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The Journal Gazette

Monday, March 12, 2018 1:00 am

Rail our infrastructure backbone

Bill Konyha

Bill Konyha is the president of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana and works to build an environment where local communities can thrive in a global economy.

Infrastructure is a top priority at all levels of government, including for President Donald Trump, who recently unveiled a $1.5 trillion plan. As the president, local, state and federal officials work to identify solutions to improve our transportation systems, it's valuable to reflect on why our roads, bridges, waterways, airports and rails matter.

Whether we realize it or not, today's just-in-time world necessitates an integrated network of trains, planes, ships, trucks and logistics professionals to make sure we have everything we need. This intermodal network is what keeps businesses connected, store shelves stocked for consumers and the economy moving forward.

For Indiana, our connection to the intermodal network is rooted in our access to freight railroads. Railroads' 140,000-mile network moves millions of intermodal loads annually and is vital to the northern Indiana steel mills that comprise the nation's largest steel-producing region.

Privately owned freight railroads such as Norfolk Southern and CSX have poured billions into their intermodal capabilities since the 1990s, building new terminals, expanding track capacity and bridge heights to accommodate double-stacked trains, and introducing new technologies to allow faster movement and increased productivity.

In total, railroads have invested more than $660 billion into their infrastructure and operations since 1980. They spend more money on their infrastructure each year than most highway departments spend on highways.

This long-term commitment to infrastructure supports local economic growth and Indiana businesses such as Steel Dynamics and Progress Rail, which builds the locomotives that power trains all across the continent and the world. In addition to making our rail system work, these companies employ hundreds in Indiana.

Steel producers and other local manufacturing companies use rail to connect to the global marketplace, and other local industries take advantage of the rail network for shipping components.

Nearly three-quarters of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S., for example, are moved by freight rail.

Rail is also a reliable partner for Indiana's vibrant agricultural industry, moving soybeans, corn and other types of grain in addition to food products, ethanol and bio-fuels. Trains haul more than 162,000 carloads of grain and food products originating in Indiana annually.

For shippers – from farmers to steel and auto manufacturers – the constant safety and efficiency enhancements borne out of railroads' continual technological advancements mean they can move almost twice as much freight for the same price they paid more than three decades ago. If freight is traveling by rail, it's also traveling more sustainably, as trains are among the most fuel-efficient ways to move goods, consuming less fuel and emitting fewer greenhouse gases.

An efficient rail network also helps other transportation modes. In fact, while railroads and trucking companies often compete in the marketplace, trucking companies are also among railroads' biggest customers, using rail service for the long haul and allowing trucks to deliver regionally and locally.

Let us all take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the interconnected intermodal network on which we rely every day and the freight railroads that provide the backbone of that network.