Why You Should Love Trains

Why You Should Love Trains

by Alice Friedemann    November 13, 2014

Trains rock!

Trains are over 4 times more fuel efficient than trucks. On average it takes just 1 gallon to move a ton 473 miles, using just 2% of transportation oil. Trucks suck, burning 46% of transportation oil— 20% medium / heavy trucks, and 26% light trucks (FRA, USDOT 2014b, Davis).

Energy has been so cheap and plentiful we’ve blown our oil wad on gas-guzzling trucks, the limousines of the freight world. They lumber over 4 million miles of roads, often half empty with just the parts needed at a factory and drive back empty for their next haul.

A short-sighted transportation policy that favored energy-gulping trucks has reduced our rail system from 380,000 miles of tracks in 1920 to 140,000. About 45,000 of these miles are short-line tracks run by 500 small rail companies that go to grain elevators, steel mills, stock yards, and other businesses. The other 95,000 miles are the mainline tracks that move freight across the country, run by the seven large class 1 rail companies. These tracks tend to be in better condition and capable of hauling heavier railcars and locomotives than short-line rail.

Trains keep lights burning and bread on the table. Half of what trains haul (by weight) is energy related.

Rail excels at hauling heavy goods like coal and grain long distances (615 miles on average), so much so, that when you multiply weight times miles traveled, trains carry 45% of freight by ton-miles, versus 38% for trucks, yet trucks carry most of the weight overall, about three-quarters of it, because most freight travels less than 250 miles (USDOT 2014a).

Almost 40% of all tons carried by trains are coal, 42% of it from Wyoming, and 93% of U.S. coal will be used to generate electricity.

Trains also carry refined petroleum and coke (2.6%), fracked (tight) oil (2.2%), natural gas based fertilizers (2%) and plastics (2%), ethanol (1.5%), and petrochemicals (1%).

Other major commodities trains haul are chemicals 10%, grain 7%, crushed stone, sand, gravel 7%, food 6%, metals 3%, waste & scrap 2%, pulp/paper 2%, lumber/wood 1%, and import/export containers, which could contain just about anything.

Why not build more railroad tracks to conserve oil?

This seems like a no-brainer:

  • Heavy-duty trucks ruin roads and bridges and don’t pay for 20% of the damage (HR). Moving more freight by rail would save billions of dollars in road maintenance, and reduce road congestion (one train equals several hundred trucks), saving $121 billion in wasted fuel and time (TTI).
  • For every 10% of truck freight switched to rail, another billion gallons of fuel are saved as well as reducing nitrous oxides 80%, particulates 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 75% per ton-mile (EPA).
  • Railroad tracks are cheaper to add and maintain, $129,000 per mile (including bridges, land, buildings, wharves, docks, etc. (AAR 2012) versus $327,000 per mile to add and maintain roads (average of USDOT 2010-11-12).
  • Maintaining tracks is $10-$14,000 per mile/year (Liu, TDOT). Resurfacing and restoring roads costs $205,000 per mile/year (USDOT 2010-11-12).

Who’s going to pay for the revolution? Railroads can’t afford to

Trucks, airlines, and barges use highways, airways, and waterways mostly paid for by taxes and the government.

Railroads are incredibly capital-intensive, and private railroad companies pay for nearly everything. Since 1980 railroads have reinvested $550 billion on maintenance and improvements, 40 cents of every revenue dollar, five times more than the average manufacturer (AAR 2014).

On top of that, railroads are spending billions to comply with regulations–about $8 billion on Congress’s Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and billions more to replace or modify locomotives to meet EPA Tier 4 emissions standards.

In 2012 railroads spent $62 billion – here are a few of the costs:

  • $11.5 billion for 3.6 billion gallons of fuel to move cargo 1.7 trillion ton-miles
  • $2.5 billion for 755 locomotives
  • $2.1 billion on materials to maintain 25,000 locomotives, 364,000 freight cars, 160,000 miles of track, 16.5 million ties, replace 6,000 miles of rail, etc.
  • $1.1 billion on signaling systems for safety and to run more trains
  • $1.1 billion on freight rail cars
  • $1 billion on ballast– the rocky bed of railroad ties and tracks
  • $600 million to maintain 100,000 railroad bridges

The Government isn’t going to pay for what’s needed either

No money. Every level of government has a huge amount of debt, unfunded liabilities, and nearly-bankrupt pension funds.

Opposition from powerful trucking and road lobby interests. Plus companies and associations that are heavily truck-dependent fight government funding of railroads, although the rail lobby is also powerful and manages to get earmarks from state and federal government.

The Highway trust fund doesn’t have enough money to give to freight rail projects. It’s almost gone bankrupt every year since 2008 (CRS, Keith).

Railroads are private companies, so unless a public benefit is clear, federal and state government agencies are reluctant to fund rail, though it does happen sometimes via earmarks, tax reductions, etc.

Most rail projects happen at the state level. Many states have found it’s cheaper to keep short-line (class 2 & 3) railroads in business maintaining and building roads.

There are many ways to improve railroads

If the money could be found, there are many projects that would also save energy, such as (AASHTO Appendix D, ASCE, FDOT, Keith, USDOT 2010, USDOT 2014b, USGAO, Vigrass):

  • Get rid of roads that cross railroad tracks by relocating tracks, or add bridges or underpasses so trains and highway vehicles don’t have to stop for each other
  • Heighten tunnels and bridges for stack trains, which carry twice as much cargo (containers are stacked two levels high)
  • Put in more short-line tracks between ports and major distribution centers, or along corridors heavily traveled by trucks, and where warehouses and manufacturing are concentrated
  • Divert cargo from trucks to rail or water with better intermodal terminals so it’s faster to move containers from trucks to rail
  • Increase the number of trains by adding another parallel track, or more side tracks where trains can wait for another to pass
  • Reduce distance traveled by punching tunnels through hills, and get rid of curved tracks, which will increase their longevity as well
  • Move train yards out of the way of through traffic
  • States should buy more railcars so farmers can get their grain and produce to markets instead of depending on just-in-time trucking

The European Union’s Marco Polo program has been shifting truck freight to rail and water since 2002. The goal is to shift 30% of road freight going over 185 miles to rail or water by 2030 (EC).

If I were benevolent dictator…

I’d fund the projects above, because by the time oil shocks or the next financial crisis occurs, it’s too late. The market-driven goal of short-term profits over long-term national interest will continue to prevail until it’s too late — the money and energy to build a better rail system won’t be there. Revolutionary thinking about how to rearrange society needs to happen at least 20 years ahead of energy shortages, because drastic changes need to be made (Hirsch).

It’s real simple – when you lose your job, it’s not a good time to buy a new house or buy a new car. A benevolent dictator might seem like an outrageous idea in a democratic society, but it’s the only way to overcome political squabbling, nimbyism, opposition from trucking and road lobbyists, and allocating the necessary funds.

If I were dictator, the first thing I’d do is say “Slow Down!” Slower speeds, more efficient engines, and other improvements could decrease fuel consumption by as much as 75%. Trucks and trains are chunky non-aerodynamic blocks that have to power through increasing air resistance (aerodynamic drag) the faster they go:

  • It takes 4 times the energy to move a train at 80 mph as at 40 mph.
  • At highway speeds, drag is about 65% of fuel consumed by a heavy-duty truck.

High-speed trains? Bah Humbug. Give high-speed and other passenger train funds to freight rail. This is another reason for a dictator, since “freight doesn’t vote”.

It will cost California $68 billion to build 520 miles of high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco (Nagourney). That’s enough for 45,000 miles of rural freight tracks at $1.5 million per mile. Do you want to eat, or do you want to go to Los Angeles?

Instead of passenger rains, use empty freight cars for passengers. As dictator, I will hire stage hands to put in seats as quickly as scenes are changed in the theater, and mattresses during harvest season so hoboes can again ride the rails to gather crops (Street).

Add more miles of short-line and mainline rail. You’d want rail to go to warehouses, factories, distribution centers, large retailers like Costco and Walmart, as well as relocate businesses to be next to rail.

Discourage just-in-time logistics. Change tax incentives so that businesses would prefer to keep large inventories on hand so trucks don’t arrive half empty with just what’s needed for just-in-time manufacturing needs, often returning empty.

Let a million miles of roads revert to gravel to save road maintenance costs.

That would free up money from the Highway trust fund and other sources for rail projects.

We don’t need all these roads: as oil, coal, and natural gas decline world-wide, so too will manufacturing and other trade, leading to reduced needs for freight transportation.

Instead of the congestion feared in transportation analyses, there will be empty roads as increasing unemployment and declining wages make fuel and other goods less affordable.

Add more rail between ports, major urban areas, and inland agricultural regions

Many people in rural areas will migrate to cities because of job losses, high gas prices, or gas stations closing. Fewer trucks will make it to the 80% of towns totally dependent on them as diesel or other fuel substitute prices make their delivery rates unaffordable.

At a time when we ought to be moving towards 50 million farmers (Heinberg 2006), farmers will move to cities as larger, more industrialized farms, continue to drive smaller farms out of business–in 1920 there were 7 million farms; today just 188,000 farms produce nearly two-thirds of agricultural products (USDA 2009). Farm workers will move to urban areas as they continue to lose jobs from more mechanization (Hightower).

Other migrations to cities will include those areas running out of water from drought, topsoil erosion, and declining aquifers (Konikow), and cities swamped by sea level rise such as Miami, New York City, and many in the Gulf region.

If the future repeats the past, then the crumbling of roads, rail, and other infrastructure will make the interior less habitable and people will once again mainly live along coasts and navigable waterways. Until then, to the extent we can stretch out oil supplies for trucks and trains, the interior can remain inhabited and provide food for everyone.

Energy isn’t the main concern in transportation policy

Planning should revolve around moving the most freight for the least energy. Forget about shipper preferences, just-in-time delivery, and speed.

Current transportation studies are mainly concerned with how to accommodate a doubling of freight growth over the next forty years and emphasize prices, customer convenience, greenhouse gas emissions, and just-in-time logistics.

None of them acknowledge the peaking of conventional oil in 2005, flat production since then, the possibility of the end of growth, and the need to conserve fuel as the new basis for the funding freight transportation projects.

Major hurdles and future Gotcha’s

Politically, is it likely a shift from truck to rail and water is likely? Because transportation policy and funding isn’t based on conserving energy, the most likely outcome will be slow, incremental change. Business-as-usual means only about 10% of freight could be shifted from truck to rail or water (USDOE 2013).

Trucking, road, and heavily truck dependent businesses are likely to oppose any expansion of rail that reduces funding for roads.

Getting coordination and investment dollars across private, city, state, federal, tribal, neighborhood, and special interest groups for a national rail plan is a daunting prospect.

Customers care more about speed of delivery and convenient door-to-door service than fuel prices. When energy costs become a factor in delivery prices, it’s too late to do much, since solutions require enormous amounts of energy (i.e. building new liquid fuel infrastructure, better miles-per-gallon trucks, etc.), and the economy is likely to be in a recession with little capital to do much.

Trucks can be more efficient at short distances. The vast majority of freight is moved less than 250 miles. Even if rail and water were improved and expanded, could enough miles be built to shift most of the 90% of cargo traveling short distances from trucks? Could enough rail be built soon enough for there to still be enough fuel to operate locomotives and barges despite exponentially declining fossil fuels? How much arctic, gulf, tar sand, tight, and conventional (imported) oil production are likely? What is the EROI of expanding rail and water versus fuel saved from fewer trucks?

Design for rising sea levels which will swamp railroad tracks and roads, rendering many major ports inaccessible. Much of the rail infrastructure is built around imports and exports from ports. Whatever future plans are made should take this into account since storm surges from rising sea levels will affect transportation by 2050, well within the lifespan of new infrastructure. Some of the most important ports and their road and rail connections will be difficult to fix because they can’t be raised since the land below is subsiding (Gulf coast) or vulnerable to liquefaction after an earthquake, such as Oakland, California and other west coast ports (Biging, Copeland, Heberger).

Large ships can be six times more efficient than rail, and 40 times more efficient than trucks (Smil) so nations across the oceans can be more local than rail or trucks from inland American cities. Our topsoil is younger and in better shape than most other nations, so keeping ports open so that we can trade food for oil (until our rising population grows too great to do so) gives the United States an advantage in competing for shrinking oil exports.

Rail is very vulnerable to sabotage and terrorism. This is also a reason why it would be nice to have more miles of double or alternative tracks, so trains had other routes for when rail was damaged from terrorism, natural disasters, train accidents, or aging infrastructure. Plus having more rail would make maintenance easier (Vigrass).

Food will be the most important cargo rail carries in the future

Famines finally ended in inland regions where crops had failed when railroads, and later trucks, could transport food (Fagan). Even now many poor countries that grow plenty of food, such as India, lose much of it to crops rotting on the ground from lack of transportation to markets.

Until the mid-19th century, America’s economy depended on water transport and two out of three people lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast, canals, or navigable rivers. It cost more to move a ton of goods 30 miles inland than across the Atlantic (McPherson). When rail arrived in the 19th century, businesses were able to move to the interior.

About 80% of our food calories (grain, potatoes, meat, dairy, etc.) are grown in the interior, especially the corn and wheat belts. Yet about 80% of the population lives within 100 miles of the coasts. The greatest need for future rail will be to move food to the 400 million people of 2050, most of whom will live hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where their food is grown (US Census).

Currently short line rail is involved in about 50% of all agricultural products even though they only represent only 1% of the ton-miles (Martland). They mainly serve to get food products to the class 1 main tracks (Keith). Even more short rail will be needed in the future to save energy, though studies need to be done to see how much short rail can replace trucks.

Despite the clear need for more short line rail to reduce energy use, some trends are leading to more heavy trucks. For example, new $20 million dollar gigantic grain elevators to load class 1 unit trains that don’t stop until their destination, is making smaller grain elevators and the short lines that go out of business. This in turn has led to a need for much heavier trucks that driving twice or more miles to get to the further away huge grain elevators, destroying rural roads that were never meant for so many heavy trucks.

Rural roads weren’t designed for heavy trucks, which pay for at best for only 60-67% of the damage done on rural roads. The damage loaded semitrailer trucks do to major rural highways is 13.5 times the amount of damage they do to rural interstate highways, and 21 times the damage to minor highways. When counties like Ottawa in Kansas, population 6400, lost rail service, their roads reverted to gravel and maintenance costs increased from $1 to $7 million a year (USDA 2013).

Truck and road lobbies keep trying to raise maximum truck weight levels at state and federal levels. So far they’ve been defeated at the federal level (HR), but many states have allowed trucks over 80,000 pounds. Trucks take business away from short lines because they have the advantage of shorter trip times and can pick up and deliver from any location. Allowing larger trucks would even shift freight from class 1 short and medium distance rail unit trains (Martland).

Perhaps narrow gauge rail within farmland could be used to haul crops to short-line rail, with much smaller and lighter railcars that can be hauled by oxen if need be. Trucks will still be essential but perhaps can be stored locally so drivers don’t need to come from long distances at harvest time. The energy justifications need to be studied since much of rural rail will only needed for part of the year.

Whatever oil exists after the next energy crisis is likely to be rationed to agriculture, if history repeats itself and actions similar to the 1980 Standby Gasoline Rationing Plan are taken. Agriculture was the top priority, followed by high-priority activities such as law enforcement, firefighting, the U.S. postal service, emergency medical services, sanitation, snow removal, telecommunications, utilities and energy production (USDOE 1980).

Some of our rail tracks now will have less purpose in the future, such as when coal production declines world-wide and in the Wyoming Powder River area as the overburden keeps increasing making extraction unprofitable at some point (Glustrom, Heinberg 2010, Rutledge). Perhaps these tracks can be moved to other areas, reused, or recycled.

Note: if you’ve ever wondered how tracks are constructed, see  these 5-minute videos: Track Building Train Ever wondered how they build mile after mile and How Train rails are made


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2 Responses to Why You Should Love Trains

  1. Mark Miller says:


    You have my vote for the position of benevolent Transportation Lead for the state/Fed gov’t. Allocating the High Speed Rail funds to Freight infrastructure would get my vote- which you wouldn’t require for a reallocation of resources.

    I concur with Ed Dolan’s thoughts that a price smoothing tax should be considered as part of an overall energy policy effort. The funds from the smoothing effort would be allocated by the Transportation Lead.


  2. FrY10cK says:

    I second the nomination.

    Seriously good post.