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Does it make sense to invest more in Michigan's rail system?

Draft Michigan Rail Plan
The miles of railroad track in Michigan today matches the miles of track we had back in 1880.

This was an interesting graph I came across in MDOT's draft report, Michigan State Rail Plan.

The miles of railroad we have in the state today, match what we had back in 1880.

The state went from a peak of 9,059 miles in 1909, to 3,900 miles today - a decline of almost 60%.

It makes sense.

The internal combustion engine began competing with rail at the turn of the last century. Trucks and cars began moving more freight and people.

Automobile companies even had a hand in dismantling some rail services to create better markets for their automobiles.

More on the "Motorize America" campaign can be seen in the film "Taken for a Ride."

But with increasing energy prices, and the environmental costs of burning more than 40 million barrels of oil a day, it makes me wonder whether more investment in rail makes sense.

From the Michigan State Rail Plan:

Rail can move freight three times more efficiently than trucks on a per ton-mile basis. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a typical freight train emits only one-third the pollution of a truck on a ton-mile basis. Transportation by rail saves approximately $266 million annually in pavement damage and reduces truck congestion on Michigan roadways.

And for passenger rail:

Data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory indicates that intercity passenger rail consumes 17 percent less energy per passenger mile than airlines and 21 percent less energy per passenger mile than autos.9 Intercity passenger rail produces 60 percent fewer carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than the average auto and about half (50 percent) of the greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile of an airplane. Intercity passenger rail also generates fewer emissions per passenger mile of other pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon monoxide (CO).

So does more investment in rail make sense at this point in our history? Some call government investment in rail a waste of taxpayer money. What do you think?

Mark Brush was Michigan Radio’s Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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