Five Amazing Rail Sustainability Facts

Los Angeles, CA — What weighs 4,000 tons, carries the load of several hundred trucks, and is still the greenest way to move freight over land? A freight train, of course.

Given rail’s scale of movement and the size of the U.S., it makes sense that trains would be the most efficient choice to haul freight from sea to shining sea. In California, trains take 9.3 million truckloads off the roads every year and prevent the emission of 16.6 million tons of greenhouse gases.

Highlighting this environmental edge, a new report from the Association of American Railroads calls on policymakers in Congress to harness the full potential of rail in combatting climate change. That means “promoting policies that enable the rail industry to move more goods, more efficiently.” For example, says AAR, policymakers should work toward modal equity by restoring the Highway Trust Fund to a true user-pays system and eliminating subsidies for trucks while also embracing new and emerging technologies being introduced by railroads as well as other modes.

After all, railroads don’t just rely on physics for efficiency—they’re constantly deploying tech that enables trains to move more for less (less fuel, less pollution, less time). California is home to one of the first operational battery-electric locomotives, now in testing between Barstow and Stockton, which should improve fuel economy by 10%. The project is supported by the California Air Resources Board.

Additionally, rail efficiency is being vastly improved by fuel management systems, advanced routing software, idling reduction tech, and zero-emission cranes. Case in point: while freight railroads today move nearly twice as much as they did in 1980, fuel consumption is actually down.

Here are five more stats that showcase rail’s environmental credentials:

1. Trains are four times more efficient than trucks – meaning greenhouse gases fall by 75% when freight is moved by rail rather than trucks.

4x More Fuel Efficient

2. Today’s freight trains can move one ton of goods 479 miles on a single gallon of fuel, up from 396 miles in 2000.
3. If just 10% of the freight moved by the largest trucks moved by rail instead, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by over 17 million tons. That’s the equivalent of removing 3.35 million cars from our highways or planting 260 million trees.

4. While freight railroads haul 40% of intercity freight and one-third of U.S. exports, they account for just over 2% of greenhouse gases from the transportation sector.

5. Thanks to redesigned railcars and operational improvements, the average freight train in 2019 could haul 25% more tonnage than it could in 2000 (3,667 tons today versus 2,923 in 2000).
Row of freight trains pass through famous Tehachapi Loop in Kern County in South Central California.

As our representatives at every level of government tackle climate policy, rail should be a key part of the solution. And as California continues to lead on sustainability, freight rail will continue to be a critical tool for meeting emissions goals related to goods movement.