Do CSX Trains Really Move 1 Ton of Cargo 400 Miles on 1 Gallon of Fuel?

It may seem odd that CSX – a freight train company based in Florida – has been placing advertisements across television airways in recent weeks. Companies whose main clients are other companies (like freight movers) don’t often engage in television advertising. They avoid the cost because they don’t rely on individual consumers as part of their business model (Memorable exceptions include ads representing Siemens, and Tyco).

Regardless of their motives, CSX’s advertisements make a seemingly improbable claim: that their freight trains move 1 ton of cargo 436 miles on 1 gallon of gas. Is this possibly true?

While these numbers may seem far-fetched, they may be based in fact.

CTLS Director Dr. Nicholas Lownes – a Civil and Environmental Engineer at the University of Connecticut – said in a recent interview that he “always understood that this type of claim is in line with reality.”

He continued to say “[CSX’s] idea is that steel wheels, on steel rail are the most efficient way to transport cargo. This method has the least amount of friction possible. Once a train is rolling, it takes the least amount of effort to keep it moving.”

When you compare the friction of steel-on-steel to the friction of rubber tires on pavement, there is a large difference in the amount of energy dissipated due to friction, Dr. Lownes said.

Because a rubber tire riding on pavement causes a large amount of friction “the engine has to make up for that lost energy. The efficiency comes down to how the physics behind the transportation modes work,” he said.

So, the physics behind CSX’s claims of 436 ton-miles-per-gallon seem to be valid, but Dr. Lownes notes that “this average value masks a lot of variability across the country.”

Though the Association of American Railroads (AAR) – a group which advocates for safety and environmental concerns – announced in 2010 that the average ton of railroad freight in the U.S. moves 480 miles on a single gallon of gas, Dr. Lownes suggests that these kinds of numbers may not reflect the true efficiency of trains across the country.

“Not all trains achieve that kind of efficiency,” he said. “When you have a giant train with 50 cars behind it, and you get it rolling over Nebraska and Kansas where there is no elevation change, and nothing to stop for, it doesn’t take that much additional energy to keep those thousands of tons moving.”

On the other hand, trains traveling across the Appalachian Mountain Range will probably have worse efficiency.

It is important to remember that these numbers are averages, and the efficiency of trains moving in perfect conditions can skew this number to be misleadingly high. This is an issue common to the use of averages, as is explained here.

The AAR acknowledges the ‘averages problem’ in its report: “480 [ton-miles per gallon] was the average last year for all rail traffic across all Class I railroads – that means for some trains and some rail traffic, the corresponding figure will be much higher, while for others it will be lower.”

The questionable validity of the specific statistic of 436 miles on 1 gallon of fuel does not detract from CSX’s overarching point: that trains are more efficient ways of transporting freight than traditional truck-and-trailers.  But, whether CSX and other freight companies truly transport 1 ton of cargo over 400 miles on a single gallon of fuel is a relatively hard fact to verify.

CT Energy Strategy Features Alternative Fuel Sources

In the face of climate change and economic uncertainty, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy announced his administration’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy last week. The new strategy, compiled by the Connecticut Department for Energy and Environmental Protection, will address energy initiatives for the next year.

One of the initiatives addresses the expansion of alternative fuel vehicles in the state. (You can read about CTLS researcher Peng Zhang’s research regarding deployment of electric vehicles here.)

The report reads: “Connecticut’s current transportation system is over-reliant on oil-based fuels, which are increasingly expensive and which contribute significantly to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions profile. With 95 percent of Connecticut’s transportation energy supplied by gasoline and diesel, transportation emerges as the least fuel-diverse of any of the state’s energy use sectors.”

The report acknowledges that access to alternative fuels is limited in the state, and hopes to encourage the creation of more access points. Alternative fuels it hopes to provide on a larger scale include natural gas, propane, ethanol blends, and hydrogen. It also aims to increase the amount of public charging stations in the state.

An increase in the availability of alternative fuel sources will help prepare Connecticut for a future where gasoline will no longer be the most important way of powering our automobiles.

A full copy of the report can be found here. 

New Transportation Funding System Will Aid Sustainability in Virginia

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Virginia’s Legislature approved a complete overhaul of the systems in place to fund transportation initiatives last week. The new system will move way from the state’s traditional reliance on gasoline taxes to fund transportation infrastructure.

This proposal, which has been sent to Governor Bob McDonnell’s desk, mainly seeks to eliminate the 17.5 cent-per-gallon state tax charged at the pump.  The bill also raises the state sales tax, creates a tax on wholesale purchase of gasoline, and draws $200 Million from the state’s general fund, reports Reuters.

The Governor is expected to sign the measure.

The bill also suggests that there is a growing acceptance of renewable energy’s importance in a modernizing society. Even in a Republican state like Virginia (where the Senate, House, and Governorship are controlled by the GOP), removing the gasoline tax acknowledges that fuel usage will continue to fall nation-wide, the result of an influx of Hybrid and Electric vehicles as well as still-unstable economic situation.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in 2012 that fuel usage had dropped to 134 billion gallons, 6% less than the all-time-high in 2007. With alternative fuel sources becoming more mainstream, and the economy showing no signs of recover, Conservatives are adapting to changing situations.

Regardless of whether the Republican party ever embraces the exhaustive scientific proof that climate change is an imminent threat, measures like the one passed in Virginia reveal an understanding that as high-efficiency vehicles continue to drop in price, Americans across a spectrum of income levels and political views will jump at the chance to save a couple bucks at the pump.

Without accepting the environmental benefits instituted by a massive deployment of alternative vehicles, Virginia has acknowledged the future economic benefits felt by citizens purchasing them.

The governor said in a closing letter to the Virginia senate “As cars get significantly better mileage and more Americans choose alternative fuel vehicles, it is an inescapable fiscal reality that the gas tax is no longer a dependable, sustainable source of transportation revenue.”

One can only hope that they set the stage for states across the country to institute similar, sustainable initiatives.