Implications of Climate Change for Rail and Barge Freight Demand, Services and Networks

Focus Area

Climate Change


Air Quality, Environmental Process







Research Idea Scope

The climate change literature projects that weather conditions and weather patterns could change significantly enough to trigger shifts in land use, economic activity and trade, which would lead to substantial changes in transportation demand, services, and networks. Researchers have started exploring the implications of these changes; for example, studying the effects of sea-level rise on coastal communities, evaluating changes in precipitation and temperature on agricultural production, assessing the potential of more frequent and severe weather events on roadbed and bridge design, and modeling the effectiveness of pricing and regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This work should be extended to better understand the implications for freight transportation demand, services, and networks, especially for rail and barge freight transportation which could be disproportionately impacted by climate and energy shifts. Environmental policies often encourage shift to rail and barge modes but, ironically, climate change may negatively affect the viability of these modes (e.g. substantial reduction of coal use could have major impact on rail revenue)
The premise for the research is that rail and barge freight transportation demand, services, and networks will shift as a result of future climate change, but little is known about the potential magnitude, duration, incidence, and significance of the effects. For example:
·Coal accounts for about half of the total tonnage hauled by rail and a quarter of railroad revenues. If the production of coal is curtailed or electric-power generation is shifted closer to mine mouths, what are the physical and financial impacts to rail industry? How would the rail industry adapt?
·It is anticipated that climate change will make some areas less hot and drier, others cooler and wetter, leading to a redistribution of growing areas. Grain, other farm products, lumber, pulp and other wood products account for about 15 percent of rail tonnage and revenues and an even larger share of barge revenues. If the locations of growing areas shift, how might rail service and rail infrastructure be relocated or realigned? What would be the impact on the barge system?
·Much of the nation’s chemical stocks are produced in the Gulf Coast region, which is at risk from sea rise and severe storms. Chemicals account for about 12 percent of rail tonnage and revenue, with rail tank cars used extensively to transport and store liquid fertilizer near growing fields. What is the probability that chemical production and associated rail transportation facilities will be relocated away from the Gulf Coast? Over what time period? What would be the impact on rail and barge services?
·Intermodal rail transportation (e.g., doublestack container trains) is a critical link in international trade, carrying imported merchandise from the Pacific Rim and West Coast ports to Midwestern and East Coast markets. Revenues from intermodal rail traffic now make up nearly a quarter of total railroad revenues. How might climate change shift trade partners and trade routes, or force the relocation of ports? 
The objective of this research is to identify and explore the implications of climate change for rail and barge freight demand, services, and networks. The research should address the following questions:
·How might climate change affect the demand for rail and barge freight services? The research should review the climate change literature, identifying, excerpting, and organizing information on the range of likely changes and their interactions.
·What is the likely magnitude, duration, incidence, and significance the changes for rail and barge transportation? The research should trace out the implications of the changes for rail freight demand, services, and networks.
·What is the capacity of the rail road and barge industries to adapt and adjust to the changes? The research should draw on the lessons learned from the evolution and restructuring of the freight rail system to assess the technical, financial, and institutional capacity of the rail industry (and the public sector) to adapt and adjust.
·What policies and programs might be considered to enable the rail and barge systems to better anticipate and react to climate change impacts? The research should consider both private and public sector roles and responsibilities. 
Related Work
TRB climate change and transportation studies, NCFRP reports, National Surface Transportation Policy Commission Report, USDOT/USGS Gulf Coast Climate Study, AAR National Rail Capacity Study
The research would inform on-going policy discussions such as:
·How much investment is needed in the transportation system generally and the rail freight transportation system specifically to support U.S. economic growth and competitiveness in world trade?
·What is the appropriate role and responsibility of the public sector in the private sector, but regulated, railroad industry? Barge industry?
·How should federal transportation programs and agencies—through the upcoming surface transportation legislation as well as through other national or state transportation programs and policies—be reorganized to deal with today’s much larger, more complex, and tightly integrated multimodal freight transportation system.

Urgency and Payoff

Findings will be implemented as policy, program, and investment decisions by federal, state, and local agencies and by railroads, businesses, and the investment community.
The research will shape understanding of the issues and opportunities facing freight rail transportation and investment. It will form part of a critical set of literature that will shape the nation’s response to climate change, with broad and far-reaching societal impacts.

Suggested By

RNS. Sponsoring Committee: A0020T, Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy Source Info: Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy January 2010 Workshop