Who Will Strike the New Golden Spike?

When U.S. railroads first managed to connect from East to West, crews drove a golden spike to commemorate the completion of our first transcontinental railway. It happened at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, soon after the Civil War ended. The iconic photograph of Union Pacific’s No. 119 and Central Pacific’s Jupiter No. 60 meeting face to face immortalized that final strike. Less than 50 years later, with the introduction of the Ford automobile, the U.S. railroad was already past its prime.

As a new administration takes over in 2009, the time appears right to face the nation’s growing transportation infrastructure needs and to recall the grandeur of 1869. As we all know, repairing and expanding our transportation system could amount to trillions of dollars in investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported that the nation must spend $1.6 trillion in the next five years—and that was four years ago.

Of course, it would be possible to spend all that money and not improve the efficiency of business transport. More Alaskan “bridges to nowhere” could do as much. Importantly, the money has to be targeted at areas in greatest need and that yield the greatest dividends in terms of improved logistics and supply chain efficiency. In this regard, it is hard to come up with anything more important than fixing and developing our intermodal transportation system.


Gil Carmichael, the founding chairman of the board of the Intermodal Transportation Institute and former Federal Railway Administrator, has been a strong proponent for rebuilding our transportation system.

He offers another golden opportunity: “Today, a double-stack container train can replace 280 trucks, run at speeds up to 90 miles an hour, and afford as much as nine times the fuel efficiency of container transport by highway,” he says.

Rather than extending the 1960s Eisenhower Interstate system, Carmichael suggests we create what he terms “Interstate II.” This would consist of a 30,000-mile, rail-based set of conduits connected by an intelligent transportation network.

Intermodal systems are logical. If we think of the shipping container or the semi-trailer as the transport module of choice, then it makes infinite sense to transfer modules from one mode to another as easily and economically as possible. We have the modules. They are standardized, and in many cases capable of stacking and tracking.

We also know how to set up intermodal facilities, as they already exist and their value has been proven. Many issues must be addressed, however, to connect these parts. This will not be easy.

Today, there is existing and strong competition between transportation modes such as rail, air, sea, and road. These competing forces extend into a broad set of transportation support, management, and control, and often devolve into lobbying battles between steel and concrete, between types of fuel, and between pressure groups representing these factions.

Carriers in each mode also compete for what goes where, when, and for how long, with endless government intervention and regulation that is both useful and unproductive. Moreover, there is a significant lack of funding from both public and private sectors, and competition for control over how we distribute existing resources.


Our intermodal transportation infrastructure needs are huge and complex, and require us to connect many interdependent parts beyond rail and road, including canals, culverts, and bridges.

Consider our bridges. The I-35W Mississippi River bridge, now repaired, is only the beginning of the challenge that awaits us. The ASCE reports that 27 percent, or 160,570 of the nearly 600,000 spans in the United States, are structurally deficient or obsolete. This means that all states, if not all counties, in America have bridges at risk to fail.

What needs to be done to address these obstacles? What steps does the ASCE recommend? First and foremost, Congress needs to enact the National Infrastructure Improvement Act, which sets in motion the creation of The National Commission of Infrastructure of the United States.

This commission would study and assess the country’s infrastructure condition and prepare a set of recommendations for Congress to act on. This would require and commit a great deal of money to the cause.

U.S. bridges alone will cost $9.4 billion over 20 years to repair structural deficiencies, according to the ASCE. It already has a full action plan available for those that are able to think and move ahead.

A Drain on Funds

But Congress has a poor track record in this regard. It failed to reauthorize the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21), which was introduced in 1998. Funds set aside by government for infrastructure improvements have been drained for other purposes in recent years. Instead, state and local authorities have had to draw on their own resources to finance infrastructure projects.

An opportunity to improve our intermodal system is well within reach. And well, it’s about time. What a great chance for another golden spike, 140 years after the fact.

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