Freight railroads continue to make news in California, home of several policymakers that oversee the sector – including Modesto’s U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham.
BNSF Railway has promised to move forward with a more than $500 million terminal development in Southern California despite a judge’s ruling against the plan. Likewise, some of the biggest railroads operating in the state recently fought back against a misguided and unprecedented state measure to fine the movement of goods we all use every day, like chlorine that treats our water, liquid fertilizer that helps grow crops, or oil that fuels multiple transportation modes.
Some California residents and local elected officials seem to believe railroads are not safe enough to pass through their communities on a regular schedule.
Yet, the data paints a different picture, and from my view in Pueblo, Colo., where we run the world’s most expansive railroad testing center (which Rep. Denham will visit this month), the innovation surrounding the sector would turn doubters into believers. The profound economic impact of railroads, supported by smart public policies and massive private investment, only furthers the vast benefits of the industry.
First consider safety data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that shows rail safety has been dramatically improving over the last three decades. The train accident rate is down nearly 40 percent over the last 16 years, while employees are injured nearly 50 percent less today than in 2000. For the transportation of those very goods that some California policymakers seek to fine or altogether eliminate, the industry moves them safely 99.999 percent of the time.
Then consider the relentless efforts to improve upon this record, many of which Rep. Denham will witness while in Colorado. The industry is studying or has implemented safety measures like drones to supplement manual track and bridge inspections, trackside technology that performs a real time X-ray of railroad infrastructure to identify flaws, as well as big-data sourcing to predict trends. More tangibly, the industry initiates countless training sessions for first responders, bringing emergency managers to Pueblo while also taking sessions throughout the country to help those unable to get to Colorado.
Rep. Denham and his colleagues in Congress also helped advance landmark legislation just last year that will further help improve safety. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act included safety enhancements like requiring increased thermal blankets and restrictions on the use of older tank cars moving flammable liquids. Rep. Denham fought tirelessly for this measure, which he knew would help those in the Central Valley feel more secure when trains moved through their towns.
All the while, new data presented in a study from Towson University in Maryland shows investments of major U.S. railroads created nearly $274 billion in economic activity while supporting approximately 1.5 million jobs and $88 billion in total wages across the country in 2014.
Freight railroads also spent almost $28 billion in 2014 to maintain and modernize their network. These efforts create a ripple effect in communities like Modesto, Riverbank and Patterson, providing revenue for government to fund social programs, and supplying materials for manufacturers to create goods sold by local businesses. Freight trains also provide the vast majority of infrastructure for passenger railroads, which further reduce gridlock.
While trains might seem like disconnected entities, they impact Americans every day.
Safe railroads keep California and the U.S. running. Progress is always fluid, and railroads will continue to modernize and invest in safety. Despite widespread misinformation, the industry is safe, and we look forward to showing Rep. Denham all the things we are doing to be safer.
Californians and citizens across the country must understand the power of this transportation mode to forgo misguided proposals – like the tax on hazardous materials – that disregard how railroads help make life better. The industry asks public leaders to do their part and applauds Rep. Denham for his tireless work.
Lisa Stabler is president of the Transportation Technology Center Inc.