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August 14, 2012 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Considering the huge amount of oil/energy expended driving trucks full of food all over the country, would it make more sense to increase our train infrastructure (is that even possible?) to move more food? That's the question, but not why I've come to Metafilter.

Here's the actual question: is it possible to find any half-way reliable statistics about this? There was a bitter dinner table argument about the question of trucks vs trains, and I suggested that since no one actually knew anything, we change the subject. Both parties suggested that if I was such a smartypants, I find some those "facts" I keep going on about. I tried, but my google-fu is minimal, and what I mostly got was Peak Oil sites full of more opinions.

So, please, any suggestions about how to find obscure statistics will be welcome.
posted by kestralwing to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Trains are said to be more efficient than trucks (when reckoning the fuel needed to move a ton of freight). Lots of links and statistics here. Gory details on energy efficiency here.
posted by jquinby at 7:33 AM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The US has one of the best rail and barge networks in the world (don't forget about barges!) and as a result one of the lower truck-tonnage to total-tonnage ratios anywhere.

Agricultural commodities account for a fair share of cargo shipped by rail or barge, but that will be limited because of the more point-to-point nature of distribution than the cargos best suited for non-truck transport (like coal, which moves from a relatively small number of mines to a relatively small number of power plans, all of which have rail sidings).

The big railroad companies had capital expenditures in 2011 of around $15 billion, so that's a pretty significant ongoing investment.
posted by MattD at 7:40 AM on August 14, 2012

Best answer: Fuel efficiency in transportation.
posted by HotToddy at 7:41 AM on August 14, 2012

Best answer: Federal Railroad Administration: Comparative Evaluation of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency.

Rail results in fuel savings when compared to their counterpart truck movement, ranging from 18 to 1,108 gallons per carload. Because the range of variation in fuel savings is more dependent on route distance than equipment type, Exhibit 1-7 illustrates the range of savings by distance segments.
Fuel savings can also be analyzed at the train level. For example, if trucks were to carry the equivalent payload included in the double-stack rail movements, fuel savings would evidently be much greater, varying from 1,549 to over 80,000 gallons per double-stack train.

posted by Comrade_robot at 7:49 AM on August 14, 2012

Sense? As defined by.. cost or energy expenditure. They aren't the same thing, obviously: loading/unloading time has a cost; speed of delivery has a cost in food transport (and affects things like spoilage levels). I'm sure you know that, but it's worth being clear that it's easier to treat cost and energy expenditure as separate but related.

A lot of the argument comes down to what you cost in and what doesn't. This is the same in the energy industry when you are comparing the cost of, say, gas-fired power stations v nuclear power or wind power.

Unfortunately, as with the energy industry, there are few impartial observers. For example, road advocates might point to door to door costs - moving things by rail is still going to require 2 additional modes of transport unless the depot is right by the loading/unloading point. Similarly, rail might win by a clear margin on cost/mile (rail v road) but if it doesn't go direct that margin comes down. If trains or trucks transport goods half empty the theoretical efficiencies of moving goods change.

What we know from the energy industry is that you can pick and choose the stats you want. Do you pick the bare cost of transport, do you factor in distortions like subsidies (on fuel or power, on roadbuilding), do you take account of real capacities (i.e. an average truck hauls x tonnes) and lifecycle costs (i.e. what it costs to maintain the vehicles or the infrastructure). Do you factor in externalities (trucks burn gas, but rail could be powered by electricity from renewable sources). Are you talking about how things are now or how they could be in an optimised or scaled scenario?

What we know is that economies of scale play a huge role. And where technological development is relevant it can make a huge difference. And finally, because fuel costs are important, the cost of fuel may make a huge difference.

In short, read the stats carefully because while the fuel efficiency argument is easier to discern, the relative costs of transportation are highly manipulable depending on how you what you include and exclude.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:55 AM on August 14, 2012

Best answer: Beware that Wikipedia Fuel Efficiency in Transportation page, if you start chasing the sources it uses you'll find that some of them seem to not say what the page claims they say (for instance: confusing seat miles per gallon with passenger miles per gallon).

I can lose myself in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics: National Transportation Statistics pages for hours.

As MuffinMan points out above, if you can tie transportation costs to what you're trying to optimize, the market will optimize that factor pretty quickly, if you have externalities (and these can be hard to calculate) then the market will take advantage of those externalities. Ask MeFi: Why can't Amtrak turn a profit had some good discussion of trying to price passenger travel, including this message on relative subsidies of Amtrak vs automobile, there are probably some good starting points in that thread.
posted by straw at 8:00 AM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

would it make more sense to increase our train infrastructure

Shipping costs are complete dead weight to retailers and manufacturers. If there was a way of cutting it down, someone would be doing it.

(is that even possible?)

Actually... maybe not. Not practically, anyway. The US already has a really dense freight rail network. Because you are going to need to put the food on a truck once it's traveled by train, that seems to be about as dense a network as it's sensible to create.

Oh, and we already move an enormous about of food by rail, particularly raw ingredients like grain.
posted by valkyryn at 8:06 AM on August 14, 2012

Rail is more efficient than trucks to move freight but as has been said, you still have to factor in the cost/time to transition the freight from rail to road. The second part is yes, that infrastructure could be improved to make it more efficient. For the most part, rail is good at moving large amounts of freight from one point to another point. when you increase the number of delivery points and decrease the number of goods delivered, then rail ceases to be efficient.
posted by JJ86 at 8:44 AM on August 14, 2012

I live in corn country. Most of the grain elevators I pass have rail spurs to them and the corn, gathered from outlying farms by truck, is loaded right into intermodal rail cars. Then it goes to a processing center, usually either 100% by rail or by barge* and rail. From the processing center it may go by rail or truck to a distribution center, and then by truck from the distribution center to the grocery store.

Train and barge are definitely more efficient for one-to-one or few-to-few shipping, but for the many-to-one (field to silo) or the one-to-many (distribution center to grocery store), trucks are far more efficient, because building out rail lines to all those grocery stores is totally impractical.

When food processors decide where to place factories, efficiency of transit is definitely a big concern. There are lots of little rail spurs into industrial parks specifically for this sort of thing, and you'll have a cluster of factories that receive raw materials by train. But trucks may be cheaper and more efficient for any particular producer, who may seek out a location near an interstate, for example. Or a company may have grown up in a particular location and be reluctant to move from that spot (hometown of the founder, deep roots or good tax breaks in a particular community) and just make do with what they have, which probably means trucks.

*When grain goes overseas it's often in a "bulk carrier" ship rather than an intermodal ship but I don't really know about those, I live on a river plied by intermodal barges.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:20 AM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

We already do big chunks of food shipment by rail. The freight rail infrastructure is not underutilized in most of the US.

Investing in new rail infrastructures feels unlikely at the present moment.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:45 PM on August 14, 2012

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