Trucks, Trains, and Climate Change


Trains vs. Trucks

Climate change has been a hot topic within the U.S. for years. Various industries have been threatened by movements and motions designed to combat climate change. For example, California’s Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) Regulation requires truck manufacturers to produce a non-emission truck by 2024. Trucking industry emissions have been under a spotlight for many years. Eyes have been turning to trains as a less-impactful alternative.

Freight train emissions have proven to be less impactful than freight trucks. In 2018, the EPA released the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by source within the transportation sector of the U.S. According to this study, medium and heavy-duty trucks made up 23% of GHG emissions. Trains only made up 2%. Notably, trains move 32% of freight in the U.S. while trucks account for 40%.

How Do Planes Compare?

While most comparisons between planes and trains are focused on passenger transit, the differences are astounding. An Amtrak sustainability report from 2016-2017 reveals a comparison between Amtrak trains and planes. This report concludes that Amtrak trains are significantly more efficient than other modes of transportation in BTU/passenger mile. Additionally, The Transportation Energy Data Book (Edition 34; 2013; Table 2.14) yields that the BTU per vehicle mile for trains was only 26% compared to that of planes.

What About Electric Trains?

BNSF and partners have been using battery-electric locomotives for years; however, these have been low-horsepower and designed for yard use. Since 2018, BNSF and Wabtec have been working together to develop a 100% battery-electric locomotive that works alongside diesel locomotives to form a hybrid of sorts. The pilot testing for this locomotion began on January 4th, 2021. According to BNSF, pilot testing is set to conclude at the end of March 2021. If the testing proves successful, the company will consider expanding tests to other locations/operating conditions within the system.

Why is this significant?

While choosing a career, it is important to understand the direction of the industry. While the trucking industry is heading for non-emissions trucks, transportation of goods via rail has been encouraged for years, especially within the last 5 years. In March 2021, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) published policy proposals aimed at climate change.

In this proposal, the AAR supplements that one train can carry the freight of hundreds of trucks, thus decreasing fuel consumption and congested traffic. Additionally, they cite an EPA study and suggest that freight moved by trains instead of trucks will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%.

The direction of the freight industry is tied to climate change. As policymakers continue to propose ways to combat climate change, rails around the U.S. are standing ready to uphold an increase in volume. Railroads offer a reliable source of freight transportation while emitting only a fraction of the GHGs given off by the trucking and air freight industry.

Interested in Working on a Railroad?

Northwest Railroad Institute offers a 6-month training program designed to prepare individuals for a career on U.S. Railroads. For more information on our program, please click here or contact us via the form to the right of this page.