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River Environmental Sustainability

River Freight Leads in Sustainability

The following national statistics show how moving freight by water is the cleanest, most fuel-efficient mode of transport. The term ton-miles is used to define the movement of one ton of freight for one mile. It is similar to the term vehicle-miles travelled, or VMT, which refers to cars and trucks using the road network.

Fuel Efficiency

Barges can move one ton of cargo 576 miles for the same amount of fuel it takes a rail car to carry the same amount of cargo 413 miles or a truck to haul it 155 miles. This means that given the same fuel, a barge can move product almost 40 percent farther than rail and 272 percent farther than trucks.


The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) MOBILE6 model estimates mobile source emission factors for several hazardous air pollutants in grams per vehicle mile traveled. These air pollutants include hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide (NOx), particulate matter (PM), and carbon dioxide (CO2). The EPA’s findings show that river transport generates fewer emissions than rail or truck per ton-mile in all four pollutant categories. Barge tows also emit 28 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than trains and 73 percent less than trucks, resulting in a significantly healthier impact on air quality.


A Texas A&M study evaluated the freight modes to determine the rate of large spill occurrences or incidents involving the release of more than 1,000 gallons of product. The rate of spills in gallons per ton-mile was similar between river and rail freight transportation. However, truck spill rates are almost double the rate of barge and train numbers.

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