Rail transportation came to Iowa in the late 1840s. By 1860, Iowa had 655 miles of track in operation. Despite progress being slowed by the Civil War, this number grew to 2,683 miles by 1870, and almost 9,200 at the turn of the century.
Robust rail transportation infrastructure continues to be critical for Iowa’s ability to feed and fuel the world. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, rail makes up about 3 percent of the freight network, but moves roughly 9 percent of Iowa’s freight tonnage, moving commodities from local processors, livestock feeders, river terminals, and ports for foreign export. Rail’s ability to haul large volumes over long distances at low costs continues to be a major factor in moving fiber, food, freight, and fuel throughout Iowa and the nation.
As an Iowa farmer growing corn, soybeans and raising cattle, I know firsthand how the rail system aids in the economic success of our Iowa farmers. Since the 1980s, total tonnage moved by rail has steadily increased from roughly 127 million tons in 1985 to over 305 million tons in 2021. Roughly 85 percent of freight originating in Iowa is made up of farm, food and chemical products. These are the lifeblood of the agriculture economy in the state.
However, a bill quietly moving through Congress could threaten America’s rail network that moves our Iowa commodities across the nation.
Proposed with the stated intention of safety, the Railway Safety Act could have devastating consequences for the rail system that Iowa’s agriculture and energy economy depends on for success. The legislation was touted as a response to the February train derailment in Ohio before anyone knew what truly caused it.
I am sure I speak for most of Iowa’s agriculture industry when I say we support efforts to keep our railways reliable and safe. None of us want to see the kind of devastating derailment change our communities. However, this bill appears to have little connection to the recent derailment, and instead has regulatory mandates that could ripple through the local and state economy. The new regulatory red tape proposed in the bill could impose a significant financial burden on Iowa’s agriculture industry by increasing the cost of transporting goods. These costs would be passed along to consumers, resulting in higher grocery bills and inflated costs for goods.
While East Palestine is an example that more needs to be done to prevent accidents from happening, carrying freight by rail continues to get safer and safer. The freight rail accident rate is down 44 percent since 2000, with the hazardous materials accident rate down 78 percent over that time. In fact, more than 99.9 percent of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without incident.
I respectfully ask our Congressional leaders to take a deeper look at this proposed legislation and focus on a more targeted approach to rail safety that is based on real data and science rather than conjecture and fear.
A safe, reliable and economical railway is crucial to the success of our Iowa agriculture industry, and we must help keep our Iowa farms and rails open for business.
Rep. Norlin Mommsen is an Iowa farmer and state representative.