The impact of rail freight transportation upon environmental sustainability.

Author:Spraggins, H. Barry


Forty-three percent of all intercity freight moves by rail, including 71 percent of the nation's coal and 35 percent of its grain (AAR, Economy, 2009). Since 1980, railroads have nearly doubled the amount of freight moved per gallon. In 1980, one gallon of diesel fuel moved on ton of freight by rail an average of 235 miles compared to 436 miles in 2007; almost four times as far as possible by truck.


Freight railroads have increased their fuel efficiency by 85 percent in the last 25 years thereby saving more than 48 billion gallons of fuel and reducing greenhouse emissions by almost 20 tons each year (AAR, Environment, Green, 2009). Freight trains are in fact three or more times more fuel efficient trucks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that for each ton-mile of freight movement by rail rather than truck greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by at least two-thirds. The EPA states that a typical truck emits three times more nitrogen oxides and particulates freight unit than does a diesel locomotive (AAR, Economic Impact, 2009).



The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has predicted that U.S. rail freight demand will rise 88 percent by 2035. Without future investment in the rail infrastructure, 30 percent of the rail miles in the primary corridors will be operating above capacity by 2035. This lack of capacity will cause severe congestion in every region of the country and could shift additional freight to the already heavily congested highway system (AAR, Economy, 2009). The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials contend that if all freight were shifted from rail to truck, costs to consumers would rise by almost $70 billion dollars (AAR, Greenhouse, 2008). It is important to add that the total costs of highway congestion are far greater if lost productivity, costs associated cargo delays and other factors are included.



A recent study in 82 major urban areas shows that shifting more freight to rail transportation would help reduce time in gridlock traffic, saving drivers dollars and time. The study by the seventh annual Congestion Relief Index shows that if 25 percent of freight volume is shifted from trucks to rail in these urban areas by 2026 the average commuter would save $985 in fuel costs; 41 hours a year in commuter time; 79 gallons of fuel each year; and, would reduce air pollution by nearly 920,500 tons each year. For example, projections of a 25 percent shift in freight away from trucks in New York City alone by 2026 would yield a reduction of 87,700 annual tons of pollution. At the same time, Los Angeles would realize a 45,600 ton reduction. (Demographia, 2008).

One intermodal train can remove nearly 300 trucks or the equivalent of 1,100 cars off the highways. Shifting freight from truck to rail reduces competition between commuters, drivers and freight traffic for road capacity. Opening lanes on the highways increases the flow of traffic and saves commuters time, money and gasoline. Highway congestion costs $78 billion per year in wasted travel time (4.2 billion hours) and wasted fuel (2.9 billion gallons) (AAR, Economic...

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