Other Voices

Study confirms freight rail backbone of U.S. economy

Containers are lifted from trailers onto rail flatcars by a huge gantry that straddles both the trailers and the train.
Containers are lifted from trailers onto rail flatcars by a huge gantry that straddles both the trailers and the train. Star-Telegram

If the North Texas economy were a living organism, our roads, runways, rails and other infrastructure would be the skeleton, with freight rail tracks serving as the backbone that keeps the entire body upright and strong.

Freight trains bring in the raw materials local manufacturers need be productive and the items consumers want to see on store shelves, and they carry the finished goods produced in the Metroplex for distribution to markets across the nation and around the globe.

A new study quantifies for the first time just how vital the freight rail network is to our local, state and national economies.

The report from the Towson University Regional Economic Studies Institute says the nation’s major railroads created more than $274 billion in economic activity and generated nearly $33 billion in tax revenues while supporting nearly 1.5 million jobs across the economy in 2014 alone.

As one of the nation’s busiest rail hubs, Fort Worth has been an outsized beneficiary of the positive economic activity fueled by freight railroads.

BNSF Railway is headquartered in Fort Worth and, along with Union Pacific Railroad, operates major facilities here that provide high-paying direct jobs while also supporting thousands of additional jobs.

The new research shows that every single railroad job supports nine additional jobs elsewhere in the economy.

Our freight rail infrastructure, including BNSF’s $100 million state-of-the-art intermodal hub at Forth Worth Alliance Airport and Union Pacific’s Davidson Yard, provide huge transportation advantages to companies looking to expand or relocate here and are a big reason the Dallas-Fort Worth economy ranks ahead of most states and many nations.

The Towson study also reinforces that it has been massive levels of private investment by railroads in their infrastructure, equipment and employees that make freight rail such an economic driver, and that key decisions by the government enabled railroads to get where they are today.

Before 1980, a system of stifling federal over-regulation had driven our nation’s freight rail network to the brink of destruction.

Faced with a choice of either nationalizing the railroads or getting the government out of the rail business, Congress and the president fortunately chose the latter path.

The landmark Staggers Rail Act of 1980 freed railroads to operate like other businesses in a free market. Thirty-six years later, American railroads have gone from near death to creating the safest, most efficient and most productive freight rail network in the world.

Running a railroad is hugely capital intensive, requiring massive investment to maintain safety and productivity and to expand capacity to accommodate growing demand.

Thanks to smart government policy, railroads have been able to earn the revenues needed to reinvest approximately $600 billion back into the rail network since 1980 — private capital, not taxpayer dollars.

Because a single freight train can carry the load of several hundred trucks, these investments also relieve burdens on our overcrowded highways while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 75 percent.

The nation’s two largest railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, have been able to invest so much in Fort Worth and have become such an important part of our region’s economy because national leaders made the right decision at a key point in history.

The new report underscores how we all benefit when government and the private sector work together to advance the common interests we all share in economic prosperity and a sustainable future.

Dennis Shingleton has represented District 7 on the Fort Worth City Council since July 2011.