A narrow view of railroad crossings


The Chronicle reports on a Texas Transportation Institute study that measures the motorist time lost at railroad crossings and then determines a cost-benefit ratio for building grade separations at those crossings. That’s a valid measure. But it’s also a narrow one.

Railroad crossings aren’t just about congestion. Those people stuck on Westheimer in the photo that ran with the article are losing time on their way to work or home or shopping. That’s a problem. But it’s a much worse problem when an ambulance is stuck at a crossing while a heart attack victim waits on the other side. There are neighborhoods in the East End where the nearest hospital, the nearest fire station, and the local school are all across railroad crossings. And, while the trains that cross Westheimer tend to move fast, the trains in the East End are often moving at a crawl or stopped entirely. There are neighborhoods that can be completely cut off from the outside world by one or two stopped trains. Measuring congestion does not measure that.

And transportation isn’t just about moving people. All the stuff you use every day has to come from somewhere. Railroads almost surely alleviate more congestion than they cause. About half of all freight movement in the United States is by rail. Were we to get rid of freight rail, we’d double the number of truck on the highway. Imagine your commute then. And, considering that the government subsidizes trucking and not freight rail, imagine your tax bill.

Freight rail is a complex problem. To solve it, we have to weigh the needs of neighborhoods, the need to move freight efficiently, and the impact on car traffic. To do that, we need some better measures than this study provides.

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