It’s difficult to imagine the sheer volumes involved in supplying our modern food system with the corn, wheat, soybeans, and other bulk commodities that go into all our food products. Railroads provide the enormous carrying capacity needed to move the billions of tons of products we rely upon every year – with an amazing efficiency that keeps consumer costs down and emitting fewer emissions.
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As we shop in the grocery store, it is hard to imagine how all the food we see and put in our cart arrives on the shelves. It’s a carefully coordinated, highly complex ballet with the railroads, trucks, river barges, ocean carriers and other transportation elements of the food chain. This is the second of a three-part transportation series on how our food moves around our country. Our previous post in this series explored the complexities within the trucking industry and the next one will examine river and ocean transportation.
It’s A Matter of Scale
We all know the story of railroads – or think we do. From childhood, we are immersed in images of the Mighty Iron Horse, in history books or western movies, or even in everyday travel along the more than 140,000 miles of railroad track in the United States. Who among us hasn’t found amusement in a boring road trip by counting the rail cars in the trains we see almost everywhere?
Yes, railroads helped build our nation, opening vast new areas to settlement and commerce. And they still make the wheels of commerce turn today, perhaps more than ever.
Look at the clothes you have on, or think about the dinner you ate last night, the cement used to pour the concrete for your house, the car you drive, and the appliances to keep your dishes and clothes clean. These are just a few items in your home that came by rail.
Freight railroads carry the high-volume commodities that fuel our power plants, our manufacturing industries, our food system and more. More than half of all rail shipments (by tonnage) involve coal, chemicals, minerals and crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and other staples of life. The remainder covers almost everything anyone can imagine, from major appliances and other consumer goods to individual parcels and consignments. Railroads, like other segments of the transportation industry, make both commerce and everyday life possible.
Farmers especially depend upon railroads to move huge volumes of crops to key export points all around the country — on the East Coast, West Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. Corn and soybeans often top the list of farm crops carried by major rail carriers to major export facilities, while short-haul rail lines are key links to the food processing and manufacturing customers closer to the actual farm or local grain elevator.
That’s A Lot of Bread
Think of it in terms the average shopper can grasp a lot more easily.
The average hopper car carrying crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat may contain as much as 286,000 pounds – up to five times the weight of a truckload of the same commodity. But to appreciate just how much that really is, consider a single hopper car of wheat – and what it translates into for the typical food consumer.
But Wait, There’s More
As impressive as the scale of operations may be, there’s far more to the story of railroads.
Railroads offer a degree of energy efficiency that often may be overlooked. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), railroads contribute only 0.5 percent – yes, less than a single percentage point – of all U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a percentage of GHG emissions from the entire transportation sector, railroads account for 1.9 – 4.0 percent. (Automobiles contribute roughly 40 percent, trucks 34 percent and airlines and ocean transportation 11 percent each, according to transportgeography.org.)
Higher efficiency means less fuel – and fewer GHG emissions. Since the year 2000, advancements in technology and other improvements have helped increase fuel efficiency by an estimated 675 million gallons – or roughly 7.6 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).
Sources: The Journal of Commerce; CSX Railroads
Rolling into the Future
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that railroads use up to 12 times less energy than vehicles or airplanes and emit 7-11 times less GHG per passenger mile. Globally, railroads haul about 7 percent of the world’s freight yet account for only 3 percent of total energy use, according to IEA. AAR adds to the good news by noting that moving the same goods by rail rather than truck can reduce GHG emissions by up to 75 percent.
The railroad industry takes pride in those numbers, especially when considering the enormous power required to pilot trains weighing literally hundreds of tons at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour – and considerably more on some high-speed passenger rail lines.
The rail industry is built around powerful locomotives, with a typical four-axle locomotive weighing as much as 125 tons. Freight trains largely rely on a combination of diesel engines and electric motors, although the passenger rail system is much more advanced in its reliance on electric-powered units. This shift to equipment with greater fuel efficiency – and lower emissions of greenhouse gases – is a major industry focus.
To fulfill this goal, developmental efforts by the rail industry, suppliers and shippers continue to integrate computer technology into the rail system. For example, automatic idling is being used to reduce fuel consumption during stops, and automated controls much like those in cars and trucks help guard against driver error from fatigue or distraction. Innovative control systems also help find the best possible balance of speed, power, fuel consumption and emissions on a continuous basis during train operation.
Wabtec, a Pittsburgh-based rail technology specialist firm with over 150 years of international rail experience, has pioneered battery-powered locomotives as an environmental aid and has already conducted pilot testing with several major railroads.
Wabtec offers a 100-percent battery-powered heavy-haul locomotive with an estimated 10 percent reduction in fuel needs and emissions. This 4,400 horsepower behemoth boasts 20,000 lithium-ion battery cells, charged both by the same methods used by electric vehicles on the road today and by harnessing some of the enormous energy created by braking a moving freight train weighing 430,000 pounds or more.
Pilot testing of the Wabtec creation by major railroads already has begun on routes matching the lifespan of the battery charge, which is roughly 40 minutes at full power. Work on the system continues, with what Wabtec contends is as much as $500 million in potential fuel savings for the rail industry – and the reduced GHG emissions that come with it.
Beyond technology improvements, the railroad industry also is placing emphasis on expansion of the basic infrastructure needed to accommodate anticipated increases in freight demand. Better coordination and cooperation with other modes of transportation (“intermodal transportation”) and with other members of the supply chain also are a priority after years of disruption due to the pandemic.
Agriculture’s Contribution to Added Efficiency
The agricultural sector has been a driving force in the rail industry’s efforts to improve efficiency. Agricultural shippers were among the first to recognize the power of the “unit train” – multiple cars all carrying a single commodity to a single destination. The practice reduces the time and expense of repeatedly switching and arranging rail cars.
Today, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and rail industry groups note that corn and soybean crops typically move in 75-car unit trains, and wheat in trains of 6-49. Utilizing railroads for these high-volume cornerstone commodities in domestic and export markets helps keep prices low for consumers and export customers.
Keeping the Wheels Turning
Demand for rail freight is expected to grow by about 2.7 percent annually – and perhaps a bit more as the post-pandemic recovery gains steam. An increase of 30 percent over the coming decade will require a great deal from the railroad industry.
Even during the worst of the Covid downturn (2020-21), AAR estimates as many as 300,000 containers and trailers continued to move via rail each week.
Consumer demand for food, power and other essentials of daily life will remain strong, no matter what.
Railroads advocates argue persuasively that increasing reliance on railroads to meet consumer demand just makes good sense. Railroads move with minimal labor needs. They are more climate-friendly. They can help reduce the simple wear and tear on roads, bridges and other infrastructure created by trucks and cars – and lessen the need for so much taxpayer spending on infrastructure in the process.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) notes that the rail freight industry invests one of the highest percentages of revenues of all modes to maintain and add capacity – 19 percent, or nearly $25 billion annually. The results of that investment: “…(T)he U.S. freight rail network is widely considered the largest, safest, and most cost-efficient freight system in the world,” according to the FRA.
The Bottom Line
Feeding the world is a big job. A really big job. Railroads play an indispensable yet often unrecognized role in moving vast quantities of the commodities and cargoes essential to our modern life, from food to energy to everyday consumer goods. What’s more, they do their job with the remarkable efficiency that helps fight inflationary pressures and climate change.