Freight Rail Works for America

Freight rail is the engine that moves America. It connects thousands of American communities to the global economy while helping to ease highway congestion, save energy and reduce carbon emissions.

Take a quick primer on the world's most efficient and cost-effective freight rail system.

Private Rail Network

America boasts nearly 140,000 rail miles. They are operated and maintained by more than 560 private railroads, which typically own their own tracks and locomotives.

Types of Railroads

American railroads deliver 5 million tons of goods, on average, to ports, distribution centers, businesses and more — every single day. Passenger cars move along America’s freight rail network, too. It takes a mix of types of railroads to get the job done.

Class I

America’s seven class I railroads operate in 44 states and the District of Columbia, employ 90% of U.S. railroad workers and bring in more than $453 million in annual revenue. These are the long-haulers of the railroad world, accounting for nearly 70% of the industry’s mileage.

Short Line and Regional

31% of U.S. freight rail mileage moves along America’s 560 short line and regional railroads, which receive traffic from Class I railroads for final delivery. Some are small operators handling a few carloads a month. Others cross state lines and approach class I size. Short line and regional railroads operate in every state except Hawaii and employ 10% of U.S. railroad workers.

Switching and Terminal

Many ports and industrial areas include their own small railroads that pick up and deliver goods. This type of railroad also moves traffic between other, larger railroads.


If you’ve ever traveled between cities on Amtrak or been one of the hundreds of millions of people to work by commuter rail each year, you very likely were carried along tracks or right-of-way owned by freight railroads. Approximately 70% of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by freight railroads.

What We Haul

Each year, the nation's integrated transportation network of trains, trucks and barges efficiently delivers 54 tons of goods for every American. As the heavy hauler, freight rail plays an essential role. Rail's economy of scale ensures that businesses are competitive in the global economy and that consumers have an abundance of options at the store.
  • Food & Farm Products

    Railroads and farmers have a relationship extending back nearly 200 years when railroads became the critical link between rural farms and emerging urban centers in an increasingly industrialized country. Today, that continued partnership is responsible for delivering much of the food found on dinner tables across the country and around the world, from farm-fresh produce and frozen foods to canned goods and pet food.
  • Construction

    America’s freight railroads play a critical role in the nation’s ability to build, transporting about 1.5 million carloads of construction materials each year. In 2015, that total included 194,000 carloads of cement, 755,000 carloads of crushed and broken stone, 241,000 carloads of lumber and wood products, and 489,000 carloads of construction steel.
  • Automotive

    For the automotive industry, railroads deliver it all, from the raw material used to construct auto parts to large parts only rail can move to finished vehicles. Railroads haul some 43.5 million tons of basic steel products a year, move nearly 75% of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S., and serve a majority of the 70-plus automobile manufacturing plants across North America.
  • Energy Products

    The nation’s first major railroad transported coal from Western Maryland and Virginia to Baltimore, the initial “big haul” of the industry. Today, railroads haul nearly 70% of American coal to its destination and move 60% to 70% of ethanol transported in America. Freight rail also carries much of the nation’s growing volumes of crude oil, under rules as rigorous as those governing the transport of hazardous materials.
  • Intermodal

    Rail intermodal — the transportation of shipping containers and truck trailers by rail — allows railroads to provide their customers cost-effective, environmentally friendly service for almost anything that can be loaded into a truck or a container. In 2015, American railroads handled 15.3 million containers and 1.5 million trailers carrying everything from from bananas and beverages to clothing and sporting goods to home appliances and tires.
  • Chemicals

    The category “chemicals” consists of thousands of distinct products and includes plastics, synthetic fibers, drugs, soaps, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. In 2016, freight railroads moved 174.4 million tons of chemicals. From drugs to fertilizers to plastics to soaps to substances used to make paper and keep drinking water clean, railroads safely transport one-fifth of all chemicals in the U.S.


Thanks to steady, substantial spending on infrastructure, equipment and technology — $100 billion over the last four years alone — America’s freight railroads move more freight more efficiently, safely and cleanly than ever before.

Positive Train Control

What is the future of freight rail technology? Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is a set of highly advanced technologies designed to automatically slow or stop a train under certain circumstances, will address a leading factor in train accidents: human error. By December 31, 2018, first generation PTC will operate on approximately 80% of the required Class I rail network, well beyond the amount mandated by the federal government. The system will be fully active and interoperable by 2020. This technology will serve as the foundation for future innovation to enhance the safety and efficiency of the network.


Railroads are taking to the skies and mastering technologies once found only in the pages of science fiction novels. Railroads use drones to inspect bridges and other areas of their network that are difficult for employees to safely reach. Today, Class I railroads across the nation are deploying drones for a variety of safety and environmental purposes. In remote areas, drones are exploring thousands of miles of track to ensure that freight trains continue to safely traverse unforgiving terrain. Railroads also use drones to inspect bridges.

Ultrasound & Radar

Tracks, rail ties and ballast (the stone bed tracks rest on) are the foundation of the private, 140,000-mile rail network. Together, they must support 6,600-ton trains as they move across the country. Tiny flaws imperceptible to the human eye can lead to accidents, so railroads rely on technology, such as ultrasound and radar, to look deep inside a track. Radar allows employees to peer into a track while ground-penetrating electromagnetic radar detects any abnormalities in ballast. Railroads use this data to proactively schedule preventive maintenance, helping to keep small issues from becoming big problems. Thanks in large part to technologies such as these, mainline track-caused accidents have dropped 54% since 2008

Machine Visioning

Can you imagine taking thousands of images in one second? That’s something railroads do every day with trackside machine visioning technology, which captures 50,000 images per second of nearly every component on a passing train. Specialized software analyzes the images in real-time and alerts rail personnel to anomalies that require attention.

Recently a team of researchers at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a technology subsidiary of AAR, developed an advanced machine visioning system that can inspect ballast, the rock foundation tracks sit on. The current process is slow and labor-intensive, but with this new iteration of machine visioning, railroads will be able to perform evaluations quicker and identify potential problems sooner.

Data Analytics

Using a combination of smart sensors, industry-wide data sharing and advanced analytics software, railroads monitor the health of the network and equipment in real-time. For example, thousands of smart sensors, known as wayside detectors, positioned along rail track throughout the country, monitor the integrity of railcars as they move at up to 60 MPH. Using a host of technologies, such as infrared and X-ray, the sensors assess the health of bearings, axles, wheels, springs and other equipment components in real-time. This information allows railroads to react quickly, preventing bigger repairs and even accidents.

Preventive maintenance also allows railroads to schedule repairs and fixes at optimal times and places, so trains stay as close to schedule as possible. And with fewer breakdowns, more trains are out on the tracks delivering goods and raw materials, instead of in the rail yard waiting for repair.


The jobs that support railroads are wide-ranging: from engineering and dispatching to law enforcement and information technology to industrial development and more. These highly skilled professionals average $120,900 per year in compensation, including benefits. They tend to spend their entire careers in the industry, and many have family railroad legacies stretching back generations. Railroads are also military-friendly employers, with nearly 25% of current employees veterans.


Railway suppliers play a critical role in keeping freight rail safe and efficient. Suppliers across the nation provide complex communications and signaling systems, mechanical and maintenance equipment, railcars, locomotives and all the components necessary to keep U.S. freight railroads moving across their private 140,000-mile network. America’s railway suppliers include large and small manufacturers and represent a $28 billion a year industry that supports more than 100,000 American workers.

Railroad History