Imagine for a moment an Amtrak train going 80 MPH while up ahead a freight train is moving along much more slowly. Amtrak can slow down or the freight train can temporarily move to a side track. Neither wants to lose valuable time.
Where are we going? To railroad transportation dilemmas.
On Amtrak’s long-haul national routes–72% of its mileage–they use freight train track. On this track, they have “preference” over freight traffic according to legislation from 1973. However, the freight carriers have asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to reconsider the law.
Citing the cost of time and other sacrifices created by unexpected delays, inconvenient schedules and the search for less appropriate alternatives, Amtrak points out that in 2015 their reliability affected 30 million people. Similarly, a railroad that moves furniture or oil or wheat across the country needs dependability. But freight carriers might not even be able to figure out an established routine because demand can shape when trains depart.
Looking at the passenger/freight train relationship, scholars have quantified the connection. You can see below that more passenger trains create an increasingly large cost from foregone demand, postponed departures (waiting for a passenger train to pass through) and delays along the route.
Freight Carrier Costs
“Shares of various components in freight-side total cost ($000)”
Shown by the red line (below) for long distance routes that are in freight carrier “territory,” Amtrak’s costs relate primarily to delayed arrival times.
Our Bottom Line: Transportation Infrastructure
Minimizing the cost of our transportation infrastructure has always been important for economic growth. During the nineteenth century a new railroad network fueled a national market and regional specialization. With different sections of the country doing what they do best, it permitted us to enjoy David Ricardo’s comparative advantage. And now, as the U.S. Surface Transportation Board wrestles with track-sharing dilemmas, their goal is still to optimize the economic benefits of our transportation infrastructure.