Nearly 140 years after the first railroad was built in Idaho, railroads remain vital to Idaho’s economic success, connecting Idaho’s communities to the global economy. Increasingly, they provide a critical link to international markets through intermodal facilities at ports and other places where goods are transferred to and from rails, ships and trucks. One train can carry as much freight as several hundred trucks, making them about four times more fuel efficient than trucks while easing highway congestion and reducing carbon emissions.
After World War II, the development of the U.S. highway system and the rapid expansion of airlines greatly reduced passenger travel on trains and allowed trucking to grab larger shares of freight transportation. In addition, the U.S. Postal Service started using airplanes, rather than trains, for mail.
But deregulation in the 1980s permitted railroads to make changes that increased their revenues, including closing unprofitable branch lines.
The miles of rail tracks in Idaho declined throughout most of the 20th century, as in the United States, where rail mileage peaked at 248,000 in 1916, fell to 201,000 by 1970 and then to 142,000 in 2000.
Passenger rail service dropped sharply in the 1960s. In 1961 passenger service was offered on more than 40 percent of U.S. railroads. By 1971 passenger trains were running on fewer than 20 percent. Today, Amtrak provides almost all passenger service in the U.S. Idaho only has one passenger stop—the Sandpoint BNSF depot served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder. The depot, originally built in 1916, celebrated a grand reopening in early June this year after an extensive remodeling. From 1977 to 1997, Amtrak also provided passenger service to Boise, Pocatello and other southern Idaho communities.
In the 1950s and 1960s, railroads began to use standardized containers that can travel on rail cars and cargo ships. Most containers are double-stacked on a flat car. Containers mean reduced handling, thus less damage and less cargo pilferage. Today, containers are used to transport much of the freight in the United States and abroad.
American railroads revitialized declining coal traffic by reducing rates when they introduced “unit trains,” whole trains of permanently coupled cars that carry bulk tonnage of a single commodity — coal, mineral, grain or other — to a single destination on a regular schedule. Unit trains were so popular that they were soon used to haul a variety of commodities. They offer many economies of scale including lower handling costs, more efficient use of locomotives and greater fuel efficiency.
Besides unit trains and containerization, computerized tracking of trains and their cargo and improved communications also have contributed to a dramatic improvement in railroad productivity over the past 20 years. Ton miles – number of tons shipped times miles – handled per railroad employee have nearly quadrupled, accord to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Competition among railroads and with trucking has led to reduced rail rates, benefiting shippers, consumers and the economy. In 1980, rail was more expensive than either truck or water; today, it is more economical than truck or water.
All of these changes and improvements have helped rails take share away from trucking. U.S. railroads now haul 42 percent of total U.S. freight, up from 27 percent in 1980, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation data. Railroads haul a higher percentage of freight in the U.S. than any other industrially developed country. Idaho also saw railroad taking a larger share of the freight market. In 1992, rail carried 25 percent of the freight originating in Idaho. By 2012, it carried 46 percent, according to Census Bureau Commodity Flow data.
Freight trains employed about 1,420 people in Idaho in 2014, according to the American Railroad Association. Average pay was $72,000.
To learn more about rail in Idaho, read the Idaho Department of Transportation’s 2013 state rail plan, Idaho Statewide Freight Study and related reports at: https://itd.idaho.gov/freight.
Kathryn.Tacke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
(208) 799-5000 ext. 3984