According to the railroad industry, converting more of the world’s freight from truck transport to rail will lower greenhouse gas emissions, thereby saving the planet, and it will save customers’ money on shipping expenses by consolidating freight. And it some instances that is true.
But a recent study by Freight Transport Research Associates (FTR) claims that may not be true in all cases. Certainly trains can move more cargo than trucks, saving diesel fuel. But trains can’t reach into all areas that trucks can reach. Currently almost all freight that travels by rail is trucked from its origin to a train and is then transferred back to trucks for the trip to its final destination. It simply isn’t feasible for railroads to travel every route that trucks follow. Imagine railroad tracks following every current roadway. That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, would it? And imagine the traffic delays that would follow such a change. Any savings in diesel for transporting goods would be destroyed by the cost in fuel used by more idling cars waiting at more railroad crossings.
While railroads can certainly carry more goods for less money today, the trucking industry is working at catching up. Advances in aerodynamics, trailer design, engine efficiency, and tire design will eventually bring trucks close to the tons-per-gallon capacity that trains can handle.
Railroads are definitely an important part of the freight transportation equation. For long-distance moves, railroads are faster and less expensive. For items like raw agricultural products, trains with their multiple linked cars can handle larger, higher density loads.
Any truly green transportation system will take advantage of all available options.