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Thankful Thursday XXII – Trains… A Nature Lover’s Best Friend?

This “Thankful Thursday” is a Friday as it turns out. Either way, I’m thankful for trains.

Now as many of you know, I grew up like many little boys, living near a busy rail line, watching the big, colorful, loud trains rumble by with fascination. And of course, I had a model train set and my dad and I periodically worked away on a table in the “spare room,” putting together a layout that never really was fully realized. But we had fun together.

Later on, living not far outside Toronto, the easy and fast way into the downtown was by the GO Train, a commuter rail line that served the various suburbs and brought people downtown, right by the offices, Eaton Centre mall and the baseball stadium, and pretty much everything else in the city center. The commute was far less stressful than trying to drive through the gridlocked highways and was at times quite fun. A stretch of the run ran alongside the lake, atop the “bluffs”, affording great views of the lake below on one side, the glittering skyline on the other. I even took a longer train ride to visit a girlfriend on the East Coast in the ’80s…it took about two days to get there (compared to maybe half a day by plane, given the time in airports ) but it was fun. Sleeping in one of those little berths that fold up in the daytime, eating in the dining car… kind of a Canuck version of The City of New Orleans.

I still like watching trains go by, but I’m thankful for them for a bigger reason than that. I also love nature and am an environmentalist, and trains really help us preserve our natural resources and keep the environment clean. A hard thing to believe when you see clouds of black smoke puffing out of a diesel locomotive struggling to get going, but true nonetheless.

Trains burn a lot of diesel fuel, it’s true. But the important point is they burn a lot less fuel than trucks, let alone planes, do. It makes sense when you stop and look. A regular Class I (that is mainline, intercity) freight train usually has over 100 cars behind it. Coal hoppers, 80+ foot long auto racks carrying new cars and trucks, tankers, 50′ boxcars, flat cars stacked up with containers from overseas. And these days, they’re usually pulled by just two big locomotives. A tractor trailer, by comparison, obviously pulls just one “freight car”, usually 53′ in length behind it. Ergo, each big freight train is equivalent to over a hundred trucks. And there is their greatness. Not only do they keep our already over-crowded highways less congested, making all our drives a bit quicker and safer, they also do so using a lot less fossil fuel.

Now getting accurate figures for fuel use by either trucks or trains is notoriously difficult, and inexact. The weight of the load, whether they’re on a flat road or a grade, the temperature, all play into the equation. But in general, a Peterbilt 379, one of the most popular trucks of the past decade, gets about 4 mpg pulling a trailer, according to drivers themselves. A newer Peterbilt was recently tested at over 10 mpg – not bad at all as a minivan we had averaged only 15! – but that was under test conditions, barreling along by itself, without a payload to haul.

Compare that to a new locomotive. The SD70ace is perhaps the most ubiquitous locomotive this century. It packs 4300 horsepower, and can theoretically pull 200 loaded freight cars by itself … although rail crews point out, it would have a heck of a hard time getting going from a stop with that much behind it. Typically they pull about 50 to 60 cars (hence the multiple engines afront a long train.) And pulling a fully loaded coal train, engineers report they get about a third of a mile per gallon. 0.3 mpg! Not good… except when one considers that is doing what 130 trucks would be needed to do otherwise. On average, the U.S. government rate trains as the most efficient way of moving heavy loads… about seven times less fuel used per ton than trucks in fact, and an absurd 70 times better than planes.

So, next time you’re stuck in traffic, waiting to go and counting those Railboxes roll by, don’t be impatient. Be grateful. That train is making our air a little cleaner and our oil supply last a little longer.

6 Replies to “Thankful Thursday XXII – Trains… A Nature Lover’s Best Friend?”

  1. Very helpful information. I wonder how commuter trains carrying hundreds vs. hundreds of individuals in their automobiles would compare. If Toronto can do it with its heavy winters then why can’t the US do it? I would love to hop on a train to get where I needed to go instead of driving. My car costs me a fortune in payment, insurance, fuel, maintenance, etc, not to mention the cost to the environment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. People commuting by themselves by car has to be one of the, probably the least efficient or environmentally-friendly way for getting around. Canada lags behind Europe for public transit, but in general the U.S. is far behind Canada… a few cities do well, from what I know, NYC, Chicago, some of the more liberal western one like Portland, but in general no. The culture is far too car-oriented for it to really take off I guess. The Toronto system (the city itself also has a pretty good subway through the downtown, with arms running east and west to the city edges as well as buses, of course) isn’t perfect… rushhour trains are often really crowded, and I have been on ones in winter on very cold days where it stops because a switch is frozen and they have to get crew to dethaw it, but it works pretty well. And for all the delays or inconveniences, driving has just as many or more, with accidents slowing things down and roadwork closing lanes and all that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wish trains would be more available. I would gladly travel…lets say to Florida on vacation on one and rent a car when I get there…if they were available to there.
    I’ve always wanted to take a long trip over night on one.
    I just checked and to my surprise…there are trips I can take from Nashville. I’ve always wanted to go to Cooperstown and they do have a train that goes close to that. It takes 33 hours but I would be willing to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. neat! That would be a cool trip, I’m sure… especially if it rolls through the Appalachians in daytime. I still kick myself for not going to BHOF back in 2000 or 2001 when I drove through that little town. I had planned to but got there close to closing time and for whatever reason pushed on rather than finding a motel nearby and going the next morning.

      Liked by 1 person

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