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Fuel-efficient freight rail deserves more federal support

The Hill

Today, across the country, policymakers, industry and consumers alike are all looking for more affordable ways to move people and goods.

Consider this: America's railroads can move one ton of freight roughly the distance between Washington, D.C., and Boston on just one gallon of diesel fuel.       

That's pretty amazing energy savings in this time of gas prices topping $4 a gallon and airlines slashing schedules.     

It's time we take full advantage of more fuel-efficient forms of transportation and start to think beyond just our highways and airways.          

Rail has always been an efficient form of transport, and our nation's railroads continue to make improvements. Today, our trains are 3.1 percent more efficient than they were last year and a whopping 85 percent more efficient than they were in 1980.   

Think of how much better off our country would be if all energy users had improved their efficiency by 85 percent since 1980.

And while much has been said recently about more Americans riding Amtrak and our nation's other passenger rails, that is just one half of the track, so to speak.

I'm convinced that robust freight rail service is one of the keys to a sustainable future for our country and our planet.

While trucks will remain a vital component in our nation's transportation system for a long time to come, freight trains help Americans beat congestion by reducing the number of trucks on our roads and saving drivers time, money and fuel costs. For example, one single intermodal train takes some 280 trucks off the road.

And, being so fuel-efficient, freight railroads emit fewer greenhouse gases than cars and trucks. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says freight trains emit only one-third the greenhouse gases emitted by trucks.

This means that for every ton-mile of freight that moves by rail and not on highways, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by two-thirds. The efficiency of rail also means fewer emissions of nitrogen oxide and other particulate matter.

But if freight and passenger rail are to play a bigger role in our nation's future, we must invest in rail infrastructure to keep up with that expanded role. Already some of our county's rail corridors are congested, and freight traffic continues to grow. According to a study completed last year by Cambridge Systematics, unless capacity is increased, at least one-third of the nation's main rail corridors will be congested by 2035.

Freight railroads are reinvesting large amounts of their own funds into America's rail systems, but that will not be enough funding to take full advantage of railroads' potential to meet our transportation needs. We in the government must do a better job of addressing our nation's aging rail infrastructure.

Recent congressional proposals have included providing a tax credit for projects that expand freight rail capacity or encouraging more public-private partnerships for freight railroad infrastructure projects.

Public-private funding partnerships reflect the fact that cooperation among the railroads and government is far more likely to result in timely, meaningful solutions to transportation problems than a go-it-alone approach.

Yet another option is to ensure that federal climate change legislation directs a portion of funding generated by the sale of emissions credits to rail infrastructure. With today's high energy prices and greater attention focused on climate change, we cannot continue to wait to enhance freight rail capacity.

Next year, when Congress considers legislation to reauthorize the surface transportation program, fight climate change and address high gas prices, it will be vitally important that lawmakers remember the key role that transit, passenger rail and freight rail play in reducing our nation's reliance on foreign oil, while cutting harmful emissions and getting people and goods where they need to go.

Carper is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.