The Pros and Cons of Precision Scheduled Railroading

Two cargo freight trains

According to the numbers compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, over 4 million tons of cargo is traveling the American rail system right now. This represents nearly 17% of all freight. The railroad industry is still a major player in freight, despite the newer modes of transportation that have developed since its advent. However, rail faces several challenges.

What is the biggest challenge rail shippers must overcome? Is it the cost of fuel? When you compare the price per ton to move cargo by rail, it’s the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation. Is it the cost of labor? A train with a crew of two may have the cargo carrying capacity of 250 cargo trucks. The biggest problem with rail transport is, in fact, tracking.

In recent years, rail shippers have invested billions of dollars into the development of positive train control systems designed to reduce accidents by keeping trains at appropriate speed limits. These systems depend on knowing exactly where trains are at all times.

Precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, aims to take this knowledge one step further. Rather than knowing where a train is, PSR systems will track exactly where individual train cars are.

Benefits of PSR

PSR systems can improve rail operations in two ways:

  • Fuel Efficiency: Trains that use PSR systems make fewer stops, which can dramatically increase fuel efficiency.
  • System Capacity: Railroad tracks sit empty most of the time. PSR promises to use capacity more intelligently and do more with the infrastructure that exists now instead of creating more infrastructure in the future.

Could PSR be the savior of the railroad industry? Some people don’t think so.

Drawbacks of PSR

While PSR promises billions of dollars in efficiency gains, its detractors dispute its ability to deliver on these promises. Here are some potential drawbacks:

  • It Only Addresses Today’s Problems: While PSR may solve many of the problems that rail shippers face today, it does little to address concerns for the future of the industry.
  • It Doesn’t Increase Capacity: Many people in the rail industry argue that shippers must increase capacity to keep up with increasing demand. Because PSR uses current capacity more efficiently, rather than increasing it, it may not be the ideal solution.

PSR is one of the many options that the railroad industry is considering to improve its future. Will this technology deliver on its promises to increase efficiency and reduce the costs of shipping? The future is uncertain, but investments to improve infrastructure are likely to pay dividends in safety and reliability.

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