Should Our Government Take a Look at the US Freight Transportation System?

The derailment in Ohio brings this question to mind.

Rail workers call for nationalization. [1] They argue that the private and inadequately regulated industry has “shown itself incapable of doing the job.”
That the Precision Scheduled Railroading model used by corporate railroads is what
s at fault in the system. PSR is a Wall Street-backed model that has taken hold across the U.S. rail industry, gutting workforces and undermining safety in pursuit of more “efficiency” and larger profits for rail carriers and rich investors. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 of the nation’s trains derail every year.

A brief recent railroad history[2]: In 1980, Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act. Among other changes, it lifted the requirement that the ICC approve rate changes, let rail companies close unprofitable lines more easily, and permitted more mergers between firms. The results, the Association of American Railroads argued in The Washington Post, were an unqualified success. In the decades following Staggers, the productivity of freight rail shot up, to the point that one-third of U.S. exports were carried by train, while shipping rates dramatically declined.

But the AAP’s favored interpretation of the data may not tell the whole story. With mergers and consolidations made easier, the number of Class 1 (long-haul) railroads has plummeted since Staggers. The just-in-time operating model favored by the industry helps stock prices and dividends but at the expense of basic maintenance and service necessities. And reducing the number of railroads, and rail workers, has left the system with little flexibility in the event of a crisis.

According to CNBC, the freight rail industry was responsible for transporting a third of U.S. exports in 2022.

Over the objections of unions representing railway workers, rail companies had made dramatic staff cuts since 2017, while increasing the length of operating trains and adopting inflexible business models. While railroads insisted that such changes didn’t represent a threat to safety, rail unions maintained that with fewer staff, a serious accident was only a matter of time.

If profits for U.S. freight rail have been the highest in the world in recent years, the industry’s reputation with its customers is another story.
Rail service can regularly see delays of over three days, and many shippers dependent on rail services only have a single company they can work with. This means that they have no opportunity to negotiate for better rates.

Trucks provide an alternative to trains, and many customers prefer to use trucks to transport their goods. They’re more reliably on time and their parent companies provide better tracking of shipments. But trucking can’t match rail for volume.

But what about shipment by waterways? Even the UP admits that it is the cheapest way to ship goods.[3] Though it is slower.
Shipment by waterway is hindered by the Jones Act passed 100 years ago.[4]

a federal law known as the Jones Act has restricted water transportation of cargo between U.S. ports to ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-crewed, U.S.-registered, and U.S.-built. Justified on national security grounds as a means to bolster the U.S. maritime industry, the unsurprising result of this law has been to impose significant costs on the U.S. economy while providing few of the promised benefits.
The above keep shipping costs by water artificially inflated. Thus driving down demand. Reduced demand means that producers build fewer ships and, accordingly, there are fewer employment opportunities for merchant mariners. Meanwhile, artificially inflated waterborne shipping rates increase demand for alternative forms of transportation, including trucking, rail, and pipeline services, raising those modes’ rates and inflating business costs throughout the supply chain. Transportation expenses — incurred to move raw materials and intermediate goods to the next stage in the production process and final product to retailers and end users — comprise a significant portion of the cost of goods sold. Elevated transportation costs affect nearly every business in nearly every industry, rippling through supply chains, squeezing profits, curtailing business investment, disadvantaging U.S. companies relative to their foreign competitors, and depriving U.S. households of savings to spend elsewhere in the economy or to invest.

At a minimum I believe it would make sense to repeal the Jones Act & for our government to impose increased safety regulation upon railroads with inspection by government employees similar to US government inspection of foods to ensure compliance to the rules & regulations. It is apparent that the corporate culture of cost cutting can NOT be trusted with safety.

What think ye?

[1]Rail Workers Urge Nationalization Amid Ohio Disaster
[3]UP: Pros & Cons of Water Transport: Ship Speed, Shipment Visibility, More


Failure of the hot box detection system in the Ohio derailment is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Especially on those routes authorized to carry hazardous materials.


So, instead of US flag ships, subject to US safety regs, US ports, rivers, canals, would be full of vessels that are flagged by the cheapest possible country, with the most lax regulations possible.

What do you get with lax ship regulation and poor training?



Like I proposed for the railroads similar safety rules and regulations with inspection by US government employees.

Then you are effectively in the same place as with the Jones Act, now, with all those profit damaging “big gummit” regulations. Those regulations defeat the entire idea of a “flag of convenience”.


No if foreign carriers can meet the safety requirements they can use US waterways. Or foreign merchant marine seamen would be eligible to work on US ships. This openness would increase competition up & lower costs somewhat, but the safety would be monitored by US government.

I know next to nothing about this system, but I do know that there used to be 5 such locations near the point when the derailment happened and now there are none. A part of cost-cutting, I presume. (I will wait for an official report before opining further.)

But I must say this seems a poor substitute for continuous monitoring of hazardous shipments, especially as they traverse populated areas. With all the technology around - including silly little things like Tile, Apple’s Air Tags and mini-GPS tags available for relative pennies, it’s hard to understand why each rail car isn’t equipped with some sort of device that could be monitored aboard each and every train. Purchased by the tens- or hundreds-of-thousands, you’re talking about adding a pittance to the cost of a rail car in return for a significant improvement in safety. I mean these hot box detectors monitor “heat” in the wheel chassis. How hard can that be?

[I am reminded of a long ago entrepreneur named George Westinghouse, whose first big invention was “air brakes” for railroads, making obsolete the hand brakes that were the cause of so many accidents as crewmen jumped car to car frantically twisting the brake handles on one car at a time. Made him a wealthy man, from which he developed lots of other businesses, including funding a guy named Tesla and his crazy idea of alternating current.]


I saw an article where unions pointed out that Norfolk Southern had eliminated the senior electronics position that used to maintain the hot box detectors. This as part of their cost reduction in the Precision Railroading system. Supposedly signal maintainers have been trained to cover the position.

Yes, maybe more electronics can help. Special requirements for hazardous materials routes seems reasonable to me.


Rail cars may not be owned by the railroad. They are owned by a variety of private owners who rent them to whoever is to move the cargo. The hot boxes worked, but they were removed where the accident happened. The law regarding train car owners needs to be changed to require them to install and maintain (with periodic testing and reporting to the govt) devices on the axles/wheels/etc of each rail car to identify and report (in near-real-time) suspected heat problem in those parts of each rail car–in the interest of public safety. Or mandate the railroads install and maintain hot boxes to do essentially the same thing (probably at far lower cost and much less govt bureaucracy). Their choice…


So what? Make a wireless sensor that travels with the car. Make it illegal to use a car that doesn’t have functioning sensors. It doesn’t matter if “the railroad” owns the cars, the sensors belong with the cars, just like the wheels or brakes.

The “hot Boxes” need to be connected to a central station, which is done by hardline wires. This is incredibly expensive, and assures that most of the rail network won’t be covered. Wireless sensors, OTOH, can connect to the locomotive, which can be monitored by satellite in the same way truck dispatching is currently done across the country, and would have the benefit of monitoring every car across every inch of the rail system. (And because every “truck” (wheel assembly) is ferrous, attachment could be as simple as “magnets”.)

This is the kind of thing I wish Google would get involved with. (Another on my wish list is constant GPS monitoring of rail speeds, so we don’t rely on a different old-tech system of wired indicators along only certain sections of trackage.)

Seriously. Why is this not automatically part of the rail system?


The hot boxes do not have to be connected via hardwire to anything. If a wireless sensor is “good enough” for the rail cars, then it is also “good enough” for the hot boxes. Far fewer of everything needed to actually do the monitoring. Plus, very easy to add more hot boxes in more locations.

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Wiring railroads in the days of the telegraph was a concern. Today coax cable and fiber optics have huge capacity.

Most modern railroads use automatic block signals and centralized traffic control. Dispatchers control trains from hundreds of miles away. Communications are very much part of railroading.

It did not take long after invention of the telegraph to realize it fit very well with railroads. Telegraph lines following railroads was common for eons.

It comes as no surprise that early fiber optics followed railroads. In Terre Haute the north south fiber line is 12 in east of the end of the ties.

And recall that Sprint takes its name from Southern Pacific Railroad. It began as their microwave communication system.

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It’s not the capacity, it’s the cost of wiring it. There are over 140,000 miles of trackage in this country. Fiberoptic costs around $50,000 per mile. So you’re at $7B not including the cost of hookup and monitors. If you want a monitor every mile (an overheated axle will go red hot and fail in about 3 miles), you are looking at an enormous cost for installation and maintenance.

By contrast there are 1.6m rail cars in the country. A simple $100 monitor now costs $100m, and installation is “slap it on the railroad truck (wheels)” seems easier.

Except you need power to run them, which means “hardwire”, and there are stretches where you are dozens of miles from a node so a battery doesn’t work for those kinds of remote areas. By contrast a system mounted in the freight car itself only has to reach the cab, and the cab has its own power to run the satellite system. Or, like the vacuum hoses which power the brakes, the engine could power a system through the entire train. They have to be connected already, how hard would it be to add a dedicated wire for sensors to the hookup?

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But that wiring is already there for signalling and CTC. Its the cost of connecting the hot box detectors and maintaining them.

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Agree the Jones Act needs to be modified. The silliest part of it is the must stop at a port before the final destination. This is raising costs for natural gas, propane, heating oil & diesel especially to the NE.

There’s no good reason why airline safety & inspection regulations - in a “deregulated” market - can’t be modeled / tailored to and required for all rail freight. Except that would require reason, compromise and an interest in the public good.


I was going to say the same thing. All the hot boxes need is power. And in populated areas, power is already near by. In the empty places in the West, there don’t need to be as many hot boxes. Put them were there is already convenient power near towns. Communications can be via satellite or cellular data.

Or do both. Put sensors on the rail cars AND beside the tracks. Where safety is concerned, redundancy is good.

And no more self-inspecting things. Hire federal inspectors and charge the railroads for the cost.



Speaking of trains, the trains in Spain are too wide for their tunnels to contain.

Spain’s secretary of state for transport and the head of the state rail company have resigned amid continuing public and political anger after it emerged that dozens of new trains ordered for two northern Spanish regions were too big to fit through some tunnels.


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Ok - But this from the article - bolding mine:

The government has, however, previously been at pains to insist that the errors had been spotted before any train was built, and that “not a single euro of Spaniards’ money has been wasted” as a result.

That might be what some folks may call “click bait”



I give @DrBob2 a :+1: for this:
“the trains in Spain are too wide for their tunnels to contain.”



Trainflation! That’s a new one! :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:

The Captain