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.