Could Upgrading Our Railroads Help Solve Climate Change?
America’s iconic transcontinental railroad system is symbolic of our hard work and innovation. Since its inception, it brought settlement to the frontier and enabled us to transport goods and passengers between our coasts with unheard of speed. Today, it presents another opportunity to revolutionize American transportation. As we search for ways to take large trucks off the road and reduce our carbon emissions, electrifying our railways and renewing our commitment to shipping by train might be just the ticket.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), around 70 percent of U.S. freight is moved via tractor-trailer truck. As a fully-loaded semi gets around 7-8 miles to the gallon, that’s a recipe for large-scale pollution. Not to mention the fact that despite claiming 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States puts out nearly half the world’s automobile-related carbon emissions. America’s roadways are becoming more dilapidated every year, and the wear and tear large trucks put on our highways is going to become very expensive in coming years. Railroads are already a more efficient way to move goods and people — becoming even more so if we electrify them.
“Solutionary Rail” is a proposal to do just that – a move that, if acted upon, will not only cut carbon emissions from trucks, but from the diesel trains that are currently the industry standard.
An Answer for Our Infrastructure
In 2015, trucks moved over ten billion tons of freight and generated over $700 billion dollars in total revenue. This is a massive industry, and one that is heavily subsidized by our federal government. Often not taken into account, however, are substantial external costs – mainly the rampant wear-and-tear on our nation’s already-aging road network. A report published by the Congressional Budget Committee states that such costs from trucking are roughly eight times higher than those incurred by railroads.
Just this year, our infrastructure received a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The comprehensive study factors in capacity, current condition, funding, and more. Large scale efforts are needed to curb the degradation of our roadways. Not only are we paying a major price environmentally with noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re moving quickly toward a future where the cost of repairing our roads is insurmountable. Estimates for the repair of our current infrastructure already range in the trillions of dollars, and the longer we wait to do something about it, the more costly it will become.
These highways and bridges are what get us from point A to point B and literally hold our country together. We currently ship the majority of goods via highway, and if we let them get to the point where they’re unsafe (or, at least, more so than they already are), we’re going to have some serious economic issues on our hands.
Railroads, by contrast, offer us an opportunity to not only preserve our roads, but lessen our dependency on them. If we make an effort to ship resources by rail now, we’ll already be invested in an alternate method that can help us avoid a massive logistics failure as our roadways crumble beneath our wheels.
The Yes to the No
Solutionary Rail is the product of a grassroots movement called the Backbone Campaign. The Campaign is an activist organization based in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Washington State. In the PNW, state and local governments have dedicated a large portion of their resources to resisting coal and oil shipments moving from the Rocky Mountains, through the region, and on to Asia. The movement’s leader and creator of Solutionary Rail, Bill Moyer, was challenged by a railroad employee to create a positive solution to the issues his organization was protesting. He took up the challenge, and this proposal is the result. As Moyer stated in an interview, “our ‘no’ is only as strong as our ‘yes’ is compelling.”
The main problem holding back the electrification of our railroads is the initial cost. In the United States, the majority of railroads are privately owned. This means that the corporations that own them have to pay property tax on improvements they make. As the costs of modification are substantial, there isn’t much incentive for railroads to make the switch to electric on their own without being slapped with additional taxes. Meanwhile, in the European Union, they’ve enjoyed modern railways, even moving forward with testing hydrogen-powered trains.
What Moyer has proposed is a multi-state nonprofit corporation called the Steel Interstate Development Bank (SIDB; not to be confused with the Steel Interstate Coalition). Essentially, this corporation would be funded mainly through tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds and use that money to pay for the first 2,200 miles of the project. The SIDB would then charge user fees to recover money spent. This would lessen the burden on the railroads themselves, making the costs of electrification much easier to handle.
Moving to a Sustainable Future
In America, we’re seeing popular support for a movement away from traditional fuels in all industries. According to an article in Forbes, as of last year 43 percent of workers in the electric power generation sector are working in solar power — this compared to fossil fuel’s 22 percent. A recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund shows that jobs in solar and wind industries are growing by around 20% annually – around 12 times the growth rate of the rest of the American economy. Investing in green energy is no longer just a sacrifice we have to make for the good of the Earth. It’s a center of innovation and technological advancement with massive investment opportunities.
Solar tech is continually increasing in efficiency, not only allowing us to shift our focus on a large, corporate scale, but on a personal level as well. Home solar panels can, over time, save money on energy bills, and the technology is getting cheaper and more accessible by the day. Local governments are getting in on the action, too, with Las Vegas’ city government now powering itself entirely via solar energy.
By decreasing our dependence on oil and replacing it with sustainable energy sources, we’re moving jobs from a dated industry rife with economic and environmental problems to a new one that is growing at a remarkable rate. Just as Thomas Edison, arguably one of America’s greatest inventors, once said almost a century ago: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind, and tide. I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Our railroads are a perfect example of what we can do if we put our minds to sustainability. With automobiles causing a disproportionate amount of the pollution we put into the air each year, nothing has the potential to take them off the road quite like our railway system.
By making it a national interest to revolutionize this industry, we can introduce faster, more efficient trains that run on electricity, decreasing our reliance on long-haul trucking. At the same time, we’ll remove the pollution produced by the current diesel engines that are the standard today. Ideas like Solutionary Rail are the first step in making this dream a reality.