Most Ohioans don’t know all of the benefits freight railroads deliver to the Buckeye State every day of the year.

The 24/7/365 nature of the freight railroad business keeps consumer goods flowing to your neighborhood grocery, the local hardware store, and other businesses in your community.  The safe and steady movement of coal to Ohio power plants keeps the lights on at your home, and the machinery humming at manufacturing facilities around the state.  The thousands of carloads of Ohio grain and farm products moved by rail touch thousands of jobs in Ohio, and through the national rail network, produce a growing share of export income for Ohio’s agricultural industries.  From trucks and automobiles to steel, plastics, chemicals, and petroleum, the things that Ohio’s economy produces and depends on increasingly move by rail.

The total tonnage of the goods moved by freight railroads in, out, and through Ohio today is the largest ever, and that number is growing.  The railroad track, equipment, and manpower needed to move this freight is also growing, and the investment by freight railroads in Ohio rail infrastructure alone tops $250 million annually.  This total does not include recent major investments made by the Class I railroads serving Ohio, Norfolk Southern and CSX, investments that are enhancing Ohio’s status as an emerging center of the nation’s 21st Century freight transportation system.  These nationally significant investments, the Heartland Corridor’s Rickenbacker Intermodal Terminal and the National Gateway’s North Baltimore Intermodal Facility, are generating good jobs and additional private investment in our state.

The millions of tons of freight is moved by increasingly fuel-efficient locomotives that create less pollution than just a few years ago.  Today’s modern freight railroads move freight using about a third less fuel than the big trucks using the public roads and bridges.  That also means freight rail produces at least a third less polluting air emissions than the big trucks on the highways.  And when shippers choose freight rail to move their goods, they are also helping to keep the government’s road maintenance expenses down.  Big trucks, many weighing more than 80,000 lbs. when fully loaded, beat up our state’s bridges and pavements, causing government at every level to spend extra on maintenance repairs and leaving you with a rougher ride.  Fewer trucks means less congestion and a safer driving experience for motorists, too.

Many Ohioans are unaware of these ‘hidden’ but well-documented benefits that arise out of the existence and recent renaissance of the freight rail industry.  Fortunately, growing numbers of public officials are aware, and as railroads continue to invest for the future, Ohio is moving toward a place of growing importance in the global freight transportation marketplace.

But railroading is an extremely capital-intensive business, perhaps the most capital-intensive in the world.  The costs of building, operating, and maintaining the many miles of track and the thousands of locomotives and rail cars is enormous, and growing.  As private businesses, railroads depend upon their earnings from serving customers to financially support nearly every dime they invest.  Therefore, it is very difficult for railroads to spend their capital on any expense that does not enhance their ability to move freight for customers.   And based on the benefits the public obtains through the movement of freight by rail, it doesn’t make sense for railroads to spend their scarce resources on non-operating expenses.  Yet, under current state law, railroads are forced to do so.

One of the many expenses facing railroads in Ohio is the cost of maintaining highway-rail grade crossing surfaces.  Ohio has more than 6,000 public crossings, all of which may be used by almost any type and weight of vehicle allowed on the roads (even overloaded trucks use these crossings, and the roads and bridges, illegally).  Over the recent decade, Ohio’s state government has expanded the ability of big trucks to carry increasingly heavy loads of various commodities around and across the state, with some weights regularly approaching 120,000 lbs.  (the state’s legal weight limit is 80,000 lbs., a weight whose impact on the pavement is equal to that of almost 10,000 family cars).  The damage these very heavy trucks impose on the crossing surfaces, along with the growing number of vehicles on Ohio’s roadways, is increasing this category of railroad expenses.  Train operations do not touch or damage the crossing surface.  The damage is caused by the transit of trucks and cars over the crossing.  Railroads spent more than $20 million repairing this damage and maintaining Ohio crossing surfaces in 2010, and are on track to spend even more in the coming years.

This expense for non-railroad operations poses difficult choices for railroads, who also face growing costs for steel, track materials, and other necessities for railroading.  Today, balancing the needs of the rail infrastructure for revenue-generating rail operations versus the costs of repairing and replacing grade crossing surfaces is a challenge for every railroad in Ohio.  It’s a challenge that railroads should not be facing alone, as the state government certainly has added to the expense by allowing for heavier vehicles to use the roadways without recovering additional funds for the damage imposed by these vehicles.

While Ohioans may not be aware of the many benefits railroads deliver through their energy-efficient operations, many Ohioans will use a grade crossing today.  The cost of that crossing surface was almost certainly paid for entirely by the railroad.  The funds used to pay for the crossing did not go to enhance the rail freight system, which means additional public benefits were not obtained through the expense of the railroad’s revenues.  This outcome does not benefit the public nor the railroad, and is an unsustainable expense for freight railroads in a world of rising material costs and growing infrastructure needs.