Pacific Southwest Region 9 UTC

Freight Rail’s Impact on Your Life and Mine

Saturday, April 14, 2018 - 9:45pm

By Susan Huang Gonzalez, USC Viterbi MSCE Transportation Engineering, 2020

On April 3rd, 2018, METRANS Transportation Center invited Nate Kaplan of GoRail to speak at USC about the sophistication and impact of freight rail in the U.S., regarded as the world’s best freight rail system in terms of cost, efficiency, and reliability.

Kaplan began by bringing freight rail home to the audience. He describes how there are many, many miles behind every item that we’ve accumulated or consumed in our lives, and how little is known about the vast infrastructure that supports the movement of our daily necessities. Forty percent of freight in the U.S. is moved by rail (vs. water, pipeline, truck, or air), and a good portion of this includes consumer goods. Kaplan shared that rail succeeds best with heavy loads over long distances because it is remarkably cost-effective and green when doing so – one train can move one ton of freight (the load of several hundred trucks) over 473 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. By keeping fewer high-emission trucks on congested highways, the rail system makes enormous contributions to the sustainability of our overall transportation infrastructure.

Nate Kaplan addressing PSR METRANS Seminar attendees

Kaplan goes on to describe the financial impact of rail on American taxpayers - notably that there is little to no cost to them at all. It may be a surprise to hear that freight railroads, as tangibly beneficial as they are to society, are privately owned and minimally funded by taxes. In fact, the private organizations that maintain and improve the railroad network reinvest a much higher percentage of revenue back into their system than the average U.S. manufacturer, as well as dedicating on average up to 20 percent of capital expenditures toward improvement projects. Among the many successes of these investments, Kaplan importantly highlights the fact that the rail industry has recently had their safest years on record with continuous effort toward even safer operations. The future of rail looks bright, and it is quietly ensuring a healthier economy and environment for us all.

Kaplan with METRANS Associate Director Vicki Deguzman and USC Master of Global Policy Student Elizabeth Warren

Nate Kaplan is a seasoned public affairs leader drawing from a unique cross-sector and interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. He has expertise in transportation, social policy, economic development, land use, sustainable cities, nonprofits, affordable housing, and public policies to improve the quality of life for individuals and communities. Kaplan currently serves as West Coast Director of GoRail, representing California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona. Kaplan received a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Southern California.  GoRail is an advocacy organization that unites rail stakeholders, community leaders and the public to support rail solutions for tomorrow's transportation challenges.

About the Author: 

Susan Huang Gonzalez is a first-year Master of Civil Engineering – Transportation Engineering student with plans to graduate in Spring 2020. Her interest in the field of transportation began with years of commuting around the expanse of L.A. by cycling and public transit, and her goals are to work towards improving livability in one of the world’s most congested cities. She can be reached at