Fuel Efficiency: Barges over Trains

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Fuel Efficiency: Barges over Trains

  • The July Trains has a comparison of river, rail, and highway freight by Don Phillips (page 31).  Just one quick question: does some of the higher efficency of river travel stem from the fact that more freight moves downstream, and empties move upstream?

    "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." (President Obama quotes Daniel Burnham in announcing support for high-speed rail)

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  • After reading the article I thought the whole premise was pretty lame.  Granted, barges are important in some areas of the U.S. and for shipping certain bulk commodities, but they only go where rivers / improved waterways go, so fuel efficiency vs. railroads (or trucks) is a non-issue if you are shipping, say, furniture from North Carolina to Denver.


    John Timm

  • On the Snake and Columbia rivers, the vast majority of loaded barges move downstream. Grain from the Palouse region of eastern WA/northern ID, Camas Prairie of north central ID, Columbia Basin of eastern WA, and even parts of Montana (trucked over the Mountains to Snake River terminals) makes up most of the bulk barge traffic, but there's also woodchips, containers moving both directions, and fertilizers and fuels moving upstream. Upstream travel is eased by the slackwater conditions from numerous dams. Lewiston, ID, ranks as the "most inland of western seaports" and the majority of its barge traffic is indeed outbound grain or wood products (including containerized grain) which is destined for Pacific Rim customers. Comparing trains to barges along the Snake and Columbia is like watching the race between the tortoise and the hare, especially if you watch how long it takes a barge/tow to navigate each of the dam locks. But in the end, the barge comes out the winner from a price, fuel efficiency, and emissions standpoint according to published data. Tidewater, a major player in Snake/Columbia barge service, says they can float goods at an average 514 ton-miles per gallon of fuel, compared with trains at 202-ton miles per gallon, and trucks at 59-ton miles per gallon. I don't know if Tidewater derived these figures from actual local barge, rail, and truck operations or just pulled them from a generic nationwide source. When I have time, I'll plow through my files of Northwest transportation studies and see if there are locally-generated statistics which differ widely from the above.
  •   Most grain moves 'down stream' on the Mississippi.  Coal/Salt/Chemicals do get moved 'up stream'.  Barge operation can be very fuel efficient, and I suspect that even going against the current, it is cheaper to use a barge operation.  I see a lot of grain loaded at Winona, MN and barged south for export.

      However, barge operation has some severe limitations:

    • Weather - The Upper Missisppi does freeze over between late November and March/April
    • Low Water - a good head of water is needed in the pools above the lock & dams so that barges can be locked through.  Droughts do not help.
    • The river does not go everywhere.  Railroads tracks can be built to areas where there is not a navigation channel.  Building canals is very expensive.

    Jim

     

    Modeling BNSF  and Milwaukee Road in SW Wisconsin

  • I appreciate your thorough replies and additional insight.  I gather that it is correct that most river freight travels downstream, but the responses above are not definitive on whether this has much impact on fuel efficiency. 

    I don't mean to re-kindle the 150-year-old war between trains and barges, but I have some problems with the title proclaiming that trains are not the champion of fuel efficiency; mostly because (as is stated above) barges are extremely limited in their geographical flexibility.  Yet as Don Phillips mentions in his concluding paragraph, fuel efficiency is not an overwhelming concern of the barge operators; they could re-engine and improve.  Likewise for trains, there are many efficiency innovations (such as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes) which are not economical now due to the relatively low cost of fuel.

    "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." (President Obama quotes Daniel Burnham in announcing support for high-speed rail)

  • It has to have at least some impact on fuel efficiency, not unlike flying with or against the jet stream.  Since it is not a major concern for barge operators, they probably have never bothered to measure it.

     

    John Timm

     

     

  •  They should have specified that trains are the most fuel efficient on land.  If you want water sailing ships beat barges.  Not to speedy though.

  • The Trains MPG table is as far as I can tell not correct.   The first problem is that it uses miles per gallon, which is about as useful for vehicles as diverse as a train, a truck, and a barge as trying to say say  "blue is better than orange which is better than yellow."

    "Gallons" are not equivalent because water, truck, and rail transportation are not burning exactly the same fuel.  "Miles" is meaningless because the carrying capacity of a train, truck, or barge can vary by several orders of magnitude not only within their classes but between them.  A more meaningful measure is BTUs per ton/mile, which cancels out variations between fuel grades, and by using the ton-mile gets at a definition of transportation work output.  Miles per gallon is not a viable definition of work output unless the vehicles are all essentially doing the same amount of work.

    The best source data is the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Transportation Energy Data Book.  It's most recent data is for 2005, when it found that BTUs per ton-mile, net weight of cargo:

    1. 898 - heavy truck loaded to 80,000 lbs
    2. 514 - waterborne domestic commerce
    3. 337 - rail

    A little bit different than the Trains pie chart!

    In some selected tug-barge operations, BTU per ton/mile is significantly lower than 514.  That's very helpful if one wants to narrow the comparison to just that particular transportation corridor, but for a national policy that type of analysis is the kind of cherrypicking that will make people mad enough to sue you, particularly if the very good local number for one mode is compared to the not-so-good national number for another mode.

    EIA itself notes, "Great care should be taken when comparing modal energy intensity data among modes.  Because of the inherent differences between the transportation modes in the nature of services, routes available, and many additional factors, it is not possible to obtain truly comparable national energy intensities among modes." 

    (Like that will make the liars stop lying.)

    RWM

  • I don't have facts and figures like Railway Man, but I did work in the local steel mills in the Pittsburgh region. The main reason that the area was the steel capital of the world in it's heyday, was the diversity of the modes of shipping. The absolute cheapest way to  ship coal was by barge. The cheapest way to get iron ore was by laker (Great Lakes). The cheapest way to ship steel products was by rail and over the highway if not served by the rail. There was a rhyme and reason for all the steel mills being located on a river. If you can get the info (official guide) you will note that USS owned a lot of rail that accessed the Great Lakes and the major rivers. In the Pittsburgh area they had the big U (Union RR), B&LE,  McKeesport Connecting, and others in other important areas like Chicago and Indiana, C&EI, EJ&E (I think). The majority of the barges carried coal or coke. I'm going by memory on some of this, overall, the rivers were very important to that industry. Due to the affluent that the mills put out, very few of the rivers froze over, hence there was 24/7 365 days of river traffic. I remember the Mon River freezing over for the first time in my life in late 1960's. Now that the mills are gone, it happens to freeze every year now. Hope this helps.

    Thanks, Jim

  • The fact that the barge routes are often more circuitous than the rail routes needs to be brought in to this.  As an example, the Mississippi River mileage from Minneapolis to Memphis is 1,084.

    http://www2.mvr.usace.army.mil/NIC2/Documents/MissRiver/App-B-01.pdf

    The directly competitive BNSF miles are only 915.  A barge MAY get better per mile fuel economy but it often has to go more miles.  In the cited example, 18.5% more miles.

    As to barges being cheaper, their competitive position vis a vis rail has erroded in recent years.  Adances in rail operations, such as DPU, have not been matched on the rivers.  Barges have also lost at least some of their taxpayer supported free ride.  They now have to pay at least some user fees for the Federal maintenance of the river channels.  Barges also lost the regulatory protection under which the Federal government held rail rates high in order to put the freight on the rivers.  These factors have resulted in a decline in river tonnage.

     

    "By many measures, the U.S. freight rail system is the safest, most efficient and cost effective in the world." - Federal Railroad Administration, October, 2009. I'm just your average, everyday, uncivilized howling "anti-government" critic of mass government expenditures for "High Speed Rail" in the US. And I'm gosh darn proud of that.
  • Railway Man

    "Gallons" are not equivalent because water, truck, and rail transportation are not burning exactly the same fuel.  RWM

    You lost me. All towboats, at least the ones on the Upper Mississippi, locomotives and heavy trucks use diesel fuel. By "Not Exactly" do you mean a small difference?
  • spokyone

    Railway Man

    "Gallons" are not equivalent because water, truck, and rail transportation are not burning exactly the same fuel.  RWM

    You lost me. All towboats, at least the ones on the Upper Mississippi, locomotives and heavy trucks use diesel fuel. By "Not Exactly" do you mean a small difference?

    If by "small" you would accept a 20% difference, then yes, 20% is small.  Diesel fuel is a mixture of molecules and there is no hard and fast definition of which molecules are present in which quantity.  BTU/gallon can range from as low as 125,000 BTU/gallon to more than 150,000 BTU/gallon.  #1 is lower in BTU, #2 higher, #4 highest.  Railroads because they're buying in large quantities and purchasing by pipeline or tankcar can and do specify a very different value than what the truck obtains at the gas station, to obtain better economy in the purchase and in the results.  Tugs can often fuel directly from bulk fuel terminals and similarly can burn significantly different grades than what the truck burns.

    RWM

  • Barges and the RR's for YEARS have been able to burn HIGH SULPHUR #2-4 Diesel Fuel.  However the OTR trucking Industry has had to put up with the EPA going sorry you have to comply with emmisions standards that removed 90% of the sulphur and made their fuel cost more and also led to more breakdowns from the motors.  Now in 2009 the EPA made the RR's and Barges burn the same lower Sulphur fuel the truckers have for YEARS and EMD and E fuel systems are going WTF is this crap and they are not happy with this and breaking down more.  That is why your seeing more engines fail on the road. 

     

    Low sulphur fuel causes the engines to fail since the enigines lose the thin film of OIL that lubricates the top of the clyinder when the piston rings are at.  Lose that and look out. 

    Always at war with those that think OTR trucking is EASY.
  •  We must also admit that rail routes can often be more circuitous than highway routes, since highway transport can take advantage of a road network available to them without regard for economics.  Rail routes are dependent on lines with enough traffic to sustain operation which is why so many secondary lines and links have disappeared.

    Are the figures for rail only for over-the-road movements, or do they also include yard operations?  A hopper in a dedicated unit train will not require the extra terminal handling that a loose car will need through the various legs of a trip.  The commodities handled by barges are mostly comparable to unit train operation so that would be the closest comparison.

    Another factor affecting energy efficiency is velocity, and in general trains travel faster than barges.  This may not have any significant effect though.

    Just a few of my thoughts.

     John

     

    greyhounds

    The fact that the barge routes are often more circuitous than the rail routes needs to be brought in to this.  As an example, the Mississippi River mileage from Minneapolis to Memphis is 1,084.

    http://www2.mvr.usace.army.mil/NIC2/Documents/MissRiver/App-B-01.pdf

    The directly competitive BNSF miles are only 915.  A barge MAY get better per mile fuel economy but it often has to go more miles.  In the cited example, 18.5% more miles.

    As to barges being cheaper, their competitive position vis a vis rail has erroded in recent years.  Adances in rail operations, such as DPU, have not been matched on the rivers.  Barges have also lost at least some of their taxpayer supported free ride.  They now have to pay at least some user fees for the Federal maintenance of the river channels.  Barges also lost the regulatory protection under which the Federal government held rail rates high in order to put the freight on the rivers.  These factors have resulted in a decline in river tonnage.

     

     
  • cx500

     We must also admit that rail routes can often be more circuitous than highway routes, since highway transport can take advantage of a road network available to them without regard for economics.  Rail routes are dependent on lines with enough traffic to sustain operation which is why so many secondary lines and links have disappeared.

    Are the figures for rail only for over-the-road movements, or do they also include yard operations?  A hopper in a dedicated unit train will not require the extra terminal handling that a loose car will need through the various legs of a trip.  The commodities handled by barges are mostly comparable to unit train operation so that would be the closest comparison.

    Another factor affecting energy efficiency is velocity, and in general trains travel faster than barges.  This may not have any significant effect though.

    Just a few of my thoughts.

     John


    The EIA numbers are an average for the entire mode.  In other words, rail includes all the trains, revenue moves, deadhead moves, nonrevenue moves, yard goats, switch engines to spot the cars, helpers, work train locomotives, etc.  Water includes all the ships and all the tugboats necessary to dock the ship.  Truck includes all the city trucks to pick up the LTL load, the yard goats to hostle the trailers around the terminal, and the line-haul moves, plus all the deadhead moves. 

    While averages might not tell you much about a specific head-to-head corridor or a specific portion of a move, I'd much rather use a modal average than some cherrypicked best-case example, because we know it will be broadly applicable over most of the cases most of the places most of the time.  Who cares if the barge can get an instantaneous result better than a train?  Maybe only in one specific market for one specific commodity on one specific movement.  What matters is the total system efficiency.  That's what the pricing and environmental law and the public policy is going to be based on.  So when you see water with a 52% disadvantage over rail, and truck with a 6,900% disadvantage, you can be assured that it's going to be extremely difficult for those modes to dig out of that fuel efficiency deficit.

    Let me add that Greyhounds cited a very important point that is lost on almost everyone:  rail has been achieving a 1.1% average fuel efficiency improvement every year since 1996.  In the same period, truck efficiency decreased by an average 0.5% per year and water decreased by 2.1% per year!  Those are horrible trends if you are a trucker or a water operator. And as fuel prices climb, that is deep deep trouble.

    RWM