How Freight Trains Connect the World

How Freight Trains Connect the World

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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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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100 thoughts on “How Freight Trains Connect the World”

  1. Actually in most cases intermodel trains are handed over as a unit or the cars with the container is transferred to the other railroad. No need for it to be put on a truck and moved to the other RR.

  2. Don't forget not only do we have Class I Companies but we also have Class II and Class III (small companies) also inter mingle with each other. I know a class III that switches its cargo with a class I railroad.

  3. For someone who lives in Kansas and lives in a small town that has a railroad running through the center I can say it's always crazy. It's always a mixture of Train company's. Mainly BNSF.

  4. ✌️ I'm one of those owner operator who moves those crosstown moves in chicago from rail yard to rail yard, to all of them. Driving in the City is a pain in the ass and specially on rush hour 😅😂😂

  5. In Russia and all the other CIS countries, people prefer going on a train. We usually buy some instant noodles, kolbasa (something like salami) and maybe some bread with some tea or cola. You just go through taiga/steppe/desert/mountains, look out of the window and eat your Doshirak.

  6. Why the most of railroad in the United States run on a diesel-powered locomotives instead of electrical?
    In case of electric-powered locomotives there is another benefit of eco-friendliness.

  7. Why the most of railroad in the United States run on a diesel-powered locomotives instead of electrical?
    In case of electric-powered locomotives there is another benefit of eco-friendliness.

  8. Why the most of railroad in the United States run on a diesel-powered locomotives instead of electrical?
    In case of electric-powered locomotives there is another benefit of eco-friendliness.

  9. Ever heard of the Black Mesa and Lake Powell railroad? They had completely automated trains, until the unions ended it.

  10. Love the fact that video of a freight train driving into a storm at the end is from my country in Europe. Mainly because so little freight is transported by train in Slovenia. Great video though.

  11. Wait . . . . .Thats KANSAS ?? . . . . . . . Kansas looks like some surveyor was pissed off and just plonked a ruler down " REALLY !! YOU WANT SIMPLER BORDERS . . . .HOWS . . . . .THIS . . . . .FOR . . . . .SIMPLER!! YOU WANT SIMPLE, YOU GOT SIMPLE!! ". . . . . .

  12. In German, the word "Plane" is "Flugzeug" which can in a literal sense translet into "FlyingTrain" Wendover Productions remaining true to his work.

  13. There are two because the engineer is in charge of the trains movement, the conductor is in charge of getting the freight to the location on time. There are 3 types of Freight in the US actually. Mixed Freight, Chemical, and Intermodal.

  14. Most of this I knew, few new details so I learned something, we gave up cable so no tv so youtube docus are my thing now.

  15. The advent of the container is what's kept railroad relevent. Even after the Staggers Act the RRs were still in trouble because of de-industrialization. With deindustrialization, the RRs were shipping less and less raw materials and finished products.

    Where I live, the region deindustrialized during the 1980s and eventually all the short spur lines have been ripped out and the former "trunk line" is used exclusively be commuter trains during the day and just a couple of UP trains at night.

    Again, it was containers that saved the North America RRs as it's the containers that drive the income for the RRs as the other bulk commodity items only provide a steady but stagnant income for the RRs but container-hauling is where the big money is for North American RRs.

  16. I saw training getting stuck in the snow. There's a lot of videos on YouTube I'll train is getting stuck in the snow. Comment. Super.

  17. _very cleaver very power very bring very eficience very inttelligence very good _good good good __archaicxn lord

  18. I'm from Norfolk NE. Was a little surprised to see and hear my town name considering we're in the middle of nowhere 5:58

  19. i need it translated into European by Tom Scott 🙂 i mean, gallons, miles and such – only measurement i understood is USD. and even that's bit vague, to be honest. what is current $/€ rate again? he tries to say kilometres and – but it only means twice as much numbers what tend to become numbing. and still too much gallons, mails, cubits, ells, whatev. happier without. well, never mind, as most countries are not very far from sea, even European part of Russia, it's not so important. interesting, though.

  20. The section about why trains are more fuel efficient is fairly off. The friction between the wheel and the road is not where energy is lost. In fact, the more friction between those two, the more efficient, which is exactly the reason we use rubber on asphalt. A perfect wheel would be something like a gear on a track, because if there isn't enough friction, the wheels will spin, which is just wasted energy.

    Trains get away with metal on metal because of the insane pressure on those contact points, and the fuel efficiency is thanks to a variety of reasons, namely the bulk nature of freight trains compared to trucks.

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

  22. 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

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

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

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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!

  30. 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.

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