Nationwide rail strike would cripple economy, worsen air quality

Action is underway in Congress to avert a rail-workers strike and keep America’s trains on track.

The underlying issues between labor and management whom, as it had been reported, had failed to reach complete agreement, appear to be over paid time off for sick leave as well as worker pay. Absent a binding agreement the trains will sit idle. That such a situation were to come to pass, the fallout from such could be both economically and environmentally consequential.

Let’s, for a moment, consider the implications of that. How many trucks, buses, ferry boats, automobiles and airplanes would be needed to get the goods and people ordinarily moving on trains to their intended destinations? Broadly speaking, an inordinate number, I would say. Understanding this, it’s easy to see the role these trains play and what they mean in terms of their contribution to this country’s economic health and well-being.

But, it goes beyond that. A sudden influx of additional traffic to the roadways, airways and shipping lanes, could overwhelm these supply lines, if you will. Not only would we be looking at serious gridlock in certain circumstances, but there would be a rise in the level of air pollution coupled to that. As a result, air quality would suffer.

And, how bad would it be?

Before I get to this, I just want to reflect on the air quality situation – what it was – during the height of the pandemic and how pollution levels fell from the marked reductions in driving and other air-polluting activities happening worldwide.

In “Teledistanced broadcast journalism: Coming through loud and clear and air friendlily,” I offered: “The significant scale-down in non-essential travel activity reaching its lowest level has resulted in world emissions of oxides of nitrogen falling by 17 percent and greenhouse gas emissions retreating by 21 percent, that speaks volumes! And, from this, skies cleared in myriad locations affording those who took the time to notice pristine and panoramic views, providing direct evidence of what had transpired when good, clean, healthy air prevailed over that which was not.”

That was then.

Today, air pollution has once again returned to pre-COVID levels.

Okay, so back on point. If a one-day rail shutdown were to occur – however unrealistic that is, there would be:

• thousands fewer long-haul freight runs made

• domestic economic losses in the billions

• hundreds of thousands of additional long-haul truck moves needing to be made

• tens of millions of diesel-fuel gallons consumed (from those truck moves), and

• hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide released into the air (as a result).

In an Association of American Railroads Mar. 1, 2021 “Railroads Stake Out Positions on Addressing Climate Change” press release, the AAR wrote: “Today, railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume (measured by ton-miles) – more than any other mode of transportation. At the same time, railroads account for just 2.1% of transportation-related emissions according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. If 10% of the freight shipped today by the largest trucks were moved by rail instead, GHG emissions would fall more than 17 million tons annually or the equivalent of removing 3.35 million cars from the road.”

The impact would be felt far and wide.

On the passenger side of the ledger, moreover, the chief provider of service here in the U.S. is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, before the pandemic hit, was meeting the travel needs of some 30+ million people each year.

Amtrak in 2013 moved 31.6 million people, roughly 32 million passengers. That’s a per-day average of 86,575. If affected by a national rail strike and forced to find alternative transportation arrangements via bus, car, ferry and plane, thus adding to the numbers in the existing mix, this would effectively put considerably more traffic in the skies, on the ground and on the water. The bulk, no doubt, would travel in cars and buses, leaving fewer numbers taking to the skies with fewer still ferry-boating it – perhaps a 60, 30, 8 and 2 percent, respective, split. And this doesn’t include the people riding commuter trains sharing freight railroad infrastructure, compounding the matter further if a railroad employee work-stoppage were to occur. Some commuter railroad operations, meanwhile, carry more than one million riders each weekday alone.

For those riders traveling electric-powered trains, by switching to other modes, unless these are likewise powered by clean electricity, air quality will be affected, and not in a good way.

All of which proves trains are both valuable and indispensable assets to the inner workings of America’s extensive, essential and, well, complex, transportation network.

– Alan Kandel

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This post was last updated on Dec. 2, 2022 at 11:19 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.