Efficiency of a Freight Train

Last month I took a long road trip across the California and Arizona deserts and I must have seen several dozen freight trains along the way. Huge locomotives, coupled together in groups of four or five, pulled seemingly endless chains of wagons with containers. The amount of freight making its way across our country day and night is staggering.

freight train by Eric Rench
Freight Train – Photo by Eric Rench

As I researched the rail roads, I learned that a freight train is extremely efficient in terms of moving cargo. A train can move one ton of cargo 450 miles using one gallon of fuel.

For contrast, on that road trip, I drove a cargo van, which weighs empty about 5,500 pounds or just over two tons. It drove about 17 miles per gallon of gas. So I moved two tons for 17 miles which would mean using that vehicle, I could move a ton of cargo 34 miles with a gallon of gas.

Freight trains are 15 times more efficient than small vans.

4 thoughts on “Efficiency of a Freight Train

    1. That was my first reaction. But I checked, and crosschecked. I found numbers down to 436 miles, up to 500 miles. I was amazed and it changed the way I think about freight trains. We should have more of them, get the long-distance trucks off the roads.

  1. Devin Haupt

    Laws of kinetic energy. The greater the mass, once in motion, is easier to remain in motion. Once those suckers get going, they cruise. To get them started is another story that you didn’t calculate.

    1. Yes, and there is the challenge of lifting the mass. In order to go from sea level to 7000 feet in Flagstaff, every ton has to be lifted, causing massive consumption of energy. Of course, if the train goes down from Flagstaff to Los Angeles, it probably uses little to no gas at all, since the weight just pushes it down.

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