Today, more and more efforts are being made to move freight by rail instead of by road, and with good reason: thanks to the much higher fuel efficiency of trains compared to trucks, railroads are the most environmentally sound way to transport freight over land. And as technologies and operating practices continue to develop, that efficiency is only expected to improve in the years ahead.
The facts and figures on railroad efficiency
Back in 1980, one gallon of fuel could move one ton of freight an average of 235 miles by rail; in 2014, the same amount of fuel could move a ton of freight an average of 479 miles by rail. That’s a 103% improvement in efficiency—a figure that’s especially impressive considering, in contrast, that the miles-per-gallon average for the trucking industry has remained relatively constant since the 1970s. In fact, according to an independent study conducted in 2009 for the Federal Railroad Administration, today’s trains are an average of four times more fuel efficient than a typical truck. Or, to look at it another way, if just five percent of the freight that currently moves by truck was instead transported by rail, the resulting fuel savings would total around 800 million gallons every year.
Furthermore, because fuel consumption levels can be directly linked to greenhouse gas emissions, these fuel efficiency figures could have a significant environmental impact as well. Using the same example of moving five percent of today’s freight by rail instead of by truck, annual greenhouse gas emissions would decrease by about 9 million tons, a reduction equivalent to planting over 200 million trees or taking 1.8 million cars out of use.
In addition, there’s a final point to consider when comparing trains and trucks for moving freight: the economic costs of highway congestion. According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard published by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, traffic congestion in 2014 added an extra 6.9 billion hours of travel time and an extra 3.1 billion gallons of fuel to the road trips of urban Americans, for a total congestion cost of $160 billion in wasted time and fuel. Trucks account for $28 billion, or 17%, of that cost. However, several hundred trucks can be replaced by a single freight train, freeing up highway space and reducing wear and tear on roads and highways.
The innovations behind railroad efficiency
So, how exactly have trains become twice as efficient over the last three decades? It’s thanks to many innovations, large and small, in a variety of areas that all work together.
New, efficient locomotives: Many older, less fuel-efficient locomotives have been taken out of service and replaced by new, more efficient models. These include “gensets,” a type of locomotive that uses several smaller engines instead of one single engine, allowing the engines to be turned on and off independently depending on the amount of power needed for a particular task.
Stop-start systems: These new idling reduction technologies ensure that locomotives are shut down when not in use and restarted only when necessary.
Advanced computer software: Developments in computer technology have had a huge impact on railroad efficiency improvements. Many different types of software are now available to fulfill such tasks as calculating the speed that will result in the greatest fuel efficiency over a particular route, monitoring locomotive performance and functions, and determining the most efficient train timing and spacing on a railroad’s system.
Freight car design: Improvements in the design and structure of freight cars allowed the average freight train to carry 3,606 tons of freight in 2014, compared with 2,222 tons in 1980 and 2,923 tons in 2000.
Distributed power: An increasingly widely used innovation, this efficiency strategy involves positioning additional locomotives at various points in the middle of a train, where they are controlled by signals from the lead locomotive. This distribution of power reduces the total number of trains needed to move a quantity of freight by allowing for the operation of longer trains.
Rail lubrication: The use of lubrication significantly reduces friction between tracks and train wheels, which saves fuel and helps decrease wear and tear on tracks, locomotives, and freight cars. In particular, some modern freight trains now release small amounts of lubricant when they round a curve, cutting down on friction without inhibiting braking function.
Drag-reducing devices: Many double-stacked intermodal trains, which are drag-heavy thanks to their greater height, use drag-reducing devices at the front to help make the train more aerodynamic.
Employee programs: Many railroad efficiency improvements are technology- or hardware-based, but training and incentive programs for railroad employees have also had the effect of boosting efficiency. In particular, many such initiatives help locomotive engineers implement best practices, and encourage awareness of fuel efficiency concerns among all employees.