What Commodities Could Return To The Rails?

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Sean R Das

Hello. It is a fact that with the coming of Interstate Highways in the 1950's, railroads began to lose many once-valuable commodities to trucking. However, in this day and age the combination of rubber tires and long distances are becoming uneconomical, and some commodities may return to the rails. If Union Pacific and Railex can revive produce traffic, think of what else can be brought back...
It depends largely on the railroads interest in the traffic. They can aggressively pursue business that fits their business model. But there is a lot of freight traffic they just don’t want. Railroads like steady traffic that moves on the same lane month after month. From my experience as a shipper they don’t like loose car business and traffic that changes routes month to month. Trucking is not a sainted industry but the flexibility and competition trucking offers will keep a lot of traffic on the highways.
One could make a case that much of the commodities that "once rode the rails" are riding the rails today, but in containers instead of boxcars. However, much of that traffic is on somewhat different routes than the traditional "manufactured goods" traffic. The package carrier of olde, Railway Express Agency, is long gone of course, but there is a lot of similar UPS package traffic riding the rails.

Aside from Railex reefer trafic, BNSF is hauling competing Cold Train containers east from Quincy, WA. A similar intermodal reefer container operation, Tiger Cool Express, is setting up to run out of California.
Containers and trailers, actually; I've noticed not only a substantial increase in the latter in recent years, but also in the number of different trucking companies that are now using TOFC (okay, they're mostly spine cars now, but who cares?). Shipping via COFC/TOFC retains the "door to door" flexibility of traditional long-haul trucking but with less of the expenses trucking companies would otherwise have (no small consideration given the cost of fuel, fleet maintenance, insurance, etc.).
Watch a double stack train go by and back in the day each of those containers was a 40’ box car. Most commodities move by rail to some extent. A lot of traffic that left the box car for the truck trailer still travels by rail, just in trailers and containers. It’s more a question of what service lanes could pick up traffic from the highways rather than commodities.
Not exactly the responses I had in mind, but interesting. Although I do recognize an increase in TOFC/COFC traffic, I was thinking mainly about commodities that cannot be shipped in a corrugated metal box.

Take livestock for example: Although the era of the railroad stock car has been over for more than 40 years, there may come a time when rubber tires and long distances are uneconomical, and live animals will once again return to the rails.

(**Looks through Kalmbach's "Model Railroader's Guide to Industries Along the Tracks" series for more examples**)
The era of transporting live animals by rail is over, and will not return on a large scale. I suppose it could happen on a very short run, but distances such as those where the economy of scale advantage a railroad holds over highway transport exists are too long to transport animals humanely. The requirements that the animals be offloaded and fed, given water, and rest every so often became too much for railroads to be able to transport the animals economically and hastened the end of livestock transport by rail.

Just thinking about some common things that go wrong on the railroad today, I cannot imagine the damage that would occur to livestock should they experience severe slack action, nevermind a derailment. The possibility of a service interruption stranding the livestock train in a blizzard or in oppressive heat at a place where the livestock could not be easily offloaded doesn't conjure pleasant thoughts. In my opinion, there's too much that can go wrong in this case that puts the cargo at risk of injury or death.

I like the idea of this thread, by the way. Any increase in rail traffic is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.
The sugar (and molasses) factory in my town receives raw cane by truck (there are no longer any tracks where the cane is harvested.) It ships out molasses via rail but the raw sugar is shipped out by truck to be further refined at other sugar factories. They are building a depot in my town that will handle crude oil and I believe will ship it out by rail. From what I have read; it will receive or ship (not sure yet) a unit train of crude oil everyday. I live along the BNSF Lafayette Subdivision in Louisiana.

As for the question that is the title of this thread; my answer is "as much as possible."
In a recent issue of Trains magazine, there is an article reflecting how railroading has changed since the golden age. When the American public began to view railroads as a thing of the past, many commodities left the rails. Other than livestock and perishables, other commodities railroads lost include the mail and express*, LCL traffic and other time-sensitive and fragile freight. In a sense, railroads transformed themselves from "common carriers" accepting all types of freight to specialized shippers moving specific commodities in bulk.

So the whole point of this thread is to ask, "Given America's rail renaissance, will American railroads once again become the common carriers they once were?"

*Mail and Express traffic never completely left the rails. They are still shipped by rail thanks to TOFC traffic, where FedEx, UPS and even USPS trailers can be seen. USPS is also considering expanding mail-by-rail service as we speak.

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