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Freight rail panel: Sustainability needn’t break the bank

Initiatives can consist of tweaking existing operations

The North American freight rail industry is considering numerous ways to make rail more sustainable. (Photo: Shutterstock)

While battery-electric and hydrogen-powered locomotives have received the lion’s share of coverage when it comes to North American freight railroads and sustainability initiatives, a railroad seeking to adopt sustainability or climate resiliency measures need not spend vast amounts of money.

Indeed, implementing sustainability initiatives may consist of determining where to adjust existing procedures to align with the goal of reducing carbon emissions, according to panelists who spoke at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting about the North American freight railroads’ role in addressing sustainability and climate resiliency.

By starting at “step one” with BNSF’s engineering services department, “it’s given us a lot of time to work and come up with a common goal,” Ned Bagniewski, a civil engineer with engineering design firm HDR, said Tuesday.

Bagniewski was tasked with finding “low-cost, low-hanging-fruit” ways to help BNSF’s (NYSE: BRK.B) engineering services department develop more sustainable practices. 

While BNSF is known for incorporating electrification into its operations as a means to reduce carbon emissions — conducting a pilot on battery-electric locomotives that would work with diesel-electric locomotives in a hybrid consist, for example — the railway is also seeking other, more cost-effective means to address emissions reductions, according to Bagniewski.

Bagniewski worked with BNSF to review how engineering projects met certain sustainability criteria. The team looked at 13 projects, ranging from tunnel ventilation to depot remodels and short shelters installation to diesel shop weatherproofing. They analyzed how these projects could address sustainability under certain criteria, such as water and energy use, types of materials used, and construction methods.

From there, HDR and BNSF were able to create a “heat map” that allowed BNSF to see where sustainable practices were already in place, as well as where there could be opportunities for improvement. They were also able to create a checklist to help BNSF during pre-design and post-design for projects, as well as develop a resource management plan for contractors that shows how they can utilize sustainable practices during construction. 

While these efforts can serve as short-term goals for BNSF and other Class I railroads, long-term goals for the Class I railroads can include partnering  engineering and construction contractors and training local professionals in emerging sustainable methods and technologies, Bagniewski said.

That second objective is one that the short line railroads are also working on, according to Sean Strong, who sits on an environmental committee for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. Strong is also a vice president for environmental matters for short line operator Watco.

To address sustainability and climate resiliency, the committee has taken steps to host a webinar on fire prevention in light of the recent California wildfires and coordinate with the Class I railroads on sustainability programs. The committee is also seeking grant funding for a locomotive emissions study, and ASLRRA has become an affiliate of the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program, which seeks to track, document and share information about fuel use and freight emissions across supply chains.

Meanwhile, Watco is seeking to conduct an inventory of its GHG emissions, which can be “daunting” but is helpful because shippers want to know what emissions are associated with their goods during transport, Strong said. Watco also is seeking to reduce emissions via fuel additives and with the way it keeps its locomotives warm during cold weather, among other measures. Watco has also established a sustainability committee with members coming from different departments, and it has an executive who oversees sustainability efforts. 

“The decisions we make in sustainability are going to touch the whole company,” Strong said.

The efforts by short line operators and the Class I railroads to address sustainability on both an individual company and an industrywide level come as the Federal Railroad Administration has also started to examine how to address climate resiliency within its purview of ensuring safe rail operations.

The federal government will be seeking ways to partner with the rail industry for opportunities to address sustainability and resiliency, said FRA’s new climate specialist, Michael Johnsen, who previously served FRA by ensuring rail projects met federal environmental standards. 

While FRA is still at the beginning stages of identifying the ways it can work with the railroads on sustainability, the agency has access to funds that can support carbon emissions research as it pertains to rail operations and maintenance. FRA can also lend support to federal grant-seeking projects that address sustainability initiatives. 

FRA and the rail industry “have a unique opportunity to move the football … and make the rail industry better and more robust,” Johnsen said.

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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.