Which Are Greener: Trains or Trucks?

March 1, 2010
In some cases, motor carriers are more fuel efficient than railroads

The U.S. Government has introduced various incentives to motivate companies to use rail transportation more often to move their freight, with the goal of a greener transportation system throughout the country. However, there’s no real evidence that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be reduced by forcing truck traffic onto the rails, says Noël Perry, managing director and senior consultant with FTR Associates. In fact, it’s quite the contrary—most freight currently moving by truck would consume more energy if converted to a 100% rail move, he points out.

“Existing market forces have already done an excellent job of maximizing fuel efficiency by allowing rail and trucks to do what they do best,” Perry says. Although generally speaking, the railroads are more fuel-efficient than motor carriers, that’s just one part of the energy equation. Achieving the goal of optimal energy efficiency requires a complete supply chain analysis, which includes looking at local pick-ups and deliveries function for which trucks are far more efficient than rail.

Perry suggests that maximum energy efficiency is possible through such supply chain best practices as transloading freight between motor carriers and rail, where trucks are used for local transport and rail for intercity movements. The government should concentrate on creating more truck/rail interchange terminals to make this option more accessible, he says.

In addition, legislators should modify the truck size and weight standards, which have not been updated in more than 20 years even though truck safety equipment has improved significantly in that time. As Perry sees it, energy efficiency and safety can both be improved by the operation of larger but fewer trucks. The government should also consider applying current truck standards for nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions to the railroads, particularly since rail locomotives produce 4.5 times more NOx—a far more potent GHG than carbon dioxide—than trucks, he adds.

This article originally appeared in the Logistics Today digital magazine. To read other articles from that issue, click here: http://penton.ebookhost.net/lt/ebook/14/

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