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Fuel savings potential trucks vs rail intermodal


Trains, one of the United States’ oldest transportation platforms, are still one of the most efficient. Trains can move four times more ton-miles per gallon than trucks, typically at a lower cost. Expanded use of rail intermodal systems, where trains move shipments over medium to long distance and trucks move goods to their final destinations, could save upwards of 25% of heavy truck fuel by 2050. Some estimates put this figure much higher, at 60–80%. But switching one-fourth of U.S. ton-miles to rail intermodal won't happen overnight. Coal shipments still consume just under half of all U.S. rail capacity. Rail terminals are also laden with serious inefficiencies. Shipments are often offloaded, trucked to an offsite storage area, left for days, picked up by another truck, placed onto another train, and shipped to a final railyard, only to be moved again by yet another truck for final delivery. However, innovative rail terminal designs can help reduce the number of product movements, lower terminal and port emissions, and improve rail’s time-competitiveness with heavy trucks.


A: SmartWay Transport Partnership. 2004. A Glance at Clean Freight Strategies: Intermodal Shipping. Washington DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. link

B: Brown, Thomas and Anthony Hatch. 2002. The Value of Rail Intermodal to the U.S. Economy. Strategic Directions LLC. link

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