Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Importance of Rail Freight Transportation, and Why it is Stunted by Capitalist Economy

There are three main types of freight: bulk, mid-range, and small. (I can't find workable official terms so I'll use these)

These distinctions are made according to the total amount being carried together – millions of small items, therefore, can be considered a bulk commodity.

Raw materials, industrial inputs, inter-industrial products, large scale agriculture, and even finished products are usually bulk commodities. They also can make up medium sized lots, along with the products of small industry and business.

Small quantities are tied to niche production and consumption. They can be high value, but by volume and weight are a small portion of all goods transported. Because of their poor economies of scale, therefore, they are best suited for the least efficient means of transport: air and highway. Over greater distances, though, they could shift this towards rail.

Bulk and mid-range amounts, over medium to long distance, are best suited to either rail or ship. Why? Because these two modes are far more efficient than air or highway. Ships and barges are the ultimate mode for transporting huge quantities cheaply, but they are limited by geography and speed.

A container ship and a cargo ship head down the Delaware River from Philadelphia with global trade.

Within a large land mass, then, rail is usually the most efficient means of medium and large scale freight transportation – precisely the kind of transportation which is critical to the major sectors of production. Compared to both air and highways, it has an immensely greater capacity per unit.

In North America a single railcar carries 3 to 4 times more than a truck trailer, and generally between 60-120 such cars make up a single train. The crew operating this a train is just two – compared to one for each and every local truck, and two for many long distance trucks. A typical train has two to four locomotives for these 60-120 cars, while every single truck trailer has it's own truck cab (this excludes doubles and triples, which are somewhat rare.) As for containers – the standard unit of international trade – a train generally carries upwards of 200, even 300, while again, a truck chassis carries just one.

The maroon railroad car in the foreground is spotted at a Kellogg cereal plant in Battle Creek Michigan. Likely full of grain, it's capacity - 115 tons - is nearly four times that of a truck.
Usually it is moved with 80 to 100 similar companions.

The contents of several of these trash trucks will fill just one of the railcars being loaded within this building.

Clearly there is an immense rail advantage. This also extends into energy usage, but the possibilities are severed hampered by profit-based development. Nevertheless the scale efficiencies of rail, combined with new technology, offer a far more rational use of energy than highways.

A train of some 60 cars, each carrying over 100 tons of Tropicana juice products. One such train each day from Florida is capable of supplying the entire Philadelphia and New York metro region.

Moreover, the physics of highway transport make it far less safe than rail – as each truck must chart its own individual course, entirely based on the driver. Their actions – rather than any sort of structural organization – are the only prevention from collision with other trucks, and most importantly, other cars. Railways have fixed structural constraints which make such accidents highly improbable, especially with proper systems and maintenance.

Trucks speed within just feet of each other at 65 mph, navigating entirely arbitrary paths.
In front and behind? More trucks, each with it's own crew.

As for air, it's cargo is limited in weight and size, while the actual transport is much more expensive.

Thus, rail is clearly the most effective means of transport for most commodities over land. Yet in North America it only holds 40% of the market, in Europe, just 16%; in Brazil, 24%; and in the rest of South America, Africa (with the exception of South Africa), the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, the percent is negligible. The only large economies where rail dominates are Russia, China, and India.

Why? Because capitalist economy puts harsh limits on the development of railways. The two central features of capitalism – nation-states, and the anarchy of the market – are the two central reasons for inefficient use of railways.

The impact of nation-states on railroads

There is only one continent that is anywhere close to destroying national barriers to rail transport: North America. Unlike any other region, the (private) systems of Mexico, America, and Canada are all the same gauge, (4 feet 8 ½ inches, or standard gauge) for various historical reasons. The great distances of the continent force a certain amount of rail service in each respective continent, while the huge American and Canadian rail equipment builders, dominant on the world market, supplied similar equipment for the entire continent. The globalization of production has broken down the national rail corporations, causing further integration.

Every other region of the world is beset by archaic barriers: strict national boundaries, uneven economic development, or gauge differences.

In the former colonial regions of the world railways were built by foreign powers and corporations for the most narrow reasons of profit. Generally, systems simply went from resources – coal, ore, other minerals, and timber – to the coast. There the materials would either be processed or exported by ships. The lines had little to nothing to do with passenger transport, or even general freight usage. Moreover, the entire existence frequently depended on the survival of a company itself, so that entire African countries now lack rail service after the collapse of a corporation.

Otherwise the extremely limited development of rail systems could not overcome the narrow development of the economies themselves. Independence for colonial regions scarcely changed the economics of imperialism; most countries still have very narrow economies – uneven with the industrialized would, but within each country, extremely uneven development between the cities and country. This lack of diversity in products and resources limits the role of transport.

For South America and Africa especially, national boundaries have yet to be overcome. There is scarcely any cross border traffic, because there aren't even routes. Nearly every African nation may have a line from the interior to the coast but there are no African routes, that cross the length and width of the continent.

The same applies to South America. The relatively large systems of Brazil and Argentina are fractured within and isolated from the negligible systems throughout the rest of the continent. There are several gauge differences as well – within just Brazil there are substantial amounts of metre gauge, standard gauge, and broad gauge. For these regions, overall, rail transport is in shambles – and privatization cannot overcome these problems which ultimately find their source in capitalism.

Europe, of course, is extremely fractured by nation states. Railroads again face problems of gauge, but also equipment, tonnages, and clearances. The argument that railroads are unviable within these small nations is true – except that world economy dominates, not national. A standardization of railways throughout Europe could provide the longer hauls and greater scale that rail is best suited for.

Asia, with the three major rail systems of Russia, China, and India, faces similar problems as well. Russia's system is 5 foot gauge, unlike it's neighbors, presumably because the Stalinist economic policy of “socialism” in one country didn't care to give consideration to world trade. China is standard gauge, and India broad gauge (6 foot.) Combined with a severe lack of rail development in the surrounding nations – Iran, Iraq (the American invasion has destroyed the Iraqi rail system) Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, the Central Asia republics – rail traffic is effectively national for the largest continent in the world. The only exception are quite extensive shipments between Russia and China, but these must undergo massively inefficient gauge changes.

To state the obvious – rail transport is most effective when standardized and unhampered by national boundaries. It can carry the most and go the farthest. As long as nation-states persist, these problems will as well.

The anarchy of the market

Transportation by rail is, by nature, most effective with planning. It requires huge investments of capital which are only justifiable in combination with rational economic development. Through this approach traffic, tonnage, and speed can be maximized. The persistence of the anarchy of the market is precisely the reason why railroads cannot achieve these high levels of performance.

In North America it is claimed that highway transport is most efficient because it is “flexible.” On the contrary, highway transport is dominant because it's own anarchy of operation fits perfectly with the chaos of capitalist production – if a factory closes suddenly and moves south for cheaper wages, trucks can reach it with ease, but a railroad would have to build new trackage and abandon the old. Yet this simply means it is easier to get grossly inefficient transport wherever you need it! The easy to reach trucks still carry fractions of what rail service would do, with higher energy usage and lower safety. Their “flexibility” comes at enormous cost. A human can walk pretty much anywhere, and certainly get to all sorts of places a plane can't. But does that make walking quicker? Can one easily bring 300 companions along?

Instead, the conscious, planned development of economy will segue smoothly with similar approach for railroads. Cutting a 30 mile tunnel through the Alps, as the Swiss are currently doing, is certainly worth some $30 billion dollars because it is a central link of all north-south European trade and travel.

Yet similar projects scarcely exist. One of the most astonishing features of railways is there immense age. Nearly all railway lines built within the last 75 years have either been in India, China, and Russia, or are select high speed lines throughout Europe. Nearly everywhere else freight and passenger trains are traveling over lines that range from a 100 to even 170 years old. In Russia, the 6,380 mile long trans-Siberian railway has been electrified – a tremendous achievement – but still uses the original curvy, hilly alignment from the days of the Tsars. (alternate routes have been built but the bulk of the traffic still uses this line) To rebuild the entire route using the most modern techniques would literally cut days from the travel time, but no government or corporation is capable of funding such a thing.

In Europe the nature of standard railways is atrocious, an ironic result of the advanced economic development of the continent. The early urban and industrial growth, small territory, and large populations have pinned some of the first railway lines in the world in place, and modern improvements haven't been effected. Clearances are perhaps the worst problem, as they are minuscule compared to North America and Asia. Double stacking shipping containers on trains, as done in North America, doubles the capacity of the trains. This is possible because there is enough height on lines to handle such cars, and the trackage is capable of holding the weight. Neither condition applies to Europe; if a train of doublestacks was to travel the top container of the first car would get lopped off by a bridge!

A train of doublestacks about to ascend the Alleghany mountains in Pennsylvania. Heading east, these are containers of Asian shipping lines which were transferred to rail on the West Coast. That they have traveled by rail across the entire country is proof of the comparative efficiency of this method.

In the North America – frequently claimed to be the champion of rail freight transportation – tonnages and clearances are indeed the largest in the world. Yet other aspects lag severely behind, in particular, infrastructure. Tens of thousands of miles of heavily used rail lines still rely on alignments and grades laid down with the most rudimentary technique, i.e., the original course plotting in the 19th century. The aggregate cost of the continual, heavy use of such inferior lines is certainly tremendous: additional units, fuel, mileage, crews, equipment wear, and on. Awkward and absurd routings persist because private companies find no compelling reason to make the substantial investments to change them.

The long string of loaded coal cars speaks efficiency, but that train - heading south - originally went by on this lower level heading east. To get up there, it likely spent anywhere from 6 hours to a day to traverse a messy fifteen mile loop of trackage that forced it to change direction and add additional engines to surmount steep grades. All of that could be eliminated by building a direct connection right here, but a private railroad has little incentive to raise such funding.

There is also a staggering quantity of infrastructure, particularly bridges, which dates back a century and demands replacement as tonnages and dimensions increase. The aforementioned double-stacking of shipping containers is still impossible on several major routes, with clearance problems that again require major capital spending to address.

Raising issues of both capacity and aging infrastructure, this ancient bridge over the Appomattox River near Petersburg, Virginia, now carries upwards of 50 freight trains and 8 passenger trains a day, all on one track. Combined with a speed restriction, forcing lower speeds, it is the definition of a bottleneck.

Maintenance throughout Africa, South America, and parts of Asia is on par with the service in general – entirely inadequate. Given the overall conditions though, it is no surprise. Yet in north America, the profitable rail system – a “shining example of private rail” for the rest of the world – is forced by it's very nature to reduce maintenance and delay investment in badly needed infrastructure. For Wall Street does not care for money spent on fundamentals that reap no obvious, short-term rewards. Running trains makes money, so maintenance is only given insofar as it hinders running trains. Skimping is far more common, and more profitable, than excess.

Deep cutbacks into routes throughout the last 50 years have left severe capacity issues on the busiest mainlines in the country. While the U.S. in particular did have many duplicate and unnecessary rail routes, owing to the glories of the unplanned market, many others have been eliminated heedlessly in the same chaotic way that they were created. If passenger service were to re-emerge on large scale - which is an absolute necessity - there is simply no place to put it.

Most incredibly, electrification is essentially non-existent among fright railroads in the U.S., despite its greater efficiency and far more promising prospects of reasonable environmental impact. Despite U.S. railroads pioneering the technology in the early part of the 20th century, all major sections have been eliminated in favor of diesel powered engines.

An example of the destructive nature of rail cutbacks. This huge bridge is part of a superbly engineered freight bypass to avoid a congested passenger line with much worse alignment and grading. When constructed in the 1930's, it was also part of an ambitious program of electrification (note the poles sticking up.) Without any consideration of the broad social and economic impact, it was abandoned when traffic declined in the 1980's.

Union Pacific, the largest railroad on the continent, vies with the U.S. military for the greatest oil usage. By comparison the railroads of Europe and Asia are dominated by electric propulsion.

And, of course, regardless of nation, the working class which operates and maintains these railroads bears the brunt of cuts, inefficiencies, and safety. Recently rail workers struck in France, over pensions, and in Germany, over attempts to further increase their hours, decrease wages, and cut their rest period. In the U.S. and Canada rail workers are expected to work 60-70 hours a week, at any time, on any day. Standard shifts are twelve hours – to operate dynamic, moving equipment which weighs upwards of 10,000 tons, throughout night and day, in all weather! Between twelve hour shifts as little as eight hours rest are legally enough, even though part of that usually includes long drives to lodging and other delays.

To be refined, expanded, and clarified...


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