportation” for carrying freight. At least it doesn’t explicitly say trucking. Perhaps Congress had in mind the 16 percent of freight that isn’t carried by either trucking or rail. Another little goody for railroads is a pilot grant program to help them buy hybrid and other energy-efficient locomotives. According to CSX, however, railroads already are unbelievably fuel-efficient, so the payback is unclear.

Today’s sure-fire lobbying strategy is linking your industry’s agenda to one or both of two grand causes: promoting energy independence and slowing climate change. Funneling cash to truck safety critics is old school. To bolster its crusade against liberalizing truck size and weight, for example, the American Association of Railroads claims that bigger trucks are bad for the environment. It’s a weak argument, though maybe not quite as preposterous as AAR’s contention that bigger trucks would increase highway congestion.

Both propositions rely on the mostly false premise that larger trucks would divert freight that railroads otherwise would have carried. Trucks’ dock-to-dock and dock-to-door delivery speeds transit times and simplifies the chain of custody. Trucks often carry to a final destination goods that were transported by rail to warehouses and distribution centers.

The railroad industry’s picture of perfect competition between trucking and rail simply isn’t the reality. If it were, trucking’s freight market share wouldn’t be 69 percent. Given a tight supply of drivers, high fuel prices and more expensive equipment, bigger trucks more likely would mean fewer trucks, reducing both emissions and congestion.

In the long run, economic growth and insurmountable capacity constraints will ensure strong revenues for both trucking and rail. Rather than fight each other’s attempts to improve productivity, the two industries should work together to defeat unreasonable legislation and regulation that could drive up their costs and derail their profits.