This article discusses the need of reinvesting in freight railroads that could prove to be an infrastructure solution to multiple challenges. One straightforward way to encourage the switch from road to rail is to put a price on carbon. A carbon tax would harness the efficiency of markets while sending a price signal that rewards the more energy efficient and cleaner option of rail transportation. The article also highlights that while a carbon price and update to highway tax model would likely encourage a lot of switching to rail for freight, increasing throughput (ton-miles) on rail without other improvements could degrade key performance metrics such as delivery time and reliability. As a pair of major studies by the RAND Corporation in 2008 and 2009 noted, increasing the national rail freight capacity will need a variety of strategies beyond direct infrastructure investments. Such measures include revised regulations, flexible pricing, deploying modern technology, and implementing improved operating practices.


Every decade or so, a futuristic transportation scheme captures the collective fancy. In the 1970s, it was magnetically levitated trains—maglevs— capable of shooting between cities at better than 300 miles per hour. In the 1990s, promoters of personal rapid transit were trying to drum up interest in automated minicars running on elevated tracks. Today, technologists breathlessly tout the Hyperloop, which (one day) will zip through evacuated tubes faster than the speed of sound.

All those technologies sound cool and might eventually prove useful.

Today, however, we have some pressing transportation challenges. Our roads and bridges are poorly maintained and their limited capacity promotes traffic congestion. Transportation is the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle accidents kill more than 30,000 people every year.

Each of those problems are exacerbated by freight transportation on American highways. Freight is bigger than most people realize, moving about $50 billion worth of goods every single day in 2013. Trucks move 29 percent of the freight ton-miles, but are responsible for 77 percent of the sector’s emissions. (Astonishingly, empty trucks account for about one-fifth of the truck miles traveled.) Between the rise of Walmart with its truck-based logistical system and the spread of internet-based retailers such as Amazon, highway freight tonnage has grown by 45 percent since 2000.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the existing population of trucks on congested highways already substantially impedes interstate commerce and projections suggest highway congestion will get much worse in the coming decades.

While the speed and flexibility of planes and cars has provided many benefits to society, the congested roads and airports signal they might be hitting their limits. Trucks are convenient because they enable flexible point-to-point operation, but they are relatively inefficient, dirty, dangerous, and destructive to our roads.

These facts and trends reveal that freight—the movement of goods rather than people—presents a worthwhile opportunity for a system-wide improvement.

Rather than waiting for some still-unrealized technological breakthrough, we should instead expand our national freight rail system.

Yes, rail.

Road and Rail

It would be easy to believe that freight rail’s day has passed. From its peak a century ago at more than 250,000 miles of total network mileage, today there are fewer than 95,000 miles of track for Class I railroads, as rail lost market share for the movement of people and goods to air travel and the Interstate Highway System. From 1990 to 2013 alone, the U.S. population increased 28.2 percent while track miles decreased 28.6 percent, despite increases in shipping and freight movement.

That decline didn’t just happen. It was a policy choice carried out over decades. Starting in the 1950s we prioritized the movement of goods by truck over rail, investing trillions of dollars into the interstate and national highway system. Today, the national freight transportation infrastructure has about $6 trillion in assets, with more than half that total locked up in highways. While private-sector trucks operate over public highways (making the Interstate Highway System effectively a subsidy by taxpayers to trucking companies), the freight railroads are almost entirely private.

Since bottoming out in the 1970s, financial restructuring enabled railroads to invest in better efficiency.

Consequently, revenues and incomes have risen for decades despite the lower trackage available. As one assessment by the RAND Corporation noted, American railroads have become extremely efficient and productive, moving increasing volumes of freight over a shrinking infrastructure.

Rail moves 40 percent of freight as measured in ton-miles, but is responsible for only 8 percent of freight transportation carbon emissions. Even though both trucks and locomotives use the same fuel—diesel—railways emit less CO2 per ton-mile of freight movement because rail is much more energy efficient than trucking. By one estimate, moving freight by rail instead of trucks can save up to 1,000 gallons of fuel per carload.

Moreover, freight rail has the potential to get cleaner— quicker—than trucks, ships, or planes. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the median age of the 25,000 locomotives in the United States is less than 13 years, so natural fleet turnover patterns offer a chance to integrate newer, cleaner versions. That means the rail fleet can be cleaned through investments in just tens of thousands of locomotives (compared with more than 10 million heavy-duty trucks on the roads today). For instance, switching locomotives to compressed natural gas could reduce emissions while leveraging an abundant and secure source of fuel.

To be sure, trucking is great for the last few miles when delivering goods (which is useful, as most of us do not live next to train tracks). But more than two-thirds of the ton-miles of freight travel more than 500 miles and the efficiency of rail transportation means that even if the route is longer than what is possible with point-to-point trucking, shipping by rail would still use far less energy.

Reviving freight rail could also yield benefits beyond just energy savings and emissions reductions. Transferring freight from trucks to rail will also be safer.

Freight transportation is responsible for approximately 100.000 injuries and 4,500 fatalities each year, and trucks are responsible for 95 percent of the injuries and 88 percent of those deaths. Most of the people killed by trucks are in passenger vehicles sharing the road with semis. A study in 2013 concluded that the additional risk of fatalities from heavy trucks is equivalent to a gas tax of $0.97 per gallon.



By contrast, rail transportation is responsible for about 4,000 injuries and 500 fatalities, the vast preponderance of which were from trespassers on the railroad right-of-way. Increasing the amount of rail traffic might increase those numbers, but it would be more than offset by the reduction in deaths and injuries on the road.

Not only will roads be safer, but they will also be in better condition. The Highway Trust Fund that provides money for maintenance and repairs goes broke every year because revenues (collected via a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel) haven’t kept up with expenses. One way to provide the trust fund with enough money is to raise the gasoline tax, set at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, but that is unlikely in the modern political environment.

Another way is to reduce the wear and tear by removing the heaviest vehicles. Damage to roads scales with axle weight to the third power. So one 40-ton semi causes more than a thousand times the damage of a typical 4,000 pound car. As one seminal study noted, “For all practical purposes, structural damage to roads is caused by trucks and buses, not by cars.”

Because of the governmental concern about the damage that heavy trucks can do to roads and bridges, significant effort and money is expended on vehicle weight enforcement. In 2013, there were just over 200 million weight enforcement activities for trucks, which identified about 400,000 violations, each of which puts our highway infrastructure at risk. By moving trucks off the road and onto rails, the rate of damage will decrease, reducing the risk of infrastructure failure and lowering maintenance costs.

Until recently, the freight railway network was being stressed on many routes by hauling of coal from fields in the western U.S. to power plants around the country. Coal trains are huge: 100 hopper cars that can each carry 100 tons, all pulled by six 3000 hp locomotives. In terms of ton-miles, coal still comprises the single largest commodity moved by the freight rail system.

Coal’s decline, displaced by cheaper, cleaner natural gas, wind, and solar power, opens up spare capacity in the rail system that could be used for moving other goods.

Those railroad right-of-ways from the western coal fields to the east also have potential as routes for alternative energy.

Following up on the old idea of lining train tracks with wires and poles, we could couple rail lines with a national high-voltage direct current transmission network, spanning the heart of the windy Great Plains and sunny Southwest, thereby enabling better integration of renewables, cleaning up the power sector further. Since the best solar and wind resources are often far from major demand centers like large cities, developing a national grid that can easily move power around would be advantageous.

We could even put those power lines underground to reduce their vulnerability to windstorms. Not only would a nationally coupled rail and powerline network reduce emissions and spawn more rural economic development, but it would also improve grid reliability.

Laying electricity along the tracks also opens up the door for electrified freight trains. Such trains are common in Europe and it may be simpler to electrify freight rail transportation than to build out the charging infrastructure for electric road vehicles.


Switching Track

The vast preponderance of the rail system sprawls across the continent, so many of the economic benefits from a return to freight rail would accrue to rural areas. Since U.S. companies like GE make locomotives, accelerating the adoption of newer, cleaner models would also trigger an uptick in domestic manufacturing jobs and output. In addition, locomotive engineers make about 30 percent more per hour than truck drivers. Even the other jobs—rail yard engineers, signal and switch operators, conductors, and so forth—earn more than truck drivers. Those higher wages would have rippling economic benefits.

Given all these potential cross-cutting benefits of increasing the role of rail for freight transportation, how should we proceed?

One simple way to encourage the switch from road to rail is to put a price on carbon. A carbon tax would harness the efficiency of markets while sending a price signal that rewards the more energy-efficient and cleaner option of rail transportation.

Another approach—one that wouldn’t also put motorists in the crosshairs—would be to raise money for road maintenance via a fee based on miles driven and vehicle weight. This would target the vehicles that do the most damage and stop the subsidy of heavy trucks by the drivers of small personal cars.

By more closely aligning the costs with the damage, trucking would lose some of its competitive advantage compared with rail.

While a carbon price and update to our highway tax model would likely encourage a lot of switching to rail for freight, increasing throughput (ton-miles) on rail without other improvements could degrade key performance metrics such as delivery time and reliability. Since many freight customers are very sensitive to those factors, commensurate investments have to be made in optimizing performance, double-tracking where possible, adding new tracks, and alleviating bottlenecks.

Expanding track miles is an obvious step forward, though not the only one. Adding more sidings or double-tracking at congested zones can facilitate operation of more trains in different directions and allow trains operating at different speeds to more easily share the same track.

But just laying a bunch more track isn’t enough.

As a pair of major studies by the RAND Corporation in 2008 and 2009 noted, increasing the national rail freight capacity will need a variety of strategies beyond direct infrastructure investments. Such measures include revised regulations, flexible pricing, deploying new technology, and implementing improved operating practices. For instance, operational enhancements to more efficiently use existing tracks might be just as important as building more miles of track, but those changes need to be informed by more detailed and extensive modeling to identify locations of bottlenecks and developing schemes that avoid them.

Another way to increase capacity while cleaning up the transportation sector is to increase and improve the fleet of locomotives. Incentives for rail companies to buy newer, cleaner, more efficient locomotives, would simultaneously clean up and expand capacity.

More routine and detailed inspections of rail systems can also improve safety and throughput by allowing heavier freight loads and faster train movement. The Automated Track Inspection Program exists partly for this purpose. But according to one assessment, it “does not conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the national rail network on an annual basis due to the limited number of surveying cars.” Let’s invest in more surveying cars and conduct those inspections more consistently, frequently, and comprehensively so that trains can move more efficiently.

New concepts will inevitably capture the imagination.

We owe it to ourselves to investigate them to see if they will work. But in the end an old idea-moving goods by rail— might be the modern innovation we need to reduce energy consumption and avoid CO2 emissions while making roads less congested, safer, and more enjoyable for motorists.


To Learn More

  • “U.S. Freight System Modernization Necessary to Reduce Bottlenecks, Improve Security,” June 9, 2009,

  • Brian A. Weatherford, Henry H. Willis, and David S. Ortiz, “The State of U.S. Railroads: A Review of Capacity and Performance Data,” RAND Corp., 2008.

  • Richard Hillestad, Ben D. Van Roo, and Keenan D. Yoho, “Fast-Forward: Key Issues in Modernizing the U.S. Freight-Transportation System,” RAND Corp., 2009.

  • Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Freight Facts and Figures 2015, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2015.

  • U.S. Department of Energy, Transportation Energy Data Book, 2016