Last Updated: August 2021
There is a lot to know about America’s critical freight rail network. For in-depth information, check out our Railroad 101 page or our fact sheets. For just the facts and figures at-a-glance, take a look below.
On This Page
- From 1980 to 2020, America’s freight railroads, the vast majority of which are privately owned, spent approximately $740 billion — averaging nearly $25 billion a year over the past five years (or roughly $70 million a day) — on capital expenditures and maintenance expenses related to locomotives, freight cars, tracks, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure and equipment.
- In the last 10 years, U.S. Class I railroads have spent more than $250 billion on infrastructure and equipment and have laid more than six million tons of new rail.
- The average U.S. manufacturer historically spends about 3% of revenue on capital expenditures. The comparable figure for U.S. freight railroads in recent years has been around 19%, or six times higher.
- More than 99.99% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.
- Recent years have been among the safest for the industry. Since 2000, train accident and hazmat accident rates are down 33% and 64%, respectively, while the rail employee injury rate in 2020 was an all-time low.
- Grade crossing collisions are down 46% between 2000 and 2020.
- Freight railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume (measured by ton-miles) — more than any other mode of transportation. However, they account for just 0.5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions according to EPA data, and just 1.9% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.
- Railroads are the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land, moving one ton of freight more than 480 miles per gallon of fuel, on average.
- On average, railroads are three to four times more fuel efficient than trucks. A single freight train can replace several hundred trucks.
- Greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to fuel consumption. That means moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%, on average.
- AAR analysis of federal data finds: If 25% of the truck traffic moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, annual greenhouse gas emissions would fall by approximately 13.1 million tons; If 50% of the truck traffic moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by approximately 26.2 million tons.
- If 10% of the freight shipped by the largest trucks were moved by rail instead, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by more than 17 million tons annually. That’s the equivalent of removing 3.4 million cars from our highways or planting 262 million trees.
- In 2020 alone, U.S. freight railroads consumed 675 million fewer gallons of fuel and emitted six million fewer tons of carbon dioxide than they would have if their fuel efficiency had remained constant since 2000.
- Freight railroads have approximately 135,000 employees, with the seven Class I railroads employing around 120,000 of those skilled workers.
- In 2020, the average U.S. Class I freight rail employee earned wages of $95,700 and fringe benefits of $40,000, for total compensation of $135,700. By contrast, the average wage per full-time equivalent U.S. employee in 2020 was $71,000 (just 74% of the rail figure) and average total compensation was $87,000 (64% of the rail figure).
- Rail industry employees are covered by the Railroad Retirement System, which is funded by railroads and their employees. In fiscal year 2019, more than 500,000 beneficiaries received retirement and survivor benefits totaling $ 13 billion from the system.
- Towson University finds that Class I railroads’ operations and capital investment supported over 1.1 million jobs, $219.5 billion in economic output and $71.3 billion in wages in 2017 alone.
- Around 1/3 of U.S. exports move by rail.
- AAR analysis of 2014 data (the most recent available) shows that international trade accounted for approximately 35% of U.S. rail revenue, 27% of U.S. rail tonnage, and 42% of the carloads and intermodal units U.S. railroads carried. And approximately 40,000 rail jobs, worth approximately $4.4 billion in annual wages and benefits, depended directly on international trade.
- The interconnected freight rail network includes seven Class I railroads (railroads with 2019 revenue of at least $505 million) and approximately 630 short line railroads (Class II and III). Shortlines operate over approximately 45,000 route miles in 49 states while Class I railroads operate over approximately 92,000 route miles in 47 states. Class I railroads account for around 68% of freight rail mileage, 88% of employees and 94% of revenue.
- Approximately 70% of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by freight railroads.
- Freight rail is part of an integrated network of trains, trucks and barges that ships around 61 tons of goods per American every year.
- Freight rail accounts for around 40% of long distance ton-miles (measured by ton-miles) — more than any other mode of transportation.
- The Federal Highway Administration forecasts that total U.S. freight shipments will rise from an estimated 18.6 billion tons in 2018 to 24.1 billion tons in 2040 — a 30% increase.
- Since the Staggers Act was passed in 1980, average rail rates adjusted for inflation have fallen 44%. This means the average rail shipper can move much more freight for about the same price it paid more than 40 years ago.
- In a typical year, freight railroads haul around 1.7 billion tons of raw materials and finished goods. Redesigned railcars have helped increase average tonnage. In 2020, the average freight train carried 3,817 tons, up from 2,923 tons in 2000.
- Agricultural & Food Products: Freight railroads some 1.6 million carloads of food products and around 1.6 million carloads of grain and other farm products in a typical year. Agricultural and food products include wheat, corn, soybeans, animal feed, beer, birdseed, canned produce, corn syrup, flour, frozen chickens, sugar, wine and countless other food products. Railroads typically originate roughly 60,000 carloads of food and agricultural products per week.
- Chemicals: Freight railroads moved 2.1 million carloads of plastics, fertilizers and other chemicals in 2020. Chemicals help clean our water, fertilize our farms, package our food, build our cars and homes, protect our health, and enhance our well-being in thousands of other ways.
- Coal: Freight railroads moved three million carloads of coal in 2020. While rail coal volumes have declined in recent years, railroads account for around 70% of U.S. coal deliveries to power plants.
- Construction: Freight railroads move around two million carloads of construction-related materials in a typical year. One rail car to carry as much crushed stone, sand and gravel as five trucks.
- Crude Oil: In 2020, U.S. Class I railroads terminated 236,069 carloads of crude oil.
- Intermodal: In 2020, U.S. rail intermodal volume was 13.5 million units and intermodal accounted for approximately 25% of revenue for major U.S. railroads, more than any other single commodity group. It’s been the fastest growing major rail traffic segment over the past 25 years and set a new annual volume record in October 2020. Around half of rail intermodal volume consists of imports or exports, reflecting the vital role intermodal plays in international trade.
- Motor Vehicles & Parts: Freight railroads carry 1.8 million carloads in a typical year. With a single train capable of carrying hundreds of cars, freight rail transports around 75% of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S.
- Paper & Lumber: Freight railroads moved 1.1 million carloads of lumber and paper products in 2020. Paper and lumber include wood to build homes, newsprint and magazine paper and cardboard for packaging. Railroads also haul tens of thousands of carloads of recycled paper and cardboard each year.