5 rail sustainability trends for 2021

Least carbon-intensive mode of transport, rail strives for higher level of environmental sustainability
Rail is the lowest-emitting mode of freight per ton mile. This infographic shows that rail is only responsible for 6% of logistics-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Rail emits 23 grams of CO2 per ton-mile compared to trucking, which is at 202. Here’s how environmental sustainability trends in rail freight are looking for 2021.
Leveraging automation for optimal efficiency
New technologies and increased automation provide railroads with useful data and improved fuel efficiency. The Internet of Things (IoT) can predict maintenance needs and show inefficiencies in operations. Several Class I railroads now use some version of a trip optimizer, which works like cruise control to manage the throttle and brakes for optimal fuel savings.
Other automated tools, like the Meet Pass Planner (MPP) that CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) uses to manage traffic and the Energy Management System (EMS) that BNSF (NYSE: BRK) uses to track variables like grade, weight and length for maximized productivity, also help railroads get closer to their lower emission goals. Precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is growing in use and popularity because of its many benefits, including less congestion at stations, less idle time and less unnecessary equipment.
Conservation efforts continue
Most railroads are ramping up their environmental efforts, including BNSF’s approximately $400 million investment toward remediation of its sites and Union Pacific’s (NYSE: UNP) support for various tree planting and conservation organizations.
Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) released a statement in August about its Living Shoreline Initiative. Rising sea levels were approaching one of Norfolk’s access roads, so it started working with the Elizabeth River Project to restore and preserve the eroding shoreline. The project provides more resilience during storms and optimal habitats for diverse marine life.
A Canadian Pacific Railway (NYSE: CP) report stated, “Beyond vegetation, if new construction or other activities are expected to adversely affect fish or wildlife habitat, we will implement targeted compensation projects to improve habitats for impacted species.” Canadian Pacific (CP) also does environmental project screenings to minimize negative impacts on wildlife such as erosion, disturbance during nesting seasons and invasive plant species.
Lowering emissions through asset evaluations
By evaluating current assets and operations, rail companies find new ways to improve their environmental sustainability and reduce emissions. Almost every railroad is aiming to improve their fuel efficiency by modernizing their existing fleet, upgrading their locomotives with new technologies, limiting idle times and moving the same amount of cargo using fewer trains.
CSX is the first U.S. Class I railroad to cross the fuel-efficiency milestone of 1 gallon/ kGTM. BNSF is using diesel electric locomotives to decrease fuel consumption. It also is developing a battery-electric locomotive that it will begin testing in California in early 2021.
Union Pacific (UP) has made drastic transitions to more sustainable facilities by investing in LED lighting and solar panels at select locations. Canadian Pacific’s (CP) massive lighting upgrades resulted in an estimated savings of “3,428,822 KWH equivalent reduction of 687.6 metric tons of CO2e annually.”
Preventing plastic pellet pollution
A study estimated that the U.K. alone could be spilling up to 53 billion plastic pellets into the environment each year. Plastic pellets contaminate delicate marine ecosystems and harm wildlife as they are often mistaken for food. Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) is dedicated to preventing plastic pellet pollution. Through evaluations of current operations and creative problem-solving, plastics producers and shippers can reduce pollution of plastic pellets drastically. Typically, it’s as simple as vacuuming up spills from hoses, valves and every point of transfer as they happen.
There are some criticisms about how effective OCS is due to the lack of transparency from participants, but more companies are pledging to be a part of the solution. Norfolk Southern (NS), Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) and CN (NYSE: CNI) have recently joined the campaign.
KCS Chief Marketing Officer Mike Naats said, “This is an important initiative and a direct way that KCS can work toward eliminating plastic waste in the environment.”
More corporate climate goals
As consumers demand more eco-friendly products and action on climate change, the supply chain is adapting. More rail companies are setting emissions targets and joining sustainability initiatives.
This year, rail equipment and technology manufacturer Wabtec (NYSE: WAB) announced environmental goals for 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity, energy intensity and water consumption each by 30%. CSX aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 37.3% by 2030. UP has committed to unveiling some science-based targets in its 2020 Building America Report, which isn’t out yet.

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