Prices for transportation fuels are down for the short term but will rise, and hence the costs for transportation of all the commodities we consume will rise. Transportation costs can be reduced in a couple of ways. Reduce the distance goods must be transported and increase the efficiency of transporting goods. Additional costs to consider are things such as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and traffic fatalities associated with each transportation modality.
Increased reliance on locally-produced foods, among other goods, is a commendable goal. Not only does this strategy reduce transportation costs, but also builds community by supporting a local economy. This can go only so far, however, as some goods simply can’t be produced locally. Oranges will still need to be shipped to Vermont and maple syrup to Florida.
Transportation efficiency is best compared by using a figure called the ton mile-per-gallon; that is, the distance one ton of freight can be hauled with the consumption of one gallon of fuel (diesel). The numbers are for barges 576, rail 414, and trucking 155. An efficiency ratio is something on the order of 4:3:1 respectively. Barges are four times and rail transport three times as efficient as trucking. Data on barge traffic is included for the sake of comparison, but inland waterways are limited to essentially the eastern half of the U.S.
Not only is trucking the least efficient and most polluting, but also the most dangerous. An interesting statistic is fatalities per ton-mile. How many people will die as a result of the transportation of goods per billion ton miles? For barges .03, rail .65 and trucking 4.35. There are about seven times as many fatalities associated with trucking compared with rail transport.
Just as barges are limited to a large degree to the eastern U.S., rail transport has its limitations. Rail networks are not nearly as extensive as the highway system plus truck transport generally results in a faster delivery schedule.
The best solution to increase efficiency, increase safety and lower pollution due to transportation would be a much better integration of rail and truck transport. The objective would be to move freight long distances by rail, then use the trucking industry for the depot to retail outlet part of the haul.
Infrastructure changes are needed to expand the rail systems, meaning greater costs, but this would be offset by lower costs for highway construction and maintenance. Transportation safety would be greatly increased by getting most of the long haul trucks off the highway, thus reducing the number of truck car collisions.
There would still be a need for the trucking industry to move goods from an expanded rail system but these trips would be made with smaller trucks and for shorter distances. Trucking jobs would be more attractive because short haul trucking means that the drivers get to go home daily. Greatly increased integration of the trucking and rail industries can result in lower costs, cleaner air, and greater safety.