Making the grade – Part 1: American infrastructure report card: Rails

Two infrastructure types: Energy and Rail
Two infrastructure types: Energy and Rail

Unless a recluse, there is nary a single American who is not affected by infrastructure in some way. Infrastructure consists of things like bridges, dams, levees, pipelines, ports, railroads, roads, schools, transmission lines, waterways and more.

And, how is American infrastructure faring?

In a Mar. 19, 2013 press release, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports, “The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) today released its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure across 16 sections. Updated once every four years, this year’s Report Card found that America’s cumulative [Grade Point Average] for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ from a D in 2009. The Report Card estimates total investment needs at $3.6 trillion by 2020 across all 16 sectors, leaving a funding shortfall of $1.6 trillion based on current funding levels.”

In other words, infrastructure got a slightly better than “Poor” grade.

What begins right here and right now is a multi-part “infrastructure” series profile or review, in four separate installments, that will cover ports, rails, roads and transit.

Touched upon will be parameters such as infrastructure background, current states of the varying infrastructure types, funding and grades. The series starts off with rails.

On the right track

In “CATS: Diesel-electric versus pure electric train operations – pros and cons” provided is a brief but accurate accounting of the background of American railroading. So, I will forego repeating that here.

In the press release the ASCE mentioned that, “Rail saw the largest improvement, moving up to a C+ in 2013. America’s freight rail industry invested more than $20 billion each year from 2009 through 2012 to modernize its network. In 2012, Amtrak recorded its highest year of ridership, benefiting from federal investments in tracks, bridges, tunnels, and increased capacity from both freight and passenger operations.”

As it relates, particulars like capital investment and on-time performance are barometers of ridership strength or weakness.

Across America, as of 2011, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), there were a sum total of 567 freight railroads.

Moreover, according to information in a second AAR document, infrastructure investment for freight railroads was strong – in excess of $20 billion in 2011 – the industry spending roughly $12 billion on signals and tracks, primarily, with $9 billion annually being allocated for locomotives, rolling stock and other types of equipment. In all, freight railroads spent $480 billion on infrastructure maintenance and modernization over a 30-year period between 1980 and 2010.

On the other side of the coin, Amtrak is budgeted roughly $1.3 billion annually – give or take.

In a McClatchy newsstory, Washington, D.C. correspondent Curtis Tate reports that Amtrak, “which has always required a federal operating subsidy since its inception in 1971, faces automatic spending cuts and ongoing efforts to reduce or eliminate federal support.”

In spite of the bare-bones subsidy, comparatively speaking, of course, Amtrak experienced a record ridership in 2012 of 31.2 million passengers, a 55 percent improvement in ridership relative to 1997’s figures.

Could conditions be better? No question.

So, how can America’s network of rails be improved?

Infrastructure improvement could come in the way of electrification of non-electrified lines, adding high-speed rail lines and upgrading of locomotives and equipment to increase fuel efficiency, advance environmental sustainability and lower drag and rolling resistance (friction) all for improved operation where both warranted and feasible.

– Alan Kandel