In November 2018, Italy inaugurated the world’s first high-speed rail service dedicated to … carrying no passengers. Rather than cart people from one place to another at ultra high land speeds, this rail service blasts cargo and freight faster than traditional rail, truckers, or ships ever could.

The Italian rail runs approximately 550 miles between the southern city of Caserta and Bologna and is indented for the transportation of time-sensitive deliveries (e.g. logistics operators, producers, and distributors). It possesses the ability to run at 180km/h along Italy’s HighCapacity network, making it the preferred transportation method for time-sensitive products.

Ordinarily, goods are transferred between shipping methods at intermodal terminals, allowing a shipping container to be offloaded from a ship or train and onto a semi truck to be carried to its final destination. While a truck is still needed to offload from a high speed terminal, to its final destination, investing in this type of rail may limit the need for trucks to only these short-route deliveries.

In 2011, the European Union set standards that call for 30 percent of European road freight to be shifted to rail or waterborne transport by 2030. But since rail comprises a relatively small portion of the European freight market (between 11 and 12 percent), achieving this target is proving difficult. However, with the introduction of the 2018 high-speed freight rail, the Italian state-owned operator, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane Group, made substantial progress towards a more sustainable and efficient rail freight sector. 

Intermodal transportation can significantly reduce operating costs and loss of goods. Additionally, the environmental standing of high-speed rails is very positive. In terms of Italy’s 2018 freight rail, officials stated it had the potential to reduce traffic by taking 9,000 trucks off the motorway annually and by decreasing carbon dioxide emissions up to 80 percent compared to alternative road transport. 

However, in order for high-speed freight and cargo rails to make a substantial impact, they will ideally need to run transnationally in an unhindered, strategic manner, as opposed to running terminal to terminal. By constructing a wider network of destinations, high-speed freight rails have the potential to significantly improve environmental concerns such as carbon dioxide emissions.

In the United States, high-speed rails have the potential to revolutionize the freight industry and rival the interstate highway system in movement of cargo. Imagine a high speed line running up the middle of the country, taking trucks off the I-35 corridor. Or goods arriving in Charleston, SC being rocketed to Nebraska by high speed rail rather than truck and traditional rail. 

By implementing high-speed freight rails in the U.S., multiple infrastructural and logistical improvements will be possible. Freight railroads would share corridors with high-speed passenger trains, and necessary upgrades to track and signal infrastructure would improve rail infrastructure on a national level. Additionally, higher speed capabilities facilitated by rail infrastructure improvements will trigger the evolution of freight technology and result in upgraded locomotives. Increased freight capacity would allow for increased economic prosperity and jobs in the freight industry. 

However, certain challenges will need to be overcome to implement these rails in the US, such as the cost of new rail infrastructure and freight technology, as well as alterations to labor agreements and agreements between freight and passenger operators. Additionally, the re-routing of tracks may cause engineering obstacles and the sharing of rights-of-way between freight trains and passenger trains will increase the potential for liability if accidents occur.

It may not be quite on the horizon, but reimagining high speed rail for cargo rather than people could open the door to a greener future – both in dollar value efficiency and environmental impact. Projects that face human-oriented obstacles (e.g. G-force strain, claustrophobic windowless capsule, or noise level) like the theoretical Hyperloop would face none of these when shooting commercial good or raw materials through tubes across the country.

If the politics can be settled, the rest is up to the innovators to prove the concept.


Written by Blair Hassett, Public Policy Intern


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.