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Supply Chain News: Time to Move a Lot more US Freight to Rail, Author Says

 

Modal Switch will Reduce CO2, Improve Safety, Lower Need for More Highways

June 5, 2019
SCDigest Editorial Staff

To deal with CO2 emissions from the freight sector, improve safety, reduce spending on highway infrastructure and more, it's time to move more US freight to rail.

So says author Michael Webber in his new book "Power Trip," as recently excerpted in Popular Mechanics magazine.

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Webber suggests policies that would push more US freight to rail. Those include a carbon tax or other approach to putting a price on CO2.


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Webber says trucks move 29% of the freight ton-miles, but are responsible for 77% of the sector's emissions. About 20% of truck miles driven are with empty loads.

"Trucks are convenient because they enable flexible point-to-point operation, but they are relatively inefficient, dirty, dangerous, and destructive to our roads," Webber writes. "Rather than wait for some still-unrealized technological breakthrough, we could instead expand our national freight rail system."

A problem for rail is that the invesment in additional capacity has not kept pace with needs. Webber says that "From 1990 to 2013 alone, the US population increased 28.2%, while track miles decreased 28.6%, despite increases in shipping and freight movement."

Of course, a key factor there is that nearly all railroad tracks are paid for by the rail carriers themselves, whereas highways and other roads on which trucks delivers freight are funded by federal, state and local governments, inadequately paid for by taxes on diesel fuel for trucks and gas taxes for cars.

"The decision to invest trillions of dollars in the interstate highway system [in the 1950s and 60s] was a vote for trucks over rail," Webber notes.

But that was decades before concern over climate change and CO2 emissions.

Webber notes that rail moves 40% of freight as measured in ton-miles but is responsible for just 8% of freight transportation carbon emissions. Rail freight carriage produces much less CO2 per ton-mile of freight movement because rail is simply much more energy-efficient than trucking. By one estimate, moving freight by rail instead of trucks could save up to 1,000 gallons of fuel per carload.

Interestingly, Webber notes that the average age of a US locomotive is about 13 years. Newer models are much more fuel efficienct. But there are just some of the 25,000 US locomotives that might need upgraded, versus millions of trucks that might need replaced with more fuel friendly models.


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Webber notes trucks will always be needed for more final deliveries. But more than two-thirds of freight travels more than 500 miles, and thus potentiallybecoming a good candidate for rail transport.

Rail freight carriage is also much safer, Webber says. Trucks are involved [Webber uses word "responsible," which is not correct] in 95% of the 100,000 US injuries and 88% of the 4500 deaths connected to freight transport each year. Moving more freight from truck to rail would likely reduce those injuries and deaths substantially.

There were by contrast only about 500 deaths associated with rail freight, the vast preponderance of which were from trespassers on the railroad's right-of-way.

Trucks are also responsible for most of the wear and tear on US highways, Webber says. He cited one unspecified study as finding that "For all practical purposes, structural damage to roads is caused by trucks and buses, not by cars."

What to do? Webber suggests policies that would push more US freight to rail. Those include a carbon tax or other approach to putting a price on CO2.

Start with raising more money for road maintenance via a fee based on miles driven and vehicle weight, Webber says, wrting that this "would target the vehicles that do the most damage and stop the subsidy of heavy trucks by the drivers of small personal cars."

But moving more freight to rail under could result in service issues and move shippers back to rail transport.

"Investments have to be made in optimizing performance, double-tracking where possible, adding new tracks, and alleviating bottlenecks," Webber writes.

Of course, that will take a lot of money, though Weber says technology could be part of the answer. He believes that operational enhancements to more efficiently use existing tracks might be just as important as building more miles of track, but "those changes need to be informed by more detailed and extensive modeling to identify locations of bottlenecks and to develop schemes that avoid them."

"In the end an old idea -moving goods by rail - might be the modern innovation we need to reduce energy consumption and avoid CO2 emissions while making roads less congested, safer, and more enjoyable for motorists," Webber concludes.

Do you agree with Webber's push to move more US freight to rail? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

 

 

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