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April 22nd, 2009
America in Gridlock
[VIDEO] Choke Point

Blueprint America — with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer — in a two part report looks at the bottlenecks of America’s freight rail network, and the communities the trains intersect.

In the Midwest, Chicago has been a freight rail hub for around 150 years. In the old days, some lines brought raw materials to the city –- like cattle to the stockyards –- while others carried finished products to market. The city’s rails are still laid out that way: a couple of lines come in from the west and a couple of others from the east. Even though Chicago still handles about a third of the nation’s freight, a lot of it has to stop there -– wait there –- and shift from one railroad to another.

As a result, traffic on Chicago’s rails is even slower than traffic on its roads: A 2002 study found that freight trains pass through the city at an average of just nine miles an hour.

There is no agency in Washington, D.C. responsible for untangling, modernizing, or maintaining the nation’s freight rail system –- or for paying for those improvements. Federal support for improving freight has to come through the back door –- tacked on to other transportation projects.

The Obama Administration’s plan for the expansion of high-speed passenger rail in several key corridors – including Chicago and the Midwest – is likely to improve the speed of freight as both kinds of trains share the same tracks in much of the country.

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At the same time, the community of Barrington, IL, an outlying suburb in the Chicago area, has had freight re-routed to pass through the city. Residents are not too happy. Still, the shift in train traffic is likely to lessen the congestion of freight in the City of Chicago.

And while the City of Chicago, railroads, and federal authorities have developed a plan to ease freight train traffic, it won’t be complete for years. As a result, the freight carrier Canadian National did what it could and moved some of its trains away from the metropolitan area.

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  • John Alan Roderick

    One way in which government can stimulate investment by private rail freight companies is to minimize taxation on investment or create tax-free “transport” bonds similar to municipal or state bonds.

  • John Klug

    There was a comparison in the piece to freight trains in Europe. He neglected to mention that in Western Europe most trains are electric, which accelerate more quickly, and don’t use oil. China has ordered hundreds of electric train sets. The U.S. will be buried by its competition.

  • WH Evans

    The USG should be pushing more cargo from tail and truck onto water barges– cleaner than trucks or rail, and more energy efficient (moving a ton of freight farther on a gallon of fuel than by train– or by truck, obviously. Plus water transport is safer than rail or truck. Why isn’t this happening? Why wasn’t stimulus bill full of incentives for new and mocernized water transport projects?

  • Stewart

    Comment #2 from John, “He neglected to mention that in Western Europe most trains are electric, which accelerate more quickly, and don’t use oil.”
    John, do you know where that Chinese electricity comes from? Coal. Your argument is void.

  • Robert Press

    Well, the last electrified, long-distance freight railroad in the US was the Milwaukee Road.
    The US is not Europe — the distances here are vast, Europe is mostly short-haul. An electrified, nationwide freight rail system would cost hundreds of billions, and would take decades to build — just as the Interstate Hwy System took decades to build.
    Amtrak is a tenant — it does not own the rails it operates on, and dispatching is done by the host [freight] railroad — with the usual conflicts and disruptions to both Amtrak and freight operations.
    Freight service is poor because increasing volumes are concentrated through inefficient, shrinking facilities occupying valuable urban real estate, and a lack of operating discipline. A return the the old Southern Railway’s operating philosophy under D.W. Brosnan’s : “you build your trains to 9,000 hp, the train leaves on time, and everybody knows it” is in order.
    Any truck move more than 750 miles should go to intermodal rail, and a subsidy for the RoadRailer should be looked considered.
    Time is money, and anybody who has the luxury to travel long-distance by train should pay a premium price — high-speed rail makes sense over shorter distances.
    For the last 30 years, our government has not had a transportation policy, nor an energy policy, nor an industrial policy.
    Why? Because in an era of deregulation and laissez faire capitalism, for the government to have a policy is to have the government act — for the government to act is to interfere.

  • The Asphalt Blogger

    Robert, freight by train is not a solution to 1. creating less traffic on the interstates or 2. reducing pollution. In todays transportation environment, shippers and receivers do not have the warehousing or staffing to handle the product they currently produce or sell. Consequently, the vast majority of shippers and receivers work off of a JIT system, Just In Time, which allows them to shrink cost for storing such allocations. In a depressed economy, shippers and receivers are even more reluctant to expand their operations. So what are we left with? Trucks transporting freight in a much more timely manner than a train could or would ever do. Some of the biggest down falls of the train service is a result of what I believe an “Ole South mentality”. A belief that, “We are history and we have a right to operate this way!” For trains to become functional and profitable, operators are going to have to really evaluate their operations model and decide if they can compete with other forms of transportation. Otherwise, they will continue to price them out of the industry.

  • Ryan

    Personal rapid transit (PRT) could solve this problem for city residents. They’re building it in London Heathrow.

    Learn more about PRT:

  • Bill

    The argument that trains are not capable of JIT transport of goods is a false. UPS delivers packages on time every day and moves considerable freight by rail. Their largest sorting center and perhaps the largest sorting center in the US is located next to an intermodal facility demonstrating the importance of intermodal transport to the UPS delivery system. All it takes is planning and discipline for both the rail system and manufactures.

  • The Asphalt Blogger

    Bill, I assume that the planes that Fedex and UPS uses to deliver packages is something that shippers and/or receivers will be willing to put up to allow them to accomplish this…… Or the Airport fees associated with using the Airports…….Does it have Cold Storage Facilities? If not, I assume that the shippers and/or receivers will be willing to front the cost of building these too….. No disrespect, but your comment is not based on an educated position. To assume that all companies are “willing” to switch to a UPS or Fedex model is grossly under estimating their position. Please also reference the “largest sorting center in the U.S.” I would be interested in learning more about this.

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