The Washington policy community is abuzz regarding commentary from entrepreneur Marc Andreesen, who argues now is the time to “build.” Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, Andreesen advances his thesis in a town where Infrastructure Week has become a joke: Beset by bureaucracy and dysfunction, policymakers have proven unsuccessful to date in tackling even those policies that are widely supported, like investing in existing or new transportation networks.
“Where are the supersonic aircraft?” Andreesen asks, while also envisioning “millions of delivery drones,” hyperloops and flying cars.
The answer is complicated, and the current pandemic should spur a call to action on how to build better systems – from facets of manufacturing to health care to transportation. But from where we sit, today’s crisis also validates the value of existing systems that are already delivering for America.
One such system is the nation’s integrated, 140,000-mile freight rail network – made up of companies ranging from Fortune 150 entities to five-person small businesses. Driven by its dedicated workforce, sustained investments and years of network planning, freight railroads are operating safely amid the coronavirus situation to deliver a range of the critical goods we all depend on.
“Our employees have stepped up to make sure that the pulp that makes toilet paper, the chemicals that make cleaners and the chemicals to provide clean water are all delivered safely and on time throughout New England,” says Pan Am President Dave Fink.
“Nearly half the railcars on a recent Union Pacific train traveling from Angleton, Texas, to North Little Rock, Arkansas, were filled with Chevron Phillips Chemical-produced polyethylene, the key component for manufacturing plastics used in pharmaceutical and medical device packaging,” reads a recent column.
In Minnesota, BNSF Railway is delivering crucial inputs for a customer to pivot manufacturing to producing face masks. In Kentucky, Norfolk Southern is working with a local distillery to pump out hand sanitizer. In Ohio, Genesee & Wyoming’s Columbus & Ohio River Railroad continues to serve a customer producing infant formula. And across the East Coast, CSX Transportation is delivering wheat and flour to the critical milling and baking industries making the bread and pasta.
Meanwhile, Sandersville Railroad in Georgia is moving woodchips for diaper production. Wisconsin and Southern Railroad supplies materials to customers producing food-grade containers in high demand by take-out restaurants across the country. GVT Rail, operating in New York and Pennsylvania, ships critical raw materials such as plastic resin used in making masks essential to fighting the outbreak.
The stories are endless, even if the movements are not always visible, like trucks on a highway.
Prioritizing employee safety in the process, railroads are serving as a vital link in strained supply chains. Despite feeling the effects of a severe economic downturn, railroads are still able to deliver for customers and U.S. consumers in every town in America – rural and large – precisely because of what it already built through years of private investment. Few American industries have navigated as many challenges as railroads, which march on despite economic headwinds, challenging weather or national emergency.
It is a testament to the industry’s resilience and its committed workers, who will bolster the nation’s recovery. When construction picks up, railroads will move the materials to build homes and office buildings. As automobile production comes back online, railroads will be there to move inputs and finished cars and trucks. And when consumers return to retail venues across America, they will buy products likely once moved in a rail car.
While freight rail may not excite futurists like a hyperloop does, it remains the reliable backbone of the economy.
Whether Washington will tackle infrastructure and answer the calls to “build” in future stimulus bills remains to be seen. To be sure, our industry will push for certain policies, including a focus on funding – ideally rooted in user fees – and avoiding controversial policy riders. Congress should make permanent the successful tax credit system for small business short line railroads and ensure today’s market-based economic regulatory structure remains in place. After all, this structure is a key reason railroads are well-positioned to serve their customers and communities during this time.
But for now, the U.S. rail industry will continue forward, doing what it does best: delivering critical goods to support and serve the economy, across America.