A Reminder: Why the US Rail System Is At Least as Good As the European System if You Care About Energy Use

In an article about the French railroad SNCF, Randal O'Toole makes a point I have screamed to the world for years:

Meanwhile, French trains carry less than 11 percent of freight, as more than 86 percent of freight is transported on highways. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the U.S., where at least a third of freight goes by rail and less than 40 percent goes by truck (and I suspect a bad model has erroneously exaggerated the role of trucks).

American railroads are a model of capitalism, one of the least-subsidized forms of transportation in the world. They are profitable and do far more for the national economy than Europe’s socialized railroads, which mainly serve narrow elites.

Most of the intellectual elites and nearly all the global warming alarmists deride the US for not having the supposedly superior rail system that France and Germany have.  They are blinded by the vision of admittedly beautiful high speed trains, and have frittered away billions of dollars trying to pursue various high speed rail visions in the US.

I know that the supposedly pro-science global warming alarmists sometimes are not actually very focused on science, but this is pretty simple to think about.

First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train.  Add up the weight of all the folks in your car.  Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself?  Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying.    The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (my guess is a high speed rail car weighs more).  The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons.  This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people -- the rest goes into moving the train itself.

Now consider a freight train.  The typical car weight 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo.  This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.

Now you have to take me on faith on one statement -- it is really hard, in fact close to impossible, to optimize a rail system for both passengers and freight.  In the extreme of high speed rail, passenger trains required separate dedicated tracks.  Most rail systems, even when they serve both sorts of traffic, generally prioritize one or the other.  So, if you wanted to save energy and had to pick, which would you choose -- focusing on freight or focusing on passengers?  Oh and by the way, if you want to make it more personal, throw in a consideration of which you would rather have next to you on crowded roads, another car or another freight truck?

This is why the supposedly-green folks' denigrating of US rail is so crazy to me.  The US rails system makes at least as much sense as the European system, even before you consider that it was mostly privately funded and runs without the subsidies that are necessary to keep European rail running.  Yes, as an American tourist travelling in Europe, the European rails system is great.  Agreed.  I use it every time I go there.  I have to assume that this elite tourist experience must be part of why folks ignore the basic science here.

My original article on all this years ago was in Forbes here.

Postscript #1:  One could argue that what matters is not the weight ratios of freight vs. passenger rail but how those compare to the road alternatives.  I would have to think this through, but it gets way more complicated because you have to start worrying about average occupancy and such since that also differs.  At full capacity say of 4 people, the typical 4000 pound car (US, rest of the world is less) would passenger weight around 12% of the total, higher than for the passenger train.   But average occupies could change the comparison and I don't have the time to work it through.  But for a full analysis we would have to take a lot of other things into account.  For example, trains are a poor fit with customer travel time preferences for longer US distances, even for higher speed options.  In the same way freight pencils out worse for rail in Europe because the last mile transport problems become a bigger percentage in a shorter haul.  I am confident though that for the US, the freight-dominant system is the right solution and it amazes me how hard it is to get anyone to recognize this.

Postscript #2:  Thinking about the SNCF, I actually did a consulting project there 20+ years ago.  I remember two things.   First they had 25% more freight car repair people than they had freight cars.  Which led me to making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they could give every one of these folks their own tool bag, assign them their own car to ride around on, and still cut a fifth of their staff.  I have never, ever, ever seen bloated staffing like I did at SNCF.  My other memory was lunches with executives that took place in palatial dining rooms with waiters in white gloves.  We ate for like 3 hours and drank a case of wine and all I could think about doing after lunch was going to take a nap.

Postscript #3:  This is really going to be a random aside, but if you want to bring science to the table, monorails are the dumbest things ever.  The whole advantage of rail is the friction reduction of a metal flanged wheel rolling on a metal rail.   Most monorails (and people movers) are just tires on a concrete beam (e.g this is how the Disney monorails work).  This is no more efficient than a bus and actually less because the train jacks up the vehicle to passenger weight ratio over a bus.  Because of certain geometry issues, monorails also have limited capacity.  Disney has been struggling with this for years at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and their ferry boats seem to move a lot more passengers than the adjacent monorails.  Monorails do look awesome, though, and their tracks are airier and more attractive than traditional elevated rail tracks.

34 Comments

  1. Ben:

    Yeah, the passenger weight as a percent of train car isn't a very good approximation. Weight only matters for acceleration, and then air and rolling resistance dominate. Powered paragliders, for instance, get about 20-30 MPG with a vehicle:passenger weight ratio of roughly 1:3. A sport motorcycle gets mid-40 MPG with roughly 3:1. A sedan gets mid-40 MPG with roughly 18:1.

  2. Aggie -:

    You can try to distract us Warren, but you know in your heart that the only trains we want to hear about are the ones in your basement. 🙂

  3. StillAnOptimist:

    You cannot argue with religious fundamentalists - and I mean the people in the US (and France, Germany) who just adore the European Model (no matter what). The US has and will remain a world leader in how we use energy - because we (more than anyone else) understand that no matter who "pays" for the cost, it will "cost" us all. Yes, we do have our own versions of "socialized" systems - but thank goodness that not all is lost. California cannot seem to collect the water that comes from rain - all they need to do is some analysis of where the water is, where it flows and how to tap the water that is there. California is more concerned about some fish or some such that may or may not be in danger and keeps throwing money at high speed rail that pours money into the hands of a select few. The stupidity of these religious nuts, anti-science irrationalists cannot and should not be underestimated - they will try to save us even if it means killing us.

  4. SamWah:

    "Postscript #3: This is really going to be a random
    aside, but if you want to bring science to the table, monorails are the
    dumbest things ever. The whole advantage of rail is the friction
    reduction of a metal fanged wheel rolling on a metal rail. " Fanged wheels? VAMPIRES!!11!!

  5. jdgalt:

    I wonder who carries that last 3% of stuff to French consumers. Chinese guys on bicycles?

  6. Just Thinking:

    weight matters for acceleration . . . but all systems need to accelerate. The comparison is across systems, not within a system.

  7. cc:

    Europeans and elitists ignore how huge the US is. If you want to get freight from the coast (any coast) across the country or to the interior, rail is the way to go. Consider a train carrying those modular units that can be put on a truck. It has 70 of those. That eliminates the need for 70+ drivers to spend days driving the stuff around, plus meals and hotels. There are huge savings even if fuel costs are the same (which they are not). By the way, when you say 30% of freight goes by train, I think it is worth noting that 1) much more than 30% of long-distance freight goes by train and 2) due to our higher standard of living the total freight shipped is much higher per capita.
    A second thing is the huge parts of the country that are pretty rural. Unless there is freight such areas cannot support trains. The image of trains is Europe which is simply packed with people everywhere. In the US the only place comparable is New England, where Amtrak loses money every year.
    Finally, there is time. My friends commute to downtown. First they drive to the train, park, walk over to the train, wait, spend 1 hr on the train and then if they are lucky they can walk to work. Maybe not. Each way takes 1.5 hours total, same as driving. The only time advantage is that on the train you can read or nap.

  8. JK Brown:

    When was the last time anyone went from city center to city center for business and didn't need local personal transport to actually get where they needed to be? Only if you work between Manhattan and DC, maybe. Humans are just not suited for containerization via depot distribution.

    Here's the only European railway (monorail) that seems to have merit. It designed and used during the Great War.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgmyaR9XnaY&ab_channel=WayOutWestBlow-inblog

  9. JTW:

    The purpose of the European railway system is to reduce the pressure on the very limited capacity of the European road network, which is swamped with personal cars.
    Think of entire countries with traffic as dense as that around a major US city during rush hour, nearly 24/7.
    It therefore serves a similar role to the NY or DC metro system, not Amtrak.

    The US system was designed for truly long range bulk transport from the beginning, originally to support the expansion west, supporting the wagon trains and passenger liners bringing the people to the west coast.

    In Europe a lot of such bulk transport is conducted over the many rivers and canals crisscrossing the continent, rather than trucks or trains. Our waterways are far busier than those in the US as a result, and major industrial centers positioned on those rivers as a result.

  10. James White:

    "
    The purpose of the European railway system is to reduce the pressure on the very limited capacity of the European road network, which is swamped with personal cars.
    "

    With 90+%of freight moving via truck ( excluding POland and Germany), they're failing at that.

  11. James White:

    "
    Weight only matters for acceleration
    "

    Acceleration is a vector. Unless you're on the rare 60 mile stretch of dead flat and dead straight track, that train is constantly accelerating.

  12. James White:

    Rail technology has ginormous fixed costs and enormous operating costs. The __ONLY__ way it isn't wasteful is __IF__ it has beyond ginormous volumes.

  13. Andrew Hunter:

    I'm curious - can you explain why it's not possible to optimize a rail system for passengers and cargo? What does cargo require that passenger trains can't have?

    Obviously passenger trains value speed a lot *more*--though I can imagine uses for fast cargo trains for the same reason we have air freight--but I'm unclear what's fundamentally incompatible. I expect this will be interesting.

  14. Daniel Barger:

    You are arguing facts versus the feelings and wishful thinking of the lib left. As for the push for high speed passenger rail in America....it has NOTHING to do with fuel savings or the environment. It's about CONTROL. The left seeks to control EVERYTHING Americans do. One of those things they desperately lust after is control over travel. Thus the push for autonomous vehicles that THEY will be able to control AND the push for increasing passenger travel by public transit....where again THEY will decide who does or does not get to travel. NEVER EVER underestimate the evil of the communists left masquerading as dems and the extent they will go to in order to achieve their holy grail.....TOTAL CONTROL.

  15. Sam P:

    From that dataset, inland waterways.

    My recollection is that for the EU as a whole, water transport is actually moderately important between EU countries. Air freight is probably of some importance as well, but probably very small intra-France.

  16. Matthew Slyfield:

    The typical freight train is 1-1.25 MILES long and weigh thousands of tons. Look at some of the coal trains moving from western states to the east. Many have 6 locomotives, three in front and three in the back. That's not to move faster, that's so they can get through the mountains at all.

    https://www.minnesotasafetycouncil.org/facts/factsheet.cfm?qs=858251BECECF1976F908D7D68B570E85

    It can take a mile to stop a freight train from just 55 MPH and that's using the emergency break for a full on panic stop.

    Freight trains are slow because they are HEAVY, 6000-8000 tons on average, and ore trains can go over 10,000 tons. Air freight is a tiny fraction of the total tonnage of rail freight.

    A freight train derailment at just 30-55 MPH is a disaster that can destroy entire neighborhoods. Think about what will happen if a freight train derails at 110 MPH.

  17. Sam P:

    The main problem is that passengers like to go fast while freight that goes by rail doesn't need to (it's a lot less efficient to go fast). Mixing fast and slow trains on a single rail line reduces capacity significantly. Much of the freight railroad infrastructure is single tracked, adding additional sidings or multi tracking is expensive.

  18. Matthew Slyfield:

    " Weight only matters for acceleration"

    It matters a great deal for deceleration as well, unless you don't care if the train arrives at it's destination in one piece.

  19. marque2:

    The Wuppertal suspension train is a monorail - which has been successfully running since 1901. It is coolness.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuppertal_Suspension_Railway#/media/File%3ASchwebebahn_ueber_Strasse.jpg

  20. marque2:

    Just like trucks on the freeway freight trains tend to muck up the road. Rails which have heavy freight are out of joint just enough so that it would cause problems going faster than say 60 mph. Also the guage tends to be unoptimally wide.

  21. Bruce Anderson:

    I think the number you want is not in the ratio of the masses of the vehicles and their cargoes. The number you want is specific fuel efficiency (or specific cost), as in gallons per ton-mile (or dollars per ton-mile), or BTUs per passenger-mile or however you choose to state the unit rate. Ergs per gram-centimeter, even.

  22. Q46:

    Railways were initially used to move freight, passengers an afterthought. Passenger railways cannot run profitably because they cannot run with optimum passenger loads for most of the time. They, like wind turbines, are only possible with massive subsidy from the taxpayer. In the UK where the railways are allegedly ‘private’ (the State owns the company that operates track, signalling, stations), private operators receive £1 billion annually in subsidies. The State regulates train fares.

    Frequently, operators hand back their operating licences because they cannot maintain a service on their route profitably. The State then assumes control, taxpayer underwrites operating costs until some other operator thinks they can make a go of it.

    In Europe railways were needed in the absence of paved road networks... the Romans being the last to build paved roads until Hitler in the 1930s, prior to which roads were made by goats and sheep.

    Passenger rail has only survived in Europe because, being State owned, the State taxed and regulated road traffic, restricted road building, to force people onto the railways and justify the heavy subsidy and ‘protect’ jobs of heavily unionised rail workers. The environmental ‘benefits’ are just another story to justify State control and subsidy and war on cars.

    In France, heavily subsidised trains travel mostly empty outside rush hours and away from cities, services are being cut, trains less frequent. TGV services are attracting fewer and fewer passengers,despite low fares, and one new TGV line has been cancelled and another is being reconsidered. Of course that does not stop SNCF spending billions of taxpayer euro developing the next generation of TGV sets.

  23. BobSykes:

    As antiplanner has pointed out many times, in terms of cost per passenger mile or fuel consumption per passenger mile or carbon emissions per passenger mile, buses and cars soundly beat all forms of rail transit. And buses and cars are about equal. And buses and cars are flexible, whereas rail has fixed, inflexible routes.

  24. Matthew Slyfield:

    Which is why high speed passenger rail lines almost always need dedicated tracks.

  25. JTW:

    water transport is very important in parts of Europe. The Rhine and Meuse for example are very busy with commercial shipping, busy enough there is traffic control in place not dissimilar to what you see for aircraft.

  26. JTW:

    they're failing but mostly because despite the high frequency of trains in many areas the same journey, even with traffic jams, still goes faster by car, AND the trains are already packed to the point where the system can't handle more rush hour passengers, leaving people with no viable option except taking their car.

  27. John O.:

    Danube is the busiest river in the entire World.

  28. paul:

    i used to live in San Francisco. One block from the Caltrain station to go south (it's at 4th and King and I was at 3rd and King). I worked a 5 minute walk from a light rail station that connected to a 45 minute train from San Francisco. As someone said above, the only positive is that you can read (in those days even doing email was not practical). So it took 1.5 hours to do a journey that I could drive in about 45 minutes if I started at the same time.

  29. paul:

    "my guess is a high speed rail car weighs more" I think they are a lot lighter. One reason that freight guys don't want the fictional California high speed train anywhere near their tracks is because of the difference. American trains are built to be strong enough to survive a derailment. European trains are assumed to never derail and are not built for that. It's a disaster when it happens. They are built for speed, so are much lighter.

  30. David Foster:

    Weight is a major factor in rolling resistance, not just in acceleration.

  31. David Foster:

    Important to distinguish between *kinds* of cargo trains. Container trains, which typically carry high-value cargo (finished goods), can indeed benefit from high speeds, and I believe in the US speeds of 60-70 mph are typical. Bulk cargo...coal, ore, scrap metal...doesn't need the speed and these trains run much slower.

  32. JLawson:

    Also, freight never complains about the car being too hot, too cold, the dining car being crowded, the toilets being full, the snacks being too expensive, and it almost NEVER complains about being late for a connecting train.

    I've ridden Amtrak a few times outside the NE corridor. It was interesting the first time or two, but then it was a "Why the hell am I doing this again?" sort of exercise. Last time the train was 5 hours late (hey, there's only one stop a day each way, so who really cares about a schedule?) and they wouldn't let us use the dining car because it was 'reserved' for the occupants of a privately owned train car that was appended on the train... that never showed during the four hours it took to get to our destination.

    Yeah. Really makes me want to ride the train again... not.

  33. stevewfromford:

    This is just crazy talk!! Ugly old freight trains more efficient than beautiful high speed passenger rail??? Your attempt at logic is just crazed, I tell you. Neither politicians, the media or most of the public have any use for logic when there is plenty of perfectly serviceable emotion there for the strumming.
    Get with the program, buddy.