Op-Ed: Our Economic Recovery Hinges on Reliable Partners

As Pennsylvania begins to hit health targets and shift into the next phase of our coronavirus response, much of our focus will be on economic recovery. While some of our “essential” industries and personnel have been at work for the duration, many more will need to be supported as we navigate successful reopening.

To support this interconnected business ecosystem—where the local manufacturer relies not only on customers but also his suppliers and distributors, or the restauranteur requires reliable food and dry goods deliveries—we’ll be looking, as always, to our resilient supply chains. It’s comforting that despite the obstacles we’ve all experienced, these systems have not skipped a beat.

Chief among them, though often unseen by the public, are our state’s freight railroads. Believe it or not Pennsylvania boasts more freight railroads than any other state, with 60 in all. People may be aware of our long rail history and how it helped propel Pennsylvania’s industrial development in the 1800s, but it’s easy to forget how rail connects the economy today. After all, we don’t see many trains backing up to the local grocery store.

But throughout this pandemic, railroads and their employees—the engineers, equipment operators, maintenance workers and more—have been working tirelessly to move the commodities we all rely on, from what we end up seeing on store shelves to the raw parts and materials that our businesses need to do their work. In a typical year, rail hauls nearly 200 million tons of freight to, from or through our state every year.

And while rail is just a piece of the transportation network that supports our economy, it stands out for a few key reasons. One of those is its environmental record. One train can carry the load of several hundred trucks, while moving a ton of freight 479 miles on a single gallon of diesel. This efficiency edge will be important to our region as we expect economic activity and freight demand to rise significantly in coming years.

Freight railroads’ financial resiliency also helps them stand out, especially at this moment in time. When rail companies build, maintain and grow infrastructure—to the tune of $25 billion annually in recent years—they’re footing the bill rather than taxpayers. Even right now, as freight traffic dips and carriers face demand challenges, freight rail is the only piece of the supply chain that has not sought government funding.

This resilience wasn’t built by chance. It was made possible through a combination of forward-thinking modernization efforts and smart government policy. The partial economic deregulation of America’s freight railroads in 1980, for example, catalyzed a rail renaissance that has enabled these companies to earn enough revenue to build a reliable, world-class network. If federal policymakers could do one thing to keep the rails healthy, during this crisis and beyond, it would be to preserve the balanced regulations that have protected shippers while allowing railroads to thrive.

Pennsylvania’s economy will need reliable partners to recover fully. Railroads are built for storms like this, not losing a step during previous setbacks like recessions and natural disasters. They’ll continue to serve Americans across our state and nation, weathering this challenge and building for the future.

Gene Yaw is a Pennsylvania State Senator representing District 23. He chairs the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

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