5 Innovations that Have Strengthened Railroads’ Muscle

Thirty-five years ago, the average freight train could safely haul 2,200 tons at once. That was a lot of cargo!  Yet even though the basic structure of a train has remained the same, today a single freight train can carry even more — a whopping 3,600 tons, on average.

Putting good old American ingenuity to work, railroads deliver more cargo than ever before at rates that are among the lowest in the industrialized world. As a result, America’s railroads truly pull their own weight in America’s integrated transportation network of trains, trucks and barges which delivers 54 tons of goods and commodities for every American in a single year.

How did freight railroads get so strong?

1. Distributed Power

A locomotive provides the power to move a train forward. So adding multiple locomotives throughout a train means even more power, right? Yes, and more power means trains can carry dramatically heavier tonnages, increasing the efficiency of a single train — a win for rail customers as well as consumers. That is the theory behind distributed power, or the distribution of multiple locomotives throughout a train. Today, special technology allows these locomotives to coordinate braking and traction power, decreasing stopping distance and enhancing overall safety. In addition to greater power and safety, the technology also reduces equipment damage that can happen when trains are going up steep inclines.  Plus it reduces fuel consumption and rail wear.

2. Lighter Freight Cars

Today, the average coal car can carry approximately 20 percent more coal than in 1990. That’s because freight railroads have developed and deployed newer, lighter freight cars. Specifically, freight railroads have replaced many aging steel rail cars with lightweight aluminum cars designed specifically to carry coal. These aluminum cars are about 1/3 lighter than their steel equivalents. Together with the increased use of lighter weight castings for rail components, railroads have been able to reduce the weight of a train without sacrificing its safety or strength. Equally important, the reduction in the weight of rail cars has meant that more cargo can be carried at once. Since most coal trains are 100 cars or more, even a slight reduction in weight for each car can mean significantly larger shipments and greater value for rail customers.

3. Alternating Current Traction Motors

Like a car tire spinning on a patch of ice, steel train wheels can end up spinning in place if a load is too heavy. This spinning can damage the wheels and the rail, often resulting in additional maintenance. The advent of alternating current traction motors provides greater adhesion between a train’s steel wheel and the steel rail, even when carrying large (and heavy) quantities of raw materials like coal and ore. Greater adhesion means more pulling power — allowing railroads to carry heavier loads with fewer locomotives attached to a single train.

4. Double Stacking

In 1977, transport entrepreneur Malcom McLean wanted to find a more efficient way to carry shipping containers by train. So he partnered with Southern Pacific Railroad to create and test the first double-stacked intermodal rail car. Today, a single train carries as much freight as hundreds of trucks — a feat made possible, in part, by McLean and Southern Pacific’s innovation. And double stacking has double the benefits: first, to the industry and consumers by increasing intermodal efficiency, and second, to the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Over the years, freight railroads have raised clearances, upgraded tunnels and strengthened rail lines throughout most of America’s 140,000-mile freight rail network to accommodate double-stacked intermodal trains.

5. ‘Heavy Axle Load’ Program

The Transportation Technology Center’s Heavy Axle Load Research Program studies ways to safely increase the maximum weight a train can carry. By examining the effects of heavier loads on track and equipment, railroads can improve the design of equipment components and track structure and procedures for inspection and maintenance. The program’s research allowed railroads to implement 36-ton axle loads — an increase of 9 percent — safely.

More than ever before, freight rail is carrying the weight of the American economy. And through innovations like these, the industry is preparing to carry even more in the years to come.

Green Technologies Get Goods Moving

Did you know that freight trains are four times more fuel-efficient than trucks? Freight trains can move one ton of freight more than 470 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Bet you didn’t think something so powerful could be so environmentally friendly! In fact, since 1980, new “green” rail technologies and environmentally friendly operating practices have improved our fuel efficiency by more than 100 percent. These innovations are just another way that we’re designed to move a nation – now and for future generations.

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Freight Rail and the Greening of America

How do we protect our environment for future generations?

For freight railroads, the answer is by innovating new technologies, investing in new equipment and pioneering new ways of efficiently running our operations. With a private freight rail network that stretches 140,000 miles coast to coast, every improvement along the way can mean a big difference for America’s carbon footprint.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act into law, partially deregulating the railroads. Since then, freight railroads have been able to earn enough revenue to invest in equipment and state-of-the-art technology that helps move goods efficiently and benefits the environment. Innovations like Genset locomotives, which rely upon a series of small engines that can be turned on and off when needed, have made freight trains both more powerful and more fuel-efficient. In 1980, a freight train could haul 2,200 tons in a single journey. Today that number is almost 3,500 tons, a difference that translates into hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel saved.

Railroads have also invested in anti-idling technology and software that can calculate the most fuel-efficient speed for a train. By employing these innovations, a freight train can move one ton of goods more than 470 miles on a single gallon of fuel – making trains four times more fuel efficient than trucks. In fact, moving just 5 percent of freight from truck to rail would result in 9 million fewer tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

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Freight rail’s commitment to a more sustainable future takes on added importance when one looks at the future demands that will be placed on the nation’s transportation network. The Department of Transportation estimates a 45 percent increase in the volume of U.S. freight shipped between 2010 and 2045. And according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard by Texas A&M Transportation Institute, road congestion is only going to get worse. Americans already lose 6.9 billion hours and 3.1 billion gallons of fuel to congestion each year. What’s a great congestion buster? Freight rail. A single freight train can take several hundred trucks off the nation’s highways – helping commuters and communities breathe easier.

A cleaner environment and less congested roads are big priorities for our nation. Freight rail helps by spending billions of its private funds each year – almost $26 billion in 2016 alone – to maintain a world-class freight transportation network. In the process, they’re  moving the raw materials and goods that keep America’s economy strong while delivery a more sustainable future.