USPS OIG: Suitability of Rail Transportation Suggest It Is Time To Use Rail Once Again

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mailcar1Once upon a time, the United States Postal Service enjoyed a successful relationship with the nation’s railroads. The California State Railroad Museum Foundation reminds us of the once-speeding postal trains, rather than today’s trucks, where post office workers sorted letters during the trip. Moreover, they did so in “swaying cars filled with canvas bags and wooden pigeon holes.” That must have been fun.

Perhaps a change back to rail and train is once again a practical venture. Reasons to encourage rail integration were laid out in a recent report by the Postal Service’s Inspector General.

Bill McAllister for Stamp News and Coin World recently wrote on the new report, Suitability of Rail Transportation — New Jersey Network Distribution Center, and a dialog that followed.

The report supports the argument that, in this case, the New Jersey mail service could save about $10.8 million a year choosing to use rail instead of long-distance trucking. The information in IG’s report seems solid. However, arguments from postal management ensued. McAllister continued with some back-and-forth points, noting that it is budget numbers that “speak the loudest.”

“In 2013, the Postal Service spent more than $3.4 billion on HCRs [highway contract routes] and only about $43 million on rail,” the report cautions. Rail, management said, “is not a viable way to meet service standards and does not fit into its operating plans.” Even so, the IG argued that rail is “a viable option and should be reconsidered.”

Due to the managerial opposition, it will be a while before any transition to trains that service postal loads. However, they did agree to consider the recommendations.


In spite of opposition, a convincing conversation might generate adaptation back to rail for some postal services. Last year, the rail industry did enjoy a resurgence as a Wall Street Journal video and Betsy Morris reported on America’s New Railroad Age.

The postal service could certainly be much cleaner if it switched to rail. Trains from Seimens are just one example of how trains have become more fuel-efficient and burning cleaner. Roy L. Hayes in a CleanTechnica post reported that, according to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo, “the lighter weight locomotives can operate at speeds up to 125 mph. A diesel version of the ‘Charger’ is currently pulling some 1,600 passengers and freight trains through-out Europe. The electric version was introduced in the US last year and already at work in the Northeast.”

Related Stories:

Trainsforming America: Documentary Advocates for More Robust Rail in the US

100% Of Dutch Electric Trains Could Run On Renewable Energy BY 2018

Chicago High Speed Rail Line Gets Funded

California High-Speed Rail Authority Has Formally Begun Process Of Procuring Trains

California High-Speed Rail Groundbreaking

Indian Railways Plans 1 GW Solar Power Capacity

Image via California Railroad Museum Foundation

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Cynthia Shahan

Cynthia Shahan, started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. Words can be used improperly depending on the culture you are in. (Several unrelated publications) She has a degree in Education, Anthropology, Creative Writing, and was tutored in Art as a young child thanks to her father the Doctor.

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14 thoughts on “USPS OIG: Suitability of Rail Transportation Suggest It Is Time To Use Rail Once Again

  • First step should of course be to electrify all railways.

    • Ideally, yes. But at least in the short term those investments will raise prices. That might be enough to send some customers currently choosing rail towards road transport and that would be far worse for the environment than a diesel powered train.

      If the investment could be made at low cost, perhaps through bonds with a government guarantee and extremely long running time, it might work. But is that politically and legally possible, let alone plausible? Even more effective but legally impossible is a European solution: nationalize tracks, make the government responsible for investment and maintenance of the tracks and charge rolling stock owners a fee for using the rails.

      But a more important question is whether electrification of freight tracks would really be much better for the environment. Diesel engines are reasonable efficient at constant speeds (i.e. long distance freight transport), it’s only when they have to frequently stop/slow down that they become hugely inefficient.

      Investing the same sum of money in electrifying road transport or better yet in renewable electricity generation would have a greater impact.

      • Ah, I can see it now. Republicorp shuts down funding for electricity to national rail system until the president repeals the Affordable Care Act and cuts Social Security for those leeches that paid into the fund and now expect to get money back for retirement.

    • One option railways should look at has been opened up by a modest British innovation (reported here I think, but I can’t trace it): equipping a passenger trainset with small batteries, enough for moving around sidings for maintenance, cleaning and storage. That removes the need for many miles of underused catenaries, and should lower the costs of electrification.

  • Rail vs trucking, is like shipping containers vs longshoremen. Shipping containers virtually eliminated longshoremen…huge numbers of jobs disappeared. But shipping rates fell, theft fell, etc.
    The teamsters union are the truckers. It is a voting force to be reckoned with, rail is the only sane way from a rational viewpoint and can be all electric, but vast numbers of blue collars will be out of work. So at the root of this situation it is not merely the obvious benefits of rail. Steel on steel is something like 6 times the efficiency of rubber on asphalt.

    • I think what we will see is a significant drop in rail business as coal use drops and soon after a possible drop in oil shipping. The rail industry will go after the freight that now travels by long distant trucks in order to replace lost business.

      That will be the ‘go around’ for dealing with the Teamsters.

  • How about drive-on freight trains for semi trucks like the Chunnel uses? At the next stop, drivers start their shift driving off the train and then delivering locally.

    • Not practical. You use up flatcar space with the tractor. You take a tractor out of service for the duration of the trip. And you pay the driver to take a train trip while doing nothing profitable.

  • I guess I should go research it, but if anyone feels like summarizing, why did trucks replace rail in the first place? Oil industry bought up rail and shut it down? Trucks were cheaper due to cheap oil?

    • I’m going to guess that the transition happened before containerization.

      Previously it would mean trucking stuff to the rail siding, hand loading onto the dock, moving it into the boxcar, unloading from the boxcar, sorting stuff out, and putting it back in a different truck. (I remember those days fairly well. There were no forklifts. Lots of labor.)

      Much simpler to load up the truck at the warehouse and drive it to the destination.

      When the interstate highway system was built there was a movement from warehouses and factories away from rail and to highway interchanges. Companies started running their own trucking systems and moved product on their own schedule.

      • It seems like small loads with flexible schedules are the key, which maybe means building out tracks that run both ways and adding more sensors and automation to keep mini electric trains with 1-3 cars separated and out of danger. Such trains should also be able to stop much faster to avoid more collisions. Of course it also seems like you could use a number of larger trains that leave every few hours with whatever has arrived for them to tow.

        I wonder if the real problem is the rail system creates middlemen that maintain the tracks and want too large a cut to allow the tracks to be used. The highway system is taxpayer funded since it’s used by the public as well, and the cost savings for shipping companies might outweigh paying a track fee, or at least that might have been true in the past.

        • My understanding is that some of the main routes are now jammed with oil and coal shipments. As we reduce our use of fossil fuels we’ll likely see rail operators looking for new markets.

    • What certainly played a role (though cannot fully explain the shift) is the change in the center of gravity in the American economy.

      During the twentieth century, the relative importance of the western half of the US increased. Meanwhile, the railroad network remained very much centered around the Midwest, Atlantic coast and Old South:

      The railways were built in the late nineteenth century, when the huge capital investment was reasonable because the only alternative – waterways – required even more capital. That investment was harder to justify when trucks offered an alternative with little to no upfront cost.

      Another big driver was the rise of just in time manufacturing. Trains run according to a fixed schedule and deliver a lot of stuff at once. As manufacturing moved towards a greater emphasis on flexibility and minimal inventories, the flexibility of trucks won from the low cost of rail.

      • The US rail system was in place. And then largely abandoned except for heavy/bulky freight.

        This happened years, decades, before the concept of just in time supplying.

        That part of the West that’s so sparsely served by rail? Largely, there’s nothing there that needs to be served.

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