Happening Now

Rail Can Ease The World’s Climate Crisis

May 20, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported Wednesday that the past seven years have been the seven warmest ever recorded in history, a climate-crisis warning which once again got attention in capitals and business centers around the world – and which also led this week to the rail industry, freight and passenger, pointing out again how much the planet might benefit from sustained stronger investments in rail.

Worldwide, rail accounts for 8% of the world’s motorized passenger movements and 7% of freight movements, but only 2% of the world’s transport energy demand. There’s good data to show that rail is among the greenest ways to move people and goods, and that rail is uniquely placed to use new renewable energy infrastructure. Our own polling here at the Association suggests that many Americans, at least, share that view, and in a bipartisan way: 78% think the U.S. needs to aggressively expand its rail networks, and 57% rank rail as either the number one or number two most-environmentally responsible way to travel.

It's a timely conversation. The Economist magazine next month is putting on a multi-day online symposium to mark the second annual “Sustainability Week” in the U.S., an international event in which I was invited to moderate a panel discussion on rail’s role in sustainability. My guests include Amtrak’s Roger Harris – the railroad’s executive VP for revenue and Chief Commercial Officer – the American Association of Railroads’ Jordan Stone, and Curtis Sloan from Watco, which operates short lines and terminal facilities and is pushing to show how freight rail can innovate to make an already environmentally attractive option even more sustainable and responsible.

In our discussions, Stone repeats the often-used but extremely relevant point that U.S. freight railroads can move one ton of freight 400 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. Sloan points out that short lines’ shorter distances make converting to all-electric locomotives with battery power a feasible option in some cases.

And of course, Amtrak is by far the most environmentally friendly way to travel: only pedaling your own bike is greener. Rail is 45 percent more energy efficient per passenger mile than cars, and 53 percent more energy efficient than light trucks. Amtrak travel produces up to 83 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than driving and as much as 73 percent fewer emissions than flying.

Meanwhile, this week the WMO sounded another alarm as four key climate change indicators – greenhouse gas concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification – set new records in 2021.

“This is yet another clear sign that human activities are causing planetary-scale changes in the land, ocean, and the atmosphere, with harmful and long-lasting ramifications for sustainable development and ecosystems,” the WMO said. “Extreme weather – the day-to-day ‘face’ of climate change – led to hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses, wreaked a heavy toll on human lives and well-being, and triggered shocks for food and water security and displacement that have accentuated in 2022.”

We don’t need to wait until 2050 or even 2030 to start tallying up the economic damage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, assesses that between 1980 and 2020, severe weather and climate disasters have already cost the U.S. $1.875 trillion and that in 2020 alone the U.S. experienced 22 separate “billion-dollar” disasters. And a paper published in Environmental Research Letters suggests that doing nothing could cost 15 times the hundreds of dollars per ton of CO2 already viewed as the high-end estimate, pegging the social cost of carbon at thousands of dollars per ton even if only 10% of the economic damage from climate change persists and reduces economic growth.

And that’s why the business community is beginning to sit up and take notice, and it’s why I’m more convinced than ever that rail has perhaps one of the most important roles to play anywhere in addressing the climate crisis facing humanity. Speaking to Harris at Amtrak, Stone at AAR, and Sloan at Watco, as well as in my conversations with dozens of others throughout the rail industry, everyone agrees that getting trucks off the road and people out of cars is not only smart science but good business.

The cost of doing nothing is about $3 trillion over the next 30 years. The cost of investing in wind, solar, grid technologies, and yes, passenger and freight rail, over the same time period works out to about $3.2 trillion over the same time period – while also potentially producing a return on that investment of some $9 trillion.

The Economist’s Sustainability Week online conference kicks off June 6th, but your Association is kicking off the conversation early with a webinar next week on May 25th exploring “How Heavy Rail Gets Green.” I’d love it if you’d join us.