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Intermodal Brings Immediate Positive Environment Impact to Shippers

February 12, 2024 Rick LaGore

Net Zero Supply Chain Intermodal

Transporting goods is a vital aspect of our global economy, but the environmental impact it has on the earth is considered substantial by many, thus the attention the topic of supply chain sustainability is getting governments, businesses and private citizens.

To quantify the impact, medium and heavy-duty vehicles, powered by diesel, account for 5% of the vehicles on the road but currently account for more than 20 percent of transportation emissions, as trucks are typically driven much greater distances than cars.

Much of the discussion around over-the-road trucking has been focused on the electrification of truck fleets, but challenges exist around battery technology, infrastructure, cost and government support that are slowing the process to convert trucks to 100% electric power.

Natural gas and hydrogen cells are also alternative trucking engine options that are more environmentally friendly, but they too have challenges and the emission improvement is not equal to or better than electric trucks.

Intermodal Shipping Offers Immediate Relief to the Environment

Moving beyond how goods travel across country lines and continents brings us face-to-face with other green alternatives that are still more concept than reality. The electrification of trucking fleets is the green solution many push, but the reality is under today's infrastructure and technology of the trucks themselves they are not a direct replacement for over the road diesel trucks where intermodal can have that immediate impact.

Enter intermodal transportation, a solution that streamlines supply chains; brings additional freight capacity to shippers; minimizes harmful emissions; and is immediately available for shippers to bring sustainability to their company. And Cleveland Research reports there are 45 million truckload shipments that could be converted to intermodal service - so there is no lack of opportunity.

Plus, there are no infrastructure, technology or adoption issues. A shipper can call any number of intermodal marketing companies, also known as IMCs, and begin their journey toward becoming carbon neutral.

Read more to learn the environmental impact intermodal transportation service has in reducing air pollution, fuel consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions as a game-changer to solving the environmental impact of over-the-road trucking.

Environmental Advantages of Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation has a number of impressive eco-friendly characteristics that reduce air pollution and fuel consumption. 

When it comes to reducing our environmental footprint, intermodal rail transportation is a game-changer. It combines the strengths of different modes, rail and truck, to move freight efficiently. By doing so, we see impressive fuel savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

While no shipping method is devoid of emissions, the environmental impact of intermodal transportation is among the smallest of any type of freight. In fact, it's the most environmentally friendly way to move goods over land. Here is the environmental impact of intermodal transportation by the numbers:

  • An intermodal train can carry the equivalent of 280 trucks.
  • Rail can move one ton of freight nearly 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel.
  • A train emits approximately 5.4 pounds of carbon dioxide per 100 ton-miles whereas trucks emit approximately 19.8 pounds.  
  • Trucks moving 40,000 lbs. each going 3,000 miles produces an estimated 17.4 tons of carbon emissions, while the equivalent of these trucks placed in intermodal service produces an estimated 7.0 tons of carbon emissions.

Green Efficiency of Intermodal Rail Transportation

Rail is 75% more fuel-efficient than trucks, leading to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

A single intermodal train can carry the equivalent of 280 trucks, making it a powerhouse in reducing the carbon footprint by 60% as compared to trucking.

Fuel-Efficient Freight Movement

The fuel efficiency inherent in rail transport is well documented, especially over long distances. Rail is three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks. In fact, one gallon of fuel can move one ton of freight nearly 500 miles on rail

Easing Highway Congestion

One profound advantage of intermodal shipping lies in its ability to ease highway congestion. Transitioning freight from truck-only routes to include rail significantly cuts down on road traffic. As fewer trucks vie for space on highways, this reduction plays a critical role in decreasing air pollutants emitted by idling engines stuck in traffic jams.

Rail transport can move large volumes over long distances with greater fuel efficiency than road vehicles. Studies have shown that when goods are transported via freight trains for shipments extending beyond 1,000 miles, greenhouse gas emissions plummet by over 65%. InTek Freight & Logistics harnesses these efficiencies while moving approximately 25 million containers each year across various modes – including railways and ships.

The optimization of fuel efficiencies through such strategic modal shifts not only reduces air pollution but also mitigates broader environmental impacts associated with fossil fuels consumption.

In a paper published by the Twin Cities and the State of Minnesota they put an estimate that highway congestion cost the area $2.6 billion, with $217 million in increased freight costs and another $225 million in environmental impact and public health.

The Twin Cities, Minneapolis - St Paul, rank as the 20th largest metro region with its 700,000 citizens. Just imagine the impact on cities with over 1.0 million, plus people.

Impact of Highway Congestion on Environment & Fuel Efficiency

Reduced Vehicle Idling

Congested highways often lead to stop-and-go traffic, resulting in increased vehicle idling. When vehicles are stationary or moving very slowly, they burn fuel inefficiently and emit pollutants into the air. By reducing congestion and improving traffic flow, there is less idling, leading to lower emissions.

Improved Fuel Efficiency

    • Vehicles tend to be more fuel-efficient at higher speeds and in consistent traffic flow. When traffic is congested, vehicles experience frequent acceleration and deceleration, which reduces fuel efficiency and increases emissions per mile traveled. Smoother traffic flow on uncongested highways allows vehicles to operate more efficiently. 
    • In examining the environmental sustainability aspect of intermodal transportation, one cannot overlook the impressive fuel savings achieved by utilizing rail networks for lengthy hauls compared to traditional road transit methods. Railroads provide an inherently more energy-efficient pathway due to factors like reduced air resistance and inherent space efficiency allowing them to carry heavier loads without compromising speed or safety.
    • This results in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — an outcome strongly aligned with corporate ESG goals aiming at supply chain sustainability enhancements. Furthermore, integrating modern tracking technology within these operations fosters smarter route planning which further diminishes unnecessary fuel usage thereby conserving precious resources and protecting our environment even more effectively.

Enhanced Combustion Efficiency

    • Internal combustion engines operate more efficiently when they are not constantly starting and stopping. In congested traffic, engines may not operate at their optimal conditions, leading to incomplete combustion and higher emissions of pollutants.

Decreased Emission Intensity

  • The emission intensity, emissions per unit of time, tends to increase in congested traffic due to inefficient engine operation. When congestion is reduced, vehicles can move at more consistent speeds, leading to a decrease in emission intensity.

Mitigation of Traffic-related Delays

    • Congestion often leads to delays, and delayed vehicles spend more time on the road, emitting pollutants over a longer period. By reducing congestion, travel times are shortened, and the total emissions from vehicles can be decreased.

Improved Air Quality in Urban Areas

    • Reduced congestion can have a positive impact on air quality in urban areas. Congestion contributes to the trapping of pollutants in a localized area, leading to poor air quality. Improving traffic flow helps disperse pollutants more efficiently, contributing to better air quality.
      • Taking the earlier statistics on Minnesota’s Twin Cities and multiplying it out by Los Angeles populations that is 3.6 times larger helps to frame the intense efforts the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has on their push for more environmentally friendly freight options.
        • Targets imposed by Los Angeles Clean Air Action Plan, CAAP, calls for reducing greenhouse gases,GHGs, associated from port-related sources by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Improved Noise Pollution

  • While it is difficult to quantify noise pollution benefits, trains generally produce less noise pollution compared to trucks, which is beneficial for both the environment and communities along transportation routes.

Read Fact Sheet - Vehicle Efficiency and Emissions Standard for more on fossil fuels and environmental impact of the freight industry. 

Cutting Costs While Conserving the Environment

Integrating intermodal transportation into a company’s supply chain brings economic and environmental impact advantages. This strategic move optimizes logistics expenses, while making a powerful statement in favor of environmental stewardship.

Cost Efficiency

    • Intermodal transportation brings with it 15% to 18% lower freight transportation costs compared to truckload options on the same freight corridors. The Journal of Commerce documents this savings in its quarterly Intermodal Savings Index.

Supply Chain Resilience

  • By incorporating various modes of transportation, companies can build more resilient supply chains. The flexibility to switch between modes in response to disruptions, such as natural disasters or transportation strikes, helps maintain a consistent and reliable supply chain.

Prioritizing Rail Over Road for Environmental and Economic Benefits

Utilizing intermodal rail transport not only reduces fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions compared to road transport, but it also brings economic and competitive advantages.

Sustainable Practices

    • Embracing intermodal transportation aligns with sustainability goals, showcasing a commitment to environmentally responsible practices. A recent study published by Harvard Business Review found Gen Z and Millennial customers were 27% more likely to purchase products from environmentally conscious companies than older generations.

Compliance with Regulations

    • As environmental impact regulations become more stringent, businesses that integrate intermodal transportation and other sustainable supply chain solutions will find it easier to comply with emissions standards and other environmental requirements, avoiding potential fines and penalties.

Conclusion on Intermodal's Positive Environmental Impact 

The US Department of Energy projecting 2035 to be the line in the sand where alternative fuel freight tractors will be competitive in price and functionality to diesel seems too distant with environmentalists, governments and consumers saying they need to see more immediate results.

With the likes of JBH and other executives in the rail intermodal industry protecting an estimated 7.0 to 11.0 million intermodal conversion from truckload, they give credence to the immediate impact intermodal could have on the environmental impact of freight transportation.

Start your company’s journey to improving the environment and cutting costs by integrating intermodal solutions into their supply chains. Explore the sustainable advantages of intermodal transportation with InTek today.

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