But passenger rail is to receive massive investments.

It’s well known that rail is one of the cleanest ways to move freight. For an administration intent on tackling the ravages of climate change, investments in intermodal infrastructure would therefore seem to be a natural priority. But there’s scant evidence of that in President Joe Biden’s much-ballyhooed infrastructure proposals, although some funding could provide indirect help.

Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
President Joe Biden - photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s not to say the administration has made no commitment to intermodal. Recent announcements of INFRA grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation earmarked $47 million to the Georgia Ports Authority for its new inland container port in Gainesville, as well as to other intermodal projects in South Carolina and Iowa. But priorities in the infrastructure legislation Congress is now considering emphasize investments in passenger rail, not freight.

That’s unfortunate for a system in which many intermodal connectors “are neglected,” according to Chris Spear, CEO of the American Trucking Association (ATA). “Just nine percent are in good or very good condition,” he said. He wants federal dollars to be directed toward their improvement.

Promoting intermodal means taking trucks off the nation’s highways, and that could go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). “Rail intermodal transportation holds great potential for replacing carbon-intense and fast-growing road freight,” noted a recent report from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

According to Alexander Laska, a transportation policy advisor at the think tank Third Way, rail emits 0.048 pounds of GHG per ton-mile of freight moved, the lowest of any transportation mode, and one-tenth the 0.465 pounds per ton-mile emitted by trucks. According to the Carnegie Mellon report, studies in Europe have shown that intermodal shipments used 16% less energy than road shipments, and have an average carbon intensity half that of trucks.

“Mode shifting is difficult, particularly for low-weight, high-value goods that are typically shipped by truck,” Laska said. “Rail tends to be a more common option for longer-distance trips, although rail is increasingly moving goods between closer distances in the intermodal sector,” thanks, in part, to investments “to improve customer visibility and align movements to precise schedules.” 

“Congress should consider implementing policies that would encourage mode shifts by increasing rail’s value proposition to shippers,” Laska added. “This could include providing additional assistance through existing grant programs to improve rail infrastructure and intermodal terminals. Funding should also be available for investments in new technologies to improve terminal operations, better track shipment loads, improve security and quality control, and optimize intermodal shipments.”

But not much of that is reflected in current administration and Congressional priorities. On the contrary, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, has been quoted as saying that “freight railroads have taken preference over passenger rail” for too long.

Biden’s infrastructure plans seem intent on righting that alleged wrong, with $80 billion of investments in Amtrak, a pet project of the president, a one-time long-term Amtrak commuter. Although the infrastructure plan largely neglects intermodal freight, some of its provisions, such as projects aimed at alleviating congestion at ports, could improve the flow of containers to the intermodal system.