Interview: CARB speaks to EHRT about the controversial new In-Use Locomotive Regulation

5 mins read

The California Air Resources Board speaks to Electric & Hybrid Rail Technology about why its new In-Use Locomotive Regulation is so important for the state, highlighting how it will accelerate decarbonization, reduce emissions and save lives.

California is taking drastic action to reduce locomotive emissions within the state. Its new In-Use Locomotive Regulation, which was approved by California’s Office of Administrative Law (OAL) in October 2023, with an effective date of January 1, 2024, will achieve emission reductions from diesel-powered locomotives and increase the use of zero-emission technology within the state, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). It will also help meet California’s public health, air quality and climate goals, including the state’s aim to decarbonize transport by 2045, by reducing criteria pollutants, toxic air contaminants, and greenhouse gas emissions for locomotives in-use.  

The regulation has, however, faced widespread criticism in the rail sector with both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) filing a lawsuit against CARB, claiming that it will “limit the useful life of today’s locomotive fleet” and that the timeline is unrealistic given the current development of zero-emission technology.

“While the urgency to act is real and unquestionable, CARB uses unreasonable, flawed assumptions to support a rule that will not result in emissions reductions,” says AAR president and CEO Ian Jefferies.

Speaking to Electric & Hybrid Rail Technology, Heather Arias, chief of CARB’s Transportation and Toxics division said that she was “disappointed” with both the AAR and ASLRRA response. “Despite the availability of cleaner options, railroad companies have failed to make investments to replace their outdated, dirty locomotives that contribute to the state’s air quality problems and endanger the lives and health of Californians,” she says. “We are disappointed that rather than working with us to clean their old, dirty locomotives, the railroad companies have chosen to litigate instead. We intend to defend our right to protect the air that Californians breathe.”

How it works

The new In-Use Locomotive Regulation will apply from January 2024 to any locomotive operator in the state of California. The regulation is broken down into two key parts – the spending account and in-use operational requirements. For the former, locomotive operators will be required to fund their own trust account based on the emissions created by their locomotive operations in California. The dirtier the locomotive, the more funds must be set aside. The funds can be used to purchase cleaner or zero emission locomotives or repower existing ones, or to develop related infrastructure.

Spending accounts need to be established by July 1, 2026, according to CARB, and locomotive activity, emission levels and idling data will be required to be reported annually.

“Operators will be required to track their California locomotives’ activity using a megawatt-hour meter or by the amount of fuel used while in California and report to CARB annually,” Arias explains. “The spending account deposit obligation is based on CARB’s estimate of mortality costs to the California population as a consequence of these locomotive emissions.”

For the in-use operational requirements, which will be enforced from 2030, only locomotives less than 23 years old will be able to be used in California. Furthermore, switchers operated by Class I, Class III, industrial and passenger locomotive operators with an original engine build date of 2030 and beyond will be required to operate in a zero-emission configuration to operate in California. Class I line haul locomotives with an original engine build date of 2035 and beyond, meanwhile, will be required to operate in a zero emission configuration.

By December 1, 2027, CARB will publish an assessment of the progress made in zero emission locomotive technologies, as well as the infrastructure improvements that may be needed to support these locomotives. The assessment will be made available for public review.

Impact on shortlines

Shortline railroads operating in California are concerned that the new In-Use Locomotive Regulation will “literally bankrupt some small business short lines,” notes Chuck Baker, president of ASLRRA. “While the spirit behind this regulation is consistent with railroad’s environmental commitment, the rule itself is unworkable and infeasible for short lines – its implementation would literally bankrupt some small business short lines,” he adds.

In response, CARB’s Arias points to the Alternative Compliance Plan, which has been developed to be used in lieu of the spending account, and/or the in-use operational requirements. “CARB staff are available to discuss compliance options,” Arias says. “There are several ways an operator may be able to comply with the In-Use Locomotive Regulation including the Alternative Compliance Pathway where emissions can be reduced from sources other than, or in addition to, locomotives.

“Compliance flexibility is also built into the regulation with possible extensions for reasons that can include issues with available technologies or emergency situations,” she continues. “Funding programs and incentive opportunities are also available, particularly for companies that are taking early action or those looking to go beyond the regulation’s requirements.”

Depending on the specifics for each company, funding support may be available through the Carl Moyer Program, Community Air Protection Incentives, Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Environmental Mitigation Trust, and other programs such as advanced technology demonstrations and pilot projects funded through the Low Carbon Transportation program. “Additionally, billions in federal grants and rebates to reduce air pollution are available for operators,” Arias adds.

Progress to date

According to CARB data, in 2020 there were around 13,000 class I line haul, class I switcher, class III, industrial and passenger locomotives operating within the state, with Union Pacific (UP) and BNSF being the largest operators. Arias notes that many operators are already “taking the next step to becoming zero emissions,” with the In-Use Locomotive Regulation set to accelerate these and other developments.

“To name a few current projects, the Port of Long Beach was awarded US$383m for the System‑Wide Investment in Freight Transport project, which includes funds for the demonstration and deployment of up to 12 zero-emission line‑haul and switching locomotives,” Arias explains. “UP, meanwhile, has purchased 20 battery-electric locomotives, and BNSF has purchased four battery-electric locomotives to operate in yards and routes in Southern California. Pacific Harbor Line, a shortline railroad that operates the San Pedro Bay port complex, converted an old switcher locomotive to a zero-emission switcher, and has started one year of testing.

“Sierra Northern Railway, a short line railroad in Northern California, received a US$4m grant from the California Energy Commission to convert a Tier 0 locomotive to a zero-emission hydrogen locomotive. And earlier this year, Sierra was awarded another US$15.6m in grant funds from the California State Transportation Authority to convert, demonstrate, and test three additional hydrogen-fueled, zero‑emissions switcher locomotives,” Arias adds.

Zero emission approach

CARB’s In-Use Locomotive Regulation does not prescribe a specific technology and operators are free to employ whatever combination of technologies best suits their use case, Arias notes. “We expect that there will be a combination of battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies for zero-emission locomotive operations in California. Operators may also choose to use proven overhead catenary technology to electrify a portion of or their entire rail line,” she explains.

Concluding, Arias highlights why the new regulation is so important: “Rail is a key part of the state’s transportation network and should be aligned with California’s goals to reduce pollution and clean the air. Currently, operational emissions from just one train are worse than those of 400 heavy-duty trucks.

“Emissions reductions from California’s In-Use Locomotive Regulation are expected to be equal to almost double those emitted by all passenger vehicles in the state between now and 2050. It is also projected that the In-Use Locomotive Regulation will contribute the largest reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions toward meeting California air quality standards by the 2037 deadline. The US$32bn in public health benefits gained by the regulation are significant and include a 90% reduction in cancer risk from locomotive emissions to communities that live along rail operations, which are often home to people of color and low-income residents,” she concludes.

This interview first appeared in the 2024 issue of Electric & Hybrid Rail Technology International. To read the full issue, click here.