Opinion: Investing in railways helps fix roads

Jacob Bruggeman

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ran for office with a bold slogan: “Fix the damn roads.”

But for state's like hers there’s a compelling case to be made that fixing the damn railways might also be a great benefit.

Across the Midwest, roads are indeed crumbling — but so are railways. For example, a couple weeks ago in Dupo, Illinois, multiple train cars derailed and caught fire.

In this image taken from video, rails cars are engulfed in flames after a freight train bearing a flammable liquid used in solvents derailed in Dupo, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. The fire sent thick, black smoke into the air and prompted the evacuation of nearby schools and residences.

Just as pothole-ridden roads are unsafe for drivers, rusted-out railways are unsafe for the more than 450,000 Michiganians who travel on the state’s 586 miles of passenger routes each year. 

Fortunately, harm was largely avoided in Dupo. But injuries and deaths related to freight and passenger railroad operations will undoubtedly rise in Midwestern states like Illinois and, indeed, Michigan, unless governments invest in rail. To avoid such accidents on Michigan’s 3,600 miles of track, which the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded with a C-, something has to be done.

A Chicago bound train arrives after the dedication of the John Dingell Transit Center in Dearborn, December 15, 2014.

In 2018, eight individuals died and 193 were injured in train-related accidents. According to Scientific American, of the 58,299 train accidents that occurred between 2001 and 2010, 54,889 (or 94%) were train derailments — an accident that the Federal Railroad Administration commonly attributes to broken rails and welds

But why should Michigan and other states focus on investing in rail safety when, in 2019 alone, over 670 have already died in traffic-related accidents? After all, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) reports that recent years have been the safest in rail history, and the ASCE awarded the country’s railways a B overall. 

The answer is that healthier railways result in healthier roads. 

Robust railways are a desirable alternative to the stress-inducing scourge of all highways: freight trucks. Indeed, one freight train can carry as many goods as several hundred trucks. The AAR reports that freight trains have the additional benefit of being “three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks.” Furthermore, reductions in highway gridlock and highway maintenance costs would follow from a healthier, and thus more frequently used rail network. 

Less traffic will translate to not-so-damned roads in Michigan and elsewhere, and, more importantly, fewer traffic-related deaths — an aim of the “Toward Zero Deaths” initiative of Michigan’s Department of Transportation.

In 2017, Michigan’s drivers were endangered by more than 13,000 accidents involving trucks, with nearly 2,500 accidents that caused injury and almost 100 crashes that resulted in fatalities. 

What’s more, public funds would be freed up to fix other facets of Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure, including its D-rated levies or D+ wastewater treatment facilities. And the ASCE says $2 trillion is what the country as a whole needs invested in its infrastructure by 2025.

Robust railways must make up a portion of that $2 trillion. This would ensure Michigan’s rails can efficiently transport the $194 billion in commodities it handles already — especially given the fact that the freight moved in Michigan by rail is projected to increase 49.8% by 2040, and freight moved by truck is set to increase by 57.6%. Investing in railways would drive some of that projected growth in freight trucking to rail.

Building new investment in railways into a national infrastructure package, or taking on investment at a state-by-state level, promises to lessen road traffic, reduce traffic-related deaths and keep operators and passengers safe. 

Jacob Bruggeman is a graduate student in economic history at the University of Cambridge, Darwin College, an associate editor of the Cleveland Review of Books and a contributor to Young Voices.