If you could see inside the cars on a freight train, you'd know more about which parts of the economy are up -- or down.
If you could see inside the cars on a freight train, you'd know more about which parts of the economy are up -- or down. - 
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Railways carry more than 40 percent of the freight shipped between U.S. cities. The U.S. freight rail system is uniquely profitable, and it's been attracting international attention. Europe, Russia, Brazil and Australia have all sent representatives here.

“There have been dozens of delegations just over the last couple of years,” says Patricia Reilly, senior vice president  for communications at the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for freight rail companies.

Reilly has met with some of the international visitors. They want to know everything, down to what stone is used for rail beds. Some come with interpreters, but Reilly says they speak a common tongue.

“They might not speak our language, but they love railroads," she says. "They love the sound of a whistle.”

Garrick Francis loves the sound of a whistle, too. He’s a lobbyist with the freight rail company CSX Transportation.  

He’s also met with the international delegations. He says they’re curious about a huge difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The American freight rail system is run entirely by private companies. Francis says he gets lots of questions about investment.

“So how do we have private investors," he says. "How is this a business that attracts investment from major funds or major shareholders on Wall Street and in other places?” 

But Francis gets harder questions, too, about rail congestion in places like Chicago. Freight trains have to share track with passenger trains, adding to the congestion. 

The international delegations also want to know about new safety technology freight railways have developed. Freight rail’s safety record has improved, with the accident rate down by 42 percent since 2000. Still, accidents do happen. 

“Some of these accidents with the crude oil trains have been drastic reminders that there’s still a long way to go,” says Pasi Lautala, director of the rail transportation program at Michigan Technological University. 

Lautala says, in some ways, freight rail in the U.S. is a victim of its own success, making money and growing enough to attract admirers from around the world  but still facing expensive challenges.