Complexity and Risk in Freight Transportation

Rail transportation is an enigma. It is a throwback to a bygone era, bridging the North American continent after a civil war sparked by tensions that echo loudly today. Many trains in the U.S. appear to have changed little since that time. And yet in some parts of the world they feel like a wonder of modern technology, blasting through the countryside with unrivaled tranquility.

The movement of goods across vast distances is essential to life in the 21st century. Much of this movement happens on land. In the 19th century, most freight in North America moved painstakingly slowly on a rail network built by large private railroad companies. Connection to this expanding network was a key to economic success in the burgeoning industrial power. That changed with advances in internal combustion engines and federal investment in a highway system.

Today, trucks move the majority (64%) of freight in the U.S. [1] There are almost 4 millions miles of roadway, allowing motor carriers to provide near-nationwide door-to-door service. [2] Trucks also contribute the vast majority (almost 80%) of CO2 emissions in the U.S. They are both the most significant proportion of total freight emissions and one of the carbon-intensive modes of freight transportation—especially the growing short-haul and final-mile segments delivering online orders. [1]

Trains, in contrast, are over three times more fuel-efficient than trucks. Freight moved on the least efficient trains emit less CO2 per tonne-kilometer than the most efficient trucks on the road today. [3]

In an era where we expedite critical personal protective equipment from distant lands, and where the global logistics system readies itself for the monumental challenge of distributing the coming coronavirus vaccines, rail transportation seems like a rigid, unreliable artifact of the past, ill-suited to 21st century challenges.

And yet rail may, in fact, be an apt metaphor for the coming decade. It has withstood the test of past global pandemics, natural disasters, and civil and global wars; it has unmatched, transcontinental carbon efficiency; and perhaps most importantly, it has proven, untapped technologies to accelerate humankind to a brighter, greener future.

In a twist of fate, the systemic challenges we face with land-based freight is a microcosm of the challenges we are likely to face as a species in the coming decade.


[1] US DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Freight Facts and Figures. Retrieved November 5, 2020.

[2] US DOT. DOT Overview. Retrieved November 10, 2020.

[3] Sims R., R. Schaeffer, F. Creutzig, X. Cruz-Núñez, M. D’Agosto, D. Dimitriu, M.J. Figueroa Meza, L. Fulton, S. Kobayashi, O. Lah, A. McKinnon, P. Newman, M. Ouyang, J.J. Schauer, D. Sperling, and G. Tiwari, 2014: Transport. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

About the Speaker

Kellen Betts is a Course Lead in the MITx MicroMasters Program in Supply Chain Management and Project Manager supporting sustainability-related research at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics including the State of Supply Chain Sustainability, carbon insetting with sustainable aviation fuels, and the circular supply chain initiative. Kellen has over fifteen years of experience in supply chain and analytics working for small businesses and Fortune 500 corporations. He writes the blog/newsletter Sustainable Supply Chains, exploring the sustainability of global supply chains, and organizes Supply Chain Connect, an annual conference on supply chain management and technology. Prior to joining MIT, Kellen helped launch a supply chain technology startup for port trucking and logistics, and worked in supply chain, analytics, and engineering at REI, Zulily, PACCAR, JBE Inc., and Vigor Industrial. He received an M.S. degree in Global Supply Chain Management from Portland State University and an M.S. degree in Applied Mathematics from the University of Washington.

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