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Embracing Sustainability With Rail Shipping
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Eco Rails: Embracing Sustainability With Rail Shipping

Eco Rails: Embracing Sustainability With Rail ShippingEco Rails: Embracing Sustainability With Rail Shipping
How can auto transportation be eco friendly?

Published: May 8, 2024

The economic and social gains associated with modern transportation are everywhere. However, it has also had many far-reaching environmental effects, such as air, water, and noise pollution. To worsen the situation, the need for faster and more extensive transportation of people and goods is likely to amplify these impacts.

According to data published by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), rail is the least environmentally harmful mode of transport for goods and people. The association also says that switching a tenth of the goods ferried by heavy vehicles to rail can lead to significant fuel savings and a massive reduction in emissions.

This article delves into the main environmental benefits of railway transport. Below, you’ll find real-world examples and insights demonstrating why trains are seen as the poster child for sustainable transportation.


Environmental Benefits of Rail Shipping

What are the benefits of rail shipping?

Some of the main advantages of railway transportation, as far as the environment is concerned, include:

1. Significantly lower emissions

The AAR states that a train's efficiency is up to four times higher than trucks on the road. Better efficiency generally translates to reduced production of GHGs (greenhouse gases).

It’s worth noting that data published by the EPA shows that cargo transportation on trains only accounted for 0.5 percent of the total emissions in the U.S. for the year 2017. The AAR estimates that switching freight movement operations to rail instead of road transport can help lower these emissions by around three-quarters.

To further demonstrate this claim, the AAR says that moving 10 percent of long-distance cargo shipping from road to rail can reduce GHG production by a considerable margin—the equivalent of removing two million cars from the streets or planting hundreds of millions of trees.

2. Greater efficiency

Trains are highly efficient when it comes to energy consumption. They can ferry bigger and heavier cargo while burning less fuel. Over the last four decades, the efficiency of this mode of transportation has been on an upward trajectory. Today, you can move a ton of goods across 470 miles on a single gallon of fuel, up from 235 miles in the 1980s.

Trucks can only cover a quarter of this distance with the same load while burning the same fuel volume. As a result, trains are considered to be between three and four times more efficient than their road-driven counterparts.

Trains also have a higher carrying capacity than regular road trucks. The gross weight limit for vehicles traveling interstate highways is between a third and a quarter of the total limit on an average rail car. As such, you can comfortably load up to four truckloads of goods into a single compartment. This means an entire train can take on a load requiring hundreds of trucks.

All in all, trains' enhanced efficiency and capacity create massive savings for operators, customers, and shipping companies. More importantly, these benefits help reduce the emission levels attributed to the transportation sector.

3. Reduced congestion on the roads

Highway congestion is quite costly. Gridlock increases fuel consumption and operating costs for motor vehicle owners and operators. Spending countless hours stuck in traffic also reduces productivity and increases emissions. Data from the Texas Transportation Institute suggests that in 2010, time and fuel waste on gridlocked roads cost US citizens an estimated $100 billion.

Trains can help clear up the highways and ensure free-flowing traffic. One train can seamlessly replace hundreds of HGVs without missing a beat. Eliminating freight truck wear and tear would also help reduce the pressure and costs associated with building and maintaining roads.

Challenges & Solutions in Promoting Rail Transport Sustainability

What are the solutions that rail shipping provides?

Growing rail shipping demand will likely increase GHG emissions. As outlined below, this can only be solved by promoting sustainable rail transport.

Infrastructure limitations and regulatory barriers

Rail transport is highly carbon- and energy-efficient. While it’s considered more sustainable than other modes of transport, it still faces various limitations, with infrastructure being critical among them. For instance, even though it’s more efficient than air transport, using rail over long-haul flights is impossible.

More importantly, energy from sources that contribute to pollution still powers freight and passenger trains. Many cargo shipping trains in North America (and other parts of the world like China, Russia, and India) still use old hybrid engines that combine fossil fuel and electric motors. These trains have a diesel engine producing power to drive each wheel's motors. Alternative power sources and fuels must be developed to boost efficiency and sustainability.
The scarcity of resources is also another sustainability challenge facing the sector.

Fortunately, the UIC (International Union of Railways) and similar organizations are leading the way in developing and promoting policies to create more sustainable infrastructure. This is mainly done by encouraging the careful use of water, steel, concrete, and ballast resources.

Infrastructure investments and policy initiatives

Investing in newer and better infrastructure can go a long way towards boosting sustainability in the rail sector. For instance, creating adequate infrastructure based on renewable energy sources can shift passenger traffic to rail.

The relevant authorities can also push for greater rail use by encouraging passengers to ride trains instead of flying to nearby local destinations. This is an excellent example in Europe, where trains and ultra-short flights are available.

The role of technological advancements

With the help of new technologies, it’s possible to boost rail transport's viability without incurring huge investments. As a starting point, rail operators can use data to provide omnichannel ticketing options and real-time travel details. It is also possible to cut emissions by reducing idling times (using anti-idling technology) while waiting for trains to leave or enter the freight yards of passenger stations.

The Future of Rail Transport Sustainability

What is the future of rail shipping?

Trains are considered the way of the future when it comes to shipping. Here’s a breakdown of the trends expected to shape the industry.

Electrification and digitization

As governments and rail operators look to enhance trains' appeal to freight haulers and passengers, electrification is considered one of the best ways to boost sustainability. Up to 95 percent of the energy supplied via overhead electricity lines is transferred to the rails, compared to the 30-35 percent transfer achieved in diesel engines.

While an average of 60 percent of the trains in Asia and Europe are electric, only around one percent are electric in North America. However, efforts are being made to change this and ensure that electricity is obtained from sustainable sources.

The digitization of train operations is also rising within the rail sector. To boost efficiency, a wide selection of data-driven solutions is being used to automate operations like driver assistance, coupling, and fleet management, among others.

The potential of rail in the push for sustainable transportation

Only around seven and eight percent of global freight and passengers are ferried through rail transport, respectively. The national rail network handles less than nine percent of all goods transported across the U.S., with road transport taking up the lion’s share. When you combine this with rail's efficiency, you will start to see why trains are among the most promising options when it comes to shipping.

Stakeholder collaboration

To boost sustainability, rail (and the transport sector) must be aligned with advancements in other industries. Train service operators must join hands with different stakeholders, including urban planners and passengers, in their quest for success. This can help push for greater rail adoption as a move towards developing a more sustainable transport sector.


Rail transport is essential for meeting the world’s emissions targets. Boosting the use and sustainability of this mode of transportation will make it easier to attain global net-zero goals. Greater use of trains can help reduce emissions and traffic congestion while increasing energy efficiency. However, even with significant advantages in sustainability and efficiency, rail operators are still struggling to improve passenger and freight handling levels.

Fortunately, a joint effort from all stakeholders, including operators, customers, passengers, and cargo shipping service providers, can help reverse this trend and push the industry to more success while creating a greener world.

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