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FRA wants rails to commit to climate change targets

Infrastructure bill raised funding level for eligible rail projects

The Federal Railroad Administration is encouraging rail companies to adopt net-zero carbon targets. (Photo: Shutterstock/Che Media)

The Federal Railroad Administration is urging the railroads and rail equipment manufacturers to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to its new Climate Challenge initiative.

The initiative, announced Friday in honor of Earth Day, will build upon the fuel efficiencies already inherent in freight rail relative to trucks while encouraging stakeholders to adopt measures promoting sustainability and resiliency, FRA said.

The initiative is part of a wider effort by the federal government per the infrastructure bill to promote emissions reductions. FRA expects to continue to partner with the industry on research and development involving renewable energy and clean energy.

“FRA commits to supporting innovation in the rail industry to keep rail one of the most sustainable transportation choices,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose in a release. “Together, we will expand access to passenger and freight rail, ensure that they are powered by environmentally friendly technologies and eliminate emissions across the rail supply chain.”

FRA is also partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program, in which freight transportation companies measure, benchmark and improve their energy efficiency. 

The new infrastructure law calls for a 500% increase in recent funding levels for rail projects that are eligible for federal grants, according to FRA. These grants are awarded to projects aimed at increasing access to passenger rail or encouraging a modal shift to rail and more energy efficient means of transport.  

In response to Friday’s announcement, the Association of American Railroads noted freight railroads’ decades-long partnership with suppliers, academic institutions and government partners, and the group urged FRA to promote actions that would not stall innovation.

“Today, the industry is actively developing new low- and zero-emission technologies, with several railroads conducting service trials on hydrogen fuel-cell and battery electric locomotives that could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kristin South, AAR senior vice president for communications. “We look forward to working with the federal government to usher in the next wave of sustainable innovation through continued collaboration, investment and regulations that progress — not hinder — continued advancement.”

Amtrak said it plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and transition its consumption of electricity to carbon-free sources by 2030. To that end, Amtrak is acquiring 75 locomotives between now and 2024 that emit fewer emissions. The ALC-42 locomotives, which Amtrak has already run between Chicago and Seattle, emit more than 89% fewer nitrogen oxide emissions and 95% fewer particulate matter than the locomotives from the 1990s. These new locomotives consume less fuel, according to Amtrak. 

Amtrak also said Friday that it is developing a companywide climate resilience plan.

“The United States has the opportunity to make use of an unparalleled asset — our railway infrastructure — to support an expanded network of low-carbon, high-capacity intercity passenger rail that can reduce this country’s carbon emissions,” said Amtrak CEO and President Stephen Gardner. “Creating a future where rail is operated on clean energy, Amtrak is stepping up to President Biden’s Climate Change Commitment and the FRA’s challenge as we aim to transition to carbon-free electricity to power our trains.”

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.