A $31 billion merger between Canadian Pacific and the 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 the long-time incumbent, Senator Chuck Grassley.
Franken, who worked on railroad issues while a military officer, is concerned that the merger risks making his oft-characterized “fly-over” state into a “roll-over” state. He is worried that, as the railways buy local acquiescence, dangling cash and minor rail improvements before Iowa’s hard-pressed riverside communities, the new railway superhighway will degrade Iowa’s quality of life.
The big merger, of course, is 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 supersized railway will channel all the north-south rail traffic to a single-track-bed along much of the Mississippi River, subjecting Iowa’s reinvigorating riverside towns to an enormous amount of rail traffic as long trains roar through.
The problem goes beyond Iowa. Nationwide, the railroads are simply outgrowing their original tracks. Once a civic glue, tying small communities together, modern American railroads have aggregated into massive cross-country powerhouses, intent only on moving massive amounts of cargo across the country. “Roll-through” country gets left behind. The Canadian Pacific and the Kansas Southern Railways merger will not do much to expand Iowa’s rail access, but will grow local rail traffic by up to four-fold.
To do this, the two railways expect to use Iowa’s old railbeds, appropriating tracks that still wind through Iowan town centers—Though towns with poorly controlled railway crossings and few railway overpasses. The increased train traffic, longer trains and bigger rolling-stock will wear down Iowa’s fragile and aging town infrastructure and increase the danger of accidents. And since tax advantages favor laying new tracks, towns will engage in a cat and mouse game with the railroads, as old rail lines subjected to intensive super-train use must have far more extensive inspections to assure Iowa voters that railway companies are keeping rails safe and aren’t just letting old rail lines decay for a small gain on Tax Day.
Until modern times, railways were always tightly integrated into Midwest towns. Iowan villages either sprung up around rail crossroads or lied, begged, and stole to get railways to lay a track through town. In the 1930s, back 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 railway superhighway risks degrading the quality of life for a significant number of Iowans. Over half a million Iowa voters—some 20% of the Iowan electorate—live in Mississippi River towns and hamlets. The list of historic communities impacted by the merger—Keokuk, Burlington, Fort Madison, Muscatine, Davenport, Dubuque, Bettendorf, Clinton, Bellevue, Guttenberg, Lansing, Harpers Ferry and others—comprise the future of Iowa.
Rather than modernize the railbed, sending trains down safer, high-speed tracks built outside Iowa cities and towns, the big train companies will keep using an old riverside rail bed that, very often, cuts river towns in two, severing their connection to the Mississippi.
The timing couldn’t be worse. America is rediscovering the Mississippi. Rail companies are laying claim to Iowa’s riverfront just as Viking River Cruises is set to begin regular river service, calling at three Iowa river cities. Soon, tourists, the second they depart from Viking’s modern riverboats, will need to contend with strings of big freight trains. Freight traffic will make efforts to add more passenger rail service to the Mississippi river basin untenable. Other efforts to build livable communities around the riverfront will suffer as the freight traffic generates more local noise and disruption than ever before.
While Franken acknowledges rail superhighways are efficient and do a great job of moving freight, he notes that they can be tremendously disruptive to the communities they pass through. And it is about to get worse. Right now, the average train length is about 1.2 miles, but, with new technology, the trains are set to grow—Union PacificUNP +2.7% even tested a 3.5-mile-long behemoth in 2010. And as train operators continue pressing 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 irritants to nearby homeowners, businesses, and environmentalists. Heavier train cars risk the foundations to the older buildings usually found along rail lines, as well.
It’s not just a matter for the folks abutting the rail line. Busy freight lines disrupt entire communities. The trains themselves can generate community-splitting traffic jams, stopping and starting at random. Without local ordinances to prevent abuse, super-sized trains can be left to sit, blocking town streets for hours. The stress leads to dangerous behaviors. In Iowa, train-racing is already commonplace, as locals rush to get across the tracks before a train arrives. That habit will only get worse.
The international rail chokepoints become regional security challenges as well. In times of tension, rival states, terrorists, and cyber criminals will relish opportunities to disrupt the Canada-to-Mexico rail line. Narco-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 the rail traffic, are unready to handle collateral challenges of customs enforcement and freight monitoring.
To address rail traffic and security problems, Iowa communities are often left to face down big rail companies on their own. By pressing for better security, speed limits, better crossing controls, horn use reduction and traffic changes, old railbeds can still safely support high traffic patterns, but Iowa towns aren’t well equipped to make these arguments. To big rail companies, anything that forces big trains to slow down becomes a problem, and there’s a significant risk that small municipalities may, in the future, see their rights to control local rail constrained by federal regulation.
The real solution is to build dedicated high-speed rail lines, appropriate for mega-train use. It would move the massive amount of through-traffic out of small, Midwest towns, speeding cross-country commerce. Let the older, more urban-integrated rail lines support local traffic, passenger trains, and other, more disaggregated freight.
Safety And Security Is A Big Deal
Rail mishaps offer another challenge for small Iowa river towns. Aside from the speed, railway cars are far larger than they once were. And with bigger freight cars, urban derailments become enormously scary things. At just a couple miles per hour, the inertia wrapped up in a simple grain car can rip apart a building.
But a grain car derailment is the least of Iowa’s worries. The merger-driven pulse of speedy north-south traffic will carry a lot of petrochemical products from Canada’s shale sands. If things go bad on the tracks, toxic and flammable cargoes can destroy towns. It has happened before. In 2013, a train derailment leveled the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
And with much of the proposed north-south rail superhighway trundling on or over the Mississippi River, near state borders, the security and emergency response challenge becomes far more complex for the area’s underfunded and unready first responders.
Even worse, the U.S. government has yet to fully integrate local rail safety with river transit and river water levels. In 2021, south of Spechts Ferry, Iowa, a 1.5 mile-long coal train slammed into an encroaching barge that was sheltering along the river bank. While the rail company had done everything right, updating navigational charts of the nearby rail line, the integration effort still failed. Two locomotives and ten hopper cars went off the tracks, with six entering the river—which was, given the river’s water level at the time, less than ten feet from the rail line.
To keep the Midwest’s waterfront viable, America’s nascent north-south railway superhighway needs to be moved out of towns, into a modern, safe railbed. But moving a rail line is an expensive, long-term process. Instead, railway executives are buying out Iowa’s cash-strapped communities, gaining access for comparative peanuts. Rather than seek a unified, long-term and regional solution, Iowa communities that don’t know what they are agreeing to are acceding to a railway superhighway for a few million dollars, getting little more than some better signage and some modest track improvements.
The rail superhighway needs a federal solution. Franken has an advanced vision of regional economic collaboration as well as building wider awareness of Iowa’s contributions to the global economy. To him, this is an opportunity, but only if done right. “Cleaner fuels, additional electrification of locomotives, tech-enabled regulation enforcement, improved GPS traffic management, and better focus on minimizing the disruptive aspects of trains is the long-term goal for these big, commodity-oriented rail lines. But Dubuque, Davenport, and other communities most affected here in Iowa should united to demand rail bypasses to their communities. Large, long, and heavy freight and petroleum-ladened trains should then be routed to those newly constructed bypasses, so they can get to where they are going faster and with less risk” said Franken in a telephone interview.
In the interim, Franken, if elected, will seek funding to improve Eastern Iowa’s emergency response capabilities to cover potential contingencies, but “the long-term effort is to get more speedy trains linking the Midwest together,” said Franken.
Franken also wants to reform the Surface Transportation Board, a powerful independent federal board that has wide economic regulatory oversight over railroads in the United States.
In a discussion, Franken was clear that America needs better rail, but he saw no need for America’s new north-south supertrains to turn Iowa’s Mississippi waterfront into “roll-over” country as well. Though there’s little immediate relief in sight, Franken sees better, safer rail lines as a good thing for Iowa.
For Franken, it’s a simple solution. With a little help from Congress, America can both benefit from speedy, super-fast freight, while, at the same time, keep Iowa development going without hurting Iowa’s small towns. This may prove to be an optimistic interpretation of the Senate’s ability to make concrete improvements in American life, but it may also be why Franken, in the last stage of the race, is out-raising his opponent and surging at the polls.
This article originally appeared on Forbes