With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, everybody is wearing a little green. Today “green” is more than just a color – and freight trains are an important part of an economy that is striving to be more eco-friendly.
Railroads are always working to find ways to make locomotives more fuel efficient and with ever-decreasing greenhouse emissions. General Electric just unveiled their latest version of the ES44AC - now Tier 4 compliant – earlier this year. But the fuel and emissions savings of a single locomotive pale in comparison to the overall impact of shifting freight to the rails in general.
Nowhere is the advantage of rail easier to spot than an intermodal train. A typical train will take as 150 to 200 trailers and containers off of the highway for the long-haul portion of the route. Not only do we realize a savings by replacing 150 trucks with 2 or three locomotives, but there are “hidden” savings as well. Taking that traffic off the highway eases congestion, allowing other traffic to keep moving and saving even more time, fuel and money.
A freight train can move a ton of goods 476 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Compare that to about 130 miles/gallon for a truck. This often mentioned figure of ton miles / gallon is figured based on the annual national average; dividing the total number of freight-ton miles by fuel consumption reported. Looking at figures compiled by the Association of American Railroads, that number has grown steadily since the 1980s and is at an all-time high.
Gaining efficiencies in rail transport is about much more than improving locomotives. The most significant improvements come from reducing the time trains spend sitting idle on sidings or being switched in yards.
Unit trains have made a huge impact here. Investment in right-of-way improvements like extending passing sidings or adding a second (or third) track, or improved processing and switching in yards with computerized car tracking cost a lot up front, but can save millions in the long run.
Railroads are moving green energy as well. Solid trains of ethanol tank cars are now a common sight all across North America. Tank cars have led new car construction orders for several years. Even giant wind turbines often make the majority of their move by rail.
Even the most biased of fans and industry insiders will admit that there is a need for a balanced transportation network. Highways, waterways, pipelines, air, rail – all have their role to play. What is clear however is that when the railroads are given a clear track to move the freight they do best, we all win.