How Freight Trains Connect the World

This video was made possible by Skillshare. Learn for free for two months by being one
of the first 500 to sign up at If you look at the list of the world’s twelve
largest economies, there’s a clear split. Six are relatively small countries where one
could never be more than a few hundred miles or kilometers from the ocean. The other six—The United States, China,
India, Brazil, Canada, and Russia—are enormous countries with spots more than a thousand
miles or sixteen-hundred kilometers from the ocean. It’s well known that ships are the main
method of transport for freight globally thanks to their low cost. In fact, 90% of world trade goes by sea. While most of the world’s population lives
relatively near the ocean, there are still plenty of populated areas far inland that
too need a method of low-cost freight transport. For that, there’s freight trains. Unsurprisingly, those six physically largest
of the twelve largest economies are, rearranged in order, the world’s six top users of freight
rail transport. To understand the role of freight rail, you
have to look at the numbers. In the US, it costs, on average, about 4 cents
to move one ton of freight, the weight of a small car, one mile on a freight train. That’s about 2.5 cents per ton-kilometer. What that means is that, on average, you could
move one ton of freight coast to coast, from New York to Los Angeles, on a train for about
$100. It’s worth noting that freight rail prices
in the US are among the lowest in the world. In most European countries, for example, they’re
nearly double. In comparison to those four cents per mile,
air freight transport in the US costs about 121 cents per ton-mile or 75 cents per ton-kilometer
but air freight is not truly a competitor to the railways. Planes will tend to carry time-sensitive or
valuable goods while trains will carry lower-value or less time-sensitive goods. The true competitor to trains are trucks which
carry a ton a mile at a cost of around 20 cents or 13 cents per ton-kilometer. This is noticeably higher but trucks, of course,
can go anywhere. Trains can only go where there are tracks. Now, the reason why trains are so cheap is
because they are quite a bit more efficient than trucks. In 2017, Union Pacific railroad, as an example,
moved freight a total of 471 billion ton-miles. That’s the total number of miles multiplied
by the total number of tons moved. To do that, they used just over 1 billion
gallons of diesel fuel meaning it took, on average, only one gallon of fuel to move one
ton of freight 469 miles. That’s far more efficient than a truck. The reason behind this is simple—trains
encounter less resistance. Their smooth steel wheels run over smooth
steel tracks so there’s very little friction compared to rubber truck tires running over
road. In addition, since the train’s just one
long line, there’s much less wind resistance per ton than a truck. A single locomotive uses huge amounts of fuel
but can have upwards of 6,000 horsepower and can therefore pull a huge number of cars. On average, in the US, freight trains are
about 6,500 feet or 2,000 meters long. They can get far longer, though. In Canada, Canadian National regularly runs
14,000 feet or 4,300 meter long trains. It would take nearly an hour to walk from
one end of this train to the other. Typically, it also only takes two people to
run even these multi-mile long freight trains. Considering that most trucks take one person
to transport one container and these trains can carry hundreds, it’s easy to see the
advantage. In some cases, freight trains are even run
by only one individual—the driver. Of course there are plenty of safety concerns
with that, but railroads are increasingly doing so as it cuts down on cost. Overall, what this means is that freight trains
are quite comparatively efficient both economically and environmentally to other means of land
transport. Within the cab of a locomotive, there’s
generally not much other than the train controls, a few seats, and a small lavatory. There are no beds or other accommodations
because crews don’t stay onboard for all that long. Every driver and conductor in a company works
a defined territory along the overall train route so for longer runs, such as BNSF’s
route from Seattle to Chicago, for example, it takes 10 different crews to make the trip. The first takes the train from Seattle to
Wenatchee, Washington, then switches with another crew that takes it to Spokane, Washington,
and then this crew swap processes repeats itself in Whitefish, Havre, Glasgow, Minot,
East Dilworth, Northtown, and North LaCrosse before the train arrives in Chicago. In most cases crews will typically live at
one end of their territory, work the train to the other end, stay in a hotel overnight,
then swap with an inbound crew to take command of a train headed back to where they live. Now, under US law, each crew is only allowed
to work for up to twelve hours at a time before needing a rest period and so these territories
where crew work are designed to be able to be completed in those twelve hours. For longer sections, though, like the 276
mile, 444 kilometer section from Glasgow to Minot, there’s increased risk of timing
out in case of slow-down. If a train crew reaches twelve hours, they
quite literally have to stop in their tracks and wait until another crew arrives. Typically the railroad will drive out a relief
crew from the next stop, in this case, Minot, to take over. Now, there are two major types of cargo transported
by rail—bulk and intermodal. Bulk cargo is things like grain, stone, sand,
oil, and coal. Coal, along with most bulk cargo, is not a
value-dense product—as in, it costs a little to get a lot. In the US, a ton of coal costs only $34, on
average—so of course you need to put it on the lowest cost transport method possible
which in many cases is trains. Trains both serve to bring coal from the mine
to their domestic destinations, mostly power plants, and to coastal ports to be loaded
on ships for international export. The other major type of freight, intermodal,
involves the carrying of shipping containers to and from their destinations. Generally trains will carry these containers
as only a step in their overall journey. For example, a container might be picked up
from a factory in Shenzhen, China, brought by truck to the port of Shenzhen, loaded on
a ship to Long Beach, California, moved onto a train to Omaha, Nebraska, before being loaded
again on a truck for its final journey to Norfolk, Nebraska. Generally railroads will have their intermodal
terminals, where containers are unloaded and loaded, spread out about 300-500 miles or
500-800 kilometers apart from each other so the greatest area can be reached within a
day’s truck drive from one of their terminals. Given the lackluster nature of the US’s
passenger railways, it may surprise some that the country’s freight railway system is
considered among the world’s best. The country is just in that sweet spot of
economically busy and spread out that supports the use of freight trains. It therefore serves as a good example to examine
to explain how freight trains work worldwide. The US’ network is quite extensive. As an example, Kansas, whose entire passenger
rail network consists of this, has a freight rail network of this. What helps is that in most countries the government
builds tracks primarily for passenger train usage and freight operators pay to use them. In the US, though, it’s the other way around—in
most cases, the track is owned by freight operators and the government pays them to
use it for passenger operations. Through many years of consolidation seven
major freight railroads have emerged in North America each with their own territory—Union
Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and Kansas City
Southern. With the exception of Canadian National, none
operates coast to coast so for longer journeys, a single operator could not get freight from
start to finish. Now, take a look at this BNSF train. You’ll notice at the end it’s hauling
a CSX car and a Union Pacific car. That’s because, since no one railroad covers
the entire continent, different ones work together to get freight to its final destination. A container traveling from Oakland, California
to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for example, would be first brought by truck to Lathrop,
California where Union Pacific has a rail-yard. It would then be taken off the truck and loaded
onto an east-bound train. After passing through the western United States
and arriving in Chicago, the container would then be removed, hauled short-distance from
the Union Pacific to the CSX terminal, and placed on a CSX train since Chicago is as
far east as Union Pacific goes. That train would then take it to Kearny, New
Jersey, near New York City, where it would then be loaded on another truck to take it
to its final destination in Philadelphia. This is already complicated but it can get
even more. Sometimes different railroads don’t partner
or won’t allow for seamless transfers between certain origin-and-destination pairs. Chicago, for example, has dozens of different
rail-yards used by different railroads so in order to to get a container through one
might have to book a spot on one train to the city, then book a transfer by truck from
one terminal to that of another railroad, then book separately the next train out of
the city. This increases complexity enormously and it’s
often difficult to find truck drivers willing to make the short cross-town trip especially
given the current shortage of truck drivers in the US. Many of these complexities are handled by
logistics companies hired by clients to manage the movement of their freight but these interchanges
can still slow down shipping times significantly. There is this constant battle between the
trucking and rail industry. Hired rail lobbyists in the US constantly
work against the trucking industry by dissuading Congress from increasing weight and size limits
of trucks. With a nearly global shortage of truck drivers,
though, railroads are at an advantage right now and many are thriving. New railroads are constantly under construction
worldwide especially in developing nations and the industry is growing. It’s not completely safe, though. The advent of driverless trucks will surely
reduce cost and increase capacity in the trucking industry which could tilt favor over to the
rubber tires. In addition, coal is one of the most commonly
carried goods by freight trains and, as the world transitions towards renewable energy,
there could be less demand for its transportation. Overall, though, at least until there’s
a monumental shift in technology, freight trains will continue to be the proven method
for moving freight long distances over-land. If you want to learn how to make videos just
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43 thoughts on “How Freight Trains Connect the World

  1. Has anyone actually tried the skillshare thing? I’m just curious for feedback from other people who just watch the YouTube videos.

  2. There are so many trains where i live but not one of them is a passenger train, when i used to live in ny it was the opposite

  3. Wait so in America the trains are still fully on fossil fuels? What about making trains run on electricity?

  4. Thank you for including both miles and kilometers. The most annoying thing is having to pause a video to do a math conversion.

  5. Everything is about the $$$$$ its alll about the $$$$$$$$$$….money works the world spin. EVEYRTHING IS ABOUT THE $$$$$$$$$$. And dumbasses say money dont buy hapiness when litreally EVERYTHING is all about the $$$

  6. When you talk about building new tracks and trying to make trains the best way to transport goods, you never heard about Germany, here it is going on the complete other way and it sucks.

  7. American freight trains are the best trains out there. Even compared to high-speed trains, they don't need government support like high-speed trains. The worlds longest train was from Australia, but the 8 locomotives pulling the train that was almost 700 cars long were built in the U.S. We have the largest locomotive, the Big Boy, and the strongest, the AC6000CW. The United States have the best trains.

  8. Brazil in 6th place in the top six users of freight rail transport, what shame… At least the Mito is running the country now and Brazil can get some real progress.

  9. Notice how inefficient union rules require frequent crew changes, stopping and starting trains is energy and time inefficient. When is the driverless train coming? Runaway train!

  10. Bigger and heavier trucks damage roads. Railroads own thei track network and have an incentive to minimize wear. Trucks use PUBLIC road systems and have less incentive.

  11. Sir I genuinely believe your channel is the best on YouTube for those who love economics, logistics and Entrepreneurship.
    Your videos provide valuable knowledge with simplicity. The way you talk, the way you present are fabulous.
    I want to know from where you gather this knowledge. Please share your sources. It will provide very great value

  12. Rail transportation will always be the number 1 method of moving bulk goods and intermodal containers throughout the US. No other method of transport will ever come even close to the energy efficiency of rail. Trucks have about 5 times as much rolling resistance as trains, and they have hundreds of times more aerodynamic drag per ton at highway speeds than 100+ car freight trains. The most efficient cargo planes have maximum cruising lift to drag ratios of about 20:1, which equates to 50 times more resistance than railroad. Not even the hyper loop can overtake traditional rail, even if it could completely eliminate aerodynamic drag. At high speeds (>200 mph), where magnetic levitation is most efficient, the currents induced in the stationary coils still contribute a considerable amount of magnetic drag on the train, on par with the rolling resistance of a semi truck. And on a freight train, aerodynamic losses are very small compared to rolling resistance, since freight trains rarely travel faster than 60 mph and have essentially infinite sectional density. Most of the gains left to be seen in transportation energy efficiency will involve revolutionary changes in propulsion/powerplant technologies for fossil fuel-burning engines, which take advantage of the stupidly high energy density of crude-oil derivative fuels but still lack in efficiency. All-electric prime movers rely on electricity generated elsewhere at efficiencies that can be much higher than fossil fuel combustion (solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind), however these prime movers face the logistical challenge of either storing this electrical energy onboard the train, which would require an insane mass of batteries and cooling fans, or receiving it from the railroad, which would require a very costly overhaul of existing railroad infrastructure that no one would want to pay for. The path of least resistance and minimum cost is to continue research on new diesel power cycle enhancements to efficiency.

  13. The RO-LA system (Rolling highway) is one the rise in Europe, where you load a truck on a train, and take it to another city, it's more cost efficient for the trucker and obviously can take the time to rest

  14. In Australia,the east/west trains have a crew car behind the locos so they change crews on the move when duty cycles occur,so there are no delays.

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