What does freight rail ship for you? Probably more than you think. In fact, freight rail works with trucks and barges to help move 54 tons of freight for each of us in a single year. That impressive pile includes all the raw materials and finished products that make modern life possible: the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the electronic device you’re using right now. Check out the video above to see what else freight rail carries for you.
Look at your car and what do you see? Freight railroads see the 30,000 parts hidden between four wheels, and a nationwide supply chain that delivers millions of autos to American car dealerships every year. Check out the video below to see how freight rail’s investments get you behind the wheel of your favorite ride.
Every construction project, no matter its size, begins in pieces and parts. Whether the project is composed of cement, steel, lumber or stone, even our tallest skyscrapers and busiest highways begin as a humble assortment of raw materials. Which means they often start inside a freight rail car.
The railroad and construction industries are uniquely tied. In fact, there is an 89 percent correlation between rail carloads of lumber and U.S. housing starts which means without railroads, it would be significantly harder – and perhaps more costly – to build your new home.
Railroads employ an impressive fleet of specialized rail cars to carry the diverse array of raw materials that are used by America’s construction industry. Designed to maximize efficiency, these cars help railroads deliver the materials customers need at a price that keeps them competitive. So, the next time you enter a football stadium or a shopping mall, remember the vital role railroads play in putting it there.
Here are just four of the specialized rail cars that deliver for America’s construction industry:
A bulkhead flatcar reinforced by a longitudinal I-beam
In 2014, railroads hauled over 27.5 million tons of lumber and construction wood products in three different car types — centerbeams, boxcars and bulkhead flatcars. Centerbeams are preferred for lumber transport, because they can be loaded and unloaded simultaneously from both sides, getting them back into service quicker. The standard 73′ centerbeam flatcar can carry about 200,000 lbs. or more and is also used to carry other construction materials, such as wallboard. In fact, one centerbeam rail car carries enough framing lumber to build about 6 homes.
Sturdy rail cars developed specifically for steel transportation
Railroads haul all manner of steel, from the scrap and iron ore used at the steel mill to the steel slabs for manufacturing to finished products — like I-beams and various kinds of pipe — ready for use in construction projects. Steel slabs produced at the steel mill are transported to fabricators in specialized flat cars. A loaded flat car is extremely heavy — carrying approximately 110 tons of steel per car — but look nearly empty. To maximize efficiency, railroads have engineered a lighter weight flat car that can carry one additional steel slab per carload. In 2014, railroads delivered 51.7 million tons of basic steel products to steel mills and manufacturers – thanks in large part to the heavy load carried by these specialized cars.
Small Covered Hopper Cars
Designed with a permanent roof and a bottom opening for unloading
Bulk shipments of dry cement were among the first commodities to be hauled in covered hopper cars. Because of their sturdiness and ease of use, they are still the rail car of choice for cement transport today. Typically shipped in free flowing, dry form, 110 tons of cement can be conveniently piped directly into a hopper car. These covered hopper cars have outlets on the bottom that allow for easy unloading when the cement reaches its destination. More efficient loading and unloading ensures the equipment is turned more quickly, lowering costs for both railroads and shippers. In 2014, railroads moved 195,000 carloads of cement — the foundation for America’s construction industry.
Longer, shallower cars carrying aggregate material and steel scrap
Don’t think of a dainty boat on an Italian waterway. Sturdy gondola rail cars helped to transport 82.4 million tons of “aggregate material” such as stone, sand and gravel in 2014. Aggregates are used as the foundation for highways, roadways and even railroads. To ensure that this important commodity is moved efficiently and cost-effectively, railroads move aggregates from origin to destination in dedicated trains, which minimizes switching, or reconfiguration of the train. While rail transport of aggregates is typically less than 300 miles, the importance of this commodity ensures that railroads will be in it for the long haul.
Collectively, these products are used to build and support infrastructure, buildings and more. The foundation of modern American cities and towns — and the infrastructure we use to travel between them — wouldn’t exist without the materials carried by America’s freight railroads.
In small towns and big cities across the United States freight trains can be seen moving products to market. The sheer volume of goods moved is staggering – billions of tons of freight are moved by railroads each year. In order to better comprehend the true impact of freight rail, take a look at the graphic below … you may never look at a rail car the same way again!
It takes a lot of muscle to move 36-football fields worth of home appliances. That is why Whirlpool Corporation’s distribution center in Columbus, Ohio relies on freight rail.
When Whirlpool built this 1.6 million square-foot center, they built railroad tracks inside the facility — allowing a freight train to pull directly into the center so thousands of washers, dryers and ovens can be quickly loaded.
Watch the video above to see why Whirlpool insisted upon working with freight rail — and the efficiencies they realized as a result. Here is a hint: a single freight rail car can carry as much as three truckloads worth of appliances …
Railroads annually spend billions of dollars to ensure that America’s modern freight rail network remains the most efficient and cost-effective in the world. Over the next 30 years, freight rail traffic is expected to grow 24 percent – meaning the improvements made today are even more important to ensuring world-class service, tomorrow.
Here are just three ways today’s freight railroads are preparing for the traffic surge to come.
Siding Extensions & Additions
Along vast sections of the America’s freight rail network, railroads are adding both new and longer sidings – stretches of track that allow a train to pull over while another passes. Longer sidings allow railroads to dispatch longer trains – meaning more cargo travels across the network at once. More sidings alleviate congestion faster – ensuring greater efficiency and shorter travel times across the entire network.
Double and Triple Tracking
Along highly trafficked routes such as central and western Pennsylvania, Richmond, Va. and Seattle, Wash. – just to name a few – railroads are installing two, and even three, main line tracks.
Just as two and three-lane highways increase capacity and reduce travel time, double and triple tracking allows trains to simultaneously travel in opposite directions on the same route. Multiple tracks also reduce idling, since trains – both passenger and freight – no longer have to pull over while priority shipments pass. Less idling reduces a train’s emissions, making double and triple tracking a win for both rail customers and the environment!
Increased Rail Yard Capacity
Last but certainly not least, railroads are adding additional track within rail yards to build longer trains (and haul more cargo at once) without slowing down the rail yard’s larger operations. New track within a rail yard also eliminates the need for trains to idle outside of a crowded rail yard. Fewer idling trains means fewer blocked grade crossings, helping both rail yards and surrounding communities operate more smoothly.
Keeping Railroads Looking Like New
Of course, once new tracks are in service, it takes dedicated experts — and cutting edge technology – to keep them operating at their best. Explore below to see how freight railroads keep tracks operating like new.
1. Railroad’s Steel Spine
While railroad tracks might look much like they did 100 years ago, advanced technology has made railroad infrastructure stronger, safer and more reliable. A railroad track consists of two parallel steel rails set a fixed distance apart, called the gauge. The rails are connected to each other by railroad ties, which may be made of wood, concrete or other material. The rails are fastened to the ties by spikes, bolts or special clips, depending on the type of tie. The ties are set into ballast, which consists of stone particles that help transfer the load of the trains to the underlying foundation.
2. Anatomy Of Railroad Track
Railroad track: Parallel steel rails laid on wooden ties.
Rail: Set of steel bars placed end to end in two parallel lines.
Spike: Piece of metal used to attach the tie plate pad to the rail.
Tie: Wooden or concrete laid perpendicular to and beneath the rails.
Tie plate: Piece of metal that supports the rail.
Ballast: Crushed rock or gravel placed beneath the ties to provide a foundation for the track.
3. Built Stronger, Built Better
Thanks to advancements in steel manufacturing, the quality of steel used for railroad track has gotten much better. Today, the lifespan of rail averages 50-60 years, depending on how much freight is transported annually on the line and other factors. Railroad companies inspect their track using specialized equipment such as track geometry cars and rail defect detector cars, as well as visual inspections. These specialized technologies use laser sensors to detect track wear and tear and alert railroads to potential defects, enabling them to schedule maintenance in a safe, timely and cost-effective manner.
4. People Power
Maintenance of Way employees lay rail, install crossties and build track to ensure trains run safely at optimum track speed. More than 35,000 railroad employees nationwide perform railroad track and bridge work. When rail is scheduled for replacement, a rail gang is sent to the location to do the work. Here, Norfolk Southern has dispatched its Super Rail Gang to a site in Georgetown, KY. This gang, composed of 78 employees and 42 pieces of equipment, has the ability to lay dual ribbons of rail. The machines they use — which stretch for more than a mile from end to end — have greatly enhanced efficiency. In a six-to-eight hour day, the Super Gang can lay eight to ten quarter-mile long ribbons of rail.
From ethanol to crude oil, to wind turbines and coal, freight rail works hard to ensure efficient shipment of the commodities that keep America powered up.
Did you know that coal is one of the most abundant and cost-effective fuels found in the U.S.? That reality is thanks in large part to freight rail. Approximately 30 percent of the electricity Americans use each year is produced from coal shipped by rail. In fact, railroads deliver approximately 70 percent of the coal used to power our homes, businesses, and the facilities that produce the basic goods and commodities we use each and every day.
The United States is the world’s top grain producer and getting all that grain to market is no easy task. Changes in production patterns due to weather, exchange rates and global competition result in a highly complex grain market that requires nimble and cost-effective transportation options.
In spite of these variables, every year during harvest season, farmers and shippers rely upon freight railroads to efficiently carry 1.5 million carloads of grain to customers across the country.
In places like Kokomo, Indiana, freight railroads are enhancing efficiency and productivity through infrastructure and equipment investment, better customer coordination, new communications tools and streamlined operations. Railroads are also incentivizing customers, like Kokomo Grain, to install “unit train” loading capabilities, which allow the companies to quickly and easily load an entire freight train with grain. This highly-efficient train service produces significant time and cost savings for both railroads and customers, and allows freight rail to transport more grain than ever before.
Explore the infographic below to see just how much America’s farmers rely on freight rail to remain competitive in the global economy.