Rail freight has special environmental and economic pluses

Rail hauls one ton of cargo 473 miles on one gallon of fuel

By Graeme Stewart

Rail freight is undoubtedly the way forward as a leading logistics platform for North America and the future is looking good for Mexico’s rail freight sector, according to Kansas City Southern de Mexico (KCSM).
KCSM’s Carlos J. Velez, Vice President Business Solutions and Marketing, said railroads accounted for 26% of all overland cargo movement in 2014 and traffic across the US-Mexico border increased by 4.4%. Given Mexico’s expanding automotive production and the benefits brought by the energy reform and the national infrastructure plan, he forecast the rail sector would see strong growth.
KCSM, which operates cargo trains between Kansas City and the Gulf of Mexico coast port of Veracruz, has invested US$3 billion in upgrading track and railroad infrastructure in Mexico since it was awarded a 50-year concession to operate in 1995 after the privatization of the country’s rail network.
Mexico’s cargo railroad network is Latin America’s most productive and is the largest worldwide in terms of the volume of cargo transported annually, moving more than Austria, France, Spain and the UK combined, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In order to improve and grow the railroad freight sector, delays on the Mexico-US border need to be reduced by eliminating bottlenecks and by following a multimodal strategy to create logistics hubs, combining rail, road transport and shipping, Velez said.
By strengthening Mexico as the central logistics hub of North America, the country can take advantage of its strategic geographic position and become a global supplier, Velez continued, but for that to happen the necessary regulatory infrastructure must be put in place.
Explaining on why rail was a superior form of freight transport, Velez said: “Air contamination from road transport is considered the greatest threat to the environment of the planet, principally for the effect it has on human health, on the ecosystems, the climate and buildings. In Mexico, the transport sector is one of the major sources of pollution with its contribution to greenhouse gases with 20 per cent of the national total.”
He also identified noise pollution as a threat and said: “The noise pollution in the states of Jalisco and Veracruz exceed the OECD limit by 14 per cent, Nuevo Leon by 18 per cent and in the State of Queretaro by 20 per cent, on average.”

KCSM Engine man at Lazaro Cardenas
“Road accidents have to be taken into consideration, especially when toxic and flammable substances like chemicals can be released on to the roads. And maritime transport, in particular, effects the environment in various ways with pollution by hydrocarbons.”
Velez said freight transport had increased considerably since Mexico’s entry into the North American Free Trade Association and by 2050, a 225 per cent increase could be expected in CO2 emissions on freight carrying roads.
He continued: “OECD defines sustainable transport as one that does not compromise public health and the environment and meets the needs of mobility for people and goods based on the use of renewable energy sources and their rate of regeneration. So, one of the best ideas for sustainable transport is to make better use of the railway system because of its low carbon footprint.”
“The rail sector has spearheaded a series of initiatives to improve its performance as a leader of sustainable transport. The criteria to be considered are energy efficiency, energy reduction, better rolling stock design, the use of alternative energy, optimization of load factors, reduction of noise and vibration, security, evaluation of environmental impact and intelligent transport systems.
“In Mexico, KCSM has implemented a series of plans to mitigate climate change, such as energy efficiency norms, a ‘Clean Transport’ program in which technical training achieves savings of between 9 and 23 per cent, construction of new infrastructure including highway modernization and the construction of beltways, modernization of freight trucking, greater participation of the railroad in land freight transport and modern public transport systems.”
Velez said the advantages of the railroad included economies of scale, better security and cargo protection, a decrease in fuel consumption, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air contamination and reducing road traffic and infrastructure wear.
On those advantages, he said: “We supply security guards, control points, patrol vehicles with guard dogs and a control center. 99.8 per cent of loads are moved without loss. A freight train can move on average a ton of load for 473 miles on a single gallon of fuel, trains on average are four times more fuel efficient than trucks and fuel efficiency on trains has grown 101 per cent since 1980.”
And on reduction in fuel consumption, he said: “The greenhouse effect is related to the consumption of fuel and trains have a smaller carbon footprint. In fact, moving freight by train rather than by truck reduces CO2 gas emissions by 75 per cent on average. If only 10 per cent of long distance freight was to be transferred from road to rail, the saving in fuel would be 1bn gallons a year and the annual emissions would reduce by 10m tons – the equivalent of taking 2 million cars out of circulation or planting 240 million trees.”

KCSM 4728 Kansas City Southern de Mexico
“An intermodal train can do the work of 240, or more, trucks. A bulk cargo train can transport the same as 450, or more, trucks and, in 2011, highway congestion cost the United States US$121bn in time and lost fuel and that’s without taking into account the wear and tear on roads and bridges.”
His point of view was supported by the results of a study from the University of North Texas which concluded that rrail transit achieved energy use reductions and lowered emissions in two ways.
The study explained: “First, rail transit consumes less energy per passenger-mile than bus or automobile traffic. Electrically powered trains have extremely low emissions compared to diesel or gasoline vehicles.
“Second, since rail transit reduces congestion, it leverages even further reduction in fuel use and emissions associated with non-rail travel.”
The study continued by outlining the economic benefits of rail freight and said: “New benefit areas include the following:

  • Increased property values: rail generally results in an increase in property values around station areas.
  • Community redevelopment: rail serves as a catalyst to renewal of communities in proximity to rail since the increased accessibility of those areas makes them more attractive.”

Other benefits included:

  • Improving accessibility for non-drivers;
  • Avoiding the need to be chauffeured;
  • Providing people an option that they might not currently need but may need in the future;
  • Creating a more livable community and improving public health due to the need to walk or cycle to connect to transit.

The study ended: “In summary, general research on rail impact has identified a range of possible transportation, social and economic impacts. These impacts are summarized as follows:

  • Transportation: Rail encourages increased transit usage and is more attractive to choice riders than bus service. Increased transit utilization may lead to reduced traffic congestion, reduced air pollution, reduced fuel use, and improved traffic safety.
  • Social: Rail provides an economical alternative, allowing people to reduce the percentage of their household budget required for transportation. Further, those who are unable physically and fiscally to use a car have convenient transportation.”

Velez outlined the best practices of the railways including the use of recently built locomotives, new infrastructure, the setting up of conservation committees, commitment to the environment and environmental impact measurement and said: “Through the purchase of new locomotives, leasing and maintenance, the average age of the locomotive fleet has decreased from 17.2 years to 10.9 years in recent years and the trains started using fuel that is extremely low in sulfur in 2007.”
The conservation committees establish standard operations, publish guidelines, monitor train fuel supply and train drivers and evaluate and test new technologies.
Kansas City Southern de Mexico locomotive
Summing up, Velez said: “For a cleaner, safer, quieter and cheaper freight transportation service, it has to be rail.”