The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach grabbed headlines at the end of the summer when they announced an ambitious plan to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and move to zero-emission cargo-handling equipment over the next several decades.
This unprecedented move will take massive resources—an estimated $14 billion in public and private funds—and planning. At the same time, U.S. ports around the country are welcoming the biggest ships they’ve ever received.
In Los Angeles, freight railroads are critical partners bringing shipborne cargo from overseas to markets across America, and they will play an outsized role as port officials prepare for the future.
Rail is not only more environmentally friendly than other modes for carrying this freight inland—it’s about four times more fuel-efficient than trucks—but it also cuts down on local congestion and the pollution that accompanies this traffic. About two-thirds of the cargo that arrives at the Port of Long Beach, for example, eventually makes its way into the interior of the United States via rail. The move to zero emissions coupled with freight demand increases will put an even heavier emphasis on freight rail going forward.
Unfortunately a set of proposals currently under consideration by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal body that regulates railroads, threatens to gum up the works of our local and national freight rail network. The most serious of the proposals, “forced access,” would require rail companies to open their lines to competitors at rates and schedules determined by the government.
This kind of intervention not only creates network inefficiencies for shippers—there are over 60 steps required for a single train switch—but it could also jeopardize the ability of rail companies to invest in the nationwide rail network. In the years since freight railroads were partially economically deregulated in 1980, taking government out of day-to-day rail operations, they have spent over $635 billion on maintaining and growing rail infrastructure and operations.
Companies that deliver products to U.S. consumers, as well as the rail unions, have come out against forced access. In a filing to the Surface Transportation Board, representatives of United Parcel Service wrote that forced access would “lead to decreased network velocity, diminished capital investments into the freight network, and deteriorating rail intermodal service levels.”
Simply put, this would hurt American consumers. One estimate says government-mandated rail traffic controls could jeopardize $8 billion in rail revenues and affect an estimated 7.5 million carloads of traffic.
For our ports, and Southern California’s bustling goods movement industry, freight rail is an essential partner, delivering reliability, efficiency and a commitment to greener operations. The billions that freight rail spends every year also catalyze continuous innovation. Due to improved freight car design, today’s trains can carry about 3,500 tons of freight, up from 2,222 three decades ago.
The downstream effects of greening our ports and meeting the demand of larger ships will be significant for the logistics network that powers our region. Policymakers and officials at the Surface Transportation Board should recognize the myriad public benefits that come from railroads investing their own capital, not taxpayer dollars. Forced access is the kind of overregulation that would upend this framework—bad for shippers, bad for consumers and bad for our economy.
Nate Kaplan is a Los Angeles resident and West Coast State Director for GoRail, a national rail advocacy organization.
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