The U.S. rail network is comprised of nearly 140,000 miles of track and over 100,000 bridges. The system can be divided into two categories: private freight railroads and intercity passenger rail, operated almost exclusively by Amtrak.
U.S. freight railroads are categorized into three classes based on the distance served and earnings: seven large Class I railroads, 21 regional/Class II railroads, and 547 short line/Class III railroads. In 2015, U.S. freight railroad volume was nearly twice what it was in 1980, even though the network’s overall reach has declined. Class I railroads shed nearly 30% of their rail miles between 1990 and 2013, with many portions becoming short lines or abandoned. Class I railroads operate approximately 95,000 rail miles, regional railroads operate approximately 10,000 miles, and short line railroads operate approximately 33,000 miles. Capacity across the Class I network today is generally sufficient to meet current needs, but demand for rail is expected to grow as road congestion and demand for goods continue to increase. Recently, the Class I railroads have increased carrying capacity through the operation of double stack containers and heavier carloads.
Freight railroads, as owners of the infrastructure, are responsible for the condition of the majority of the nation’s track, bridges, and connections at ports and intermodal facilities, and proactively maintain, replace, and upgrade systems though maintenance and capital programs. Changes in freight cargo trends in recent years have necessitated changes in the network. Coal, the most commonly transported bulk product by rail, has experienced a decline, while intermodal traffic has experienced substantial growth, requiring investment in connections to ports and truck transfer facilities. Freight railroads continue to upgrade their networks to support additional demand with greater capacity, added efficiency, and improved safety. This has required the rebuilding of bridges, tunnels, track, and signal systems.
Federal forecasts predict an approximately 40% increase in U.S. freight shipments, including by rail, by 2040. To prepare for the future, the U.S. Department of Transportation worked with the transportation industry to draft the first National Freight Strategic Plan, to address impediments to the efficient flow of goods in support of the nation’s economy. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act requires the strategic plan be completed by 2017 and be updated every five years.