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Movement to rail may not be greener than trucking: study

NASHVILLE, Ind. -- Recent analysis is questioning whether proposed government actions to increase freight rail...

NASHVILLE, Ind. — Recent analysis is questioning whether proposed government actions to increase freight rail use will actually result in a greener transport system. However, the study’s author suggests that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved through improved access to intermodal terminals, equalization of rail and truck standards for production of potent NOx exhaust and modifying existing truck size and weight regulations. The analysis is contained in the December issue of Transport Fundamentals, the last of a fourpart discussion of the economics of truck and rail competition.


“Existing market forces have already done an excellent job of maximizing fuel efficiency by allowing rail and truck to do what they do best,” says Noël Perry, author of Transportation Fundamentals. 


While Perry agrees that rail line-haul is far more fuel efficient than truck, he maintains that this is just part of the energy equation. Rather, he concludes that for optimal energy efficiency one must look at the complete supply chain from start to finish, including the local pick-up and delivery function for which flexible trucks are far more efficient than rail. When all factors are considered, Perry says most freight currently moving by truck would consume more energy if converted to a 100% rail move. He suggests that maximum energy efficiency might be gained from more transloading of freight between truck and rail, where truck is used for local transport and rail for the intercity movement.


“Government efforts should be directed at creation of more such truck/rail interchange terminals to make this option more accessible,” Perry said in a release.


Perry suggests that the government should make a move to modify existing truck size and weight standards which he claims would improve both energy efficiency and safety, through the operation of larger, but fewer trucks.


Perry also suggests applying current truck standards for the emission of potent NOx greenhouse gases to the railroads. He estimates that one unit of NOx produces 310 times the global warming effect of one unit of CO2, the gas normally tracked in carbon comparisons. Because of differences in the regulation of truck and rail diesel engines, rail locomotives currently emit an average of 4.5 times more NOx per horsepower-hour than truck, he says.  He notes that even when NOx emission regulations are tightened for both industries in the future, new locomotives will still emit 6.5 times more NOx per horsepower hour than new trucks.

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