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How carbon calculators can help rail customers

Online programs can measure just how much using rail reduces GHG emissions

Many of the Class I rail carriers have made online carbon calculators to help customers see what their potential emissions reductions could be from using rail. (Photo: Shutterstock/thodonal88)

Among the freight transportation modes, the railroads are considered to be a more environmentally friendly option for shippers or customers seeking to transport higher volumes of goods while emitting fewer carbon emissions.

Indeed, freight railroads account for 0.5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and just 1.9% of transportation-related GHG emissions, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), quoting a statistic from the Environmental Protection Agency.

AAR also estimates that if 25% of truck traffic moving at least 750 miles switches to rail, that would result in GHG emission reductions of about 13.1 million tons. Increase that percentage to 50%, and GHG emissions reductions would fall by approximately 26.2 million tons, AAR says.

Rail has historically been thought to be three to four times more efficient than truck, but Norfolk Southern’s analysis is indicating that rail is three to six times more efficient with an emissions savings up to 90% in some cases, according to Josh Raglin, NS (NYSE: NSC) chief sustainability officer.

One way shippers can learn about emissions reductions via rail transport is through online carbon calculators provided by AAR and a number of Class I railroads.

What is a carbon calculator?

Carbon calculators use inputs such as the number of railcars on a train, distance traveled and commodity carried in order to estimate carbon emissions reductions.


Users find that a carbon calculator can help them see how they can reduce emissions along the supply chain.

“At least 20% of our top customers have committed to science-based targets for emissions reductions, and our role in the supply chain remains a sustainable one,” Raglin told FreightWaves, noting NS has an online carbon calculator that it revised earlier this year. “Our calculator helps our customers incorporate carbon into their logistics with a high degree of credibility.”

NS first developed its carbon calculator in 2008, but it started receiving requests in 2020 for more shipping emissions data, Raglin said. NS’ current iteration includes fuel burn data from locomotives every 15 minutes, and then that burn data is applied to every railcar based on its weight. The burn data is tallied as the cars move across the network, he said.

“Our solution actually goes beyond the railcar and includes external factors, like fuel burn for handling equipment for intermodal containers, so we’re able to capture emissions for the entire lifecycle of every car,” Raglin said. “It also covers the entire U.S. rail and highway network. So really, we developed one because we had the tools, the data, and we knew our customers would benefit from it.”

Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) is the latest Class I railroad to have an online carbon emissions calculator. CP says its calculator uses tailored emissions computations and incorporates customer-specific shipping details to estimate route and commodity-specific GHG emissions.

“CP recognizes that its ability to influence GHG emission reductions extends beyond its operations and across its suppliers and value chain network,” CP said in a news release. “The carbon emissions calculator provides a framework to engage across the value chain to identify and collaborate on opportunities to reduce GHG emissions within supply chains.”

Other Class I railroads have incorporated online carbon calculators for more than a decade. 

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) says its carbon emissions estimator, launched in 2011 and accessed more than 1,300 times in 2021, allows customers to calculate their potential carbon emissions savings from shipping with UP compared to moving goods by truck. The western U.S. railroad also provides customers with annual emissions savings estimates, when requested.

UP estimates that customers in 2021 eliminated approximately 22.9 million metric tons of GHG emissions by choosing rail over truck transportation — an equivalent of removing 4.5 million cars from our highways or planting 350 million trees.

CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) says it created its online carbon calculator in 2008 to measure the carbon emissions savings of specific rail shipments and provide comparative data among transportation choices. 

“The calculator compares the carbon emissions generated by freight rail to those of long-haul trucks over similar routes,” Raghu Chatrathi, CSX senior director of public safety, health and environment, told FreightWaves. “The calculator also provides shippers an opportunity to better understand the environmental benefits of shipping their goods by rail.” 

According to CSX, “[The calculator] not only helps our customers make smart supply chain decisions, it also helps educate consumers about the path items take to get to store shelves or their front door. The tool demonstrates our commitment to responsible business and helps consumers understand how freight rail positively affects the carbon footprint of the goods they buy.”

Meanwhile, BNSF’s carbon estimator determines the emissions reduced by measuring energy use, such as diesel fuel consumed, and multiplying that by EPA-established emission factors. 

“The carbon calculator takes into account different product segments to show the impact of logistic choices when selecting long-haul options,” BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) said in a statement. “Choosing rail as your option for a long-haul carrier can yield up to a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

While AAR says its carbon calculator is meant for informational purposes only, it allows shippers to see how much GHG emissions could be reduced and how many trucks could be taken off the road. Inputs for the calculator include the number of railcars on a train, the route the train would take and what commodity the train would carry. 

AAR said it uses averages derived from industry data, noting that actual emissions associated with a specific train may vary depending on the type and number of locomotives as well as other unique characteristics of the railroad, commodity and route.

AAR also said its rail emission estimates assume 437.9 ton-miles per gallon of fuel based on an industry average (486.6 miles per gallon) adjusted downward by 10% to account for geographic factors. 

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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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.
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