The recent controversy over high-speed rail in America has obscured one fact about trains that defines — and pretty well explains — the main trend in rail traffic in the U.S. and Europe over the last few decades: Americans move a lot more freight by train than Europeans.
That's a good thing. Moving cargo that way keeps trucks off the road. And the European Union's emissions-reduction goals for the year 2020 have forced Europeans to admit to using more commercial trucks than they'd like, in spite of their own high fuel prices.
"Europe's dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo," is how The Wall Street Journal put it in a survey in 2007. That's true in the sense that passenger rail service is good in Europe and cargo rail service is not — governments have focused on one and not the other. But it's not (necessarily) a zero-sum game.
Europe's dependence on trucks actually stems from the fractured nature of continental rail networks, a challenge that passenger train firms also haven't solved. Spain and Portugal still run passenger trains on narrower tracks than the rest of Europe, and France has just started discussing how to link its TGV system with the (newer, more compatible) Spanish high-speed tracks.
Since Europe is also more crowded than the U.S., finding the land for new factories close to train lines has traditionally been tougher. For decades the continent was also divided by the Cold War, so a good long-distance cargo system failed to develop between the east and west. The U.S. also doesn't have the same niggling differences in language and national rolling stock.
But even in the two decades since the fall of communism, there's been more business for American cargo rail companies and less of it for their European counterparts. "Between 1995 and 2005," as The Wall Street Journal points out, "the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73 percent from 68 percent, while rail's share fell to 17 percent from 20 percent."
During about the same period, the railroads' share of the U.S. freight market rose from 33 percent to 38.2 percent. (The American trucking business also grew its share, from 25.4 percent to 28.5 percent.)
The whole point of the European Union is to smooth out inevitable cross-border problems like track gauge and language confusion. The EU has been on the cargo-rail problem since the '90s, and a few new projects — like a long, dedicated new corridor with no road crossings between Rotterdam and Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley — have EU support. But Europe should be further along.
Also on Miller-McCune.com, how the idea of high speed rail died in Texas while thriving in Spain during the 1980s.
Where freight and high-speed passenger trains use the same track, of course, they don't mix well, for the same reason that a Porsche on the highway can't move fast if it gets stuck behind a semi. So The Economist last year argued that more high-speed rail in America could actually harm the U.S. rail-cargo network, which it described as "one of the unsung transport successes of the past 30 years ... universally recognized in the industry as the best in the world."
There won't be a problem on new and largely dedicated high-speed lines like the one planned for California. But it will get complicated on the not-quite-as-high-speed, "inter-city" passenger lines planned for the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern cities around Chicago.
Right now, American cargo trains can move flexibly, sometimes without a strict time schedule, according to customer demand. If they share the rails with too many passenger trains, they'll need to be more strictly organized, with expensive new train-control systems.
Cargo carriers have howled about the cost, but the main problem — from their point of view — is a threat to their dominance in certain corners of the country. Part of the federal support for high-speed rail will fund little rail spurs or pullouts to let trundling cargo trains cool their wheels while an inter-city train full of businessmen blows past.
Germany dealt with these problems in the 1980s and '90s, as it slowly laid its high-speed system over a first-class freight network. This isn't uncharted territory. Germany now has the best cargo system in Europe, as well as excellent (if not lavish) high-speed rail.
The map of planned American inter-city lines should also be sparse enough to ease the cargo carriers' minds. Change is unpleasant, of course, and American freight trains will become pricier and less flexible around certain major cities if they have to make room for good passenger service. But things will have to change enormously before America has to fear lapsing back to European freight standards — especially since the shambles in Europe is so unique.