By providing safe and efficient transportation for nearly every industrial, wholesale, retail and resource-based sector of the economy, freight railroads play a fundamental role in America’s economic growth and high quality of life.
America’s freight rail industry is one of the most cost-effective and efficient transportation networks in the world. Fueled by billions of dollars in annual private investment — $25 billion on average — railroads maintain and modernize the nation’s nearly 140,000-mile private rail network to deliver for America.
In 2017, Class I railroads’ operations and capital investments supported over 1.1 million jobs, $219.5 billion in economic output and $71.3 billion in wages, while creating nearly $26 billion in total tax revenues. One job in the rail sector supports eight others across the economy.
The U.S. freight rail network is the safest in the world and railroads continue striving towards an accident-free future. Railroads train 20,000 first responders annually and more than 99.999% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by an incident.
Innovative technologies like ultrasound and drones allow railroads to inspect infrastructure and equipment with greater precision and frequency. America’s freight railroads are on track to meet all PTC deadlines.
As the most sustainable way to move goods over land, a freight train, on average, moves one ton of freight more than 470 miles on one gallon of fuel. Moving goods by rail instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%, on average.
Global commerce is tied to 42% of rail traffic and 50,000 domestic rail jobs, worth $5.5 billion in annual wages and benefits. Railroads haul roughly 33% of U.S. exports, allowing U.S. industries to compete abroad and provide consumers access to a greater variety of goods.
Freight railroads employed roughly 150,000 people — the vast majority of whom are unionized. Class I freight rail employees earn about $130,200 per year in wages and benefits.
To continue the safe and efficient operations that drive America forward, railroads must have smart policies that allow them to invest, innovate and compete.
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.
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 $447 million in annual revenue. These are the long-haulers of the railroad world, accounting for nearly 69% 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.
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 efficiently, safely and cleanly. A host of innovations, such as drones and a nationwide network of wayside detectors using technology like radar and ultrasound, allow railroads to evaluate infrastructure conditions and inspect equipment with greater precision and frequency. This means railroads can identify problems before they arise.
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 stop a train under certain circumstances, will address a leading factor in train accidents: human error. As of January 2020, the nation’s largest freight railroads are operating PTC across the vast majority — 98.5% — of the required Class I PTC route miles nationwide. 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.
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.
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.
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 $130,200 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 20% of current employees veterans.
Canadian National Railway
Canadian Pacific Railway
Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec
Florida East Coast Railway
Genesee & Wyoming
The Indiana Rail Road Company
Kansas City Southern Lines
Pan Am Railways
Vermont Rail System
Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway