America’s integrated transportation network of trains, trucks and barges carries 61 tons of goods and commodities for every American in a single year.
This staggering haul contains the raw materials and finished products that are essential to the nation’s modern economy and our way of life: from the steel that frames our skyscrapers to the grain that feeds the world.
Freight rail serves a unique and integral role in this transportation network. When shippers need to go big, rail is ready. To see an example of this, simply head over to your local car dealer or scan the many vehicles — cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans in every color, shape and size — on any highway or street. Each one has been designed by auto manufacturers to meet any driver’s taste and any family’s needs.
Freight railroads are part of every production stage of an automobile.
Railroads have played a crucial role in America’s auto industry since the earliest Model T rolled off the assembly line. Each year, freight rail moves nearly 75% of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S. Despite the pandemic, in 2020, automakers sold 14 million cars and light trucks in the United States, an achievement made possible in part by freight railroads.
Long before a finished car hits the road, it begins as raw materials — plastic, metals and sheets of glass — which railroads move to manufacturers to be turned into the roughly 30,000 individual parts of a car, from bolts to dashboards. Railroads then move these auto parts to vehicle assembly plants before finally transporting the finished vehicles across North America.
In fact, a single train can move hundreds of vehicles at once. In a typical year, U.S. Class I railroads carry 1.8 million carloads of motor vehicles and parts. Railroads also transport the biggest and heaviest auto parts, including car frames, engines, transmissions and axles. Additionally, they carry imported car parts — big and small — from ports like Charleston, South Carolina, to inland assembly plants.
Railroads spend billions of dollars to meet the rapidly changing needs of America’s auto industry.
Railroads privately spend an average of well above $20 billion annually to maintain and modernize their nearly 140,000-mile rail network to meet their customers’ transportation needs.
As auto manufacturers opened new plants in states like Georgia, Kentucky and California, railroads laid new track in and out of plants and built specialized rail yards to enhance productivity. Design modifications to rail equipment used to move automobiles have allowed automakers to ship more cars at once, new routes have reduced shipping times, and special handling protocols at rail yards have made the journey smoother than ever before.
Investments in new technologies also help railroads keep pace with changing customer needs. Freight rail mobile apps efficiently track shipments, while predictive analytics give customers improved delivery windows so they can more effectively manage their daily operations.
Trade directly impacts freight rail and automotives.
International trade has benefited the U.S. economy. When U.S. companies — such as freight rail customers — have access to global markets, businesses and customers, Americans gain access to a greater variety of goods at a lower cost. In 2019, U.S. companies exported more than $52.3 billion in autos and auto parts to Canada and more than $36 billion in U.S. parts to Mexico.