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Freight Trains Thrive Despite High Fuel Prices

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Freight Trains Thrive Despite High Fuel Prices


Freight Trains Thrive Despite High Fuel Prices

Freight Trains Thrive Despite High Fuel Prices

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Despite skyrocketing oil prices, freight railroads are thriving. They are taking advantage of their greater fuel efficiency to haul more goods across the country. And they've mounted an aggressive marketing campaign to take even more.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Rising fuel prices aren't just bad for drivers. They're forcing the transportation industry to scale back, too. Just yesterday, United Airlines said it would cut roughly 950 pilots.

There is one exception, though, to the fuel frustration: railroads. Their stock prices are up, and they're hauling more freight. And rather than relax back in the caboose, they've mounted an aggressive marketing campaign, one they hope will take more freight away from the struggling American trucking industry. NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN McCHESNEY: Their media campaign is everywhere: on television, NPR and other radio networks.

Unidentified Man #1: Railroads now take the equivalent of nine million trucks a year off the highway and put them on trains. That's enough to make an environmentalist smile.

McCHESNEY: That's from the American Association of Railroads Web site, and it's clear the iron horse wants to run more trucks off the road. One clever ad by the Norfolk and Southern Railroad is called "The Lonely Gallon."

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Heard you're coming back to town, hoping that you'll come around and see me. Singing 'bout…

Unidentified Man #3: What if there was a way to move goods efficiently, using less fuel? Norfolk Southern, the future of transportation.

McCHESNEY: A forlorn group of gas cans watches a train go by without stopping. Their spouts droop. Then they march over a hill and find their new love: trucks. Their spouts rise in salute.

But it's not as if railroads don't burn a lot of diesel. We went to Roseville, California, where the nation's largest railroad, Union Pacific, puts trains together for national destinations. There, the railroad is teaching locomotive engineers how to save fuel.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

McCHESNEY: A 100-car train pulls out of the switching yard, headed over the Sierra Mountains through historic Donner Pass, back to the Midwest. Inside a brand new locomotive cab, engineer Gary Cousins(ph) sits in relative quiet as he begins the long climb.

As he eases the train forward, he watches two LCD screens full of information. His hand rests next to three long handles: a throttle, a dynamic brake and an air brake. It turns out that dynamic brake is really important in saving fuel.

Mr. GARY COUSINS (Locomotive Engineer): Dynamic braking is to slow the train down without using the brake shoes throughout the entire train. We can slow this train down by using dynamic braking.

McCHESNEY: Seems complicated, but if Cousins uses the air brakes on all the cars to slow down, the engine is essentially dragging those braking cars. Dynamic braking uses the engine's power to decelerate.

Union Pacific is also investing in new engines to use less fuel and create less pollution, but even without new technology, Union Pacific spokesperson Zoe Richmond says rail enjoys economic and environmental advantages.

Ms. ZOE RICHMOND (Spokesperson, Union Pacific Railroad): One ton of freight can move 431 miles on one gallon of diesel on a train.

McCHESNEY: We asked Tim Lynch of the American Trucking Association if his industry has a comparable figure.

Mr. TIM LYNCH (American Trucking Association): We don't. We're often asked, you know, how do you refute that, and my answer - our answer is, you know, I don't know that that's a correct number or not.

McCHESNEY: Well, according to Chris Hendrickson, an expert on these matters who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, Union Pacific isn't blowing smoke with that figure.

Mr. CHRIS HENDRICKSON (Carnegie Mellon University): According to the national statistics, you can go about 420 ton-miles per gallon. So they're doing a little bit better than the average.

McCHESNEY: That, says Hendrickson, is about 10 times more efficient than trucks. But the comparison irritates the truckers association's Tim Lynch, who says railroads just can't get along without trucks.

Mr. LYNCH: It is, at times, a little aggravating slamming your number-one customer. I don't know too many other industries that would do that.

McCHESNEY: The advantage railroads enjoy really only applies to long-haul truckers. Railroads can't deliver point to point. They need trucks to get containers and automobiles and so on from the railhead to the final stop.

(Soundbite of traffic)

McCHESNEY: At a truck stop near Sacramento, one of the last fuel stops before crossing the Sierras, two long-haul drivers were on their cell phones trying to get credit extensions to buy diesel, which was selling at $5.00 a gallon. Glen Yeates(ph) buys only 50 gallons.

How much did that cost you?

Mr. GLEN YEATES (Truck Driver): $252.

McCHESNEY: Glen Yeates buys only 50 gallons for $252. Yeates says he'll top off in Nevada, where it's a little less expensive.

Well, the trains say they can do it cheaper. What do you think?

Mr. YEATES: Yeah, they can do it cheaper. They can't get it there on time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCHESNEY: That's mainly because of congestion on rail lines, but in this epic battle, timeliness may be one of the few remaining advantages that long-haul truckers enjoy over railroads if fuel prices stay this high. John McChesney, NPR News.

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