Toward greener and more sustainable freight rail: Comparing freight rail systems and services in the United States and China

China has invested in shipping structure adjustment —including road-to-railway and road-to-waterway—to address the country’s heavy reliance on road transport along with growing freight activity. This report explores the opportunities and challenges facing China’s freight railway in better accommodating the shipping needs of various products, based on the comparison with the freight railway in the United States.

This analysis of the China and U.S. freight railways focused on the managing structure, physical infrastructure, and major policy guidance of the two systems. While the network and facilities are relatively similar, notable differences exist in their managing framework. China has made substantial investments in rail infrastructure and rolling stock, resulting in a strong increase in locomotives and railcars, in addition to track length. Still, the average hauling length has decreased slightly, possibly due to an improved network resulting from the building of more railyards and stations.

As the rail system in China seeks approaches to improve its overall service and operation, and to reposition itself as the backbone of the freight system, the experiences of the United States could provide valuable insights. The upgrade of infrastructure, facilities, and equipment could be an approach to boost capacity in the rail system, including longer receiving and departure track length and heavier track axle loads. In addition, we identified that China could take proactive measures to upgrade shipping capacity and service, along with assessments of the potential use of intermodal transportation for select high-value commodities. Additional work on understanding the freight market is needed for establishing a robust foundation for research and policy formulation.