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.