Railroad Sustainability Symposium Highlights Environmental Opportunities For Rail Sector

While most of EDF’s freight transportation clean air efforts address emissions from the trucking and ocean sector, use of our nation’s railroad system for intermodal goods movement has been growing. In fact, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) reportsthat intermodal traffic on U.S. rail has risen from 6 million units in 1990 to nearly 12 million in 2011.

As rail lines come to view intermodal as a growth sector and revenue generator, there are significant opportunities to ensure that freight transportation remains on a path toward sustainability. In that context, Norfolk Southern and GE Transportation hosted the 2nd Annual Railroad Sustainability Symposium last week to highlight current sustainability practices in the sector and to create a dialogue about how sustainability impacts railroads, freight transportation and supply chain logistics.

The symposium covered a wide range of topics including new locomotive technology, sustainability measurement, and land restoration efforts. Perhaps most relevant to clean air issues in environmental hotspots was an update on the NS 999, an electric switcher locomotive prototype first rolled out in 2009 by Norfolk Southern. This locomotive was designed with the express purpose of serving rail yards, an area with high traffic density and idling rates, as well as harmful emissions.

The NS 999 emits no pollutants from combustion and would be most impactful in reducing harmful criteria pollutants which threaten public health. Efforts to continue testing and developing the locomotive are ongoing, but the NS 999 represents a significant effort to address emissions at some of the most critical junctures of the supply chain.

Also of particular interest was the discussion on metrics and calculations for sustainability efforts. A number of companies represented at the symposium are a part of the Carbon Disclosure Project and/or the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Many spoke of the need for accountability of emissions estimations and third-party verification of data that feeds into sustainability and emissions modeling.

The AAR showcased their carbon calculator, a popular tool also used by other transportation stakeholders like the Port of Seattle. These calculators estimate the amount of carbon dioxide emissions avoided by using a particular route or mode. Companies, shareholders, regulators and other interest groups continue to push for transparency in sustainability to allow consumers and suppliers of transportation services to measure their impact and achievements in this area.

The symposium was informative and the dialogue collaborative as representatives from the rail industry, shippers, logistics partners and others met to advance the sustainability agenda for railroads. Rail is a growing player in the intermodal market and new infrastructure developments across the country promise to spur additional growth for this sector.

Houston is recognized as a major rail hub for the region and at the Port of Houston, locomotives represent approximately 13 percent of port nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and 8 percent of port particulate matter (PM) emissions according to the 2007 Goods Movement Air Emissions Inventory. As we work towards improving air quality in environmental hotspots and reducing carbon emissions across the supply chain, we look forward to engaging with rail partners on freight sustainability.

This content was originally published on EDF's Texas Clean Air Matters blog.