Rail Advocate Urges Greater Public Role in Shifting Freight Off State Highways

March 28, 2008 — Any significant shift of freight and passenger traffic from highways back to railways will require a major shift in public transportation policy at all levels of government, according to an article written by former railroad executive Richard L. Beadles that appears in the latest edition of The Virginia News Letter, a publication of the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center.

Beadles is a founder of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute, a non-profit group dedicated to enhancing public understanding of inter-city rail as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly mode of transportation for both people and cargo.

In his article, "Can Public Investment in Freight Rail Deliver the Goods?," Beadles argues that the Commonwealth of Virginia should create a public rail authority similar to its highly successful port authority and other transportation authorities. Such a strong public agency, he writes, would function as a master-planning organization in order for environmentally friendly freight-rail transportation to have a significant impact on reducing long-haul truck traffic.

"Many people feel intuitively that our rail network could and should be more fully developed and utilized," Beadles writes. "To do that will require large capital investment in rail by both the private and public sectors. But to achieve any significant degree of shift of freight and passenger traffic from highway to rail will require much more than building new tracks."

The public wants high-performance passenger rail service in urban corridors, but it is unclear whether it is possible to accommodate today's short-haul freight and inter-city passenger trains in the same corridor. An ideal demonstration project testing freight and passenger service using the same rail lines would take place along the Hampton Roads-Richmond-Washington, D.C. corridor, he suggests. For such a project to become reality, Virginia needs what Beadles calls "transportation diplomacy" between the public sector, private railroads and Amtrak to be conducted at the highest levels.

To formulate sound public policy involving the private railroads, the effort must be organized by the public sector and well-funded by the public and private sectors in partnership. The history of great public works projects, including the interstate highway system, argues for a strong public role in strengthening rail infrastructure, Beadles argues.

"A major change in public transportation policy at all levels of government will be necessary to enable the service qualities of rail freight to resemble that of our publicly sponsored highway freight model," he writes. "Equally critical to the success of any such shift would be the role of private rail-freight operators."

Beadles notes that expensive, privately owned rail infrastructure is often underused because of business strategies that place more emphasis on controlling the cost of train crews than on overall asset utilization. More and better rail service will have to be delivered in the marketplace in order for rail to compete effectively with highway freight.

The rail improvement issue affects the environment, energy, public safety and quality of life, according to Beadles. It is highly complex and sensitive to politics and will require exceptional leadership on both sides, public and private. But some progressive steps, Beadles argues, could be of lasting benefit to both Virginia and the nation.

To discuss with the article's author, contact Richard Beadles at railva@wrichmond.org.