Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Green case against rail trails; trains leading in fuel efficiency

Now, let me open with a disclaimer:
I am not against walking or biking along these trails. Years back, I hiked with some friends along a decommissioned train line. And I have fond memories of viewing the countryside, without roads and cars coming at us.

My peeve is this:
Rail trails represent the death of rails. They send the message that rails are things of the past.
Instead, we should look into renewing train service along defunct, decommissioned lines. Rail trails could remain, with the paths adjacent to the trails.

We should keep in mind the green benefits of train transportation over other modes of transportation.
Rail freight is more fuel efficient that trucks are. Estimates of rail fuel efficiency rates range from 423 tons of material on one gallon of fuel
to 436 miles per gallon of fuel. Rail traffic has an efficiency rate three times that of trucks. (Admittedly, these are from rail industry sources.)
(Another site: rail freight shipping is eight times more energy efficient than truck shipping.)

Indeed, the Annenberg Foundation's FactCheck.org supports this claim. The following is from their site on this issue:
Q: Can a freight train really move a ton of freight 436 miles on a gallon of fuel?

A: Yes, and some do even better. The figure used in the rail industry's advertising is a national average.

This question is generated by an advertising campaign by the railroad industry, which is arguing that a good way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to move more freight by rail rather than by truck. An example of the industry's ads can be seen on the Web site www.freightrailworks.org.

We'll remain neutral in the perpetual competition between the railroad industry and the truckers, about which we'll say more later in this article. But we can vouch for the 436-mile claim. It's the average for all major U.S. railroads for 2007.

Each year the railroads are required to submit reports to the federal Surface Transportation Board, the regulatory body that took over some of the functions of the old Interstate Commerce Commission. The annual reports of each railroad are public information, available on the STB's Web site. Buried amid all the facts about the number of railroad ties replaced, cubic yards of ballast placed and the cost of new locomotives, the railroads also report totals for the number of gallons of diesel fuel consumed and tons of freight moved. The government doesn't tally up those figures anymore, but the Association of American Railroads does. And now, we have done the same.

According to our calculations, which match the AAR's tally exactly, the nation's seven major railroad companies reported the following for 2007:

* Moving 1,770,545,245,000 ton-miles of freight

* Consuming 4,062,025,082 gallons of diesel fuel (including freight trains and trains in switching yards, but excluding passenger trains)

The average works out to be 435.88 ton-miles per gallon of fuel.

Some rail lines do better. The Soo Line, which is the U.S. branch of the Canadian Pacific, operating in the upper Midwest, reported moving each ton of freight 517.8 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, on average. Lines operated by the Grand Trunk Corp. reported 510.5 ton-miles per gallon.

The national average figure of 436 miles is the highest on record, according to AAR, and a 3.1 percent increase from the 423-mile figure reached in 2006.

The rail industry says its fuel efficiency has increased by 85 percent since 1980. It attributes that to factors that include using new and more efficient locomotives, training engineers to conserve fuel, using computers to assemble trains more efficiently in the yard and to plan trips more efficiently to avoid congestion, and reducing the amount of time engines are idling.

The same holds true for comparing passenger-per mile fuel consumption with buses or planes.

1 comment:

bikeohio said...

There is no 'Green' case against rail-trails, quite the contrary. Rail-trails preserve the transportation corridors that they effectively recycle by keeping them open. Without such preservation, pieces of the right-of-way can be purchased and used for building sites (one example) and likely be lost forever.

And preserving a corridor by way of trail use does not sentence it to death. Railbanking allows for the possible reclamation of the corridor for potential future rail use. Here's a link for more info: http://www.railstotrails.org/resources/documents/resource_docs/RailbankingHistory.pdf Scroll to 'How Railbanking Works.'

However, I do agree with your suggestion that trains & trails can co-exist. Many typical railway right-of-ways are between 60-100' wide, often allowing ample room for more than one mode of transportation.