InTrans / Oct 31, 2014

What do railroads carry?

Go! Magazine

Railwayposted on October 31, 2014

Do you see a lot of rail cars passing by with what looks like a lot of different stuff? Ever wonder just how much “stuff” the railroad carries each year? This stuff being carried is referred to by the railroads freight or cargo. As a matter of fact, freight can be transported by truck, train, ship, or aircraft. In terms of which is most popular to carry freight:truck, train, ship, or aircraft:trains carry the largest percentage, 39.5 percent, in terms of miles and tonnage. In other words, trains transport heavy cargo long distances.

Why do the trains look different?

Different freight trains are carrying different items. The most popular items for trains to transport include:

  1. Bulk cargo like iron ore or coal.
  2. Containerization carrying shipping containers.
  3. Special cargo like cars or steel plates, which are not suitable for containers or bulk.

Where are the trains going?

Freight trains typically travel to and from specific areas of economic activity. For example, many lines move from rural areas, for agriculture and energy products, to population centers. The United States has more than 140,000 rail miles! To put this into perspective, the United States is 2,680 miles from east to west, and 1,582 miles from north to south. That means there are many places that rail lines go throughout the country.

A conversation with the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Track Inspector, Jeff Secora

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you do?

I am a certified track inspector for the state of Iowa. There are two of us that inspect the railroads for the whole state. Currently, there are about 140 inspectors; half of these are state inspectors, and half are federal. Federal inspectors do the same job as state inspectors, but are allowed to cross state borders. Our main job is to enforce the federal regulations enacted in 1970 called Track Safety standards. These standards were put in place in reaction to horrific derailments back in the 1960s. The government realized they needed to do something, so they began to enforce those standards. A lot of what we [inspectors] do is not only based on standards, but also using our judgment. We look for track gauge (measurement between rails), whether the ballast is sufficient (rocks surrounding rail lines that keep the rail lines from sinking into the ground), and the fasteners that fasten it to the roads.

There is going to continue to be an increase demand for rail transportation. How do you see the railroads reacting to this?

The Staggers Act really freed up railroads to compete by letting the railroads set their own rates. Prior to Staggers, railroads were in pretty marginal condition around 1970. I believe now we are in the second golden era for railroads. The first golden era began 100 years ago when everything was moved by railroads. After WWII, there was a “death” of railroads because of the creation of the interstates. What needed to be done, and what was done, was a weeding out of railroad lines. Iowa had 12,000 miles of railroads in 1911 and now there is only 4200 miles rail lines. What is left is a very efficient system, which has gotten a lot busier.

What are trains carrying in states like Iowa?

There is a tremendous amount of hazardous material traveling through the state: ethanol and now crude oil. Inspectors still enforce the Track Safety standards, but a major concern has become this hazardous material. Lines that used to never have hazardous materials now do. Because of this, I might be on that line three times a year for added risk. Some rail lines are lightweight rails and are not built for heavier cars. Rail lines that carry ethanol have tremendous amount of money. The ethanol plants and railroad companies pay to improve rail lines so they can carry heavier cars and therefore, carry more hazardous materials. Railroad companies realize the extra risk and know they have to have track in good condition.

Where is the money come from to improve rail lines?

Most of the railroads are taking their own capital and improving their own lines. There is some public funding. In Iowa, there is a revolving loan, which helps railroad companies get established. This loan can help create a spur [a short branch of line that connects to another main line] to allow a railroad business get started. This public loan program makes up a very small percentage of the money spent. Today, railroads basically do it [repairs and improvements] on their own. How long have you worked on railroads, and what is the biggest change you’ve seen since you began? I started working in 1974.

The biggest change I see is that everything is becoming more mechanical. A lot of what we did was by hand. Now there is machinery that does the work. When I started, the work used to be back-breaking. Now everything the railroads does is much more efficient; therefore there are not nearly as many workers, and a lot more tonnage is being transported. That is why railroads are in the second golden era. Also, in the 1990s there was the creation of the roadway worker protection. Back then, not only were there track standard issues, but workers were getting hurt at the job site. Now roadway workers are treated like a train. When we [inspectors] get a stretch of track, no one can come into our track without their [inspector’s] permission.

Lastly, as we focus on transportation needs, do you see the current railroad lines changing to transport both people and cargo?

It seems to be headed that way. Where there is high population, like in California or Southwest US, it makes a lot more sense to have more passenger trains. Let’s take Europe for example; they have a dedicated track for people. There are a lot more people along the line, so the density is very high. In contrast, we are very spread out here in the US. I think there will be corridors, such as a line from Minneapolis to Chicago, but I do not foresee passenger rail lines where density is relatively low. Passenger rail lines do make sense in certain areas because our roads in this country are getting very crowded, especially in these larger cities. But at the end of the day, the passenger rail lines must make economic sense.

If someone in high school wanted to work on railroads, what post-secondary education would you recommend?

First, I think it wouldn’t hurt to have an engineering degree. I come from a railroad family. I never went to college, and was actually interested in meteorology. My big thing, though, was that I loved to be outside. I’m very happy that I chose this career path. It started with a lot of hard work, and I was able to work my way up. I don’t think that is possible today; education has become so important. A college degree means a lot today.

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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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