U.S. Rail Can Help on Climate Change

Washington policymakers and many businesses continue to outline aspirational goals for mitigating climate change – identified as an existential threat to the American public by President Joe Biden. Because the process will be gradual, the benchmarks – such as exclusive electric vehicle production by 2035 or fully decarbonizing the electric sector by 2050 – center almost wholly on the future.

Yet there are key tools in addressing climate change that exist in the here and now, including within the transportation sector, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. These are steps elected officials can take today to make a more immediate impact.

Case in point: Privately owned and operated U.S. freight railroads, the most fuel-efficient way to move goods over land, are one of those tools to consider when addressing the interrelated issues of improving the environment, economy and public infrastructure.

Railroads stand ready to be part of the solution. As we outline in a recent report, several facts should be recognized and measures considered to spur progress.

Consider this: While railroads account for 40 percent of long-distance freight volume, they contribute a mere 0.6 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. Some of this is basic math, as one train can carry the freight of hundreds of trucks. This not only reduces highway congestion and corresponding emissions from trucks and idling vehicles but is inherently more environmentally efficient. Even today, moving freight by train instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75 percent.

Some of the industry’s relatively low environmental impact is also due to hard-earned innovation, tethered most closely to improved fuel efficiency – up 17 percent since 2000. Railroads have taken a host of actions, including acquiring new locomotives or retrofitting old ones, adopting fuel management systems, installing anti-idling technology and expanding the use of distributed power (positioning locomotives throughout the train). As a result, freight railroads consumed 9.6 billion fewer gallons of diesel fuel and emitted 108 million fewer tons of CO2 over the last two decades while generating the same or greater freight volumes.

With an eye toward the future, railroads across the industry are adopting specific reduction targets, undertaking research and development on electric and hydrogen locomotives and deploying numerous other measures aimed at reducing impact.

Increased freight by rail movements would make an even bigger dent. If 10 percent of the freight shipped over the highways were moved by rail instead, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by more than 17 million tons annually. That’s the equivalent of removing 3.35 million cars from our highways, just shy of the total number registered vehicles in the entire D.C. metro region. Put differently, this is equal to planting 260 million trees – 100 times the amount planted by the National Forest Foundation in 2018 alone.

All of which begs the question: How can we move more goods (and people) by rail to help combat climate change? How can policymakers remove market impediments and promote policies that value efficiency gains?

We could establish market incentives to reduce emissions within the freight transportation sector by encouraging businesses to ship their products using less carbon-intense modes and incentivizing all transportation modes to find the best ways to further reduce or eliminate emissions. This approach will allow markets — not mandates — to drive the reduction in emissions.

While reauthorizing the surface transportation law, Congress should restore the Highway Trust Fund to a true user-pays system that covers the full cost of highway use. Long term, this means implementing a vehicle miles traveled fee – including weight for large commercial vehicles – that accounts for the inevitable fuel efficiency gains from vehicle electrification. For rail most specifically, such a system could correct market inequities that exist due to the fact that commercial highway vehicles fail to cover their full costs of infrastructure use – underpaying their federal cost responsibility by around 27 cents per gallon of fuel and creating artificial cost reductions.

Additionally, policymakers could impose a graduated emissions surcharge based on the fuel efficiency of vehicles and provide dedicated funding for passenger rail from that revenue. Together, these could help address transportation-related emissions while supporting passenger rail – a particularly clean way of moving people. If coupled with mechanisms like carbon capture, real progress could be realized.

Real action is needed by business and policymakers to address this challenge. Decision-makers should absolutely aim big and consider the future, but also the present, by embracing the ability for trains to help make progress in the present.


Ian Jefferies is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

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