Why long haul trucking is an awful idea, and rail is far better for long-distance transport

Semi trucks are a common sight on American roadways, crossing the country, delivering goods quickly.

However, they’re actually a huge problem for our economy. They put tremendous strain on our infrastructure (and they don’t pay their way for their damage to our infrastructure), they’re inefficient compared to trains, and they present a serious safety risk to car traffic.

In my opinion, long haul trucking activity in the US should be extremely reduced. Read on for why that is the case.

Infrastructure strain

Semi trucks place a significant amount of strain on our highway infrastructure, even more than their weight would indicate. A common figure is that the additional damage a heavy vehicle does to a roadway, relative to another lighter vehicle, is the fourth power of the per-axle weight difference – that figure being determined by a 1962 study performed by the American Association of State Highway Officials (now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials).

Road infrastructure in the US is largely paid for by fuel taxes, which is a system that rewards fuel efficient vehicles, and penalizes inefficient vehicles. According to NACS, gasoline is taxed at 48.1 cents per US gallon on average, and diesel is taxed at 53.1 cents per US gallon on average, as of January 2011. However, that taxation method does almost nothing to address the additional road wear of an extremely heavy vehicle.

According to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the average fuel efficiency of a semi truck in the US is 6 miles per US gallon – as it runs diesel, that means that a semi truck’s owner pays, on average, 8.85 cents per mile in road taxes. A semi truck can weigh up to 80,000 pounds by federal standards (more by some state standards).

In comparison, the average personal car/truck in the US, as of a 2009 EPA report (link to NYT article), got 22.4 miles per US gallon, while weighing in at 3917 pounds. As the percentage of diesels is practically a rounding error, we’ll assume gasoline, which would mean that the average vehicle driver is paying 2.15 cents per mile in road taxes – so the semi driver pays about 4.12 times more taxes.

Let’s see just how fair that is, then. First, we’ll normalize the per-axle weight, assuming that the semi has five axles, and the car has two. That means that the truck’s per-axle weight is 16000 lbs, and the car’s per axle weight is 1958.5 pounds. Without even bringing the fourth power rule into play, the semi should pay 8.17 times the taxes of the car – in other words, the semi is paying just under half of what a linear weight taxation rule would require.

With the fourth power rule, however, that becomes 4454 times the road damage. Assuming that the car were being taxed at a fair rate (it isn’t – it’s partially subsidizing the semi), that would mean that the semi’s owner would need to pay a whopping $95.77 per mile. Obviously, I’m not calling for that level of taxation, but that should be a clear indication that our road tax policy has gone horribly wrong. (Also, before you say that taxing long haul trucking at an appropriate rate relative to cars would reduce revenue, it would also reduce road damage and therefore road maintenance expenses by a similar amount. I feel that the road tax policy should be set to reflect the actual damage that extremely heavy vehicles cause, and should be set with targets of maintaining all of our road infrastructure in good condition, rather than the often crumbling condition it’s currently in.)


So, I’ve touched on the efficiency of a long haul truck – 6 mpg average, and 80,000 lbs maximum total weight – but I haven’t discussed the actual efficiency of hauling cargo with such a truck.

Finding exact numbers for the weight of the tractor and empty trailer is proving difficult, but it appears to be in the 30,000 pound ballpark, leaving 50,000 pounds, or 25 tons, for cargo. This means that a semi gets approximately 150 ton-miles per gallon – and some numbers I’m finding for that figure are lower.

Meanwhile, trains got 480 ton-miles per gallon in 2009, or over 3 times the cargo carried per gallon of fuel, which is a HUGE efficiency gain. To put it into perspective, the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that in 2003, inter-city trucks were responsible for 1.264 trillion ton-miles of cargo transported, versus 1.551 trillion ton-miles for rail. If all of that load were transported via rail, 5.79 billion gallons of diesel fuel, or approximately 643 million barrels of oil (based on 9 gallons of distillate fuel oil per barrel) would be saved – about 67 days worth of the foreign oil imported in 2003.


According to a Maritime Administration document promoting shipping by barge over rail and truck, trucking has approximately 6.8 times more fatalities per ton-mile, and 17.3 times more injuries per ton-mile than rail. (In turn, rail has approximately 22.7 times more fataties and 125.2 times more injuries than inland marine transportation.)

Rail separates heavy cargo from light vehicles, whereas trucking mixes them up, greatly increasing the risk of death for car occupants (not to mention cyclists) sharing the road with trucks.


While I do feel that trucking has its place – it can handle small-load, point-to-point transportation better than rail can – I feel that we, as a country, need to heavily invest in rail infrastructure for high-speed long-haul transportation, as well as other efficient methods of long-haul transportation, and correct our road taxation to reflect the damage that heavy vehicles do to our roads. The resulting reduction in road damage and fuel expenditure will strengthen our economy significantly.

24 Replies to “Why long haul trucking is an awful idea, and rail is far better for long-distance transport”

  1. Something that wasn’t even mentioned was paying the drivers. Lets say you have 3 engineers driving a 150 car train from new york to california. now you aren’t paying those 150 drivers, lets say $30/hr for 50 hours each to drive it there. Thats $225,000 in wages vs $4,500 for the engineers.

  2. Drivers don’t make 30 dollars an hour. And if you want to be realistic. Trains can barely keep up with the loads they have now. Maybe u should have researched the rail yards.

    1. Trains can’t keep up with the loads they have now because very little has been done to expand rail infrastructure. bhtooefr specifically mentions investing heavily in improving and expanding rail infrastructure.

  3. I would love to hear the author of this horribly written artical tell me how efficient it is to have freight take 90 YES 90 days to move coast to coast. Trains are cheap yes, trains haul more freight at once yes, they’re more fuel efficient yes, but you’re forgetting it takes forever and a day to get it there and always will.

    Please look at the real facts. Yes trains are supposedly safer. When was the last time you seen cars weaving in and out of train tracks? Or the last time you seen a freight train rolling down the interstate? Didn’t think so. Fact of the matter is this is a one sided bullshit artical attacking trucking.

    For what its worth every truck in america pays OVER $50,000/year in taxes, multiply that by 2,000,000 and tell me what that equals. A lot of money right? Keep in mind trucking also doesn’t get government grants like the railroads do nor do we have the support of the general public. Also keep in mind you will never see a set of tracks go to Walmart.

    I love things like this explaining how horribly inefficient trucking is. Please tell me how inefficient we are when every truck in the united states shuts down for 3 weeks and the country stops. That pretty much tells you who the superpower in the shipping world is doesn’t it?

    Trains are useless wastes of space, they get government funding whic they use and have used in the past to fund anti trucking and what happens were still here pounding pavement, long haul trucking is here to stay, tell congress to quit fudging numbers, start spending tax dollars where they belong and start supporting the real backbone of america and what really keeps America moving and then maybe articles like this will quit appearing

    1. Rail being slow doesn’t have a damn thing to do with any inherent inefficiencies in how rail works, it has to do with a poor implementation of the system – partially because road is treated as higher priority in all funding. I’m advocating fixing rail.

      Part of rail being safer is precisely because it IS a segregated mode. Because there AREN’T cars weaving in and out of train tracks (well, often, anyway) or freight trains rolling down the interstate.

      And, trucking gets a fuckton of government subsidies in the form of roads – even the taxes that trucks do pay don’t even come close to paying for the road infrastructure costs needed to support long-haul trucking.

      And, I didn’t say to remove “last mile” (just for the pedants, that doesn’t mean exactly 1.0 miles, that means from a terminal – which may even be the only one in the city if that makes sense – to the destination) trucking, where trucking’s flexibility wins just about every time, just the long-haul stuff, where you’re going from city to city.

      Oh, and finally, when was the last time that EVERY TRAIN IN THE UNITED STATES STOPPED FOR THREE WEEKS?

      Frankly, your arguments are fucking ridiculous.

      1. I’d like to see you ship produce by rail. How about meat, dairy, livestock…
        Rail is pointless in so many ways. I’d also like to point out that when one truck wrecks hauling petroleum it’s an inconvenience. When a train does hauling 100 cars of it it’s a disaster. You also failed to point out who is the cause of over 85% of truck car wrecks, cars are. Maybe we need to ban cars not trucks.

        1. Produce is absolutely shipped by rail: http://archive.freightrailworks.org/perishable/#slide-1
          Meat and dairy can be, too, and reefers were originally rail cars: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_car
          Livestock have also been shipped by rail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stock_car_%28rail%29

          Oh, and 44% of crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles were determined to be caused by the large truck: https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety/research-and-analysis/large-truck-crash-causation-study-analysis-brief – that’s 56%, not 85%, where the car was determined to be the cause. That said, personal cars are a problem, and rail infrastructure is how you get rid of those.

    2. Just cause you wish for it doesn’t make it true. Long haul trucking is a dangerous and costly dinasour. Bet you drive one. Hopefully your retiring soon or getting an application into a railroad. A better environment and safer roads with less tax burden for all is the only things we will notice when long haul trucking is gone.

  4. The writer in this column must be an idiot. Period. Let me take a minute to explain. The average per truck estimated cost for infrastructure,( hi ways, bridges, etc), for every truck on the road is 90,000 US. To put that in to perspective, that’s about 400 cars, that that one semi is paying for. Yes! Semi trucks pay extreme amounts of money to travel US hi ways. Let’s compare train cost. The average railroad cost about 1000 per hour to travel anywhere in the U.S. at 35 mph. If a train left Boston at 35 mph vs a semi truck at the same time, with a semi at an average speed of 55 mph. going to L.A. The same freight would cost nearly double. ‘Hint’ freight trains ca only carry about 10% more than semi trucks per train car and the semi only costing, on average, 2. $ per mile. That means that the same freight would cost 80 times more than a semi truck to haul. And would need to be picked up by a semi and delivered. So, a Canish, from Boston would now cost 22 dollars, with the extra truck delivery from the train station, vs 2 dollars normal delivery by semi truck. I’ll give some more examples in my next comment.

    1. A highway truck can only carry 80,000 lbs.
      A rail car can carry up to 286,000 lbs. = more than 3.5 times the truck.
      Intermodal cars can carry a net load of 120k lb. This is 2.5 times a truck’s net load of about 48k lb.
      Taxes pay for highways. Railroads are privately funded.
      The cost to ship by rail is far lower.

  5. I wonder who at these universities does these statistics and if they have any real common sense. Do they look at a print out and figure out the real world? I have a friend who is an train engineer and makes 200,000 a year. Not to mention the crew of 5 plus dispatchers that make 120,000 per year, per train. That’s a million plus a year. For one train. That’s about 25 semi truck salaries plus taxes. ‘Hint’. Trains don’t pay federal income tax.

    1. Out of curiosity, could I get citations of your claims? Especially the figures that it costs 80x to use a train over a semi – the numbers you’re using to get there aren’t there at all, and where trains get huge gains is in fuel efficiency, and the ability for a train to have many, many freight cars attached to it.

      At $1000 per 35 mi (which I’d really want a citation for), that’s $28.57 per mi, but a train can hold a lot more than 10% more than a semi, it’s holding many times more than a semi, and if there’s 15 cars on the train, you’re getting ahead even with your own figures (and there’s usually more than that).

    2. Trains don’t pay federal income tax? Neither do trucks. Are you meaning employees of the railroad? I can assure you we do pay federal income tax. What we do not pay into is social security because we have railroad retirement. I pay more than I would if I were paying into social security. Ohh it’s worth mentioning that railroad retirement is a solvent fund.

    3. Those wages are grossly inflated. Even if they weren’t and one dispatcher didn’t handle 20 plus trains at a time(they do, Google some thing before you make yourself look foolish!) The rail workers would have moved 300 times the tonage, probably more. A hundred car mixed freight train takes 300-400 semis to
      haul close to the same tonnage. And how would that be on be on our highways and environment? And one must also consider how dreadfully inefficient trucks are. A ton goes a little over a hundred miles per gallon of fuel. Trains are pushing the 500 mile mark. I sure you’ll scream lies and froth at the mouth and that’s fine
      but watch as the trucks dissappear.

  6. Did you know that aside from fuel tax, we also pay what’s called a heavy tax? Plates and registration? Clearly you’re an uneducated biggot, and should be sent to the glue factory.

    Al Gore never intended for you to pulverise his information highway like this.


    1. Heavy tax for a truck that sees 7500+ miles a year, is over 75000 pounds taxable gross weight, and is not a logging truck, is $550, annually. That’s the most it is, lighter vehicles and logging vehicles have lower charges, and being below that 7500 mile annual mileage (or 5000 miles for logging vehicles) makes it $0.

      And, as far as registration costs, in my state (Ohio), it’s $1370 for a 78,001-80000 GVWR truck for a year, plus permissive tax ($0-20 depending on what municipality the vehicle is registered in). Compare to $34.50 for a car, $49.50 for a pickup up to 3/4 ton, and $84.50 for a 1 ton pickup.

      Sure, it’s a lot higher, but it’s not as much higher as it should be. And, it doesn’t account for actual usage, which tends to be much higher for commercial vehicles.

  7. Yes, trains would be a far better choice. If you believe otherwise, you are simply fooling yourself. The simple answer to why we prioritize trucks over trains is ….jobs. There would be a loss of jobs and im not just talking drivers. I could leave it at that, but there is an additional supporting reason. If we upgraded our train infrastructure to support mass, high-speed hauling, there would be a debate or push to implement a more comprehensive mass transit for everyone. The US Citizens loves their cars. It is one of the few things that is loved more than guns. The open road os equated to individuality, freedom and independence. So, yeah…We won’t be maximizing trains.

    1. Unfortunately, utilizing inefficient transportation techniques in order to artificially bolster the job market is not sustainable long-term.

  8. Trains run off an electric motor powered by a generator. This generator runs of the same fuel as any tractor truck. If we could all drive for an entire year on one gallon of gas we would be doing it already. Trains use more fuel than trucks, but who cares. The train probably uses more energy to move than a truck. Trucks are using low resistant tires; a train has steel wheels grinding on steel tracks. You can’t tell me they roll with less resistance than a truck. Another crazy California person trying to save the world.

    1. A train does use more fuel than a truck… but if you have to move, say, 50 truckloads of stuff, one train uses less fuel than 50 trucks.

      Regarding the low rolling resistance… here’s an experiment to try.

      First, slide your hand down an unpainted steel pipe or something else like that, then slide it on asphalt. You’ll notice that your hand slides more easily on the pipe.

      Next, slide your hand on the same steel pipe, then slide it on a rubber tire. Again, you’ll notice that your hand slides more easily on the pipe. Lower friction. (That said, tire rolling resistance under load is also because of sidewall flex.)

      Also, been in Ohio all my life, FWIW.

  9. I find all comments really interesting, and I still am undecided on what the future of long hauling freight should be. For me, it all comes down to time and cost aspects, although there are other key factors.

    First, what distance should be the minimum for which it makes more sense for a customer (cost and time wise) to use a train instead of truck to transport loads? You have to take into consideration that there is a loss of time in dropping loads at the origin train station as well as time loss when picking the load at the destination train station. This time loss means money for the customer. So it needs to be offset somehow by either lower transport time from origin to destination or lower cost to transport.

    This leads to the second question, can this lower transport time be achieved or in other words can a train go faster than long-haul truck?

    Third question regarding actual cost of transport. Without changing the taxes current scheme for trucks, and without waiting for a train to complete it’s 100 train cars for it to depart, what is the actual cost per mile? Who wins the battle of cost in real life?

    Thanks in advance.

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