As the debate over Proposal 1 rages on, Michigan’s infrastructure continues to crumble. To the average citizen, the roads may be the most obvious sign of the ongoing problem, but another equally vital mode of transportation has been overlooked. Michigan’s railroads, which the state’s food and agriculture industry relies upon, are in serious disrepair.
Michigan hasn’t always had a rail problem. However, across the nation from roughly the 1960s to the 1980s, railroads began to lose large amounts of business to the burgeoning trucking industry. This was largely due to the decrease in travel times because of the interstate highway system, as well as a truck’s ability to pick up and deliver cargo directly to a destination (“point to point” pickup/delivery). Although trucks are able to provide a faster delivery time, railroads are a more efficient means of transporting agricultural products. Trains are roughly four times more efficient than trucks in term of fuel consumption, and have about five times the infrastructure capacity when the rails are in good working order. However, several railroads in Michigan were not able to keep up with the competition coming from trucks, and subsequently collapsed.
As these rail companies went out of business, many began to tear up the track and leave lines with dead ends. Many were even torn up in their entirety. Although the state took ownership of some of these lines, the damage had already been done. Lines had been reduced from statewide service to local, one-way trains. Over time, the lines have deteriorated so much that at times they have been unusable. The Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA) gives an example of a rail from Ashley to Middleton that was so bad in the early 1990s, the railroad experienced “standing derailments.” This is when a full (or even empty) railcar sitting on the track tips over due to the weight of the car forcing the tracks apart.
Michigan’s food and agriculture industry is a $101.2 billion part of the state’s economy. Michigan farmers produce over 300 different commodities, and they make up $13.6 billion of the total food and agriculture industry in Michigan. Additionally, Michigan exports a vast amount of agricultural products to countries such as Canada, Mexico, and China. In 2013, exporting was a $3.2 billion industry for the state. In 2010, Michigan’s largest exported commodities were soybeans and various soy products. Grain and fertilizer operations depend upon reliable railroads more and more as annual yields keep increasing.
Increases in yield have, in turn, increased the amount of weight that must be borne by the tracks. Delays caused by slow trains and problems with the rails have the potential to inflict large amounts of financial damage, as the longer the cars take to reach their destination, the more money is at risk of being lost by producers, elevators, and rail lines. Additionally, if the rails are torn up or too deteriorated to use, producers and companies will be forced to switch to trucks, which would increase the cost of transportation by about 70 cents per bushel of grain. Producers, whose margins for breaking even are already thin, pay for this cost. In particular, soybean, wheat, and corn producers are affected, as well as beans being exported and fertilizer being shipped in.
Currently, funding for freight rail lines has been neglected in favor of investing in passenger rails. However, as the demand on these rails grows, something must be done. While passenger rail is certainly important, the state should allocate more funds for repairing and enhancing freight lines. The problem currently faced by these railroads is one of rail quality rather than quantity. Additionally, organizations such as MABA have advocated for increasing funding programs that deal with maintaining railroad tracks, extending federal tax credits for railroad rehabilitation, and providing low-interest federal loans for infrastructure projects related to railroads.
“Facts About Michigan Agriculture”
“Agricultural businesses call for Michigan railroad improvement”
“An Overview of Infrastructure Opportunities and Challenges for Michigan Agriculture, Agri-Business and Rural Development”
“Michigan State Rail Plan Summary”
“Fuel savings: potential trucks vs. rail intermodal”