Autonomous railroads and the importance of shipping goods by train

An exploration of autonomous trains in the United States includes this graphic about how cargo is moved in the country:

At this point, railroad shipping is very important: roughly one-third of cargo goes via train. This only follows trucks. And I wonder how this data works when cargo goes much of the way via train but then needs to make it “the last mile” from the railyard to specific locations.

So how much might autonomous railroads help? Here is some suggestive data:

A European Union-funded study published in 2020 found that moving to newer systems for managing trains could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. An internal study by Wabtec indicates in the U.S. the increase could be even higher, up to 50%. An increase of that magnitude in the ton-miles carried by America’s rail network would be the equivalent of moving approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.

Combine this with autonomous trucks (which, according to this piece, may take longer than moving to autonomous trains) and drones and perhaps more future goods could be moved even more quickly.

Tunnels as infrastructure and symbols of pride

Boring machines broke through today at the opposite end of a 35.4 mile tunnel in the Alps, creating the world’s longest tunnel in Switzerland and taking the title away from Japan. While this is a feat of engineering (allowing high speed trains to carry cargo under the mountains rather than have it be shipped on trucks over the Alps), it is also interesting to read about the emotional responses people are having:

Trumpets sounded, cheers reverberated and even burly workers wiped away tears as foreman Eduard Baer lifted a statue of Saint Barbara — the patron saint of miners — through a small hole in the enormous drilling machine thousands of feet (meters) underground in central Switzerland.

At that moment, a 35.4-mile (57-kilometer) tunnel was born, and the Alpine nation reclaimed the record from Japan’s Seikan Tunnel. Television stations across Europe showed the event live…

Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, called Friday “a day of joy for Switzerland.”

“We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional” he told The Associated Press.

This project is not just a boon for business and the environment; it is seen as a testament to the will and determination of the Swiss. As a project that has been in the works for decades (with the referendum votes for funding taking place nearly two decades ago), to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is a big accomplishment. This is cultural moment that will likely become part of the Swiss collective memory.

How might the response in the United States to such an engineering feat differ?