Trains and toilet paper: Railroads step up during the COVID pandemic

By Richard Gent for

The Union Pacific Railroad’s Community page earlier this year stated, “The average U.S. Household (2.6 people) uses 409 regular-sized toilet paper rolls per year, according to the manufacturer Georgia-Pacific.”

By my calculations that 7.8 rolls per week or about one roll per day. No wonder I couldn’t find any toilet paper in the stores during the spring, and quantities were as abundant as they were before the pandemic. However, a critical supply lifeline, the railroads are working with trucking to keep our stores filled with toilet paper and other items.

Union Pacific Railroad, as with other railroads, is stepping up to help during the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring that wood pulp (the key ingredient in toilet paper) is shipped efficiently to companies like Georgia-Pacific. They are moving wood pulp in boxcars and the finished toilet paper rolls via intermodal (containers on the railcars) which are then carried by truck to the local stores.

Another fact is that in addition to toilet paper, approximately 39 million tons of paper goes into manufacturing boxes every year. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for boxes for on-line retailers to keep items stored on the shelves; trains move boxes as well. Not only paper products are shipped via rail, but according to the Association of American Railroads, other critical supplies move by train.

These products include chemicals required for medicines and food packaging, chlorine-based disinfectants for treating water, food products from orange juice to frozen vegetables, retail products that end up on store shelves and wheat used by bakeries to make bread or pasta.

Unfortunately, not all products including toilet paper arrive at their final destination.

Trains sometimes stop because of situations like people walking on the train tracks where they should not be in the first place. For the past 10 years, the amount of people getting involved with a train continues to increase. Last year, despite efforts from a National level rail public education program, the Federal Railroad Administration documented 1,128 incidents involving people on the train tracks; 598 of those were fatalities.

During a severe incident with a train, on average, a train can be delayed more than two hours while first responders and law enforcement deal with the situation. Two hours may not seem like a long time, but those two hours also affect trains down the line in a kind of domino affect preventing supplies getting to your store shelf.

In Nevada, local sheriffs have augmented rail safety public education through trained volunteers alert for and reporting individuals on the tracks. However, the true key is you. If you want to make a difference during the pandemic and keep toilet paper on the shelves of your local market, stay off the train tracks.

Just wave at the train crew from a safe distance knowing that they are moving the goods you need to the local stores as well as the chemicals for a possible cure or vaccine for COVID-19.

Richard Gent of Fallon is director with Rail Auxiliary Teams.

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December 2023