Slimmed-Down Railroads Speed Into the 1990s

AMERICA'S freight railroad industry is back.

Railroads are the best-maintained infrastructure system of any transportation sector in the United States. Over the last decade, rail companies have poured resources into a broad-based upgrade of track, centralized electronic dispatching equipment, and larger freight cars.

"The basic track structure in the United States is in better shape than it has ever been before," says Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR) in Washington. "Rail companies have totally replaced thousands of miles of line with new ballast, new crossties, and new signaling systems."

This investment has come about without significant federal subsidy, as railroads are generally privately owned. The Congressional Budget Office reports that in the last five years, federal spending on railroads has averaged less than $50 million a year.

Over the past decade, productivity has skyrocketed. In 1983, each railroad employee handled 2.5 million ton-miles - the movement of a ton of freight one mile. By 1991, that figure had doubled.

The passage of the Staggers Act in 1980 deregulated the industry, bringing railroads' operating costs down by about 30 percent, according to an AAR report. Industry employment dropped by almost 50 percent from 530,000 in 1980 to 283,000 in 1991.

Over the last 10 years large rail companies have increased efficiency further by selling off about 10,000 miles of secondary, low-profit track. About 200 small railroad companies were created in the process. Railroads are installing an automated identification system that will be operational industry-wide by 1995. A small radio transponder on every rail car will enable companies to better track shipments.

The AAR reports that railroads spent $2.6 billion on track and signaling equipment in 1990 and an additional $4.3 billion on maintaining railroad rights-of-way and other structures.

Railroad infrastructure improvements that will receive top priority in the future will include upgrading freight yards to speed freight connections and constructing storage areas for bulk freight to keep rail cars available for transport.

Railroads also have an environmental bonus: For every pound of hydrocarbons emitted into the atmosphere, railroads deliver 15,100 ton-miles, compared with 1,210 ton-miles for trucks.

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