Will a rail transport renaissance lower greenhouse gases?

An executive at transportation giant J.B. Hunt talks about the pros and cons of shifting freight to rail.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services, one of the nation’s largest transportation companies, recently partnered with Washington Gas Energy Services (WGES), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Sterling Planet on a new initiative to reduce greenhouse gases and improve air and water quality in the Chesapeake Bay region. The program offers WGES CleanSteps Carbon Offsets to natural gas customers in Washington, Maryland and Virginia and helps clean up the bay through the Carbon Reduction Fund.

Initially, a major source of carbon offsets will be those created by J.B. Hunt through their shift from trucking to rail transportation. By doing so, the company says they cut fuel and greenhouse gases by 50 percent.

I spoke recently with Gary Whicker, senior vice president of Engineering Services at J.B. Hunt. We talked about carbon offsets, the challenges of transporting by rail and the benefits of getting trucks off the road.

In a recent speech about the CleanSteps partnership, you said that J.B. Hunt started sustainable transportation practices more than 20 years ago. When did the shift to rail begin?

The history is in the late ‘80s. The railroads were looking for a way to grow their business. They had been in decline, and one of them had a consulting firm that talked about piggybacking—where they’d take the [shipping container] and put that on a flatcar.

Mr. Hunt, the founder of the company--he was a truck driver and had basically an eighth grade education. He looked at all the driving being done. He was having trouble finding enough truck drivers and realized the trains could pull 200 of his loads. He struck a handshake deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail (ATSF).

Mr. Hunt said we need to make this transparent to our customers; they shouldn’t see a difference between going on a truck the whole way and intermodal. Last year, the J.B. Hunt organization celebrated 20 years with the ATSF.

Twenty years ago, people were not talking about carbon offsets.

That’s one of the interesting things about transportation. The source is almost 100 percent oil. But typically--behind driver wage--fuel is second highest expense. The fuel efficiency of the railroad--it’s metal on metal: metal wheel and metal rail. There’s virtually no friction, so it’s a great way to reduce driver wage and fuel. Every time you burn diesel fuel you’re generating greenhouse emissions. So just by managing our resources wisely, we had an unintended benefit.

So what do these trains run on?

Most of them also burn diesel fuel. In different applications, some will use all electric engines. Some have experimented with natural gas engine. But for the most part the trains that runs across the country are using diesel.

How much are you saving by using rail?

It all depends. Let’s say there’s a Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant in Dover, Delaware. Let's say they need to ship to a Wal-Mart warehouse in California. We’d likely pick it up in a J.B. truck, load it into a container, which is 53 feet long, 102 inches wide and 110 inches tall, take to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and put on the rail.

The Norfolk Southern takes it to Chicago, then our rail partner in the west, the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) takes it, say, out to Stockton, California. Then a J.B. Hunt driver will go to the rail yard and pick up the container. Huge cranes put it back on a J.B. Hunt chassis. Then our driver hooks up to that and takes it to the Wal-Mart distribution center.

So that might be a 3,000 mile shipment, but we’ve only trucked it 150 miles. The railroad did the majority of the 3,000 miles of hauling. Typically the carbon emissions are cut in half by doing that. But if the truck does more, the carbon reduction is less. If the train does more, the reduction can be more.

What are some of the logistical challenges with shipping by rail?

Transit time and service are the considerations. Typically , trucking can be faster than the train. On that same shipment, you could be part of a driving team and when you drove, the other person could sleep in the bunk. So this truck could run 60 miles an hour, 24 hours a day and we could get there in three to four days. A train would take five to six days, so customers have to be willing to wait a little longer.

And there’s always been the perception that the service isn’t equal to that of trucking. A truck will, on average, arrive as promised 96 percent of the time. With rail, it’s less than that. We’ve worked hard to get the transit time and level of service as close to the truck as possible.

So there are some products that can’t be shipped by train because of the extra time.

Let’s say iPods—they’re small, they’re very expensive, you don’t want to wait.

Do you ship them?

No, but we do ship big screen high definition TVs. Generally if you have an expensive product, it’s more time sensitive than if you had a truckload of toilet paper. We are piloting refrigeration. The strawberries that come out of the farm fields in California wouldn’t be something we’d typically ship because of the [lack of refrigeration on the trains], but we’re looking into that.

Is the savings passed along to your customers when things are shipped by train?

Yes, it’s slightly less. Most rates are per mile, so the rate per mile will be slightly less than the rate for trucking. And for our industry it’s standard to have a fuel surcharge, and it’s about half for the train. So they save on the line haul rate and the surcharge.

Not only is rail better for the environment, but it gets trucks off the road. Has there been pressure from cities to reduce the number of trucks in terms of traffic and accidents?

Not so much. Of course congestion is what we all deal with on the highway. [Getting trucks off the road] has a small positive benefit to society. Truck transportation gets safer and safer every year, but by not being on the highway, you’ve eliminated the chance of an accident.

Also, when we put those 200 loads on the train, there’s not chance we’ll have a fuel spill. So that’s a social benefit and an environmental benefit.

What are the conversations you’re having with customers about carbon footprints?

More and more of them, as they look at that triple bottom line, want to have this conversation. The supply chain is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. I would say freight transportation is 8 to 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s say a manufacturing company, they’ll look at ways to reduce their use of water and energy. Their next question is how do I transport to my customers, and they come to us and ask.

Method Home products is a leader in that. They were very assertive in saying, “What can you do?” We get a lot of, “Tell us about your sustainability initiatives.” We show people what they’ve saved by using intermodal. That’s a service we provide to customers.

Tell me about your role in the CleanSteps partnership.

Burning 100 gallons of diesel fuel emits 1 metric ton of carbon emissions. This year we will ship over 1 million loads via intermodal service. Let’s just say the average one, we save 1 metric ton of carbon emissions, so that will have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 1 million metric tons, as opposed to shipping. So that’s where the environmental benefit comes in and where the CleanSteps program found our carbon credits interesting.

I like to think of it a cycle of goodness. Carbon offsets is a difficult concept to explain. Think of it this way: Your car runs on gasoline. There’s no easy way to change that, but you can buy the J.B. Hunt carbon offsets and that allows us to keep building out our intermodal structure so we can keep reducing our greenhouse gases. WGES is buying offsets from shipments that originate and terminate in the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay. They’ve gone to great lengths to make it very local. It’s an interesting way to get the public, private industry and nonprofits involved. It’s good for everybody.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com