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What We Haul

 What We Haul

What We Haul

Every morning thousands of locomotives across America are powered up to deliver nearly everything America depends on. 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. ​So, the next time you drive your car, fertilize your garden or pour a bowl of cereal, think about the critical role railroad played in delivering it. Learn more about:

Energy Products >

Intermodal >

Chemicals >

Food and Farm Products >

Construction >

Automotive >  

54 Ton Pile Infographic.jpg

 Energy Products

Energy Products

Railroads have helped power America since its earliest days. In fact, the first big haul for America’s first major railroad was transporting coal from Western Maryland and Virginia to the port city of Baltimore. In the years since, railroads’ role in the energy industry has continued to grow. As energy sources and consumption patterns have changed, the freight rail industry has worked diligently to adjust to customer needs and ensure that the commodities that power America continue to move safely and efficiently.


Historically, coal has been the most important single commodity carried by U.S. railroads. Coal replaced wood as a fuel source in the early 1800s because more heat could be generated per pound. Industrialization quickly led to increased demand for coal, but it was low-cost and efficient railroads that truly helped solidify coal’s dominance as a reliable and affordable energy source.​

In recent years, technological advances in natural gas extraction and greater reliance on renewables like wind and solar have led to a sharp decline in coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation—resulting in a decline in the amount of coal moved by railroads. Despite this decline, coal remains an important commodity for railroads and for the broader economy. In 2014, U.S. railroads originated 6.1 million carloads of coal, with each rail car carrying enough coal to power 21 homes for an entire year. In fact, today, railroads haul nearly 70 percent of U.S. coal to its destination—enough to power 78 percent of American homes. Coal also represents $14.3 billion in revenue for U.S. Class I railroads.

Just five states account for nearly 70 percent of U.S. coal production, but coal is consumed all over the country—a feat made possible by freight railroads. Innovative service and aggressive investment programs have enabled railroads to provide efficient and cost-effective transportation to coal shippers throughout the country. Adjusted for inflation, coal rates (measured in revenue per ton-mile) were 42 percent lower in 2013 than in 1981.

Today, the vast majority of coal is used to generate electricity, but it is also used in steelmaking, cement manufacturing and other industrial applications. U.S. coal is also exported to markets abroad. Approximately 10 percent of U.S. coal is exported to Europe, China and India, more than double the amount exported in 2007.     

Crude Oil

Over the past few years, technological advances have led to a surge in U.S. crude oil production, moving the United States towards greater energy independence for the first time in decades. This energy renaissance is strengthening the nation's economy, revitalizing its manufacturing sector, creating jobs and weaning the U.S. off imported oil from unstable sources.

Learn more about crude oil by rail >



Ethanol—a renewable fuel made from corn and other plant materials—is an important commodity for U.S. railroads. The U.S. ethanol industry—and railroad carloads of ethanol—has grown tremendously since methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive, was banned from use in 2006. That, coupled with high oil prices and low corn prices, gave rise to ethanol’s replacement of MTBE as a fuel additive. Since that time, government policies requiring the use of renewable and biofuels has only strengthened the demand for this energy resource.

Because of its alcohol content, ethanol cannot move in oil pipelines, making railroads the chief mode of transport for this commodity. Today, railroads account for 60 to 70 percent of ethanol movement. Each of the seven U.S. Class I railroads transport ethanol, with some serving several dozen plants. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of ethanol rail movements originate on non-Class I railroads—not surprising, given the rural nature of many short lines and much of America’s ethanol production.

In 2013, U.S. railroads terminated nearly 304,000 carloads of ethanol, up from fewer than 40,000 carloads in 2000, which accounted for 1.0 percent of total rail carloads.

Ethanol production is concentrated in the Midwest where most of the corn used in ethanol production is grown, but many of the major markets for ethanol are on the East Coast, California, and Texas.

Ethanol carried by railroads generally moves in 30,000-gallon tank cars, most of which are owned by shippers or leasing companies, not by railroads. Because ethanol is flammable, railroads have worked diligently with federal regulators to strengthen standards for tank cars carrying this material.





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. Customers receive the flexible service that trucks provide, but at a competitive rate that only rail intermodal can offer. The general public benefits, too, from the reduction in highway congestion and harmful emissions—and from the cut in the cost of moving goods to market.


Freight railroads were investing in intermodal long before the creation of the global economy that we know today. As far back as the early 1900s, railroads were carrying truck trailers on flatbed rail cars, but with the advent of the modern shipping container in the 1950s, the incredible potential of intermodal became apparent.


In fact, rail intermodal has been growing rapidly for many years, and fortunately shows no signs of slowing down. In 2014, North America’s railroads handled a record 17 million containers and trailers, carrying an amazing collection of goods from bananas and beverages, to clothing and shoes and sporting goods, to home appliances and tires—making intermodal the largest broad segment of the railroads’ business. For U.S. railroads, intermodal today accounts for around 21 percent of revenue.


To achieve this growth, America’s railroads have invested heavily to enable themselves to provide the high level of service that customers demand. These investments include:​

  • New and expanded intermodal terminals at ports and inland, using advanced technologies that enable containers to be transferred to and from trucks in minutes;

  • Additional track capacity and advanced signaling systems to allow for faster, more frequent intermodal trains;

  • Bridge and tunnel improvements to accommodate the additional height that doublestack trains require and

  • New locomotives and intermodal flat cars necessary to handle traffic growth.

  • As America’s population and economy grow, intermodal will provide a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to move more and more freight.





    The category “chemicals” consists of thousands of distinct products and includes plastics, synthetic fibers, drugs, soaps, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. Producers and consumers of chemicals require a safe, efficient, and cost-effective national transportation and rail transportation plays a critical role. In 2013, chemicals accounted for 7.5 percent of carloads—third behind coal and intermodal; 9.9 percent of tonnage—second only to coal; and 13.8 percent of gross revenue for U.S. Class I railroads—third behind coal and intermodal.

    Huge volumes of chemicals are transported each year throughout the country, and freight rail provides a cost-effective transportation choice. In 2013, the cost of transporting chemicals by rail was around 1.6 percent of the value of chemical industry shipments excluding pharmaceuticals. If pharmaceuticals were included, that amount would drop to 1.2 percent. For example, trucks accounted for more than half of chemical tonnage shipped and more than two-thirds of chemical transportation costs, while water transport accounted for 22 percent of tonnage and 7 percent of transportation costs. Pipelines and air account for 3 percent to 4 percent of tons and costs.

    Ethanol is the highest-volume chemical carried by U.S. railroads. Well over half of all rail chemical tonnage consists of various industrial chemicals. Plastic materials and synthetic resins account for around 25 percent of rail tonnage. Most of the remaining amount consists of fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals.



     Food and Farm Products

    Food and Farm Products

    Among the silos and through the amber waves of grain runs the track of America’s freight railroads. 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.  



    Corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, rice, rye, sorghum and barley—all considered grains —are used for a variety of purposes ranging from products for human consumption (flour, corn syrup, soybean meal) to animal feed and ethanol production. In 2014, U.S. Class I railroads originated 1.5 million carloads of grain—5 percent of total rail carloads—or 139.6 million tons.

    Because of the size and efficiency of railroads, U.S. farmers are able to affordably ship this grain to markets across the country and around the world, earning the United States the title of world’s top grain producer and exporter.

    While the domestic grain market is generally predictable, many aspects of export markets are extremely volatile. Large fluctuations in U.S. grain production are common from one year to the next due to factors such as weather. U.S. grain exports also fluctuate sharply due to market and regulatory factors including global grain production, exchange rates and crop yields in competing grain exporting countries.

    Despite these complexities, railroads have the agility and flexibility to meet the demand peaks and valleys for this important commodity and are constantly working to improve their service so they can better meet the market demands of their grain customers. Adequate grain car capacity is critical to efficient grain marketing and transportation, which is why railroads work with freight car providers to supply a rail car fleet that is as large as can be justified economically. In recent years, railroads have acquired thousands of new high-capacity covered hoppers for carrying grain and increasingly use highly efficient “shuttle trains” to move high volumes of grain reliably and cost effectively. They have also reinvested record amounts back into their networks to improve service to their grain customers as well as those who share rail infrastructure with grain customers.

    Railroads face strong competition from trucks and barges to carry grain; competition that benefits grain shippers. According to USDA data, the truck share of total U.S. grain transport was 60 percent in 2011 (most recent data available), compared with just 28 percent for railroads and 12 percent for barges. Railroad revenue from grain in 2014 was $5.6 billion— 7 percent of total revenue. Grain is also a key commodity for scores of short line and regional freight railroads.

    In the years to come, railroads will continue to enhance grain operations to ensure U.S. farmers remain competitive in the global economy.​

    Food Products

    America is a growing nation, and railroads help bring all kinds of food to our tables. If it is in your kitchen or in your pantry, there’s a good chance railroads helped get it there. Railroads carry huge amounts of corn syrup, french fries, canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, corn and soybean oil, frozen chickens, sugar, beer and wine, pasta, and much more.

    Specialized equipment, called refrigerator or “reefer” cars, were developed in the late 19th century to allow for rail shipment of perishable goods such as dairy, meat and vegetables. These early cars used ice as a means to cool the cars. However, with the emergence of frozen food in the 1950s, the traditional ice-cooled refrigerator cars were not able to keep these items frozen, thus limiting their effectiveness and the industry’s market share. However, with the advent of mechanical refrigeration, foods were able to be kept cold for longer periods. In recent years, service and operations improvements have allowed railroads to expand their market share of perishable goods. Refrigeration technology has also continued to evolve and cryogenic refrigeration equipment is now common.

    ​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 to bakeries all across the country.

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

    No matter the food product, railroads are committed to serving America’s farmers — and feeding hungry consumers across the country and around the world. 


    Railroads are crucial to nearly every aspect of agriculture, including the movement of products essential to farming such as finished farming equipment and agricultural chemicals.

    In 2015, railroads delivered 16.5 million tons of fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, including large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, potassium compounds, and urea. They also carry millions of tons of raw materials used to produce fertilizer each year, including phosphate rock, crude potash, and sulphur.

    Railroads are the safest and most efficient way to transport fertilizer, a subset of chemicals which are sometimes classified as hazardous. One rail tank car of anhydrous ammonia, for example, carries the equivalent to around four tanker trucks and enough to produce approximately 128,000 bushels of corn. Today, more than 99.99 percent of rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident. 



    ​​Construction Materials

    America has always been about building things. From building the world’s first skyscrapers to building the suburbs that opened up home ownership to millions, America continues to build today in order to create a more prosperous tomorrow.

    America’s freight railroads play a critical role in our ability to build. In 2014 alone, railroads transported approximately 195,000 carloads of cement, 775,000 carloads of crushed and broken stone, 340,000 carloads of lumber and wood products, and 100,000 carloads of construction steel. In total, America’s freight rail industry carries approximately 1.5 million carloads of construction materials each year.

    Here are just three of the ways in which freight rail keeps America building.


    America’s construction and lumber industries rely heavily on America’s freight railroads. In 2014, railroads moved 36.6 million tons of lumber and wood products including milled lumber, and other construction panels including wood particle, which is used for furniture making.

    Rail shipments of lumber go hand in hand with the construction of new homes. In fact, there is an 89 percent correlation between rail carloads of lumber and U.S. housing starts. Lumber shipments hit record highs in 2005 just before the number of housing starts peaked in early 2006. Today, the housing market continues to recover from the Great Recession and railroads have been there to meet this increasing demand. While still short of pre-recession volume, railroads have seen an increase in rail carloads of lumber and wood products since 2014.


    Starting in the 19th century, the mass production of cheap steel solidified railroads in American folklore and the American economy. Railroads’ ability to haul this new—and revolutionary—building material enabled a growing nation to build the world’s first skyscrapers, and become one of the most powerful nations on Earth.

    Over the years, competition from offshore suppliers has eaten away at the American steel factories that made cities like Pittsburgh iconic symbols of the industrial age. Today, railroads continue to haul the iron ore, steel scrap and coke that are used to make steel, but the vast majority of the raw materials they haul for steel comes from steel scrap and imported pig iron. Railroads also play a role in moving intermediate products such as steel slabs, ingot and billets to steel fabricators who produce steel products like I-beams, concrete reinforcing bar and various kinds of pipe for use in construction projects.

    In 2014, freight railroads delivered 51.7 million tons of basic steel products. While most of this steel is used for manufacturing products like automobiles and appliances, some is also used for construction. Approximately 20 percent of all steel products go directly into construction after they have been processed at steel rolling mills.


    Construction aggregates—things like crushed stone, sand and gravel—are found in nearly every state in the nation, making long distance shipments of these materials unnecessary. As a result, freight trains, which typically specialize in long-haul movement of freight, may seem like an unlikely transportation partner. Yet, over the past decade, efficiency enhancements and investments have allowed railroads to become serious players in the movement of rock. And, because one rail car can carry as much aggregate as four truck-trailers, there are environmental benefits associated with the movement of aggregates via freight rail.

    Aggregates are used in virtually every construction project, from roads to runways to buildings and sewer systems. Analysts estimate that that approximately 80 percent of U.S. crushed stone is used as a construction material, mainly for road construction, while 43 percent of U.S. sand and gravel is used for concrete aggregates. Texas is the largest producer and consumer of aggregates among the 50 states. In fact, Texas’ growing population—particularly around Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth—has driven the most demand for aggregates shipped by freight rail.






    Railroads’ involvement in the automotive industry dates back to the early 1900s and Henry Ford’s innovative Highland Park assembly plant. The production volume achieved by Ford’s revolutionary assembly line required a transportation partner of equivalent scale. Railroads were the perfect fit.

    From the earliest days, Ford’s Highland Park facility included rail access for delivery of assemblies and shipment of finished automobiles. As demand for new automobiles grew, railroads even designed a railcar specifically for the movement of automobiles. This innovation greatly increased the number of autos carried per railcar from two to ten or more.

    Today, railroads continue to play an integral role in the North American auto industry. From the raw materials used to manufacture auto parts to the finished vehicles delivered to dealerships, nearly every stage of the life of an automobile is facilitated by railroads. So, the next time you are in the market for a new car, think about the industry that has been so integral to producing and delivering it— from steel to parts to finished product—to you.



    Like automakers, automotive suppliers rely on railroads to deliver the raw materials—such as plastics, metals and glass—that they need to construct auto parts. Steel is the most dominant of these materials, accounting for roughly 60 percent of the weight of an average automobile. In 2015, railroads delivered 43.6 million tons of basic steel products to auto parts suppliers and other customers.

    Railroads start by delivering the iron ore and coke needed to produce the high-quality steel needed for the automotive markets to fully integrated steel mills. After steel mills convert these raw materials into steel slabs, ingots and billets, railroads transport them to rolling and finishing mills where they are usually turned into semi-finished products. Finally, railroads take these semi-finished products to manufacturing plants where they are used to produce thousands of products including automobile parts and frames.


    Using a combination of boxcars and intermodal containers, railroads transport millions of auto parts each year. Many larger parts—such as frames, engines, transmissions and axles—are too big or heavy to move in large quantities by truck, and as a result, are largely hauled by freight rail from auto parts suppliers to automobile manufacturing plants.


    Railroads serve a majority of the 70-plus automobile manufacturing plants across North America. While Detroit remains the headquarters of the U.S. auto industry, manufacturing plants are found in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere.

    Each year, nearly three-quarters of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S.—approximately 13 million in 2015—are moved by freight rail. As an affordable way to move goods on a massive scale, railroads are the preferred transportation provider of automotive industry. In fact, a single train can move approximately 750 automobiles—the ultimate model of scale and efficiency.

    With their high-value products, automakers are exacting customers. Because automobiles must arrive at the dealer in pristine condition, railroads have made critical improvements to their operations such as upgrading railcars—called “autoracks”—used to transport autos and moving them in dedicated trains from assembly plant to destination, which minimizes the bumps and bruises that can happen when trains are reconfigured or “switched.” Railroads have also unveiled specialized rail yards for autorack sorting that minimize time in transit.

    Over the past few years, railroads have also increased their purchases of auto racks to keep up with growing demand for new vehicles. And today, a portion of the modern rail car fleets can be modified to carry every size and shape of passenger vehicle and light truck that you can imagine, giving railroads and shippers the ability to quickly respond to changing customer needs while maintaining high service levels.