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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Ra Ra Rail Road!

Moving us to a clean future

By George Harvey

Rail & Wind - solutions for our future.

On September 5, Vermont’s rail network got a grant of $9 million from the US Department of Transportation to upgrade a 20-mile section of track between Burlington and Rutland. This will allow heavier loads to be carried, and it will allow trains to run at higher speeds. It also allows preparation for the Ethan Allen Express to provide passenger service to Burlington at some time in the future.

These improvements are very important in terms of energy and climate change. Freight transportation is far more efficient, and much less costly, when it is done by rail rather than by road vehicles. While it is clearly true that trucks can go places that are inaccessible by rail, it is certainly true that we can save fuel and global warming gasses by using rail wherever possible.

If 10% of national long-haul freight were diverted to rail, over one billion gallons of fuel would be saved annually, according to the US EPA.

Moving freight by truck requires a lot of fuel, compared to shipping by rail. The most efficient truck carriers are the big tractor-trailers, which we often see struggling up the New England hills and gaining speed as they go down. Light-duty trucks use about four times as much fuel per ton-mile as tractor-trailers.

By comparison, rail freight is fairly efficient. A train can move one ton of freight 480 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel (and might be able to used biodiesel). Tractor-trailers would use 2 to 4 gallons of fuel to move a ton of freight the same distance. This means rail transportation has lower greenhouse gas emissions, about a third of those of heavy trucks.

The following table gives a comparison of efficiency of freight transportation modes:


Freight ton-miles

Freight Fuel used










There are many reasons why rail is more efficient than road traffic. Some have to do with the nature of iron wheels and rails. Iron does not deform like rubber or asphalt, so it loses less efficiency on rolling. Iron also does not have the traction that tires do on a road, so the tracks have to be put down on much gentler inclines than are allowed for roads. This means less powerful engines can be used to haul greater loads. Engines for railroads can operate within limited ranges of speeds, and so can be tuned for greater efficiency.

Though fewer people would be employed moving a given load by train than by truck, changing to ship more by rail does not mean jobs would be lost. Rail freight does not usually go directly from one place to another, without road transportation being involved. Instead, what typically happens is that freight is loaded on trucks, driven to a railhead, offloaded from the trucks, to be loaded onto trains, moved by rail, offloaded from the train, to again be loaded onto trucks and driven to the final destination, and offloaded there. Each step requires that work be done, thus keeping the jobs — and probably most are local.

We might also note that emissions standards have been applied to rail transportation, just as they have on road vehicles. Rail pollutants, such as the particulates, are very much reduced now are scheduled to be reduced by 90% by 2015.

While most of us do not make arrangements that require our choosing to ship by one mode or another, we all vote, and when we do, the condition of our railroads is something to consider. We have good reasons to support rail transportation for freight and for passengers as well.

Source: US EPA report, “Freight Locomotive Emissions Overview,” (

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