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Published on May 25th, 2010 | by Christopher DeMorro

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Freight Trains Double Fuel Efficiency Since 1980

Trains used to be the primary mode of transportation in America. That all changed after World War II, with the rise of the automobile. When once America was home to the ten fastest trains in the world, now it has just a single train that could be called “high speed.” But while our passenger trains have long been neglected, freight trains have improved by leaps and bounds.

The Association of American Railroads issued a press release stating that in 2009, freight trains across the country average 480 ton-miles per gallon. Since 1980, freight train fuel efficiency has increased by 104%. I’ve always had a soft spot for trains, though I am skeptical America will be receptive to high-speed rail. Freight trains, on the other hand, still play an important role in transporting goods, and could be expanded to do even more. But to really understand how good this improvement is, you must understand what ton-miles per gallon means. It isn’t a unit of measurement we’re used to hearing, and 480 ton-miles per gallon sounds really impressive. What it means is that a train could theoretically haul one ton 480 miles, or 480 tons one mile, on a single gallon of fuel.

It would be equivalent to a Mazda Miata (which weighs about one ton) getting 480 miles per gallon. Imagine that! In the real world, a fully loaded train (depending on the kind of train) a gallon of fuel per mile. Sounds terrible, but think about the last time you sat at a railroad crossing, as train car after train car crawled past. Even better, one fully loaded train can haul as much as 240 semi-trucks. There are literally millions of trucks on the road at any one time, and their need to take constant breaks and leave their trucks idling for power contributes greatly to pollution. I’m not saying trains don’t pollute… but getting more trucks off the road would relieve congestion and traffic in many places, at least a little bit, and new tracks could lead to more love for high-speed rail.

Source: Association of American Railroads | Image: Library of Congress


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About the Author

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. When he isn't wrenching or writing, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.



  • http://www.jeffnolan.com jeff

    Freight trains efficiency comes from two dimensions, advances in locomotive technology and improvements in track infrastructure that result in fewer stops and obstacles which ensure the locomotive operates in it’s most efficient manner more of the time.

    Imagine what the U.S. would achieve by improving highway infrastructure to reduce gridlock…

  • http://www.jeffnolan.com jeff

    Freight trains efficiency comes from two dimensions, advances in locomotive technology and improvements in track infrastructure that result in fewer stops and obstacles which ensure the locomotive operates in it’s most efficient manner more of the time.

    Imagine what the U.S. would achieve by improving highway infrastructure to reduce gridlock…

  • Brian

    Of course, staring in the 70′s, most Locomotives went to Diesel Electric, which is basically, a Chevy Volt, minus the batteries. Think about that one next time you think how advanced the volt is.. Its where trains were 30 years ago!

  • Brian

    Of course, staring in the 70′s, most Locomotives went to Diesel Electric, which is basically, a Chevy Volt, minus the batteries. Think about that one next time you think how advanced the volt is.. Its where trains were 30 years ago!

  • Rafe

    It’s kind of hard to compare tire-based vehicles to rail-based vehicles in terms of efficiency. Rails have orders of magnitude less friction for steel-on-steel wheels compared to tires.

    I agree it would be great to have high speed rail as an option. But if you look at any unbiased study on the subject, it will tell you that it’s uneconomic, wouldn’t be used enough, and is really just a make-work project. Why would I pay $120 to go to LA when I could just drive my car there and also have a car to use when I got there?

  • Rafe

    It’s kind of hard to compare tire-based vehicles to rail-based vehicles in terms of efficiency. Rails have orders of magnitude less friction for steel-on-steel wheels compared to tires.

    I agree it would be great to have high speed rail as an option. But if you look at any unbiased study on the subject, it will tell you that it’s uneconomic, wouldn’t be used enough, and is really just a make-work project. Why would I pay $120 to go to LA when I could just drive my car there and also have a car to use when I got there?

  • Art Gallery

    I would love to see more hybrid freight/passenger combos, with common sense restrictions like not combining dangerous goods with passengers. This could also give the option of loading up your car on the freight side, so you have it at your destination. The rail doesn’t even need to be high speed, it would be a great alternative to the cross-country car trip (assuming you’re not stopping along the way). You would theoretically get there faster because its running 24/7, and you don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks.

  • Art Gallery

    I would love to see more hybrid freight/passenger combos, with common sense restrictions like not combining dangerous goods with passengers. This could also give the option of loading up your car on the freight side, so you have it at your destination. The rail doesn’t even need to be high speed, it would be a great alternative to the cross-country car trip (assuming you’re not stopping along the way). You would theoretically get there faster because its running 24/7, and you don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks.

  • Sigivald

    Brian: Except that trains also don’t have regenerative braking or advanced batteries. They’re far simpler, practically (because they don’t have to try and please hippies who want a plug-in…).

    Not that the Volt is as impressive as people like to hype, but it’s not “basically” a diesel-electric locomotive.

    And the diesel-electric transition really started just after WW2 – because Steam was, well, awful.

    Steam was essentially dead by 1960 in the US.

  • Sigivald

    Brian: Except that trains also don’t have regenerative braking or advanced batteries. They’re far simpler, practically (because they don’t have to try and please hippies who want a plug-in…).

    Not that the Volt is as impressive as people like to hype, but it’s not “basically” a diesel-electric locomotive.

    And the diesel-electric transition really started just after WW2 – because Steam was, well, awful.

    Steam was essentially dead by 1960 in the US.

  • http://www.digiforceinteractive.com Keith

    I heard it said once that, although our passenger rail system is minimal, we have the only profitable freight rail system in the world.

    The case for high speed rail is dubious. There’s only a certain radius outside of car range and inside of flying that high speed rail would even be plausible. Considering the cost of building the system and transportation difficulities at your destination, it makes no sense at all.

  • http://www.digiforceinteractive.com Keith

    I heard it said once that, although our passenger rail system is minimal, we have the only profitable freight rail system in the world.

    The case for high speed rail is dubious. There’s only a certain radius outside of car range and inside of flying that high speed rail would even be plausible. Considering the cost of building the system and transportation difficulities at your destination, it makes no sense at all.

  • pyotr

    The problem with the hybrid car/passenger is the total time involved. There is a tradde off in driving time vs totla travel time. That is, from the time I drop off the car, till I pick it up at my destination. Have I saved enough time/hassle to make it a “better deal” to take the train than drive?

    I have a similar problem with taking passenger trains. For most of where I wish to go, trains and planes are not time efficient. I used to get off work at 4 in the morning, if I drove to the train station straight from work, the first train was at 8 am. In four hours, I could drive all the way to my destination. Going completely by rail, requires a half hour drive to the station, then eight hours on the trains, to cover 250 miles. And flying is almost as long – if I factor in having to be at the airport an hour or two before the flight …

  • pyotr

    The problem with the hybrid car/passenger is the total time involved. There is a tradde off in driving time vs totla travel time. That is, from the time I drop off the car, till I pick it up at my destination. Have I saved enough time/hassle to make it a “better deal” to take the train than drive?

    I have a similar problem with taking passenger trains. For most of where I wish to go, trains and planes are not time efficient. I used to get off work at 4 in the morning, if I drove to the train station straight from work, the first train was at 8 am. In four hours, I could drive all the way to my destination. Going completely by rail, requires a half hour drive to the station, then eight hours on the trains, to cover 250 miles. And flying is almost as long – if I factor in having to be at the airport an hour or two before the flight …

  • cbunix23

    Some in the Ohio state government want a high speed passenger rail system linking Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. The total trip time of this would be slower than exactly the same train route over 100 years ago. Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

    The main thing this rail system will cause is real estate speculators will buy land and build homes about 30 minutes away by rail to these cities, exactly like in other cities with rail systems.

  • cbunix23

    Some in the Ohio state government want a high speed passenger rail system linking Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. The total trip time of this would be slower than exactly the same train route over 100 years ago. Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

    The main thing this rail system will cause is real estate speculators will buy land and build homes about 30 minutes away by rail to these cities, exactly like in other cities with rail systems.

  • ChrisPer

    Trains for passengers will become efficient again when we can hire and return small cars at air and rail termini like they were airport luggage trolleys. This is quite likely going to be possible when the reliability and cost curve for electric cars inches a little further.

  • ChrisPer

    Trains for passengers will become efficient again when we can hire and return small cars at air and rail termini like they were airport luggage trolleys. This is quite likely going to be possible when the reliability and cost curve for electric cars inches a little further.

  • bombloader

    Sigivald: Trains actually do have dynamic brakes, which work the same as regenerative except they don’t store the power, the usually just waste it thru resistors. So it would actually be possible to make a hybrid locomotive if you had large enough batteries or capacitors.

  • bombloader

    Sigivald: Trains actually do have dynamic brakes, which work the same as regenerative except they don’t store the power, the usually just waste it thru resistors. So it would actually be possible to make a hybrid locomotive if you had large enough batteries or capacitors.

  • Lornezo Poe

    Now if only they could get passenger tickets down to about where plane tickets are I’m sold.

  • Lornezo Poe

    Now if only they could get passenger tickets down to about where plane tickets are I’m sold.

  • http://blogfonte.blogspot.com/ Mitch H.

    This had been a known success when I was a B.Log minor back in the early 90s, so what I wanted to know is “what does the recent improvement curve look like” – there was an impressive take-off during the Eighties as a result of Carter’s rail deregulation reforms. You can see this chart I pulled from here. If they’ve pulled another 80 ton-miles out of a hat since the early Oughts, then somebody has figured out how to replicate the de-regulatory efficiency “boost” almost entirely from technical means, which is very striking, and likewise encouraging.

  • http://blogfonte.blogspot.com/ Mitch H.

    This had been a known success when I was a B.Log minor back in the early 90s, so what I wanted to know is “what does the recent improvement curve look like” – there was an impressive take-off during the Eighties as a result of Carter’s rail deregulation reforms. You can see this chart I pulled from here. If they’ve pulled another 80 ton-miles out of a hat since the early Oughts, then somebody has figured out how to replicate the de-regulatory efficiency “boost” almost entirely from technical means, which is very striking, and likewise encouraging.

  • Sgt. Joe Friday

    I won’t revisit the history here, but basically every form of transit that moves people is subsidized because you can’t make money taking people from one place to another if you have to provide the infrastructure on top of it. Can you imagine what airline tickets would cost if the airlines had to be respnsible for building and maintaining the airports and the air traffic control system themselves?

    Trains cannot compete on speed, but that’s not what they have to sell, outside the NE corridor. Take the LA-Las Vegas corridor for instance. Flying takes only an hour, but by the time you factor in time wasted at both ends, most people choose to drive. I’ll bet a lot of those folks could be lured out of their cars and onto a train if the trip were time competitive with driving, and inducements like on-board bar service and entertainment were offered along the way.

  • Sgt. Joe Friday

    I won’t revisit the history here, but basically every form of transit that moves people is subsidized because you can’t make money taking people from one place to another if you have to provide the infrastructure on top of it. Can you imagine what airline tickets would cost if the airlines had to be respnsible for building and maintaining the airports and the air traffic control system themselves?

    Trains cannot compete on speed, but that’s not what they have to sell, outside the NE corridor. Take the LA-Las Vegas corridor for instance. Flying takes only an hour, but by the time you factor in time wasted at both ends, most people choose to drive. I’ll bet a lot of those folks could be lured out of their cars and onto a train if the trip were time competitive with driving, and inducements like on-board bar service and entertainment were offered along the way.

  • earnest arey

    The railroads are overly fond of misleading the general public about efficiency over cherry picked routes. They fail to address real problems they have delivering common goods in a timely manner and in unbroken condition as those terrible big trucks do routinely, and at a price that real businesses find acceptable. Another thing you will not find a railroad bragging about is how much of the fees that truck owners are forced to pay are diverted to subsidize the operations of trains to keep them solvent. Trains really compete with barges and smaller ships when the subsidies are removed, bulk goods over long distances (relatively long distances)

  • earnest arey

    The railroads are overly fond of misleading the general public about efficiency over cherry picked routes. They fail to address real problems they have delivering common goods in a timely manner and in unbroken condition as those terrible big trucks do routinely, and at a price that real businesses find acceptable. Another thing you will not find a railroad bragging about is how much of the fees that truck owners are forced to pay are diverted to subsidize the operations of trains to keep them solvent. Trains really compete with barges and smaller ships when the subsidies are removed, bulk goods over long distances (relatively long distances)

  • Micha Elyi

    “Trains for passengers will become efficient again when we can hire and return small cars at air and rail termini like they were airport luggage trolleys.”-ChrisPer

    Even better would be if the cars for hire came with drivers. Some airports have experimented with the concept… /sarc

  • Micha Elyi

    “Trains for passengers will become efficient again when we can hire and return small cars at air and rail termini like they were airport luggage trolleys.”-ChrisPer

    Even better would be if the cars for hire came with drivers. Some airports have experimented with the concept… /sarc

  • Tom P

    Mitch,

    There has been a large improvement in locomotive fuel efficiency in the last 10 years. The General Electric ES series locomotives get 6% better fuel economy than their predecessors by using a diesel engine that gets as much horsepower out of 12 cylinders as the predecessor’s 16 cylinders. It also has computer controlled injectors to reduce fuel consumption when coasting or idling. Another type of locomotive, called the genset, uses 2 or 3 smaller diesel engines instead of one larger one, and the smaller engines kick in and out as needed, again saving fuel and reducing emissions. One railroad I’m familiar with saved $1 million a year in fuel costs by shifting over to the new GE locomotives. Fuel efficiency per ton mile will continue to increase as railroads phase out older locomotives in favor of the newer, more fuel efficient models.

  • Tom P

    Mitch,

    There has been a large improvement in locomotive fuel efficiency in the last 10 years. The General Electric ES series locomotives get 6% better fuel economy than their predecessors by using a diesel engine that gets as much horsepower out of 12 cylinders as the predecessor’s 16 cylinders. It also has computer controlled injectors to reduce fuel consumption when coasting or idling. Another type of locomotive, called the genset, uses 2 or 3 smaller diesel engines instead of one larger one, and the smaller engines kick in and out as needed, again saving fuel and reducing emissions. One railroad I’m familiar with saved $1 million a year in fuel costs by shifting over to the new GE locomotives. Fuel efficiency per ton mile will continue to increase as railroads phase out older locomotives in favor of the newer, more fuel efficient models.

  • http://www.rtafleet.com Derek

    This is a great article and all, but still- We’re a country that is built off of quantity not quality. The pollution or anything will never increase train usage, only when it becomes cost efficient to use the trains will there be a big shift in transporting goods-

  • http://www.rtafleet.com Derek

    This is a great article and all, but still- We’re a country that is built off of quantity not quality. The pollution or anything will never increase train usage, only when it becomes cost efficient to use the trains will there be a big shift in transporting goods-

  • litebrite

    “Since 1980, freight train fuel efficiency has increased by 104%.” This is such great news!

  • http://www.interiormoving.com/staff/ Commercial moving rochester

    Thanks for the knowledgeable post…good content

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