Economics, Energy and the Environment

Energy Fact of the Week: Trains and Gains

Typically, we measure energy efficiency in transportation—especially automobiles—in a simple metric of miles per gallon (MPG). It is a little more complicated in the freight world of planes and trains, however. If you look only at MPG for locomotives, you would think we haven’t made much progress in energy efficiency. Since 1960, the MPG for rail cars has only improved 23 percent (from about 8 to 10 gallons per mile), while automobile gas mileage has more than doubled.

But this is highly misleading, because the weight of the average rail freight car has increased by 44 percent, and the amount of total freight miles (which is not the same thing as rail-car miles traveled) has tripled. In fact, the energy intensity of locomotives has improved substantially, with BTUs per freight mile falling by 65 percent since 1960. In other words, although total freight-rail miles have tripled since 1960, total railroad fuel consumption has remained about flat. If railroad locomotives had made no efficiency improvements since 1960, we’d have needed 9.2 billion gallons of fuel in 2009 instead of the 3.1 billion gallons actually consumed.

This illustrates two points: first, improvements in energy efficiency often translate into greater consumption of the energy-consuming good—what energy economists call the “rebound effect.” Second, unlike other areas where government mandates drove efficiency improvements (i.e., refrigerators) there were no government mandates driving locomotive engine efficiency gains.

11 thoughts on “Energy Fact of the Week: Trains and Gains

  1. I’d love to see a comparison of rail vs truck in BTU per freight mile. I’ll bet rail knocks the socks off the long-haul trucks. While passenger rail is not effective except in some densely populated corridors, I think expansion of freight rail infrastructure to eliminate long-haul trucks would be a reasonable undertaking.

  2. I’m simple-minded and don’t understand. Why is increasing the weight of the average rail car a good thing? Do you mean the weight of the load it carries? Should I assume the graph is also assuming a unit of weight?

    • Bill, yes, it refers to the total weight of the rail car in terms of the weight of the car itself and the load. Two decades ago, the industry standard for freight car gross weights was 263,000 pounds, today it’s 286,000 and some railroads are moving loads north of 300,000 pounds per car. It’s all about efficiency.

    • Probably will dunce. The efficiencies are there, but for commercial freight and not for passengers. I tried to book a trip for my father from New Orleans to San Francisco; unfortunately that meant going to Chicago first, then to San Fran. The total round-trip including night berths was a staggering 2100 apiece!

      It should also be noted that passenger trains are run by the government……big shock. :)

      • Eric, I checked on Amsnag dot net, which is a faster way to find the cheapest Amtrak fares, and they have prices of $667 each way for New Orleans to San Fransisco for February, with roomette and all meals included. It isn’t as fast as flying, but if I had the time I would choose the train every time. No TSA groping, decent food, a glass of wine and watching the USA roll by then turn in and fall asleep in your own room.
        If your father is retired and not tied up with work, he might like to take a mini-cruise on land.

  3. Not all “ton-train-miles” are the same.

    Since 1960 the nature of general freight by rail has changed. We see much less box car loads picked up or distributed to end-users’ sidings, essentially point-to-point traffic.

    Instead we see a shift to a port to distribution point model. On the West Coast, the trains from Long Beach container ship port to Chicago or Kansas City are busy. From those big yards, trucks deliver to end-users. Short hauls by rail to your local lumber yard are rare.

    The other change is the increased percentage of coal as hauled tonnage. These are huge “unit trains” from the mines direct to a power plant. They are frequent and regular if slow – a 1000 MW coal plant needs a 100 hopper cars, 5 days a week.

    That said, the railroads have done a good job of driving efficiency and productivity in their industry. More technically advanced diesel locomotives have been a big help. I would add that emissions standards for locomotives have tightened too.

  4. The lack of government regulation of rail has resulted in massive waste in freight transport which has dramatically increased the energy required to ship cargo in the US. While rail carried a high percentage of cargo in 1960 with much smaller shares by truck, the poor and constantly deteriorating rail service forced cargo off rail to truck.

    It was the massive intervention of the Federal government in roads, and especially Interstates, that provided the competition to rail that diverted cargo from rail to roads at ten times the energy costs.

    It was the lack of standards imposed on railroads on service, and the huge subsidies and dictates from Washington that build the highways up so they could compete with rail. But rail never got the same subsidies to upgrade the rail lines to match the massive investments in new Interstates. While cities adapted to highways, rail lines were supposed to get out of the way of the cities and trucks on the highway

    Rail survives only for a limited set of freight needs, and the service is far worse than in 1960 even for the same cargo because rail is so bottlenecked in cities because road traffic takes priority to rail.

    What is needed in many cities is the rail equivalent of the Big Dig where major rail lines are rerouted so they do not conflict with any other traffic or disrupt city life. Chicago is a major problem area in this regard – you can walk across Chicago faster than a freight train can pass through.

  5. Once in the seventies I saw a study by German Engineers who’s roads do not allow the 80 thousand gross weight trucks. Their study was to decide whether, and how large trucks should be permitted on their roads, and what road construction they should undertake.
    They estimated that one fully loaded semi, making one trip over the American interstate system was as damaging to the highway as 9,000 cars! Such is the subsidy for trucking! Trucks do not pay that kind of taxes!

    So if, as the commercial claims, one ton of freight can be moved 430 miles by rail on one gallon of fuel, it should seem like a no brainer to a nation that uses it’s brain!

  6. Excellent piece but the conclusion is a fallacy. First, there has been a steady gain in energy efficiency in refrigerators since 1970. Today’s fridges consume quarter the energy of their ancestors and are actually much larger. Second, government mandates have to apply in markets that are already “structured” to suit oligopolistic producers and closed dealer-distributor networks, otherwise there would be no warrant for improvements. Train freight companies not only have to compete with each other, they have to compete with the indirectly subsidized trucking industry (taxpayers build the roads trucking companies use to make private profit), so railways have to find every efficiency possible and are constantly looking for better equipment. Rather than being a warrant against government mandates, an excusable and understandable malady afffecting the AEI intellectual product BTW, this piece actually shows the inadvertent effects of subsidies in one sector on a competing one.

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