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Freight at the Crossroads

August 07, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

When most of us think about transportation, we focus on personal mobility by automobile, transit, airplane, passenger rail, bicycle or walking. We're usually less aware of the indispensable role of freight movement in our prosperous society. Recent developments, however, have shone a new spotlight on the ways we transport commodities and consumer goods.

Trucks haul a hands-down majority of U.S. freight as measured by either weight or value, although railroads, waterways and pipelines make significant contributions, especially for the heaviest loads over the longest distances. A 2013 federal report shows trucking's growth in dominance in recent years and projects it to continue decades out.

This may be less than an ideal distribution—for economic efficiency and pavement resiliency as well as ordinary drivers' nerves and safety—but it is a legacy of our vast interstate highway system. Meanwhile, problems with non-highway alternatives could put even more pressure on the roads as they face rolling funding crises at the federal level. Some examples:

  • Extreme rains have clogged shipping channels with silt on the great Mississippi River inland waterway, putting dredging crews under the gun to open the way for Upper Midwest grain heading south and cement and road salt coming north. Under-engineered locks and dams on the upper river approaching 100 years old also pose risks of closure and deep economic damage.
  • Transferring all the stuff to trains is an unlikely solution, as the railroads are already straining to move crude oil to refineries, last year's grain harvest to ports, coal to power plants and consumer goods to reviving retail stores.
  • The bright dream of U.S. energy independence has dulled in the face of public backlash against the risks of transporting new gushers of North American oil. Pipeline proposals and oil trains get equal doses of opprobrium.
  • Poor Amtrak, the nation's lowly passenger rail service, has been increasingly sidetracked by the freight boom. Its on-time performance has dipped to less than 75 percent overall, and to five percent on runs from Chicago to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. A 2008 law to give Amtrak more control over its schedule has been blocked by a railroad suit that is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, more passengers are likely to ditch the train for their cars.
  • Even the trucking industry is struggling to take up the slack from other freight haulers. Hiring enough drivers is a constant challenge. While some companies may raise pay to attract recruits, it can be counterproductive to improve working conditions when the imperative is to keep rigs on the road as much as possible. The industry is resisting new safety regulations limiting truckers' hours behind the wheel. 

Slowly, public policy addresses the bottlenecks and conflicts. Minnesota imposed new fees and regulations on railroads carrying oil through the state and federal officials proposed stiffened rules regarding the design and operation of tanker trains. 

Diverse interests—from business to environmental to public safety to energy security and the homeland kind—remain at odds as the oil-train debate continues. Railroads also are investing heavily in new infrastructure and rolling stock, with promises of eventual safety and efficiency improvements. 

Long-discussed public-private upgrading of the Mississippi inland waterway got a boost with enactment of federal legislation this year, but much remains to be done for the aging system. Decisions are still pending on pipelines that can move oil with greater efficiency and assurance of public safety than railroads, but may increase environmental risks in the short and long terms.

It's crossroads time for freight in this country. And that means this economic pillar should get more attention from the majority of us who seldom give it a thought.

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  • Peter Rachleff says:

    August 11, 2014 at 7:16 am

    We all need to be paying closer attention to what is happening with the railroads.  The BNSF, a key carrier and trend-setter in our region, is seeking to introduce ENGINEER-ONLY CREWS, which is a terrible risk to safety.  And, given the new emphasis on carrying crude oil, this ought to be a top public priority, and yet it is, so far, completely below the radar.  We must wake up and act before a disaster.

  • Diana Slyter says:

    August 11, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Excellent article, sounds like you’ve reached the same conclusion I have in my blog: