Railroads Trumpet Trains
by Valerie Yurk
AAR argues that if 10% of the freight shipped by trucks were moved by train instead,
greenhouse gas emissions would fall more than 17 million tons annually.
A railroads group is promoting its industry as climate-friendly in a lobbying campaign after the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee put pressure on the sector for supporting climate denial through its funding and membership in trade associations.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents railroad giants like CSX Transportation and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway Co., released a set of policy proposals as part of the campaign launched yesterday that focuses on expanding freight and passenger train usage, which it pitches as a solution to climate change.
The campaign comes after Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) sent a letter to AAR last year raising concerns that railroads have been "major players in the climate-denial movement," accusing four AAR members of calling climate change a "hypothesis" in 2014 and arguing that carbon dioxide was up to 400 times more beneficial than harmful to humanity (Greenwire, Jan. 17, 2020).
Despite run-ins with climate denial, this policy push is similar to past AAR climate campaigns in which the group touts freight and passenger trains as a climate solution, calling them the "most environmentally friendly mode of transportation."
Many of AAR's policies focus on switching transportation from fuel-guzzling trucks to freight trains, which are more fuel efficient and make up only about 2% of the nation's transport-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA.
AAR argues that if 10% of the freight shipped by trucks were moved by train instead, greenhouse gas emissions would fall more than 17 million tons annually -- the equivalent of removing 3.35 million cars from the road.
The railroad group's chief pitch is replacing the long-stagnant gasoline tax with a fee on vehicle miles traveled, which would require heavier-duty vehicles to pay higher fees. That, it said, would put trucking and trains on even footing and restore a user-pays approach to highways.
AAR specifically recommends bolstering passenger trains by creating a Passenger Rail Account, which would expand states' passenger tracks and Amtrak's operations across the country, it said.
"Intercity passenger rail is the only mode of passenger transportation in the United States that does not receive any dedicated federal funding through a trust fund, leaving Amtrak completely dependent upon annual discretionary appropriations," it stated in the report. "This fiscal uncertainty makes it difficult for Amtrak to plan its operations and capital needs for the long term."
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has already expressed interest in a vehicle-miles-traveled tax.
The organization hopes these policies would create a model shift that would encourage travelers to use passenger rail.
Another proposal advises Congress to take a hands-off approach to managing the railroad industry's private investments, which AAR said would go toward green initiatives. Since the industry was granted partial deregulation in 1980, it said it had allowed railroads to pour $740 billion back into their networks.
The group is also lobbying for government-backed research funding on greener locomotive fuel alternatives like electric or "blue hydrogen"-powered trains. Blue hydrogen is hydrogen made from natural gas in a way that captures, stores or reuses associated carbon emissions.
"Well-designed, economically sound policies can effectively drive the economy toward lower overall emissions, specifically in the transportation sector. Railroads stand ready to be a part of the solution," Ian Jefferies, AAR president and CEO, said in a statement.
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