December 8, 2009 8:00 AM, EST
Opinion: In Defense of Rail’s ‘Green’ Advantage

By Edward Hamberger
Association of American Railroads

This Opinion piece appears in the Dec. 7 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your recent op-ed, titled “Intermodal Isn’t ‘Greener’ Than Trucks,” in which John Burton attempted to debunk the railroad industry’s environmental edge (click here for previous opinion piece). While it is fair to note that the relative fuel-efficiency advantage of rail over other modes of transport varies, based on distance and the commodities carried, railroads have an environmental advantage over trucks that cannot reasonably be disputed.

In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration recently released a “Comparative Evaluation of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency on Competitive Corridors,” which evaluates the fuel efficiency of rail and truck transport on a variety of corridors and services in which both modes compete.

The study examined 23 different movements that included a combination of short-, medium- and long-distance hauls, as well as a mix of different commodities and geographic regions. For each movement, fuel consumption for both modes was calculated, taking into account distance, circuity, vehicle characteristics, speed and numerous other factors. Most of the 23 scenarios compared truck movements with rail intermodal movements, though some involved rail carload movements.

The FRA study found that rail was more fuel-efficient than trucks in all 23 cases. In fact, rail was found to be as much as 8.5 times more fuel-efficient than trucks, depending on the movement.

The study also confirmed that fuel savings from shipping by rail can be huge. For example, one scenario involving a shipment from Los Angeles to Chicago found that moving the freight by rail instead of by truck saved more than 80,000 gallons of fuel.

Like trucks, railroads constantly are trying to become “greener and cleaner.” Railroads are using new technologies, making locomotive improvements, enhancing employee training and doing much more to reduce their carbon footprint and save more fuel. These efforts are why railroads moved a ton of freight an average of 457 miles per gallon last year — up from 436 in 2007 — and the industry’s overall fuel efficiency has increased by 94% since 1980. And like our trucking counterparts, many railroads already use ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, as they all will be using by 2012.

The environmental benefits of freight rail transport offers a compelling story — and railroads will continue to advance it. But that’s not the only story worth telling.

It also bears telling the story of railroads and trucks as key players in America’s premier freight transportation system, truly second to none in the world. While railroads and motor carriers are competitors in many transportation markets, they also are partners. Railroads and trucks are constantly working together to enhance transportation efficiencies and improve the economic health and standard of living of our citizens.

The fact is, trucks need railroads, railroads need trucks and America needs both.

Certainly, railroads, trucks and others are doing their part to advance this important partnership. Railroads large and small are recognizing more than ever the value these partnerships bring to their own operations and to meeting our nation’s transportation needs. For their part, motor carriers and shippers recognize the generally lower costs and (Burton’s gentle protests notwithstanding) the real environmental benefits of moving more freight by rail.

Motor carriers and railroads don’t agree on everything, but we can agree on several key points:

First, America cannot maintain its global economic preeminence if it fails to maintain its transportation preeminence. Among other things, that means policymakers must devote sufficient attention to the health of our transportation infrastructure.

We need a first-class highway system free of preventable bottlenecks, smart transportation planning that efficiently prioritizes public resources and a regulatory environment that appropriately protects the public interest without unnecessarily delaying or preventing needed infrastructure projects from going forward.

Second, strong economic growth will return. When it does, the same factors that spurred increased freight transportation demand before the recession — including population growth and continued globalization — will reassert themselves. We all need to be ready for that.

Third, our society needs to recognize that trucks, trains and other transportation modes play an indispensable role in our economic and social advancement. Many policymakers at various levels of government are not fully aware of the immense importance of freight transportation and consequently may not realize the importance of having sound, smart public policies regarding freight transportation. And too often, the public considers freight transportation only when they’re waiting at a blocked roadway-rail crossing or when they see a truck taking up space on the crowded highway.

Railroads and trucks will continue to play both competitive and cooperative roles in the transportation marketplace. Working together, we will continue to find innovative, effective solutions to freight transportation challenges. And working together, we can succeed in promoting how freight transportation matters to consumers, to business and to America.

The Association of American Railroads, Washington, D.C., facilitates operations, safety, security and research standards for the freight rail industry and represents it on Capitol Hill.