Peterson: More Investment In Rail Means More Jobs

With a “B,” rail earned the highest grade on the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. However, more investment in the nation’s rail systems, especially passenger rail, is needed and would create more jobs.

U.S. rail received a B on the ASCE's 2017 Infrastructure Report card. Job growth in rail has increased over the past decade, and while it’s leveled off in the last two years, there will be more career opportunities in freight and passenger rail, according to Dave Peterson, UW-Madison Engineering Professional Development program director.

In 2015, freight rail volume was nearly double that of 1980, and federal forecasts predict a 40% increase in U.S. freight shipments by 2040. The workforce is also aging. Traditionally, most rail workers learned their skills Many of these people are now retiring and taking years of knowledge with them.

“A lot of people are retiring,” Peterson said. “Railroads and transits don’t have the knowledge on staff to do everything. Because of the lack of resources of people who know rail, consultants are doing more work.”

Rail is also a more viable option to move freight because of other infrastructure problems. U.S. Roads, for example, earned a “D” on the report card and the deterioration of our roads and highways slows traffic and decreases the competitiveness of our truck transportation.

Rail is becoming more competitive,” Peterson said. “Trucking over the road industry is challenged, because of commercial driving rules that restrict the time workers can drive, and because of infrastructure that is in bad shape. So the rail industry has identified poor roads as an opportunity for a shift of business to rail.”

The rail industry also needs tech-savvy professionals. New technologies are being developed to design, build, and maintain track. Old maintenance methods tasked rail workers with walking track to look at ties and ballast for damage. Now, rail defect cars drive along the track at 40 miles per hour with radar, GPS, and imaging capabilities to collect data.

Drones are also being discussed as an alternative to workers climbing rail bridges to check for problems. Regulations require that the bridges must be evaluated every year, which means putting tracks out of service—and workers’ safety at risk.

“If you use a drone, you don’t have to shut down the track,” Peterson said. “We have only scratched the surface of the possibilities to use drones to inspect rail infrastructure.”

The opportunities are growing, and so is the amount of money private companies invest in freight rail. The main reason rail moved to a B from a C+ in 2013 is because of a $27.1 billion investment these companies made in 2015.

“They have to invest in it to run their companies,” Peterson said. “If they didn’t, they would have to decrease loads and speeds, which cost time and money.”

Passenger rail is different. Long-distance and high-speed rail, notably Amtrak, is a government-funded operation. Other transit rails, such as the Metra in Chicago, are funded regionally through a combination of tax and fare revenue.

Most of Amtrak’s cars run on other railroads’ infrastructure, including rail that is privately owned. Amtrak operates the majority of the Northeast corridor (NEC), which is the busiest region in North America with volumes of 2,200 trains per day.

The NEC has a backlog of $28 billion in repairs–$11 billion for basic infrastructure projects and $17 billion for major projects. The average age of major NEC backlog projects is 111 years old.

Last fall, Amtrak received a $2.45 billion loan from the Department of Transportation to buy 28 new high-speed train sets, and to make track and station upgrades along the NEC. While this will boost Amtrak’s capacity and service, it won’t affect the backlog of repairs.

“Amtrak is the poster child for how we treat passenger rail in this country,” Peterson said. “The government doesn’t fund it enough to make it operate efficiently. It’s late, the cars are old, and it needs a lot of investment. On the flip side, our roads and highways are all funded by the government.”

Last year, Amtrak served 31 million passengers between the NEC and the national network of 15 interstate routes.

While ASCE recommends more funding to help the rail industry, the U.S. will need more skilled people in order to design, build, maintain, and operate our passenger and freight systems. The education of the next generation of railroaders is part of the mission of UW-Madison’s Railroad Engineering and Operations program. Peterson offers professional development courses in Madison to educate and train this next generation. He also brings custom courses to professionals nationwide, including major rail hubs like Chicago and Philadelphia.

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