One if by rail, two if by truck

In the U.S. more so than perhaps anywhere else in the world, the road trip is a quintessential vacation. We cram lots of clothes, entertainment in the form of mp3 players, magnetic chess (you can tell what I did on my family vacations), alphabet games, etc., food, drinks, and people into small mobile spaces for hours on end to reach destinations that vary as largely as the types of people that make these rights of passage. As we drive to our destinations, trees, police officers, road kill, beautiful lakes, serene mountains, and the endless American countryside dot the landscape for miles on end along with trucks. Lots of trucks. Going every which way at every hour of the day. One pulls off at the rest area to take a much needed reprieve from the monotony of the asphalt Appian Way while three more join the flow on the opposite end of the rest area to continue their journey in an effort to fuel the American economy.

Goods need to be created and then be shipped. Depending on the good, planes, trains and automobiles along with pipelines, barges, and probably even bicycles all combine to deliver our much needed new G.I. Joe action figure. From Dr. Michael Webber’s lecture on Energy Basics, the figure below breaks down fuel use in the transportation sector. Medium/heavy trucks, light trucks (not sure exactly how this is defined vs. cars), and air consume 50% of our fuel and cars add another 32%.

Many have proposed a high speed rail network similar to Europe. While I believe this is a very beneficial concept, I believe it is skipping a step. I do not believe investing many billions to the high speed passenger rail right away is the best use of public funds. A high speed rail network for freight trains provides multiple benefits while not ignoring high speed passenger rail.

From a lecture by Dr. Michael Webber of the University of Texas at Austin

A high speed rail network for freight would save millions of gallons of gasoline used by trucks and planes today. In fact, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in the previously linked article states

“According to the Rail Waybill data, the classic intermodal rail and truck combination (called rail intermodal) moved shipments weighing 173 million tons in 2002, an increase of 47 percent from 118 million tons in 1993. If it is assumed that these goods would have otherwise been carried by only trucks in 50,000 lb payloads, then the intermodal traffic handled by rail in 2002 essentially removed 6.9 million large truck trips from our highways for a major part of the distance traveled by these ­shipments.”

Some of the benefits of rail over trucking are obvious in that greenhouse gas emissions are mitigated, gas consumption is abated, congestion on highways is reduced saving even more gas, from the Association of American Railroads, and road damage would plunge as a result of fewer trucks ($4.7 billion was allocated in 2008 for interstate maintenance only from the Department of Transportation).

The cons include significant capital investment to upgrade and maintain the current rail network, less flexibility in destinations compared with trucks, strictly controlled shipping times (e.g. Wal-Mart does not control its goods the entire time on a rail track as its truck would), and numerous job losses as a result of a reduced trucking industry including truck drivers, manufacturers, repairers, and even the service industry associated with truck stops. However, the last negative could possibly be mitigated by the job increases in the rail industry as well as intra-city trucking would still be critical to transport goods from the rail yard to the vendor/consumer.

Why high speed? High speed would serve two purposes. First, it allows rail to compete with air travel with respect to delivery speed. Currently, freight trains average roughly 28 mph. Secondly, it would immediately be used and would pave the way for high speed passenger trains reducing the eventual cost of a high speed passenger rail system as President Obama hopes comes to fruition in the U.S.

Ray LaHood, Transportation Secretary, outlined a vision for high speed passenger rail in the U.S. Five current challenges were given in his report: lack of expertise and resources, state fiscal constraints, partnership with private railroads, multi-state partnerships, and the need for high speed rail safety standards. Beginning with high speed freight as opposed to high speed passenger rail will help resolve these issues without creating negative sentiment among rail consumers about initial inefficiencies compared with road and air travel.

Effectively, I am proposing a high speed freight network to help bridge the gap between our traditional road trip to grandmother’s house with lots of trucks and to grandmother’s house via the high speed passenger rail network with some road trips free of 18 wheelers in the process. Not to mention, next time you embark on your electric car road trip to Big Bend National Park to hike the Chisos trail, you will not have to be stuck behind that unending line of trucks, allowing you to count the many pump jacks along the way!



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4 responses to “One if by rail, two if by truck

  1. Patrick Pace

    Agreed, there is no comparison between truck and rail efficiencies (in terms of MPG). You also mentioned the current problem, trains are not that great compared to trucks in terms of delivery time efficiency- maybe high speed rail could fix this. Interesting.

    • gatorgreg

      The Association of American Railroads pdf stated:

      Fuel efficiency – On average, railroads are three or more times more fuel efficient than

      If true, that is a solid improvement. I don’t know how large of a life cycle analysis they performed. What about the extra out of the way trucking to and from the rail yard? If they are referring solely to the distance from rail yard A to rail yard B that is useful but not quite sufficient. Regardless, it should save a lot of gas while definitely saving money on road repair and GHG emissions.

  2. patrickpace

    I imagine rail yard to distribution center (5-100 miles) has a lot smaller impact than over the road or cross country mileage 500-2000miles. In other words, attach the bigger problem, and 3x+ more efficiency (as you state) over the 500-2000 miles could be huge.

    • gatorgreg

      No question. I just question the 3x’s more efficient number. You always have to remember the source of the data and this one is coming from the Association of American Railroads which has an incentive to increase the efficiency number.

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