Railway Superhighway Supercharger Iowa Senate Race between Mike Franken and Chuck Grassley | So Good News


A $31 billion merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas Southern Railways is roiling Iowa’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race, where just three percentage points separate Iowa Senate candidate Admiral Mike Franken from longtime incumbent Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Franken, who worked on railroad issues while a military officer, is concerned that the merger risks turning his often-characterized “fly-over” condition into a “roll-over” condition. He worries that as the railroads buy local consent, dangling cash and minor rail improvements before Iowa’s hard-pressed riverfront communities, the new rail highway will diminish Iowa’s quality of life.

The great merger is, of course, a national economic boon for Canada, creating the first direct, single-line railway between Canada and Mexico. But in Iowa, voters are upset that the oversized railroad would channel all north-south rail traffic to a single track along much of the Mississippi River, exposing Iowa’s regenerating riverfront cities to a huge amount of rail traffic as long trains roar through.

The problem goes beyond Iowa. Nationally, the railways are simply outgrowing their original tracks. Once a civic glue, binding small communities together, modern American railroads have coalesced into massive cross-country powerhouses, meant only to move massive amounts of cargo across the country. “Roll-through” countries are left behind. The merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas Southern Railways won’t do much to expand Iowa’s rail access, but will increase local rail traffic by up to four times.

To do this, the two railroads expect to use Iowa’s old railroad tracks, appropriating tracks that still wind through Iowan urban centers—albeit towns with poorly controlled railroad crossings and few railroad crossings. The increased train traffic, longer trains and larger rolling stock will wear down Iowa’s fragile and aging urban infrastructure and increase the risk of accidents. And since tax incentives favor laying new tracks, cities will engage in a cat-and-mouse game with the railroads, as old rail lines exposed to intensive use by super trains must have far more extensive inspections to assure Iowa voters that the railroads are keeping the rails safe and not just letting old rail lines fall into disrepair for a small profit on tax day.

Until modern times, railroads were always closely integrated into Midwestern cities. Iowan villages either popped up around railroad crossings or lied, begged, and stole to get railroads to lay a track through town. In the 1930s, when Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s 89-year-old “senior” senator, was born, railroads were commercial engines and community-building powerhouses. Little trains weaved through the center of every Iowan burg and village, knitting Iowans and Iowa businesses together.

Rail Superhighway, Meet Urban Village:

Iowa’s new rail highway risks reducing the quality of life for a significant number of Iowans. Over half a million Iowa voters—about 20% of Iowan voters—live in Mississippi River cities and towns. The list of historic communities affected by the merger — Keokuk, Burlington, Fort Madison, Muscatine, Davenport, Dubuque, Bettendorf, Clinton, Bellevue, Guttenberg, Lansing, Harpers Ferry and others — encompasses the future of Iowa.

Instead of modernizing the track, sending trains down safer, high-speed tracks built outside Iowa cities and towns, the major rail companies will continue to use an old riverfront railroad that, very often, splits river towns in two, severing the connection to the Mississippi.

The timing couldn’t be worse. America rediscovers the Mississippi. Railroad companies are staking claim to the Iowa riverfront just as Viking River Cruises is set to begin regular river service, calling at three Iowa river towns. Soon tourists, the second they step off Viking’s modern riverboats, will have to contend with lines of large freight trains. Freight traffic would make efforts to add more passenger rail service to the Mississippi River Basin unsustainable. Other efforts to build livable communities around the riverfront will suffer as freight traffic generates more local noise and disruption than ever before.

While Franken acknowledges that rail highways are efficient and do a good job of moving freight, he notes that they can be hugely disruptive to the communities they pass through. And it’s about to get worse. Right now, the average train length is about 1.2 miles, but with new technology, trains are set to grow – Union Pacific
even tested a 3.5-mile behemoth in 2010. And as train operators continue to push for better margins, the longer, faster and more frequent the train, the more money a railroad can make. But the rail profits come with a cost. Air and noise pollution are annoying for nearby homeowners, businesses and environmentalists. Heavier train cars also risk the foundations of the older buildings usually found along railway lines.

It’s not just a matter for people bumping into the rail line. Busy freight lines disrupt entire communities. The trains themselves can generate community-divisive traffic jams, stopping and starting randomly. Without local bylaws to prevent misuse, super-sized trains can be left standing and blocking city streets for hours. The stress leads to dangerous behaviour. In Iowa, train racing is already common, as locals rush to cross the tracks before a train arrives. That habit will only get worse.

The international rail stoppages also become regional security challenges. In times of tension, rival states, terrorists and cybercriminals will relish opportunities to disrupt the Canada-to-Mexico rail line. Drug traffickers and smugglers may jump at a chance to speed their wares into the upper Midwest, setting up shop where mid-sized communities, overwhelmed by rail traffic, are unprepared to deal with challenges related to customs enforcement and cargo surveillance.

To solve rail traffic and safety issues, Iowa communities are often left to face large railroad companies alone. By pushing for better safety, speed limits, better crossing controls, reduced horn use and traffic diversions, old rails can still safely support high-traffic patterns, but Iowa cities are ill-equipped to make those arguments. For large railroad companies, anything that forces large trains to slow down becomes a problem, and there is a significant risk that small municipalities may in the future see their rights to control local rail restricted by federal regulation.

The real solution is to build dedicated high-speed rail lines, suitable for mega-train use. It would move the enormous amount of through traffic out of small towns in the Midwest, and boost the cross-country trade. Let the older, more urban-integrated railway lines support local traffic, passenger trains and other, more divided freight.

Safety and security is a big deal

Railroad accidents present another challenge to small towns on the Iowa River. Speed ​​aside, the railcars are far larger than they once were. And with larger goods vehicles, urban derailments become hugely scary things. At just a couple of miles per hour, the inertia packed into a simple grain truck can tear apart a building.

But a grain truck derailment is the least of Iowa’s worries. The fusion-driven pulse of rapid north-south traffic will carry many petrochemical products from Canada’s shale sands. If the tracks go bad, toxic and flammable cargo can destroy cities. It has happened before. In 2013, a train derailment leveled the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec, killing 47 people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

And with much of the proposed north-south rail highway rolling on or over the Mississippi River, close to state lines, the safety and emergency response challenge becomes far more complex for the area’s underfunded and lackluster first responders.

Even worse, the US government has yet to fully integrate local rail safety with river transportation and river water levels. In 2021, south of Spechts Ferry, Iowa, a 2.5 kilometer long coal train slammed into an intruding barge sheltered along the riverbank. While the railway company had done everything right and updated navigation maps for the nearby railway line, the integration efforts still failed. Two locomotives and ten hopper cars derailed, with six entering the river – which, given the river’s water level at the time, was less than ten feet from the railway line.

To keep the Midwest’s waterfront viable, America’s nascent north-south rail highway must be moved out of the cities, into a modern, safe railroad. But moving a rail line is an expensive, long-term process. Instead, railroad executives are buying out Iowa’s cash-strapped communities, gaining access to comparative peanuts. Instead of seeking a unified, long-term, regional solution, Iowa communities who don’t know what they’re getting into get a few million dollar rail highway and get little more than slightly better signage and some modest track improvements.

The rail highway needs a federal solution. Franken has an advanced vision for regional economic cooperation as well as building broader awareness of Iowa’s contribution to the global economy. For him, this is an opportunity, but only if it is done correctly. “Cleaner fuels, further electrification of locomotives, technology-enabled regulatory enforcement, improved GPS traffic management and a better focus on minimizing the disruptive aspects of trains are the long-term goals of these large, commodity-oriented rail lines. But Dubuque, Davenport and other communities most affected here in Iowa should band together to demand detours to their communities. Large, long and heavy freight and petroleum-laden trains should then be routed to the newly built detours so they can get where they need to go faster and with less risk, Franken said in a telephone interview.

In the meantime, Franken, if elected, will seek funding to improve eastern Iowa’s emergency preparedness to cover potential emergencies, but “the long-term effort is to get faster trains that connect the Midwest,” Franken said.

Franken also wants to reform the Surface Transportation Board, a powerful independent federal board that has extensive financial regulatory oversight of railroads in the United States.

In one discussion, Franken was clear that America needs better rail, but he saw no need for America’s new North-South Super Train to turn Iowa’s Mississippi waterfront into “roll-over” country, too. While little immediate relief is in sight, Franken sees better and safer rail lines as a good thing for Iowa.

For Franken, it is a simple solution. With a little help from Congress, America can both benefit from fast, super-fast shipping while keeping development in Iowa going without hurting Iowa’s small towns. This may turn out to be an optimistic interpretation of the Senate’s ability to make concrete improvements in American life, but it may also be the reason why, in the last leg of the race, Franken is elevating his opponent and storming the polls.


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