Freight rail boosts region’s economic growth

The unprecedented period of uncertainty we have gone through in recent months makes many of us wonder if anything is truly reliable. However, despite all we have suffered through this year, a select few institutions are continuing to push our economy toward a robust recovery — including our tried-and-true rail system that has continued to keep our supply lines open during one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history.

a train with many cars driving on a race track

© Provided by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Freight railroads have been an important part of southwestern Pennsylvania since they were first invented in the 1800s, and two local household names helped build the rail industry that we know today: Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse. These two visionaries laid the foundation for our rail system and served as leading innovators in the rail-supply industry. As a result of their efforts, railroads and Pittsburgh helped each other grow.

That history continues today. Norfolk Southern’s Conway Rail Yard is one of the largest yards in the U.S.; CSX maintains major operations in our area; a CN line runs north of Pittsburgh; several short-line railroads operate throughout the region; and metro Pittsburgh is a major hub for rail-supply companies like Hitachi Rail, Koppers, L.B. Foster, Progress Rail Services, Railroad Development Corp., Siemens and Wabtec.

In addition to supporting Pennsylvania’s coal and steel industries, railroads today are sophisticated technology companies employing supercomputers on locomotives, smart sensors, drones, a GPS-based safety control system, ground-penetrating electromagnetic radar and advanced analytics — much of it engineered or manufactured by companies with a presence in our region. As a result, our rail system is safer and more efficient than ever before.

The long and successful history of this industry is the reason why I recently joined nearly 1,000 community and business leaders from across the country to sign a letter to federal policymakers in support of America’s freight railroads on the 40th anniversary of landmark rail legislation. The letter commemorates the four decades of economic success built by the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. We also call on policymakers in Washington, D.C., to preserve and extend this balanced policy into the future.

There was a time in the late 1970s when a substantial part of the rail industry was in bankruptcy, tracks were in disrepair, service was unreliable and cars would literally fall off the tracks while standing still. Government overregulation had triggered a downward spiral where railroads could not make enough money to care for their own equipment.

Thankfully, Congress had the foresight to pass the Staggers Act. This bipartisan legislation deregulated freight railroads and freed them to operate like other businesses in the marketplace while still protecting rail customers.

Staggers set off a freight rail renaissance that continues to this day. Since 1980, U.S. freight railroads have invested $710 billion of their own capital into their infrastructure, equipment and technology. That spending has allowed them to be safer and more efficient than ever, while also doubling fuel efficiency and reducing rail rates by 43% when adjusted for inflation.

Increased productivity not only helps area companies that supply railroads with equipment, services and technology — to the tune of adding $3.7 billion to Pennsylvania’s GDP in 2017 — but also helps connect local companies to markets across the U.S. and the globe.

The success of the Staggers Act has been astounding, rescuing railroads nationwide and benefiting local companies and workers. It is legislation that works for Pennsylvania’s economy today, and I believe our policymakers should do what they can to preserve it as we continue to build an economy for tomorrow.

Even now, as we work to recover from a devastating pandemic, our railroads are leading the way. They have not needed government funding to survive the pandemic, and they are helping to put a recovering economy back on track.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta represents District 46 in the Pennsylvania Senate.

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