Economics of rail shipping truck trailers.

I get stuck at train crossings a couple of times a month and I always see flatcars with truck trailers as their load and I’ve been wondering what factors make shipping those truckloads by rail cheaper?

I often see UPS trailers on those rail cars and I think it’s fair to assume that UPS makes profit driven decisions about what loads wind up on trains, so I’m wondering what those factors would be that would end up getting a truck trailer off the road and onto the rails.

Well, among other things, the fact that you don’t need to pay a tractor-truck driver to move the trailer. Nor do you have to pay the gasoline cost (and other attendant costs of the tractor-truck). Further, since trains run 24/7/365, but drivers have to take time off to rest, there is a savings of time, potentially, if the shipping distance is long.

The ads for one of the railroads say that they can move one ton of freight 400 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. The results of a Google search suggest that a semi-trailer can move one ton of freight 130 miles on a single gallon of fuel. So the train travel is about one-third the cost.

I am not a railroad person, nor have any involvement in the industry. I read a few years back that if goods need to travel by more than 800 miles the best way is by rail.

Rail is far superior to truck for long haul commodity items – including truck trailers. Fifty trailers on one train from the port of Long Beach to Chicago can’t be beat from a personnel or fuel perspective. It probably will take longer, but you are delivering forty-nine times the quantity for somewhat more cost.

The efficiency is demonstrated by container traffic which is a big percentage of rail cargo.

Editorial comment: It’s sad that actual track is being torn up these days. If the price of fuel rises significantly that local rail service could have been useful.

Really, it’s the same reason you use trains for any other purpose: it’s often more convenient, especially for particularly heavy or bulky commodities.

Moving the trailer, per se, just means you don’t need to remove stuff from the trailer into a railcar before and afterward. You just have a driver drop it off from the warehouse, and send another to pick it up at the other end. You may need to move it back eventually, but that’s still no different from putting stuff in a railcar.

I don’t think so. As mentioned up-thread, drivers have to sleep and eat. Trains can just swap engineers and keep on down the line. Union Pacific is pretty much a straight shot from LA to Chicago, without having to deal with St. Louis traffic. :stuck_out_tongue:

This was addressed in Cycle World a few months ago as part of Kevin Cameron’s monthly article.

Rail is the most energy-efficient form of transport in BTU/ton-mile. Compared with rail, it takes (Figures are from US Energy Information Agency):
1.53 times more energy per ton-mile to transport by water
8.31 times more energy per ton-mile to transport by truck
65 times more energy per ton-mile to transport by air

Rail is fine if you are not in a hurry for delivery. R/R cars spend a surprising amount of time on sidings. They may be holding for other cars so a train can be built. It may be waiting for another train to clear the track. The thing is, that it doesn’t just zip from where it is loaded to its final destination.

Some of the answers I see above are more than a few years out of date. Rail is no longer being torn up; in fact, all the Class 1 railroads are doing billions in capacity improvement projects and sometimes rebuilding abandoned lines. Though ordinary manifest freights (the few that are left) don’t move on the speediest of schedules and are subject to delays at chokepoints, the UPS trains are “hotshots” operated from one metropolitan yard to another on a tight schedule each day. And fuel cost or efficiency is not that huge a factor when talking about the kinds of things in most UPS trucks, or even containers.

Railroads in the modern era are movers of commodities in bulk. They no longer make much effort to bother with one “loose car” going to some suburban lumberyard. You hardly see any boxcars that have to be unloaded through the side door any more, and few warehouses still have rail access. Instead, the railroads are busy moving tons and tons of grain, chemicals, coal, oil, new autos, and containers. Lots of cars that are all going the same place, not having to be sorted in big “hump” classification yards.

The UPS trains combine the best features of trains and trucks. The shipments can be assembled and distributed in the two-dimensional urban space that’s easy for trucks to manage, while moving from one part of the country to another on the one-dimensional—but labor- and fuel-efficient—steel rails.

That’s actually interesting to know. I’m a bit surprised that rail beats shipping.

That’s a controversial finding. In first link a blogger complaining about info on the Maritime Administration’s site saying towboat/barge*is more energy efficient than rail, which was the conventional wisdom for a long time, saying it’s out of date. The numbers showing rail with the advantage come from certain studies, in that link the Transportation Energy Data Book Edition 22 prepared by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is quoted.

However looking at the generic table of energy intensity over time by mode in the current edition of the same publication (second link), it shows barge with the advantage, 210 Btu/ton-mile v 294 for rail in 2012. However the table also includes the notation
“Great care should be taken when comparing modal energy intensity data among modes. Because of the inherent differences between the transportation modes in the nature of services, routes available, and many additional factors, it is not possible to obtain truly comparable national energy intensities among modes.”

See Chapter 2, Table 2.17

*which is what is being compared, inland barge transport, mainly Mississippi system, to rail. ‘Shipping’ in general would have a wide range of efficiency. For example a 400,000 ton bulk carrier transporting iron ore carrier from Brazil to China would beat a train carrying Minnesota iron ore to Indiana in the winter time (when Great Lakes ship traffic shuts down) in energy efficiency by a huge margin…but one of those can’t substitute for the other. OTOH again even comparing the largest (and old) 60k ton ore carrier during the lake shipping season to a train, the equation would still be significantly different than river barge v train, and it’s rare to see iron ore transported by train on that route (generally they try to stockpile for the winter by lake ship). As the caveat says, it depends on a lot of factors even if it’s just towboat/barge, but once you expand to ‘shipping’ in general worldwide it’s going to be much more energy (and labor) efficient than trains as a rule, but more apples v. oranges.

The UPS trains combine the best features of trains and trucks. The shipments can be assembled and distributed in the two-dimensional urban space that’s easy for trucks to manage, while moving from one part of the country to another on the one-dimensional—but labor- and fuel-efficient—steel rails.

Great big picture statement, thanks!

I understand the economies of shipping by rail, but I also see a lot of long haul trucks on major highways, so I wasn’t understanding why they would choose one over the other and I suppose it’s really just the basic logistics of where the freight is and where it needs to go. If you can take advantage of the long haul and “one dimensional” efficiencies of trains, you do, but there will still be situations where that won’t work. I’m sure there are many places where the closest rail yard is still a “long haul” from the final destination of the freight.

Working on the shores of the Mississippi, I also question the shipping figure.
Pleanty of barges come by my office, carrying grain, coal, diesel fuel, or whathaveyou. There are train tracks nearby, if it cost more $/ton to ship they would use rail (though it is possible that tugs are using lower cost fuel). There is the upsteam vs downsteam cost to take into account too.


It depends on where the freight is coming from and where it’s going to, how fast it needs to get there, what the alternatives are, and other factors. Barges going down-river are tremendously fuel-efficient, as long as you’re not in a hurry (going up-river, not so much). Railcar shortages are an ongoing issue in many areas. Barge traffic stops, though, when the river is too high, too low, too windy, etc.

There isn’t necessarily a contradiction between Btu/ton-mile being lower for trains and towboats/barges being the market’s choice in many cases. There are many other factors like the capital cost of building and maintaining rail lines v the often partly publicly supported costs of dams/locks on the waterways (a subject about which rail and waterway advocates could argue for pages and pages).

Also simplified discussion tries to put a number on each thing, similar to debates about the economics of windmills v gas fired electric power plants. Which particular situation? It can vary considerably.

As far as fuel type, many larger US towboats are equipped with the same engine, the EMD 567/645/710 types, as a large proportion of locomotives are or have been. And basically all US towboats use diesel fuel, as do virtually all US freight locomotives (electric freight locomotives are rare in the US). In the Parana system in South America, third largest river transport system in the world after the Mississippi and Yangtze, newer large towboats have been equipped with heavy fuel burning engines, though a lot of the older boats there were sold second hand into that market from the US and others built tend to follow US design practice. Heavy fuel is considerably cheaper than diesel fuel, it’s what the diesels on oceangoing ships generally burn. But the extra maintenance and crew cost it implies means it’s never caught on the US for vessels as small as towboats (or locomotives, where it’s also theoretically possible). And looking forward, tough emissions standards may threaten the use of heavy fuel even in large ship diesels, except where exhaust scrubbers make economic sense, which they probably wouldn’t in a towboat.

A simpler way to look at it is :

a. What’s the cheapest way to move something in freight costs? Obviously the train, since it has just 1 driver for many cars and is of course more efficient.

b. How much is the asset itself worth and how fast is it depreciating? If you’re talking about computer processors, for instance, you don’t want to move it by train. You could probably fit a billion dollars of computer processors or more on a train, easy, but over the weeks it spends in transit, the interest on the money you used to buy them exceeds any savings on freight. Also, computer processors are losing value by the day since each day that passes means the next generation of chip is 1 day closer to release.

Trailers obviously are a very conservative design - a 30 year old trailer in good mechanical condition works just as well as a new one, and it has low value per weight of trailer.

Recently, they’ve started to run freight trains from Zhengzhou in China to Hamburg in Germany. The articles I found suggest that this isn’t cheaper than cargo ships but it gets the stuff (including computer equipment) to Europe more quickly.

Again to illustrate the difference it makes which ‘water shipping’ one is comparing to. This paper gives the BTU/TEU-mile, TEU meaning Twenty foot Equivalent Unit container as 12,850 for truck, 1,850 for train and 3,400 for water which presumably means inland waterway in the US (but which is rarely used for container shipping so not sure where that number comes from or how reliable it is).

But for a large oceangoing container ships it’s fairly easy to estimate and would be much lower. For example the container ship ‘CMA CGM Kerguelen’ which was featured in Royal Institution of Naval Architects ‘Significant Ships’ in 2015 has a capacity of 17,554 TEU and consumes 228 tonnes of heavy fuel per day with service speed 23.5 kts. Assuming 6.3mil BTU/bbl and 6.5 bbl/tonne for heavy fuel that’s ~800 BTU/TEU-mile (and in that case it is burning cheaper fuel than a train, as long as heavy fuel use in ships remains viable wrt emissions regs). Of course the distance could be greater depending on the particular end points.

But no surprise if a higher BTU/ton-mile method can compete in some cases. A significant % of the value of world goods trade now (though not that a significant % of the tonnage) travels by air at much higher BTU/ton-mile than ships, or trains where they can reach international destinations. It isn’t just the interest cost of holding larger inventory to compensate for slower transit it’s also the overall loss in market flexibility from having to do so.

There are a couple of real-world factors that end up being as—or more—important than theoretical energy efficiency of different modes. One that’s huge for manufacturing and retailing is modern just-in-time inventory practices, and the length of the supply chain. Automakers typically like to have less than 48 hours worth of components on site, and get upset by the idea of having money tied up in extra inventory stored in the back or slowly making its way to the factory. So trucking has come to dominate that market for all but the heaviest components, like chassis and rolls of steel. Similar for retailing: a good chunk of the stuff sold Thursday in a Walmart was arriving there by truck on Tuesday.

The other factor we might call inefficiency of market. Even if you have railroad tracks beside the navigable river, that doesn’t guarantee that there are the right kind of freight cars available, or that the railroad believes it has sufficient excess capacity to want the business.

Often you have two truck drivers (called a team), so one can sleep while the other is driving.