Curbing Air Pollution in the San Joaquin Valley by Greater Use of Trains6 min read

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In response to E. J. Schultz’s “Valley loses on more air money,” article in the Fresno Bee (Feb. 29, 2008) I say this.

The $250 million coming to the San Joaquin Valley for diesel truck-exhausted air pollution mitigation is what it is. My question: Is there a better method by which to achieve the desired results? I, for one, know there is.

California’s San Joaquin Valley is beset with air pollution to the degree that it is having an irreversible and damaging effect. It’s taking its toll on human health. In the Central Valley’s largest — and the Golden State’s sixth largest — city, Fresno, childhood asthma rates are off the charts. More than one in five suffers with and from this distressing disease. The healthcare costs associated with the effects of pollution are staggering: An estimated $3.3 billion annually. If this weren’t bad enough, the Central Valley ranked as one of this nation’s worst offenders for both smog and particulate matter pollution — period.

So what can be done to help ease the deleterious and damaging air pollution the Central San Joaquin Valley is grappling with?

One of the proposed solutions involves directing state monies toward mitigating diesel-truck exhaust to which the Central Valley has been granted $250 million by the California Air Resources Board which many feel is far too little and is certain not to go far enough. I agree. Looking to the highways as to providing a comprehensive solution is akin to placing a Band-Aid on an injury that requires major surgery.

What about fewer motor vehicles operating on area roadways? That’s all well and good, but in this regard there has to be an alternative means to move the same quantity of freight not only as expeditiously and efficiently, but in a less-polluting way as well if this is to be a viable recommendation. Enter the freight train.

In support of this scenario, retired California State University, Fresno, Professor Carl Stutzman in his as of yet unpublished essay: “Are Railroads Really Necessary?,” compares the energy efficiencies of the various transportation modes. Trains are among those transportation modes consuming the fewest BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy, thereby making them one of the most energy efficient yielding the biggest bang for the buck in terms of their economic and energy savings.

Dr. Stutzman points out:

“There are significant savings in the amount of energy consumed by a freight train over a comparable number of trucks. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that in 1993 trucks, other than light trucks, consumed 22,332 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per mile, while on Class I railroads (railroads with annual revenues of $319 million or higher as determined by the Association of American Railroads) the consumption per freight car mile was 14,195 BTUs. While trucks can haul multiple trailers the savings in energy for the freight train is truly astounding.”

Dr. Stutzman concludes his essay by stating:

“The role of the railroads in the development of our nation is self-evident. The role of the railroads from now on should be no less crucial in our growth and development.”

Adding to what Dr. Stutzman wrote, it goes without saying that greater exploitation of railroad freight (and passenger) hauling which presumably would result in a reduction in the amount of internal-combustion-powered vehicle operation, would cut air pollution levels significantly. Building more railways and increasing capacity while at the same time shortening headways (the times and distances between same-direction-traveling trains operating on the same track), will result in even further gains.

If this were to come to pass, would it mean more unemployed truck drivers? Not necessarily. There would be the need for additional train operating personnel. Presumably there would be more jobs in the manufacturing sector created. In fact, the more trains moving to handle the increase in the freight transportation trade would no doubt translate into increased employment opportunities. At the intermodal (truck and train) terminals, at each end of the shipping moves, transfer of these trailers and containers would need to be trucked to the customers’ docks.

What this boils down to is the same number of units moving, but the logistics in the way these rubber-tired conveyances would be different. The end result is less long-haul, over-the-road transport and that equates to less catastrophic destruction to the otherwise affected road surfaces and subgrades, less wear and tear on the drivers and on the trucks, less accidents involving the big rigs, and with the aforementioned Schultz article in mind, less air pollution.

Where this type of intermodal, trucker/railroader cooperative arrangement could be implemented

As I understand it, many railroads are capacity constrained as it is. Yet, in California there is a bevy of unused or underused rail infrastructure. Take, for example, Union Pacific Railroad’s “mothballed” Mococco line segment between Tracy and Pittsburg/Antioch; a line that has been relegated to freightcar storage. Towns that would be affected by the re-introduction of rail service on this corridor include Brentwood and Byron to name just two. Now, couple this with the lightly used Union Pacific Railroad-owned “West Side Line” freight rail corridor linking Los Banos and Tracy together. A 29-mile gap existing between Los Banos and Dos Palos, if reinstalled, would then tie together by rail Fresno and Pittsburg/Antioch.

If still additional rail infrastructure is needed, once again the very lightly or perhaps moderately used trackage between Fresno and Famoso (just north of Bakersfield) and currently operated by RailAmerica subsidiary the San Joaquin Valley Railroad, could certainly be upgraded to handle increased rail traffic volumes.

Whereas currently there is a wellspring of truck traffic moving up and down the Valley’s two main highway arterials — I5 and California 99, the addition of a contiguous, upgraded third major rail corridor would absolutely provide a viable alternative in getting a significant number of trucks off area freeways. And think about the implications of not driving I5 and 99 during the foggy season where driving conditions in times past, have been hazardous. Maybe less frequent, chain reaction-type collisions even.

At minimum, utilizing these freight rail routes — formerly active or otherwise — for freight (and passenger) train service would do much to take vehicles off many of California’s freeways and secondary roads, thereby helping to reduce particulate matter and ozone pollution, which is especially pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley. And the idea that all of this could have implications for other lightly used, mothballed and abandoned (torn up) freight rail corridors elsewhere in state, should be music to the ears of any and all who see this as a practical solution just begging to be discovered and implemented. If this arrangement works exceedingly well in Switzerland, there is every reason to believe this could work exceedingly well here too.

How to go about getting this advanced is no doubt the next logical step as I see it.

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

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