One of the oldest ways of moving goods around this country is long overdue for an upgrade. Most trains in the United States run on diesel, which produces some of the most toxic air pollution there is. It’s a key contributor to our snowballing climate crisis, and it’s also worsened the air quality in communities for decades in disastrous ways. Furthermore, the health problems diesel leaves in its wake — such as childhood asthma and lung disease — are unsurprisingly felt most by marginalized communities.
What makes rail pollution especially threatening is that rail yards are often located in communities — sometimes even alongside families’ backyards — and the trains used in rail yards are the oldest, dirtiest trains still out there.
So, if we want a shot at protecting both our planet and our health, we need to retire all smog- and soot-forming diesel equipment, including diesel trains.
The good news is that we don’t have to wait for clean rail technology to arrive. It’s already here. By combining trains powered by overhead electrical lines — similar to trains in Europe and India with cables connecting to power lines on top — with onboard battery packs, we can build a zero-emission, electrified rail system that spans coast to coast.
Trains with overhead lines have been around for decades, and in fact make up about one quarter of the world’s rail lines already. These are some of the most powerful locomotives in the world, able to carry loads that are twice as heavy as the average American diesel freight train load and travel long distances. The technology is tried, true and importantly, zero emissions.
Onboard battery power can fill in the gaps in areas where it might be more challenging to build power lines, like under tunnels or bridges. Battery-powered models are being piloted today, and other models are already ready for commercialization.
Electrifying our rail system would not only address one of the most significant, life-threatening sources of pollution in the country, but it could also actually save the railroad industry money. Electric engines are about 20% cheaper than comparable combustion engines, and maintenance costs are one-quarter to one-third less too. There’s no denying that the upfront investments in putting up power lines will be hefty, but this shouldn’t be what keeps us from a livable planet, especially when there are other significant cost savings to be had.
So, if we have the technology and it could save the railroads money, what’s the hold up? Well, the $80-billion railroad industry is not especially interested in regulating itself. That’s why we need our air agencies to hold the rail industry accountable for cleaning up its own pollution. Thankfully, our air regulators at all levels of government have the power — and duty — to ensure that polluting industries like railroads clean up their operations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a duty to set stringent emission standards to protect the public health, and we are long overdue for a round of life-saving regulations. For reference, the last time the EPA set a new emission standard for trains was 13 years ago. We need the EPA to adopt a life-saving and climate-protecting standard by the end of this year that requires every newly built freight train to be zero emissions and every existing freight train to be upgraded to meet the strictest technology standards within the next five years.
Our state air agency, the California Air Resources Board, is developing a creative concept that would require railroads operating in California to put aside a certain amount of their own funds to pay to clean up their rail fleet. Adopting a rule like this could be huge — not only because of the emission benefits, but also because it rightfully puts the onus on the railroad industry to clean up its own pollution.
Finally, our regional air districts across California have the authority to regulate emissions from hubs that attract polluting vehicles (such as warehouses, rail yards and airports), and they should use this power to adopt rules to clean up rail yard pollution. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is charged with cleaning our air in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, invoked this authority in 2021 to adopt a groundbreaking indirect source rule to regulate warehouse pollution.
Now, the agency is embarking on a comparable rule to clean up rail yard pollution from yet-to-be-built rail yards in the region. This is an important step, but the success of this rule is not guaranteed. It will hinge on three key inclusions. First, the rule needs to require all polluting equipment at rail yards, including trains, trucks and yard equipment, to go to zero emissions. Second, the rule needs to address the pollution from all rail yards in the region, not just those that haven’t been built yet. And third, the air district needs to adopt the rule as soon as possible, ideally within the next six months.
Now is when we need to be taking every measure to ensure we have a livable planet with safe, breathable air. Outdated diesel trains simply don’t have a place in this future. Our federal, state and local air agencies need to show their leadership now by setting strong standards that hold the billion-dollar railroad industry accountable for cleaning up its pollution. In the end, our health and our planet depend on it.