U.S. freight railroads produce about 40 percent of freight gross ton-miles while consuming only about 1/20th of the total U.S. diesel fuel1. Compared to heavy-duty trucks, freight railroads have significant energy (and emissions) advantages including the low coefficient of friction of steel wheel-on-rail (compared to rubber tires-on-pavement) and multiple-vehicle trains. However, improved heavy-duty truck technologies are being federally-funded and developed which may create some challenges to freight rail’s long-standing environmental (and economic) advantage in certain transportation markets and corridors.

This paper reviews U.S. freight rail fuel efficiency (measured in gallons of fuel per thousand gross ton-miles) from 1920 to 2015, using published records from the former Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) archived and made available by the Association of American Railroads (AAR). All freight locomotive energy consumption (all types of coal, crude oil, electricity kilowatt-hours and diesel fuel) are converted into approximations of diesel gallons equivalent based on the nominal energy content of each locomotive energy type, in order to show the effect of transitioning from steam propulsion to diesel-electric prior to 1960 and the application of other new technologies after World War II. Gross ton-miles (rail transportation work performed) will similarly be tracked from historic ICC and AAR records. Annual U.S. freight rail fuel efficiency is calculated and plotted by dividing total calculated diesel gallons equivalent (DGe) consumed by gross (and by lading-only net) ton-miles produced.

New technologies introduced since 1950 which have likely contributed to improvements in freight rail fuel efficiency (such as introduction of unit coal trains, distributed power, alternating current locomotives, etc) will also be discussed and assessed as to relative contribution to fuel efficiency improvements.

The paper includes a discussion about U.S. freight rail fuel efficiency compared to heavy-duty truck fuel efficiency, with comments on projected improvements in heavy-duty truck technologies and fuel efficiency. A conclusion is that U.S. freight railroads and equipment suppliers need to be more aware of projected heavy-duty truck fuel efficiency improvements and their potential for erosion of some aspects of traditional railroad competitiveness. Numerous suggested action plans are discussed, with particular focus on reducing the aerodynamic drag (a delta velocity-squared factor in train resistance and power requirement) of double-stack container trains.

Last, this paper discusses possible courses of action for U.S. freight railroads to achieve fuel efficiency improvements greater than the historic ∼1 percent improvement achieved over the past 50 years. If freight rail is to remain economically competitive vis a vis heavy duty trucking, railroads will have to identify, evaluate and implement new technologies and/or new operating practices which can help them achieve fuel efficiency improvements matching (or exceeding) those projected for heavy trucks over the next 7-to-12 years. A specific example for improving fuel efficiency of double-stack container trains is discussed. Failure to address the future of freight rail fuel efficiency is likely not an option for U.S. railroads.

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