If you look at the list of the world’s twelve largest economies, there’s a clear split.
Six are relatively small countries (Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy and South Korea) where one could never be more than a few hundred miles or kilometers from the ocean.
The other six (United States, China, India, Brazil, Canada and Russia) are enormous countries with spots more than a thousand miles or sixteen-hundred kilometers from the ocean.
It’s well known that ships are the main method of transport for freight globally thanks to their low cost. In fact, 90% of world trade goes by sea. While most of the world’s population lives relatively near the ocean, there are still plenty of populated areas for inland that too need a method of low-cost freight transport.
For that, there’s freight trains. Unsurprisingly, those six physically largest of the twelve largest economies are, rearranged in order (Russia, China, United States, India, Canada and Brazil), the world’s six top users of freight rail transport.
To understand the role of freight rail, you have to look at the numbers. In the U.S., it costs, on average, about 4 cents to move one ton of freight, the weight of a small car, one mile on a freight train. That’s about 2.5 cents per ton-kilometer.
What that means is that, on average, you could move one ton of freight coast to coast, from New York to Los Angeles, on a train for about $100. It’s worth nothing that freight rail prices in the U.S. are among the lowest in the world. In most European countries, for example, they are nearly double.
In comparison to those four cents per mile, air freight transport in the U.S. costs about 121 cents per ton-mile or 75 cents per ton-kilometer but air freight is not truly a competitor to the railways.
Planes will tend to carry time-sensitive or valuable goods while trains will carry lower-value or less time-sensitive goods. The true competitor to trains are trucks which carry a ton a mile at a cost of around 20 cents or 13 cents per ton-kilometer. This is noticeably higher but trucks, of course, can go anywhere. Trains can only go where there are tracks.
Now, the reason why trains are so cheap is because they are quite a bit more efficient than trucks. In 2017, Union Pacific railroad, as an example, moved freight a total of 471 billion ton-miles. That’s the total number of miles multiplied by the total number of tons moved. To do that, they used just over 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel meaning it took, on average, only one gallon of fuel to move one ton of freight 469 miles. That’s far more efficient than a truck.
The reason behind this is simple – trains encounter less resistance. Their smooth steel wheels run over smooth steel tracks so there’s very little friction compared to rubber truck tires running over the road.
In addition, since the train’s just one long line, there’s much less wind resistance per ton than a truck. A single locomotive uses huge amounts of fuel but can have upwards of 6,000 horsepower and can therefore pull a huge number of cars.
On average, in the U.S., freight trains are about 6,500 feet or 2,000 meters long. They can get far longer, though. In Canada, Canadian National regularly runs 14,000 feet or 4,300 meter long trains. It would take nearly an hour to walk from one end of this train to the other.
Typically, it also only takes two people to run even these multi-mile long freight trains. Considering that most trucks take one person to transport one container and these trains can carry hundreds, it’s easy to see the advantage.
In some cases, freight trains are even run by only one individual – the driver. Of course there are plenty of safety concerns with that, but railroads are increasingly doing so as it cuts down on cost.
Overall, what this means is that freight trains are quite comparatively efficient both economically and environmentally to other means of land transport.
Within the cab of a locomotive, there’s generally not much other than the train controls, a few seats, and a small lavatory. There are no beds or other accommodations because crews don’t stay onboard for all that long. Every driver and conductor in a company works a defined territory along the overall train route so for longer runs, it can take up 10 different crews to make the trips. In most cases, crews will typically live at one end of their territory, work the train to the other end, stay in hotel overnight, then swap with an inbound crew to take command of a train headed back to where they live.
Now, under U.S. law, each crew is only allowed to work for up to twelve hours at a time before needing a rest period and so these territories where crew work are designed to be able to be completed in those twelve hours.
There are two major typed of cargo transported by rail – bulk and intermodal. Bulk cargo is things like grain, stone, sand, oil, and coal.
Coal, along with most bulk cargo, is not a value-dense product – as in, it costs a little to get a lot. In the U.S., a ton of coal costs only $34, on average – so of course you need to put it on the lowest cost transport method possible which in many cases is trains. Trains both serve to bring coal from the mine to their domestic destinations, mostly power plants, and to coastal ports to be loaded on ships for international export.
The other major type of freight, intermodal, involves the carrying of shipping containers to and from their destinations. Generally, trains will carry these containers as only a step in their overall journey.
For example, a container might be picked up from a factory in Shenzhen, China, brought by a truck to the port of Shenzhen, loaded on a ship to Long Beach, California, moved onto a train to Omaha, Nebraska, before being loaded again on a truck for its final journey to Norfolk, Nebraska.
Generally railroads will have their intermodal terminals, where containers are unloaded and loaded, spread out about 300-500 miles or 500-800 kilometers apart from each other so the greatest area can be reached within a day’s truck drive from one of their terminals.
Given the lackluster nature of the U.S. passengers railways, it may surprise some that the country’s freight railway system is considered among the world’s best. The country is just in that sweet spot of economically busy and spread out, that supports the use of freight trains. It therefore serves as a good example to examine to explain how freight trains work worldwide.
The U.S. network is quite extensive. What helps is that in most countries government build tracks primarily for passenger train usage and freight operators pay to use them. In the U.S. though, it’s the other way around – in most cases, the track is owned by freight operators and the government pays them to use it for passenger operations.
Through many years of consolidation, seven major freight railroads have emerged in North America each with their own territory – Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and Kansas City Southern. With the exception of Canadian National, none operates coast to coast so for longer journeys, a single operator could not get freight from start to finish.
Sometimes different railroads don’t partner or won’t allow for seamless transfers between certain origin and destination pairs. Chicago for example, has dozens of different rail-yards used by different railroads so in order to get a container through one might have to book a spot on one train to the city, then book a transfer by truck from one terminal to that of another railroad, then book separately the next train out of the city.
This increases complexity enormously and it’s often difficult to find truck drivers willing to make the short cross-town trip especially given the current shortage of truck drivers in the U.S.
Many of these complexities are handled by logistics companies hired by clients to manage the movement of their freight but these interchanges can still slow down shipping times significantly.
There is this constant battle between the trucking and rail industry. Hired rail lobbyists in the U.S. constantly work against the trucking industry by dissuading Congress from increasing weight and size limits of trucks.
With a nearly global shortage of truck drivers, though, railroads are at an advantage right now and many are thriving. New railroads are constantly under construction worldwide especially in developing nations and the industry is growing. It’s not completely safe, though.
The advent of driverless trucks will surely reduce cost and increase capacity in the trucking industry which tilt favor over to the rubber tires. In addition, coal is one of the most commonly carried goods by freight trains and, as the world transition towards renewable energy, there could be less demand for its transportation.
Overall, though, at least until there’s a monumental shift in technology, freight trains will continue to be the proven method for moving freight long distances over-land.