Worldwatch Institute

Use of Passenger and Freight Rail Grows, Impacts Magnified


Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute

According to the International Union of Railways, passenger and freight trains globally traveled 12.7 billion kilometers in 2013, up from 9.7 billion in 2001. This increased use of rail entails environmental and social benefits, but also some risks, writes Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online report.

In 2013, people traveled an estimated 2,865 billion passenger-kilometers by intercity rail. Freight rail movements amounted to some 9,789 billion ton-kilometers worldwide. The world’s rail vehicle stock ran to almost 3 million locomotives, railcars, and coaches.

Rail transport offers an energy-efficient way to move people and goods. Although different transportation modes are difficult to compare, available estimates indicate that rail transport generally requires less fuel than movement by road vehicles. In the United States, intercity rail in 2012 required 78 percent of the energy (2,481 British thermal units, or Btu) per passenger mile required by cars (3,193 Btu).

However, rail transport also brings challenges. Freight trains have long helped to maintain the resource-intensive global economy by moving raw materials from countries’ interiors to export terminals. And other negative impacts are growing with the expansion of rail transport.

Rail is being used increasingly to move oil, for example, causing dangers of spills and explosions. In 2013, train shipments resulted in 117 oil spills in the United States, representing a nearly 10-fold increase over 2008. This year, a derailment in the U.S. state of Virginia caused a spill of 114,000 liters (30,000 gallons) of crude oil into a river. In Quebec, Canada, a derailment in 2013 led to an explosion that killed 47 people.

Improved energy efficiencies and other smart choices can help to maximize positive impacts as rail systems grow. Electrification of rail lines, for example, offers a number of advantages, including higher energy efficiency. Worldwide, 28 percent of rail lines are electrified, but the percentage varies enormously among individual countries—from as high as 100 percent of rail lines in Switzerland to as low as 2 percent in Indonesia.

The energy efficiency of freight rail vehicles has also increased massively, reducing by more than half the amount of energy required to haul one ton of freight over one kilometer (from 1,112 Btu in 1970 to 473 Btu in 2012 in the United States) as vehicle capacity increases.

Country and Regional Highlights from the Report:

  • Three quarters of all passenger-kilometers by rail are traveled in Asia and Oceania. Europe’s share has declined from 31 percent to 22 percent, while the Americas and Africa play minor roles.
  • In freight rail, Asia and Oceania accounts for close to 37 percent of all ton-kilometers, followed by the Americas (33 percent) and Europe (29 percent). Africa, however, has only 1.4 percent.
  • The United States is second worldwide in freight rail tonnage, but has only limited passenger rail traffic. Japan—the undisputed leader in number of passengers transported—has small amounts of freight tonnage.
  • Japanand France were the top countries in high-speed rail until recently, but China has built the world’s most extensive network of high-speed lines and grabbed the lead in 2013. High-speed trains now account for 12.5 percent of all passenger rail travel, up from 7.3 percent in 2004.

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