Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


For Midwesterners, more boxcars mean cleaner air

Shifting a fraction of truck-borne freight onto trains would have an outsized impact on air quality in the Midwest, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Much of that impact boils down to simple efficiency, according to Erica Bickford, a graduate student in UW–Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. For each ton they carry, long-distance trucks go about 150 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel. Trains can move a ton more than 400 miles per gallon.

Shifting from road to rail 500 million tons of the freight passing through or to the Midwest would make a large dent in the carbon dioxide spilled into the air by the movement of goods.

"There's a 31 percent decrease in carbon dioxide produced by freight shipping in the region, and that's straight from emissions," says Bickford, who made a model of freight traffic in 10 Midwestern states from Kansas to Ohio that she will present today in San Francisco at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. "It's 21 million metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of what's produced by about 4 million cars."

But carbon dioxide mixes fairly evenly in the atmosphere, spreading its effects around the globe. Bickford's study accounts for weather patterns and the way particular pollutants are distributed to determine how long other products of diesel engines — like black carbon soot and the ozone ingredient and lung irritant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — linger near their sources.

"The result is a much more thorough and local idea of the differences between truck and rail shipping," says Tracey Holloway, director of the Nelson Institute's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and Bickford's advisor. "If you're emitting CO2 in Indiana or India it has the same impact. But something like soot, that has local impact."

More rail traffic would mean more pollutants near the tracks, but relief near roads frequented by trucks — a tradeoff is unbalanced in favor of more densely populated areas.

"Black carbon and NO2 are harmful to everyone's health," Bickford says. "But because more people live near roads than railroad tracks, more people would benefit from the shifts in these pollutants."

As much as 16 percent less black carbon soot would linger near roads with heavy shipping traffic, according to Bickford's model, while the increase around rail corridors would be as high as 20 percent. Nitrogen dioxide would plummet by as much as 30 percent near roads, but rise by as much as 20 percent near railroad tracks.

Holloway's research group is already working on further modeling to explore connected changes in the number of asthma and heart disease cases.

The effects of greater rail use would be particularly noticeable in the middle of the country, according to Bickford.

"We're sort of a freight crossroads in the Midwest," says Bickford, whose work was funded by the National Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education at UW–Madison. "International shipping comes into the country on the coasts and then passes through our backyard on the way to its destination."

The study limited hypothetical changes in shipping to trips of more than 400 miles to ensure a cost savings for shippers, and to cargo — such as automobiles and non-perishable food — that could handle the slower trip in railcars. The 500 million tons Bickford selected for travel by rail represent about 5 percent of U.S. truck freight by weight.

"These aren't pie-in-the-sky figures," Holloway says. "They are reasonable and achievable."

And they come with non-pollution benefits, like reduced traffic congestion, wear on roads and demand for diesel fuel.

"Truck freight travels on publically-funded roads, rail traffic on privately-built tracks," Bickford says. "But these benefits could be an impetus for public investment in rail infrastructure."

— Chris Barncard, 608-890-0465, —

CONTACT: Erica Bickford,; Tracey Holloway, 608-262-5356,

Erica Bickford | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Transportation and Logistics:

nachricht Bremen University students reach the final at robotics competition with parcel delivery robot
19.10.2016 | BIBA - Bremer Institut für Produktion und Logistik

nachricht Discovering electric mobility in a playful way
18.08.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation IAO

All articles from Transportation and Logistics >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>