USA: The Association of American Railroads has outlined a series of policy proposals aimed at leveraging the improved environmental performance of rail freight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector, ‘safely and effectively combatting climate change’.

Pointing out that rail is ‘the leader in fuel-efficient surface transport’, AAR accepts that railroads ‘know more must be done to drive down emissions’. However, ’armed with the right policies, railroads and the nation can make real progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable economy’.

BNSF H-NTWGAL9-03A St. Paul MN 2020 May 03 Steve Glischinski (2)

Rail currently handles around 40% of long-distance freight in the USA by tonne-km, whilst accounting for just 2·1% of transport-related emissions according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. AAR estimates that shifting 10% of the freight being moved by the largest lorries to rail could reduce GHG emissions by more than 15 million tonnes a year, equivalent to removing 3·3 million cars from the roads.

AAR proposes that lawmakers should embrace ‘economically grounded, market-based solutions’ to stimulate modal shift toward ‘lower-or-zero-carbon choices’. These include:

  • a ‘reasonable, market-based emissions reductions strategy to empower competition’;
  • restoration of the Highway Trust Fund to a user-pays model, with a short-term fuel tax increase followed by a structured transition to distance-based charges;
  • introduction of an emissions surcharge based on vehicle fuel efficiency, which would provide a dedicated funding source for ‘environmentally-efficient passenger rail where appropriate’.

us Wabtec battery loco testing on BNSF near Riverbank, California (Photo BNSF)

To reduce emissions further, AAR argues that ‘robust investments in basic and sector-specific research are essential’ to unlock new traction and energy technologies. It wants policymakers to embrace research partnerships between government and the private sector, and increase funding for ongoing research into alternative fuels and advanced battery storage. It also favours market development programmes and tax incentives to encourage expansion in the use of carbon capture and storage. However, it recognises that ‘operational and regulatory flexibility’ will be needed to support the adoption of new technologies.

As well as proposing wider transport sector initiatives, AAR says emissions reduction must ‘ultimately be tackled on a sector-by-sector basis’. It wants policymakers to engage with the rail industry in order to ‘identify and prioritise’ proposals that ensure railroads can continue to invest in modernising and maintaining their infrastructure, ‘by preserving the current balanced regulatory system’. AAR wants to avoid prescriptive regulation, arguing that innovation should guide the rail sector’s approach to emissions reduction.

US freight train.

‘Policymakers, businesses and individuals must unite and act swiftly on smart, lasting solutions to fuel economic recovery and protect our environment’, explained AAR President & CEO Ian Jefferies. ‘Well-designed, economically sound policies can effectively drive the economy toward lower overall emissions, specifically in the transportation sector. Railroads stand ready to be a part of the solution.’