There are two choices for moving bulk freight over land: by truck or by rail. There was a time when America was criss crossed by a vast rail network. Today most of that is gone, and almost all of our freight is hauled by truck. But was that great change a wise move from the point of view of fuel efficiency?
The Department of Transport's Federal Railroad Administration looked into the comparative fuel economy of rail vs truck hauled freight. The study, titled Comparative Evaluation of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency on Competitive Corridors is available as a PDF file for download. Although the study is more than a hundred pages long, the result in terms of fuel efficiency is clear. Rail is more efficient.
When considering hauling cargo, fuel efficiency is measured not just in gallons spent to cover a given distance but must also take into account how much cargo was carried. Therefore efficiency is measured in ton-miles per gallon. That is the normal miles per gallon rating multiplied by how many tons of freight were carried over that distance. The actual fuel efficiencies depend on various factors including the type of vehicle and cargo.
Efficiencies for rail ranged between 152 to 512 ton-miles per gallon versus 68 to 133 ton-miles per gallon for trucks. The figure at the top of the post shows the rail and truck fuel efficiencies for 23 different types of cargo movement studied. Clearly, rail is the winner when it comes to saving gas while moving cargo around the nation. In a future of permanently high gas prices, the US will come to regret scrapping all that rail for asphalt.