Freight and the Environment

Metro has recently produced an interesting little document by the title “Profile of the Regional Freight Transportation System.” The Daily Journal of Commerce has a brief piece today on the trends this report discusses.

Unfortunately it’s still in draft form and therefore not on Metro’s web site. I’ll be sure to post a link when it becomes final.

The document is being used to inform both the Regional Transportation Plan update and the recently formed freight task force.

But one table in the document caught my eye. It lists a number of characteristics of different modes of freight. Here’s an excerpted version:

Mode BTUs/Ton-Mile Emissions/Ton-Mile
Truck 3,337 3.25 gms
Rail 345 0.50 gms
Ship 471 unavailable
Barge 368 unavailable
Air 28,000 unavailable

Of course, Truck freight is the fastest growing mode by far, and it has the worst (save air) energy and emissions impacts. Some of this is due to lack of investment in rail, some is due to business factors like e-commerce and just-in-time inventory management. But it speaks to a national policy failure in allowing the environmental factors to be externalized rather that included in the actual costs of using these modes.

And by the way, even after truck freight doubles, trucks will still be a single-digit percentage of all the vehicles on the road. Let’s not take our eye off the key challenge: SOVs.


9 responses to “Freight and the Environment”

  1. That’s what the country gets with over investment subsidies in roadways and rail demanding it have a more market demand industry. The Freight Rail industry would set itself up for almost immediate failure if heavy subsidies where put into it.

    Unbalancing the system with the way it is currently setup (and HEALTHY) would devestate the service within 10-25 years, probably requiring a massive need for nationalization (ala Conrail days of regaulation).

    If anything put the costs of tractor trailer and road freight for the damage they cause in all respective ways. Hell – make THEM pay for the roadways they use just like rail does and you’ll see a MASSIVE rebalancing.

  2. Obviously moving freight by rail is far less polluting. The argument that truckers frequently use to justify their industry is “The American consumer wants their product NOW!” suggesting that, with less warehousing and point to point delivery there are greater economic benefits.

    Is this true enough to justify the added pollution and congestion? Is there any other way to efficiently expedite delivery of goods to the great American consumer? Does truck delivery shave off that much time in getting the product distributed? What portion of local delivery would still have to be accomplished by trucks?

    It does take a lot to fill a box car, so small items–distributed to numerous, small destinations probably is more efficient. Big items, going cross country probably go better by rail. What about in-between?

  3. A key word is BALANCE when it comes to freight movement.

    When you add the need to move bulk and/or raw commodities specific methods are required and they have nothing to do with balance, quite often marine/barges and rail.

    Origination and destination studies can determine what are the best methods to move some types of freight.

    Less then a Truck Load (LTL) is the Fed-Ex and UPS world and most of it is a combination of air and truck.

    The real world is that we have combinations like this everywhere we look but in all cases we have growing demand for freight mobility on our roads and highways.

    I have studied “Supply Chain Management” and the “Just in Time” world and that is one of the most significant changes in how we do business in the 21st century and folks that means on time freight movement and delivery must be available or the businesses fail or move and with them goes the jobs.

    It is a paramount priority that we address freight mobility if we want to keep the engine running of our ecomony.

  4. “Just in Time” was probably driven in part by a low cost transportation system…freeways, lot’s of free lance truckers, etc. Environmental impacts where never figured into costs; now those costs are showing up in diesel prices and new EPA standards. Then one of the Swan Island businesses I work with told me the other day they have no problem moving their product…if they can find someone to drive their trucks. Workforce is another rising cost. Maybe warehousing makes a comeback.
    Meanwhile, railroads are getting out of the mixed train busines for unit trains. The biggest transportation issue for manufacturing in north Portland’s industrial districts is getting small batches of rail cars in and out at a reasonable price. UP and BNSF don’t want to bother.

  5. Lenny as a former purchasing agent I can tell you from my experience that some of the argument for “just in time inventory” management had to do with taxes on inventory. If it is in your warehouse instead of mine I don’t have to pay taxes on it. I should also point out that the carrying cost overall is lower.

  6. I’ll pretext this, I’ve worked on supply chain management problems for companies before. They don’t really care what method is used… it just needs to get there when specified, sometimes it does need to get there faster. Timing, not so much speed, is the PRIME issue at hand. In order of reliability; air, truck (short haul), truck (long haul), rail. LTL stuff for FEDEX and UPS are a completely different story. They are on time on time on time compared to these other services. FEDEX and UPS are prime examples of privatized for profit enterprises that are run well and have an actual market slice.

    “Is this true enough to justify the added pollution and congestion?

    The majority of the times YES.

    The two issues you specified are the added pollution, no one wants it, but when reliability is an issue sometimes this is the only real choice. Trucks loads of VCRs or some electronic gadget for instance need to be shipped timely to a distribution point to go to market. If market shipping is off by a day you end up with MORE piece meal LTL trucks running around with dozens of shipments getting the items to market LATE. This in turn demand reliability, or else you get an exponential increase in pollutions. Also the pollution of trucks is merely a multiplier or 3 (1.x-3x) the pollution as rail. Newer trucks are even less, ranging from 1.x-1.8x) as bad as rail. In all rail is the cleanest, and can be even more clean as long as the industry isn’t over regulated or the motive interest of rail shippers isn’t messed with, right now efficiency (re: pollution-less) is a major concern of freight railroads. GE being able to brag about building the cleanest diesal freight engine in the world also helps a lot. :)

    The other thing you mentioned is congestion. Truck usage of interstates is an EXTREME MINORITY of road share. The also pay a much greater percentage of their usage than passenger SOV and multi occupancy vehicle users do. One thing to remember by order of subsidy, trucks, trucks, and rail isn’t even on the list in full percentages of subsidies received. In all scenarios freight covers their costs much better than passenger services (cars SOVs etc). So really the question isn’t “is freight congestion justified?” but more “is passenger congestion justified?” Is there any other way to efficiently expedite delivery of goods to the great American consumer?

    Without trucks, that is no longer possible with any realistic expectation. Our distribution system in this country is insanely efficient by all practical standards. We move more freight in this country than anywhere, and probably by comparison to the EU too. Does truck delivery shave off that much time in getting the product distributed? What portion of local delivery would still have to be accomplished by trucks?”

    Truck delivery shaves of anywhere from 5% or more time. In some cases rail doesn’t even service or care to service some towns. In those scenarios it isn’t a question of shaving off time but how to get something from point A to point B.

    Also to note. Freight railroads own many of their own trucking fleets to expedite shipping and other things at distribution points. trucks definately provide a key distribution advantage over possible alternatives. In many cases without the trucks, we’d be talking a multiplier effect in getting things to market.

    Consider a freight rail and truck combo. Frieght train takes a day to load in SEattle. Leaves station and takes another 2 days to get to Chicago. 1 day to navigate and prepare for distribution in Chicago at the multi-modal facility. Truck then receives packages and delivers to market within the day for morning market delivery.

    Total Time: 5 days for delivery 1 day market delivery.

    Consider a truck delivery. Truck receives item in Seattle. Truck drives directly to market avoiding and neglecting most regulations and laws while still maintaining a completely safe delivery. 1 day pick up and management, 3 days on road with about 5-6 hours of sleep a night.

    Total Time: 4 days for delivery and pickup.

    Energy consumed in the first scneario is less at about .6-.8 of what is used by the truck. The pollution created is about the same because of time differences. The direct charged cost of the first scenario would be about half to 80% of the cost of the second scenario.

    …almost all of the negatives and slow advancements in both distribution methodologies can be attributed with archaic, prohibitive, slow changing, and dunce like regulations, laws, and imbalanced subsidies being given to one vs. the other. With how imbalanced the freight delivery and distribution system has been for the last 60 years in this country is is amazing we even have a freight rail system left, it speaks VOLUMES to the efficiency and determination of what amounts to one of America’s GREATEST industries. One we still are actually a leader in around the world.

  7. Adron,

    I might suggest that there are other, societal, costs that should be considered. This is beyond the equation of which mode brings products to market and at a cheaper cost.

    1. There seems to be an ongoing feud between truck drivers and auto drivers and it has nothing to do with political ideas. For example when my windshield is broken by a stone it is usually kicked up by a truck. I can’t see a red light when a truck is right in front of me. Many small cars get pinned between the axles of trailer rigs with most unfortunate results; in fact, I think trucks have an unusually high kill ratio with cars. Trucks cause a lot of damage to the road surface and the pollution they do put out has a number of negative consequences.

    2. The complaints I do hear about rail usually center on their noisy whistles, late at night. And there is a fair number of transients who are killed or maimed when they are walking down railroads or in yards. If anyone has others let’s hear ’em. As far as I know, most times freight trains are out of sight and out of mind, which is exactly the opposite of trucks.

    3. The argument of immediate delivery is one that I don’t get too worked up about. That argument would say if your local supplier is out of an item you need not fear because a truck will bring it soon. Buying at sales shoots all this theory down because a sale is something which is either planned for or occurs at predictable times or may occur in response to oversupply.

    4. Would I trade having to go elsewhere and spend more for an item for buying at a lower cost and putting up with far fewer trucks on the highway? Yes, probably.
    I think it would become more understood, within our culture, that you had better try to think ahead and use some other personal financial strategizing rather than depend that your local retailer is always going to have your items within a short time framework. Besides that, if for example, one ACE Hardware store is out of the thing, there are probably several other stores that carry it in a large city, or one other store in a nearby small town. I think people would adapt. When working on a project and finding that I need an item to complete it, it makes little difference, then, if postponement is for a few days or a few weeks. Unless I am up against a critical deadline. Likely, someone else has it or I can find an alternative. And, absence of a big item, like a piece of equipment may be due to other factors in the production and distribution network, not merely that a shipment won’t arrive for two additional weeks because it’s coming by rail.

    5. It would be impractical to put major rail to every small burg, such as in the Oregon Coast Range, but that’s a much smaller slice of the market. Plus, I’m going to expect that rail locomotive efficiency goes way down in a mountainous region anyway. But most of the market is in the cities, and where you also find a modicum of rail infrastructure. So should there be greater use of rail to deliver to major metropolitan areas and less reliance on trucking?

    I would think our transportation planning would be easier. There is a tipping point at which road expansion becomes necessary. If we could stay under that, not only would pollution be reduced, but the need for infrastructure improvement would be reduced. Infrastructure improvement is a huge burden, so mitigating it would be a benefit to society. We could focus more on fun things and consumer goodies than paying for bigger highways.

    If all we are tallking about is an extra day or two, I would say that is not a disadvantage one should sweat. However, short haul trucks will remain a needed component. Perhaps some different form of transferring from rail to truck should be found, to avoid constructing more warehouses. As far as the pollution I think most of us hope that soon there will be much cleaner engines. Diesel exhaust is horrendously bad and just measuring it by weight or volume doesn’t provide a realistic view. Look at this article from the American Lung Association:

  8. In some ways this is a moot discussion, as I
    understand that today the railroads have more
    freight than they can handle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *