Opinion: Freight rail fuels Utah’s growth, sustainability and innovation

To meet our economic and environmental goals, Utah will need all its transportation systems to be robust, reliable and responsible.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) A train transports freight on a common carrier line near Price, Utah on Thursday, July 13, 2023.

The rankings are in, and Utah has the nation’s top economy. There are several contributing factors, from our economic growth and low unemployment rate to our business environment. Another feature driving Utah’s bright economic outlook is infrastructure — the systems that connect our businesses and producers.

Among these systems, freight rail stands out for its role in helping Utah manage projected growth while saving taxpayer dollars and reducing emissions. Our eight freight railroads safely move nearly 16 million tons across the state annually — the equivalent of nearly 900,000 heavy trucks.

These railways are vital economic corridors supporting jobs and development, hauling both the raw inputs necessary for manufacturing and farming and the final products that go to consumers. Overall, rail in the United States moves 40% of long-distance freight. Not only does rail reduce emissions, but it is also cost-effective for shippers, with rates that are among the lowest in the world.

We’re seeing rail play a role in expansion across Utah, from supporting unprecedented growth along the Wasatch Front and beyond. In Juab County, rail will be a critical factor in the development of an industrial-sized agricultural processing facility rooted in making small family farming operations more profitable. In Iron County, BZI Steel has started receiving shipments directly to its facility on rail; this business has become a preeminent employer in the community.

Unprecedented population growth is projected to double Utah’s number of households by 2060, and nationally, U.S. freight demand is expected to rise 30% by 2040. Railroads will be even more critical to our economic future as these trends take shape. That’s why it’s good news that rail trends are also moving in a positive direction, with a doubling in rail productivity and 40% decrease in shipper costs over the last four decades. Utah’s biggest railroad, Union Pacific, has made more than $375 million in capital investments from 2018-2022 in Utah track, structures and facilities over the last 10 years to enhance the Utah transportation landscape.

These record private sector investments also increase safety. Railroads received the highest grade across 18 categories in the latest report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and Federal Railroad Administration data shows continuous safety improvement since 2000, including a 73% decrease in the hazmat accident rate and a 59% drop in the employee injury rate.

Managing growth in an environmentally responsible manner is important to Utah, and rail is the most sustainable way to move freight over land. Railroads today move nearly twice as much as they did in 1980 using less fuel, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 75% over trucks. And investments into new battery-electric and hydrogen locomotives, advanced routing software and other innovations can potentially cut rail emissions even further.

For example, the Stadler rail plant is advancing sustainable rail transport in Utah by producing electric and hydrogen-fuel trains. Its major contract, worth nearly $1 billion, supplies 24 electric trains to California’s Caltrain for its San Francisco-to-San Jose line. This project, showcasing Utah’s role in eco-friendly innovation, is also contributing to local job growth, with the plant set to increase its workforce to meet the rising demand for clean transportation solutions.

The way to encourage more freight by rail is simple, and it begins not with funding but with balanced oversight. Crippling regulations nearly killed the freight rail industry until partial deregulation in 1980 ushered in a rail renaissance. The future of transportation, from just-in-time delivery to e-commerce, is quickly changing, and the competitive environment for freight is as tight as ever.

Utah has nearly 3,400 railroad and rail supply workers, with each of these jobs supporting thousands more across the state. Rail is a force multiplier that will continue streamlining transportation costs for our businesses and consumers — ultimately strengthening our ability to attract and retain new development.

To meet our economic and environmental goals, Utah will need all its transportation systems to be robust, reliable and responsible. Rail continues to lead on infrastructure and will be a key partner as we grow.

Ryan Starks

Ryan Starks is the Utah Inland Port Authority’s Vice Board chair and the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

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