Short Line Railroads’ Environmental Push

Short line railroads touch one out of every five cars moving on the national railroad system, serving customers who otherwise would be cut off from the national railroad network. Short lines move all commodities and account for roughly 40 percent of long-distance freight volume but contribute just 2.1 percent of transportation-related emissions. If 10 percent of the freight shipped today by the largest trucks were moved by rail, greenhouse gas emissions would fall more than 17 million tons annually or the equivalent of removing 3.35 million cars from the road. A ton of freight moving by rail instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent.

To make their environmental impact even lower, short lines are participating in grant programs and research to better understand the operational impact of a variety of technologies. 

For example, most short lines run older locomotives but purchasing new, cleaner locomotives to achieve a better environmental impact can be cost-prohibitive for a small business railroad with an average of 18 employees. To measure the environmental improvements of upgrading a locomotive, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) secured a grant for testing and validating improvements with injectors and additives. These are mechanical upgrades that small business railroads can afford and are readily available. Lake State Railway, Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, and Michigan Technological University are partners in this effort. 

Another example is the implementation of cleaner forms of power. Battery driven locomotives are available today, and are being tested by Watco, Pacific Harbor Lines, and OmniTrax. While batteries have come a long way and are suitable for many transportation applications, they are not necessarily the best solution for heavy-duty and off-road transportation. The industry is still answering key commercialization questions including recharging during a longer distance run, battery, integrating recharging into duty cycles, the additional weight of the battery, component part availability to be able to scale, and disposal protocols.

Cleaner fuels are another area of opportunity for freight railroads. Sierra Northern Railway and GTI Energy are currently designing, building, and testing a hydrogen fuel cell switching. The California Energy Commission funded project is tasked with demonstrating a zero-emission switching locomotive by the end of 2024.

Hydrogen fuel cells convert gas into electricity, producing only water and heat as byproducts. Not only do hydrogen fuel cells offer high energy density (up to 1400 Wh/kg) and quick refueling, but past concerns as to the cost and availability of hydrogen are being mitigated both by the private sector and by the Biden Administration’s Hydrogen Hub effort. Fast refueling hydrogen fuel cell technologies—unlike slow-charging battery technologies—allow integration into current duty cycles.

Wooden railroad ties are one of the largest annual expenditures for short lines and are replaced at the rate of 18 – 20 million each year. Short lines are investigating how to transform used rail ties to biochar. To produce biochar, gasses in the biomass are burned or captured and can be used like natural gas. Liquids, called bio-oils, are also captured creating another source of energy, leaving carbon enriched biochar. The reduction of biomass into biochar is not new, but applying this process to used ties, would be. 

These are a few of the many initiatives that short lines are undertaking to be better environmental stewards, including operational practices that reduce impact, technology implementation, and energy usage in offices and railyards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program helps companies advance supply-chain sustainability by measuring, benchmarking, and improving freight transportation efficiency. It offers tools short lines can use to communicate how shipping by rail can help customers meet their company’s environmental goals. Thirty-six member railroads have joined SmartWay, and can now be chosen by SmartWay shippers to be incorporated into their transportation mix, and showcase the resulting reduction in carbon footprint.

Short lines are committed to safety, and the safe usage of our planet’s resources.  They are known for their entrepreneurial spirit and driven to serve customers one carload at a time. Short lines are applying those key attributes to decreasing freight rail’s environmental impact through research, education, and speedy implementation of initiatives that will drive us forward.

Jo Strang is Senior Vice President, Safety, Regulatory and Environmental Policy, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. ASLRRA represents the more than 600 small business railroads in the United States. They operate 47,500 miles of track in 49 states, or approximately 29% of the national freight railroad network.


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