Washington, D.C. — As the novel coronavirus impacts communities all across the nation, the importance of the global supply chain has come into even clearer focus. An integrated network of planes, trains, ships and trucks deliver, on average, 57 tons of goods per American each year. The entire logistics network is working to keep shelves stocked and deliver necessary goods.

As you know, freight railroads deliver raw materials and goods of all kinds, including those essential to preserving public health and our well-being. Here’s a closer look at how they’re managing this task today in the face of COVID-19 and what exactly trains are carrying to keep the store shelves stocked and beyond.

1. Serving as a “Community Lifeline”

Freight railroads are among the “Community Lifeline” sectors designated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency because they are necessary to enabling the continuous operation of critical government and business functions and are considered essential to human health, safety and economic security.

This designation means that while restrictions in certain states, including shelter-in-place actions or non-essential business closures, restrict social and economic activity, rail workers, suppliers and contractors are typically designated as “essential critical infrastructure workers.”

2. Moving Amber Waves of Grain

Rail is an agricultural lifeline for grown products, transporting 1.6 million carloads of food products and nearly 1.5 million carloads of grain annually. Right now, as always, railroads are originating about 60,000 carloads of food and agricultural products each week. This includes both perishable items—moved in refrigerated cars called “reefers”—and non-perishable goods like pasta, canned goods, flour and even pet food.

Further, as North American farmers begin planting this spring to grow crops needed for fall and beyond, freight rail will remain intrinsic to the process, moving everything from farm equipment to agricultural chemicals and finished fertilizers. Last year, railroads moved 2.4 million carloads of fertilizers and other chemicals crucial to farming.

3. Hauling Consumer Essentials and Beyond

Rail intermodal—the transportation of shipping containers and truck trailers by rail—might not be a household term but it is a system that keeps your household stocked. Thousands of consumer goods, including a large number of products sold at retailers like Target or Walmart, arrive with the help of rail intermodal. All those items that have become even more important as we quarantine and practice social distancing—from toilet paper to cleaning products to the toys we’re using to entertain our kids—have likely traveled by rail at some point on their journey to your home.

And while you know by now that trains deliver raw materials and goods of all kinds, you might not realize that this includes things like the chemicals required for medicines and food packaging, chlorine-based disinfectants for water, energy products that support electricity demands, and municipal waste.


4. Protecting Rail Workers

Like medical professionals and grocery store clerks, supply chain employees—from truck drivers to the rail workers involved in every aspect of managing the 137,000-mile U.S. rail network—are front-line personnel tirelessly working to deliver what we need during this pandemic.

To keep the trains running and ensure they protect rail employees during this national crisis, railroad companies are taking a number of steps, including activating secondary dispatch and operations locations as well restricting access to mission-critical locations to only essential staff and transitioning some employees to telework to reduce density at work locations.

For the nearly 150,000 skilled professionals—including train, engine and yardman (TE&Y) crafts—keeping the network running, railroads are expanding the frequency of cleaning and sanitation; restricting air travel; directing employees to stay home when sick; providing timely, accurate information about how to protect themselves and their families; and implementing CDC-recommended effective hygiene and spatial distancing practices.

5. Answering the Call of Duty

The history of railroads in America is the history of America’s development, including national and international crises from previous pandemics to economic depressions, natural disasters and two world wars. Freight railroads have played important roles in the responses to national tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Matthew in recent years. And, from the time of the Civil War, in fact, railroads have been essential to wartime efforts, even carrying the wounded on some of the first hospital cars improvised from rolling stock—a tradition carried on during World War II.

Though we’re facing a different threat today, America’s freight railroads will continue to answer the call of duty.

“A patient is loaded into an Army hospital car.” Photo owned by NC Transportation Museum, https://www.nctrans.org/.