Steel Rails are Green

Greg Galitzine : Green Blog
Greg Galitzine
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Steel Rails are Green

A new report from the BlueGreen Alliance and the Economic Policy InstituteFull Speed Ahead: Creating Green Jobs Through Freight Rail Expansion, confirms what rail and many environment advocates and industry sources have been pointing out for years: rails are green and in more ways than one. So instead of ripping out railroad tracks in favor of highways: the dominant government policy for the past 90 years, governments should instead enable investing money into freight rail.

Shipping goods on trains in whole or in part of intermodal (ship/truck-rail) movements uses less energy and land, emits fewer pollutants at greater labor productivity than all-truck for medium to high volumes of freight over likewise distance: short distance heavy movements, such as aggregates are also more efficiently carried on trains. On a per-ton basis, trucking uses on average four times the energy to transport freight versus rail, says the report. That means rail jobs are green jobs.

Moreover, encouraging freight rail through investment in it will also enable green passenger rail. Most of Amtrak's routes and a good chunk of U.S. commuter rail operations are on tracks that are owned by freight railroads. Therefore more freight rail and green jobs means more passenger rail, thereby generating even more green employment.

The BlueGreen Alliance and the Economic Policy Institute's study according to their release  says "that the expansion of freight rail in the U.S. can create approximately 7,800 green jobs for every $1 billion of capital invested. If this is expanded to include re-spending by freight rail and supporting industry employees, between 12,300 and 26,600 American jobs would be created or sustained per $1 billion invested."

"Over the past two centuries, rail has helped the United States become the world's leading economic power," said David Foster, Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance. "As we enter the new clean energy economy, now is not the time to abandon such a profitable, clean and promising industry. It's a winning situation for everyone - thousands of green jobs are created and we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

"This report affirms the tremendous public benefits that are generated both by freight rail's inherent fuel efficiency and the industry's commitment to reinvesting in the nation's rail network," said Edward R. Hamberger, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Association of American Railroads.

Freight rail jobs are green jobs, states the report, "which are crucial to reducing carbon and saving energy in the transportation sector. Over the past three decades, the industry has nearly doubled the amount of goods it has shipped without increasing fuel consumption, creating a fraction of the pollution of other modes of transportation. It cites for example, TTX Company, which is profiled in the report, has found ways to prevent more than 2.5 billion empty miles per year, and save more than 167 million gallons of fuel annually." 

To make an expanded freight rail system happens the report recommends that governments consider investment incentives, such as rail capital and shortline tax credits and public-private partnerships (P3s) between freight railroads and passenger rail with government paying only for public benefits, and railroads paying for the business benefits they gain from improvements to the rail network.

(A P3 was used to finance Metro Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada's very successfully Canada Line rapid transit, which opened last year from Vancouver International Airport a.k.a. YVR and Richmond into downtown Vancouver: in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics)

"Freight rail represents a significant opportunity to create good, green jobs while making our transportation system more efficient and sustainable and also helping passenger rail," said Carl Pope, Executive Chairman of the Sierra Club. "This report shows that expanding freight rail will meet our goals of creating good jobs while helping to reduce our dependence on oil."

What is also needed are incentives to encourage rail electrification, which is virtually nonexistent for freight and only exists in the Northeast with a couple of exceptions in the Chicago area and that is only for passenger. Electric traction has the enormous benefit of being able to return much of the power used through regenerative braking i.e. turning the electric motors under nearly every locomotive into generators as well as relying on cleaner energy sources such as hydro and modern natural-gas fire generating plants. 

But hey you have to start slow before you can move fast. If lawmakers adopt the recommendations in this report to expand freight rail first then we can talk about electrification later.


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