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November 30, 2009 2:15 AM, EST

Rail More Fuel Efficient Than Trucks, Agency Says

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Nov. 30 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Federal Railroad Administration said the fuel efficiency of the freight-rail industry rose 22% between 1990 and 2006, and that when compared to trucks in similar routes and distances, is between 1.9 and 5.5 times more fuel efficient.

However, the FRA report, along with a separate examination of trucking’s carbon footprint, speculated that there are ways to reduce fuel use by big rigs — notably by increasing truck size-and-weight limits.

“For all movements,” the report, which was released on Nov. 19, found “rail fuel efficiency is higher than truck fuel efficiency in terms of ton-miles per gallon.”

In examining the relationship between trucks and trains, FRA looked at 23 types of shipments where the two modes perform similar services in similar corridors.

In the various case studies, FRA found that “rail fuel efficiency varies from 156 to 512 ton-miles per gallon, [while] truck fuel efficiency ranges from 68 to 133 ton-miles per gallon, and rail-truck fuel efficiency ratios range from 1.9[-to-1] to 5.5[-to-1].”

FRA said that since 1990, the overall fuel efficiency of rail transport has increased by 22%.

“While all types of transportation are vital to the distribution of goods across the country, this study shows that utilizing America’s freight-rail system can lead to significant fuel savings,” FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said in a statement.

“The environmental benefits of these positive changes over the last two decades are enormous,” Szabo said. “We look forward to working with the freight-rail industry to make sure these gains continue.”

The railroad industry, which has touted its efficiency for some time, hailed the FRA’s findings.

“The environmental benefits of freight rail — such as our ability to take trucks off the road and lower greenhouse gas emissions — are made possible by our fuel efficiency,” said Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger.

While trucking’s primary voice, American Trucking Associations, did not dispute FRA’s findings, spokesman Clayton Boyce said the report did not present a full picture of the competition between rail and truck.

“The study doesn’t look at things like quality of service, reliability, speed of delivery, transit time and safety,” Boyce said.

He said shippers “can’t choose a mode of transportation on one factor like fuel efficiency. . . . What is still true, and always will be true, is that trains do not go where the freight needs to go, at least when it comes to consumer products.”

Looking at future fuel use, FRA’s report said reducing highway congestion and raising truck size-and-weight limits could help narrow the gap between trucks and trains.

The main advantages of bigger trucks “are a reduction in total trips for a given level of tonnage, since each truck can carry more freight, which leads to fewer [vehicle miles traveled], less fuel consumed and fewer emissions per ton,” the report said.

However, the report added that there is “strong political opposition” to larger trucks and noted that “larger, heavier trucks can also contribute to more roadway deterioration.”

Another study, also released Nov. 19, by the Northeast States Center for a Clean Air Future and the International Council on Clean Transportation, similarly pointed to increased truck sizes as a means of reducing carbon emissions.

That study found that overall truck emissions could be cut 40% by 2017 through the use of new technology, and, “if vehicle weight and length are also increased, the savings can reach 50%.”