To sequester harmful emissions start with transportation – Part 2: Trains, planes

In “To sequester harmful emissions start with transportation – Part 1: Trucks,” discussion was limited with a focus on California’s San Joaquin Valley. In Part 2, I have elected to keep content more general.

A brief review

What was presented in Part 1 is that in 2007 – just prior to the burst housing bubble and Great Recession – that 92 percent of all moving goods in the Valley whether “inbound,” “outbound,” “intra-regional” or “interregional,” is drayed – handled by truck, in other words. Stated alternately, what this means is, in California’s heartland, better than nine freight-tons-in-10 moved, traveled by truck. It follows then that this trend mirrors that of this nation’s as a whole. And it does.

Diesel-smoke[1]That California’s numbers in this regard resemble those nationally is not surprising. But, how cargo is moved and the relationship between the truck, train, plane and watercraft modes that are employed to satisfy that objective can make all the difference in the world in terms of the impact this could have on an area’s air quality.

Serving as a representative example, of all locations throughout the United States, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the ones most impacted by poor air quality. The region is in extreme non-attainment for both the national and California eight-hour ozone health standards of 75 and 70 parts per billion, respectively, and it is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air for both the national and state annual ambient air quality health standards for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution. For purposes of the Valley in meeting the daily health standard for PM 2.5, the standard is 20 micrograms per cubic meter. And the basis for my asking in Part 1 in concluding: “Can more of this freight be transferred to and hence moved by air or rail?”

The distribution pie

Domestically, in 2012, trucks moved 12.973 billion tons; trains 1.855 billion tons; and planes 3 million tons. Add in export and import lading, trucks carried 13.182 billion tons; trains 2.018 billion tons; and planes 15 million tons.1 This compares to the 12.587 billion U.S. tons transported by truck; the 1.745 billion tons by train; and the 3 million tons by plane five years earlier. Total hauled then with imports and exports added in is: 12.778 billion tons – truck; 1.9 billion tons – train; and 13 million tons – plane.2

Meanwhile, some pointed facts:

“In 2013, railroads moved a ton of freight an average of 473 miles on a single gallon of fuel,” emphasizes the Association of American Railroads (AAR) on its Web site.

TrainBut here’s the kicker: “If just 10 percent of long-distance freight that currently moves by highway switched to rail, national fuel savings would approach one billion gallons a year and greenhouse gas emissions would fall by more than 10 million tons,” the AAR insists.

Keeping this in mind, should freight moving inside the U.S. be more evenly distributed? In other words, should trains and planes be afforded more modal share?

Working through logistical complexities

As much as I believe many of America’s residents health-wise would benefit from less of modal-share dominance by trucking, working through the particulars of putting more cargo on trains and planes is far easier said than done.

320px-APM_Terminals_WJ_Grimes[1]In large part, containers and trailers that can be hauled by truck also can be shipped via train. But compared to truck moves, trailer/container transport by train has its limitations. Whereas a truck tractor-trailer operator can deliver door-to-door a trailer from shipper to customer directly, that same flexibility with regard to the transport of trailers or containers by train is not afforded many a locomotive engineer via a train move. On the other hand, direct door-to-door rail service can be had, but required would be a different rail-borne conveyance to do the trick, such as utilizing a coal-hopper car to get coal from loading facility to, say, for example, a utility where such would be unloaded.

Then there is the matter of railroad track capacity and right now things in this regard are tight. I wrote about this in: “Should American freight/passenger rail go their separate ways?” and “Cutting delay on track: Enhanced safety system could improve railway operations, air quality.”

Meanwhile, back on Nov. 27, 2013 I posted “West-to-Midwest rail refrigerated service kick-off set for 2014.” In that post I referenced the Dec. 2013 Vegetable Growers News edition and VGN correspondent Terri Morgan who related a number of key (insightful) points.

I went on to write: “Morgan opens the article as follows: ‘McKay TransCold and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) have joined forces to expedite refrigerated boxcar shipping from California’s Central Valley to the Midwest. The TransCold Express train service will begin running in early 2014 and will provide vegetable and fruit growers another option for transporting fresh and frozen product.’”

Two paragraphs later I related, “‘[a]nother option,’ of course, in this case being transportation that’s rail-based. Freight-lading transference this way will undoubtedly result in fewer over-the-road truck moves and that spells important and greater environmental benefits such as the reduction in air pollution coupled to the moving of refrigerated freight in question in this manner.

“‘Each boxcar is expected to hold 3.4 to 4.2 truckloads, meaning each train will have the capacity to transport about 200 truckloads of produce,’ Morgan reported.”

And certainly last but by no means least, in the next paragraph it was pointed out that there was discussion afoot, revolving around the potential of using compressed natural gas (CNG) powered trucks – an environmentally friendly way to ship – on both ends in the complete west-coast-hub-to-train-to-Midwest-hub produce delivery operation.

My presumption of the way the entire process would work is as follows:

Produce from the Central Valley farm field(s) in question would be trucked to an area hub for further processing. There the produce would be loaded into refrigerated trailers where a truck tractor powered by CNG would transfer that commodity to the appropriate rail yard in the vicinity where such would be off-loaded from the trailers and loaded into waiting refrigerated boxcars. Once this process is completed, a train of these boxcars would be expedited to the appropriate and corresponding Midwest rail yard where the identical process would be repeated; though in reverse order – the difference, of course, being that from the Midwest located hub, instead of the produce in question returning to the farm, it would be delivered to market making it available for purchase.

The key point here is that instead of the entire west-coast-to-Midwest move being accomplished via truck, the middle or long-distance portion of the haul is fulfilled by rail. There is therefore overall fuel savings and considerably lower emissions produced in the process.

Taking flights

When it comes to using aircraft to satisfy the intermediate move, I see the operation being little different. What is no doubt different is the freight moved. I see aircraft being more geared toward shipping packaged goods and less geared toward handling bulk commodities.

My take is for given tonnages of freight to be moved fewer airplanes versus trucks would be needed. And like in the truck-train-truck scenario above, there would be fewer emissions released into the air during the entire origin-to-destination shipping operation.

On balance

When transportation is looked at in its totality, what it all boils down to is getting the greatest return (read: “benefit”), using the least amount of energy expended. Each and every mode can play a pivotal part and has a role to play. It’s a matter of finding the correct formula. The economics must work out as well. This is how I see it.


  1. Freight Facts and Figures 2013,” U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation/Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Table 2-1. Weight of Shipments by Transportation Mode: 2007, 2012, and 2040,” p. 3.
  2. Ibid

Bottom image above: William J. Grimes

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