Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

Railroads Strive to Reduce the Carbon Footprint and Increase Sustainability

As talk of reducing pollution and greenhouse gases continues, railroads strive to make their industry eco-friendlier and increase the use of technology needed to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment. We will explore how fuel efficiency, practicing sustainability, and using alternative resources—which enable the railroad industry to accomplish its goal of reducing emissions—save time, money, and resources to improve the world around us.

Privately owned freight railroads are the most sustainable way to move freight on land.  They reduce greenhouse emissions by 75% compared to over-the-road trucks. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), freight railroads account for less than 0.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and only 2% of transportation source emissions.

New technologies over time have allowed for the decrease of greenhouse gases by the railroads. Further innovation will see the number drop even further while railroads increase output and sustainability. With a freight rail network that stretches nearly 140,000 miles coast to coast, every improvement decreases the carbon footprint the industry has on the environment.

According to industry reports, one of the most important and easiest ways for the railroads to decrease greenhouse gases is to increase fuel efficiency. On average, U.S. railroads move one ton of freight 479 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. One way this is accomplished is by using fuel management systems software.  This software provides real-time recommendations to engineers on how to operate the locomotive in the most fuel-efficient way.

While operating multiple locomotives on one train, the fuel management systems software will adjust power settings on each locomotive to individually optimize efficiency and reduce fuel waste—making trains four times more fuel efficient than trucks. If just 10% of freight hauled by trucks moved by rail instead, fuel savings would amount to more than 1.5 billion gallons per year and annual greenhouse gases would be reduced by more than 17 million tons.  This is equivalent to removing 3.2 million cars from the highways or planting 400 million trees.

Stop-start idling reduces fuel waste during down periods and limits pollution.  Improved aerodynamics reduces fuel consumption and emissions as well. Using Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway as an example, the Class I railroad has installed the stop-start idling system on 80% of its locomotive fleet—increasing fuel efficiency and reducing costs as well as improving the environment. As 95% of railroad emissions come from diesel locomotives, this is a significant initiative.

When it comes to the locomotives themselves, Union Pacific (UP) has spent about $6 billion since 2000 to purchase more than 3,400 units that meet tighter federal emissions standards. UP now has the industry’s largest GenSet fleet with each unit saving about 12,000 gallons of fuel annually compared with a typical switching locomotive. A GenSet is a locomotive with a number of smaller diesel generators in place of one large diesel generator. In a GenSet locomotive, an onboard computer determines power needs and starts or shuts down a combination of smaller diesel generators to provide or conserve power.

Reducing friction between the wheels and rail is another method to increase fuel efficiency.  This allows freight trains to haul heavier loads with less strain on mechanical equipment and the environment. In fact, thanks to the improved redesigning of freight cars, the average freight train can haul 3,630 tons in 2017 compared to 2,923 tons in 2000. This 24.2% increase in weight came without increasing fuel use—thereby increasing sustainability.

The rail industry is not just reducing its carbon footprint on the tracks, but at classification yards and maintenance shops as well. Railroads are updating cargo-moving equipment, such as cranes. Traditionally powered by diesel fuel, railroads are replacing the diesel with electric cranes—which have far fewer emissions to the environment.

One such Class I railroad, CSX, has installed seven wide-span electric cranes at its North Baltimore terminal in Ohio. These cranes have the capacity to replace 20 diesel-powered cranes and the same number of diesel trucks used to move containers around the facility. This would reduce fuel use, emissions, and maintenance costs.

Another Class I Railroad, Norfolk Southern (NS), has a plan to plant ten thousand acres of trees to offset carbon emission credits and reduce the carbon footprint of the railroads further. NS will spend $5.6 million through GreenTrees, a reforestation organization, to plant trees in non-productive farmland in Mississippi and Louisiana.


Reducing congestion on the highways and the lowering of the carbon footprint from trucking goods across the country is another concern remedied using more efficiently run railroads. A single freight train can remove several hundred trucks from the highways, reducing congestion and limiting the number of emissions to the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses.

In fact, by moving just five percent of freight from trucks to rail, the result would be nine million fewer tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Also, with taxes and fees falling short of the amount required to upkeep the cost of highway maintenance caused by the damage from heavy trucks ($25 billion in private capital annually), the use of the railroad to transport more goods would be a relief to the taxpayer as well.

The railroad industry is embracing and, in many ways, leading the way to sustainability and environmental preservation. By reducing fuel emissions through technological improvement, eliminating congestion on the highways, and limiting the carbon footprint on the environment, other industries can look to the railroad as an example of how to be productive and maintain a green presence. With these measures in effect and with the demand of freight to increase 37% by 2040, the railroad will become the best option to move goods more efficiently and economically well into the future.


Author: Justin Lambracht, Education Assistant 

Skip to toolbar