Key Takeaways:

  • Railroads are critical to the nation’s food security because they transport the food we eat as well as the feed for livestock.
  • In 2016, U.S. Class I railroads moved 1.54 million carloads of food products (5.6% of total carloads) carrying 98.8 million tons (6.5% of total tons) and earning gross revenue of $5.6 billion (8.6% of total revenue).
  • Railroads help feed the nation. They are an essential player in the transportation of huge amounts of canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, corn and soybean oil, frozen chickens, sugar, beer and wine, pasta and much more.

Perishable Products

Refrigeration cars (also known as “reefers”) allow the transportation of perishable food products. Refrigeration technology has continued to evolve and cryogenic refrigeration equipment is now common.

In recent years, rail service and operations improvements have allowed railroads to expand their market share of perishable goods.

For example, railroads have introduced state-of-the-art technologies into refrigerated cars, allowing cold food processors and distribution warehouses the ability to reduce emissions while maintaining efficiency.

Non-perishable Goods

Railroads also carry non-perishable food items, such as corn syrup, flour, pasta and canned goods. In fact, approximately 258,000 loaves of bread can be made from a single railcar of flour. Each year, railroads carry tens of thousands of carloads of flour that end up in bakeries all across the country.

But railroads don’t just carry food products destined for human consumption. Each year, railroads transport several hundred thousand carloads of soybean meal, distiller’s dried grains and other types of animal feed and pet food — they even carry birdseed.

Towson University noted in a wide-ranging assessment that “from raw materials to final consumer goods, the production of agricultural products requires transportation at every stage, making Class I railroads a vital component of the commodity flow process.”

The Effect of International Trade

Railroads and farmers link America to much of the world — particularly Canada and Mexico. One in every 10 planted acres feeds people of these countries. Much of this impact is due to railroads’ scale of operations; one railcar can haul enough wheat for 258,000 loaves of bread, enough soybeans for 415,000 pounds of tofu or enough barley for 94,000 gallons of beer. The freight rail network is deeply entrenched in a national supply chain created in large part by the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

For example, trains move chemicals from Canada to Florida, where they are used to create agricultural fertilizers. Railroads will then move the fertilizers to the U.S. heartland where America’s farmers will use them to grow their crops. Farmers will then send the food products by rail to ports for sale on the global market. A dinner in Mexico is made possible, in part, by the very train cars that started in Canada.