A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fuel Efficient Freight Trains?


Q: Can a freight train really move a ton of freight 436 miles on a gallon of fuel?

A: Yes, and some do even better. The figure used in the rail industry's advertising is a national average.

FULL ANSWER

This question is generated by an advertising campaign by the railroad industry, which is arguing that a good way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to move more freight by rail rather than by truck. An example of the industry's ads can be seen on the Web site www.freightrailworks.org.

We'll remain neutral in the perpetual competition between the railroad industry and the truckers, about which we'll say more later in this article. But we can vouch for the 436-mile claim. It's the average for all major U.S. railroads for 2007.

Each year the railroads are required to submit reports to the federal Surface Transportation Board, the regulatory body that took over some of the functions of the old Interstate Commerce Commission. The annual reports of each railroad are public information, available on the STB's Web site. Buried amid all the facts about the number of railroad ties replaced, cubic yards of ballast placed and the cost of new locomotives, the railroads also report totals for the number of gallons of diesel fuel consumed and tons of freight moved. The government doesn't tally up those figures anymore, but the Association of American Railroads does. And now, we have done the same.

According to our calculations, which match the AAR's tally exactly, the nation's seven major railroad companies reported the following for 2007:

  • Moving 1,770,545,245,000 ton-miles of freight
  • Consuming 4,062,025,082 gallons of diesel fuel (including freight trains and trains in switching yards, but excluding passenger trains)

The average works out to be 435.88 ton-miles per gallon of fuel.

Some rail lines do better. The Soo Line, which is the U.S. branch of the Canadian Pacific, operating in the upper Midwest, reported moving each ton of freight 517.8 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, on average. Lines operated by the Grand Trunk Corp. reported 510.5 ton-miles per gallon.

The national average figure of 436 miles is the highest on record, according to AAR, and a 3.1 percent increase from the 423-mile figure reached in 2006.

The rail industry says its fuel efficiency has increased by 85 percent since 1980. It attributes that to factors that include using new and more efficient locomotives, training engineers to conserve fuel, using computers to assemble trains more efficiently in the yard and to plan trips more efficiently to avoid congestion, and reducing the amount of time engines are idling.

 

Truckers Say, 'So What?'

Although the 436-mile figure is accurate, it's meaning is open to interpretation, especially by the rival trucking industry. We contacted Clayton W. Boyce, vice president of Public Affairs and Press Secretary of the American Trucking Association. "While railroads almost certainly have a fuel efficiency advantage over trucks, their claims that they are thus also more environmentally benign are suspect at best, as are statements that enough freight will shift from truck to rail to even make a difference," Boyce said.

For one thing, freight often has to travel farther by rail than it would by truck, because "railroads go to very few communities," Boyce said. He also notes that heavy-duty trucks have been required to burn ultra-low-sulphur diesel fuel (15 parts per million) since 2006 and says trains can legally continue burning higher-sulphur diesel (500 parts per million) for another four years.

Indeed, for all their fuel efficiency, locomotives are still a major source of pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says:

EPA: Locomotive engines are significant contributors to air pollution in many of our nation's cities and ports. Although locomotive engines being produced today must meet relatively modest emission requirements set in 1997, they continue to emit large amounts of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (PM), both of which contribute to serious public health problems.

 

In March of this year, the EPA issued more strict regulations for new and remanufactured diesel locomotives that it said will reduce locomotives' soot by 90 percent and emissions of nitrogen oxide by 80 percent. The EPA predicted it would be sometime after the year 2030 before the new, low-polluting engines replace all those now in use, however.

 

–Brooks Jackson

Sources

"Railroads: Building A Cleaner Environment." Association of American Railroads, May 2008.

"Railroad Fuel Efficiency Sets New Record." News Release, Association of American Railroads, 21 May 2008. BNSF Railway Company 2007 Annual Report Data.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "BNSF Railway Company 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "CSX Transportation, Inc. 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "Grand Trunk Corporation 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "Kansas City Southern Railway Company 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "Norfolk Southern Combined Railroad Subsidiaries 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "Soo Line Railroad Company 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.

Lines 1 and 3, Schedule 750, p. 91; Line 110, Schedule 755, p. 97, "
Union Pacific Railroad 2007 Annual Report Data." Surface Transportation Board, accessed 30 June 2008.