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Switching to Rail Freight May Not Be the Greenest Option

December 17, 2009

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The answer to achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions may not necessarily be the greater use of freight rail, but we should consider improved access to intermodal terminals, equalization of rail and truck standards for production of potent NOx exhaust
One option for a greener transport system would be a transloading model, where truck is used for local transport and rail for the intercity movement. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern
One option for a greener transport system would be a transloading model, where truck is used for local transport and rail for the intercity movement. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern
and modifying existing truck size and weight regulations, according to Noel Perry, author of Transportation Fundamentals. In his analysis, Perry questions government efforts to encourage greater use of freight rail to produce a greener transportation system.

"Existing market forces have already done an excellent job of maximizing fuel efficiency by allowing rail and truck to do what they do best," Perry said.

While Perry agrees that rail is far more fuel efficient than truck, he says that this is just part of the energy equation. In examining fuel efficiency, he says you need to look at the complete supply chain from start to finish, including the local pick-up and delivery function for which trucks are far more efficient than rail. When taking all of this into account, most freight currently moving by truck would consume more energy if coverted to a 100 percent rail move, he says.

Perry suggests a transloading model, where truck is used for local transport and rail for the intercity movement. Government efforts should be directed at creation of more such truck/rail interchange terminals to make this option more accessible.

Perry also recommends modifying existing truck size and weight standards, which have not changed in over 20 years. Both energy efficiency and safety would be improved by the operation of larger, but fewer trucks, he believes.

Another way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be to apply current truck standards for the emission of NOx greenhouse gases to the railroads. One unit of NOx produces 310 times the global warming effect of one unit of CO2, the gas normally tracked in carbon comparisons. Perry says that as a result of the differences in regulation between truck and rail engines, rail locomotives currently emit an average of 4.5 times more NOx per horsepower-hour than truck. Even after both truck and rail NOx emission regulations are tightened, new locomotives will still emit 6.5 times more NOx per horsepower-hour than new trucks.

Transport Fundamental Newsletter is a monthly commentary on transport economics and its impact on the North American heavy freight market published by Transport Fundamentals, Inc. and distributed by FTR Associates.

For more information, visit www.ftrassociates.com.


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