Can the US achieve railway decarbonization? EHRT speaks to the Federal Railroad Administration to find out

5 min read

Following the launch of the Climate Challenge earlier this year, the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Michael Johnsen, senior advisor on climate and sustainability, provides his view on how the US’s rail sector will hit the challenge’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

Why was the rail industry Climate Challenge launched?

MJ: To address the climate crisis, US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg requested that each of the US Department of Transportation’s Operating Administrations create Climate Challenges for the respective industries and sectors they oversee. 

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) decided to challenge the rail industry to meet a Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions target by 2050 which aligned with the Biden Administration’s goal of net-zero GHG emissions economy-wide by 2050. Our challenge builds upon the efficiencies and emission reduction goals already embraced by the rail industry. This is also the date most climate scientists agree must be met to avoid catastrophic impacts.

FRA wants to inspire industry leaders to develop a pathway to clean and renewable energy to maintain rail’s competitive advantage in transporting both goods and people. While our neighbors to the north in Canada also set forth requirements to be net zero by 2050, it’s worth noting that the State of California has set a more ambitious goal of net-zero by 2045.

What does the challenge involve?

MJ: America’s privately owned freight rail industry has been reducing emissions for years by increasing operational efficiencies and other means. But this challenge places greater emphasis on developing a plan for transitioning to clean and renewable energy. To achieve that goal, new technologies are needed but so are safety regulatory changes and other forms of innovation. It also requires continued partnering between the government and the private industries that own and operate over the rail network, as well as other entities such as locomotive manufacturers and shippers. 

Who will FRA be working with on the challenge?

MJ: FRA will work with any and all rail industry stakeholders to find workable solutions to this global problem. That includes the Class 1 railroads, regional and short line carriers, Amtrak, commuter rail operators, and private passenger rail providers. But it also includes states, localities, non-governmental organizations, universities, and obviously manufacturers and suppliers of rail equipment and infrastructure. FRA is also prepared to collaborate internationally with others on implementing clean and renewable rail technologies.

How is the challenge going so far?

MJ: The mere fact that we are having this conversation indicates that the challenge has invigorated the discussion. While FRA can’t take credit for the progress and initiatives already occurring in the rail industry, we feel that demonstrating federal support provides necessary leadership and coordination.  The challenge has been a catalyst for meaningful conversation and dialogue on how to transition away from fossil fuels. Last December, Union Pacific Railroad unveiled a climate action plan indicating it plans to reach net-zero by 2050. Other companies have already signaled that they will meet net-zero targets before then and FRA continues to conduct and sponsor research on electrification technologies. 

What is the best approach to removing diesel powered trains from the tracks in the US?

MJ: I’m reluctant to advocate for a single approach. As previously noted, the US rail network is privately owned and operated. It is not managed by a centralized bureaucracy where one size fits all solutions are dictated from above. Freight rail is already a very efficient form of transportation and there are numerous market incentives for the industry to be more so. All the technologies mentioned, and perhaps even new, yet-to-be-developed ones will likely play a role.

At this point, it appears the industry is considering utilizing multiple technologies depending on the situation. For example, yard and over the road operations are quite different and may demand different solutions. The transition away from diesel has started and FRA is supporting innovations in hydrogen, battery technology, renewable biodiesel, and electrification.

Where removing diesel-powered trains is not an option, how can they be made more sustainable?

MJ: Among FRA’s goals is to help foster industry phasing out the dirtiest and most inefficient locomotives on the network, which we see as non-EPA-tiered, Tier 0, or Tier 1 locomotives. FRA may foreseeably award competitive grant funding to railroads that operate these older locomotives to renovate, rehabilitate or replace them. In addition, FRA has become an affiliate of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Smartways Program, which is designed to help the freight industry reduce EPA criteria emissions, reduce fuel use, and improve overall efficiency. 

Renewable biodiesel fuels will likely be a strong component in the transition away from fossil fuels and can also contribute to reduced emissions as well as transitioning to Tier 4 locomotives. Unfortunately, some of the most polluting locomotives are in railyards so cleaning up those operations not only will reduce fuel use, but also clean the air for adjacent communities.

What else is FRA working on currently?

MJ: FRA research is focusing on battery and hydrogen technologies for locomotive propulsion, but our primary role is to assure the safety of those technologies for railroad workers, passengers, and the public. We have several projects underway.

FRA is working with the San Bernardino Transportation Authority to oversee the introduction of a passenger multiple-unit train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell/battery system. This will be a first in the US. FRA is also in discussions with the Sierra Northern Railway on its proposal to design and test a switcher locomotive that will be powered by a combination hydrogen fuel cell and battery. We have also been meeting with manufacturers who are planning the introduction of fully battery-powered locomotives for short-to-medium distance freight haul service.

Finally, FRA is planning to conduct field testing of several hydrogen and battery subsystems at our test facility in Pueblo, Colorado, in the next few years to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the technology components to withstand the rigors of rail operations.

Do you believe the US rail network will ever be fully electrified? 

MJ: Perhaps, but whether that comes to pass in the US or elsewhere will depend upon advancements in battery and charging technologies, hydrogen fuel cells, the costs of electrification, and countless operational issues. Most net-zero plans in the industry utilize bio diesel and renewable biodiesel to meet net zero goals in the short and medium term while continually developing electrification technologies and infrastructure. 

It’s possible that renewable biodiesel plays a role in some routes difficult to replace. However, over time, electrification in various forms will likely become cheaper and more attractive with longer operating distances and will play an increasing role in motive power sources.

What are some of the key challenges standing in the way of the decarbonization of the US’s rail network?

MJ: Advancing that goal is very complex and it will require extensive coordination among and between many stakeholders. As stated previously, foremost we don’t have a nationalized network controlled by a central government. Our system is decentralized and largely privately controlled. A key impediment is cost. Advancing new technological developments is invariably expensive. The technology foundations are in place and over time improvements will lower costs, but we’re not yet at a point where widespread adoption is feasible or economical.

One of the other major challenges of decarbonization is developing the physical infrastructure necessary to enable use of clean energy sources. The US rail network exceeds 140,000 track miles over diverse terrain in urban and rural areas. We will need to overcome dozens of standardization and harmonization issues across railroads and geographic territories. For example, will hundreds of railroads agree upon and share universal charging connections? How will the vast railroad workforce be trained and qualified to operate and maintain the next generation equipment and infrastructure? Finally, FRA and other regulators will need to do their part in developing all the regulations and standards necessary to ensure safe and secure operations.

Over the next 5-10 years how do you see the US rail network changing?

MJ: Over the next 5 to 10 years new and emerging technologies will continue to evolve and the cost to adopt them should decrease too. Hopefully, during that timeframe railroads will remove or renovate the worst polluting locomotives from their fleets. We will likely have a better understanding on how to reduce emissions during rail construction and maintenance and witness corresponding reductions in the manufacture of components. Rail is an inherently efficient mode of transportation and because of the investments being made today, there will be greater reliance on both freight and passenger rail.

This interview first appeared in the October issue of Electric & Hybrid Rail Technology magazine