U.S. freight railroads are trying to take advantage of a train enthusiast president who’s concerned about global warming with a lobbying campaign depicting their industry as a solution to climate change. The Association of American Railroads, which represents such heavyweights as CSX Corp. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe, is advancing policy proposals it says would help pare greenhouse gas emissions — including some that would disadvantage competitors trucking goods.
The proposals include replacing the current gasoline tax with a fee on vehicle miles traveled and dedicated government funding for passenger rail that could appeal to President Joe Biden whose devotion to regularly riding trains from Delaware to Washington won him the moniker “Amtrak Joe” and landed his name on the Wilmington station. The railroad association outlined its ideas in a white paper Monday.
“This administration has been very clear about wanting to weave climate into its broader efforts,” said the association’s chief executive, Ian Jefferies. The rail industry hasn’t aggressively engaged on climate policy before, but “it’s a very relevant moment in time to be talking about this.”
The lobbying push underscores how climate policy decisions made by the Biden administration and Congress could create winners and losers across the U.S. economy. It also illustrates how the administration’s focus on climate change is spurring U.S. transportation companies to get more aggressive in shrinking their carbon footprints and shaping federal policy on the issue.
Central to the group’s pitch: Rail is the most environmentally sound way to transport goods across the U.S., and policy makers should encourage more of it. “There’s no denying that moving goods by rail is more efficient and emissions-friendly than moving goods over the highway,” Jefferies said. “Nobody benefits from sitting in traffic for hours and hours and their freight sitting in traffic.”
The transportation sector is the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., but the vast majority of those planet-warming emissions come from cars and trucks. Rail is responsible for just 2% of sector’s emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, even though railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume.
According to the association, if 10% of freight shipped by the largest trucks were moved by rail, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by more than 17 million tons annually.
The group is lobbying for government-backed research in alternatives for powering trains, building on industry efforts such as a BNSF Railway Co. test of a battery electric locomotive and a Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Canadian National LLC pilot project exploring hydrogen fuel cell locomotives.