A photograph of a canopy of trees.A photograph of a canopy of trees.

Conducting tests on alternatively fueled locomotives and seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the rail network infrastructure are just two of the emissions-reduction strategies North American Class I railroads are pursuing, according to recent industry statements and sustainability reports.

The strategies come as all seven Class I railroads participate in the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), says Jordan Stone, assistant vice president of government affairs for the Association of American Railroads. The initiative is a global effort in which companies agree to take efforts to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsuis or 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Stone spoke at an Aug. 12 event sponsored by the think tank Third Way on clean transportation.

“As part of that [initiative], freight railroads are working to develop a broad set of alternatives to traditional diesel fuel and have undertaken demonstration projects to test the viability of primarily two types of alternatively fueled locomotives,” including battery-electric locomotives through projects involving Union Pacific and BNSF and line-haul freight locomotives using hydrogen through a project involving Canadian Pacific, Stone said.

Canadian Pacific publishes Climate Strategy

CP’s (NYSE: CP) Climate Strategy, published in July, reflects many of the initiatives that the broader freight rail industry is pursuing. 

CP said this was the first year it was publishing the strategy, which outlines five approaches that the company will take to reach its Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions targets.

The five approaches are “establishing a clear understanding of climate-related risk and opportunities; reducing the company’s carbon footprint; adapting operations to the physical risks of climate change; integrating climate factors across the business; and engaging with stakeholders on climate action.”

CP plans to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 GHG emissions intensity of its locomotives more than 38% by 2030, and it seeks to reduce Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions from nonlocomotive operations more than 27% by 2030. 

Scope 1 emissions, which represent 64% of CP’s GHG emissions footprint, are from CP’s direct combustion of fuel, including fuel powering CP’s locomotives and company vehicles and facilities. Scope 2 emissions, 1% of CP’s emissions footprint, are associated with electricity purchases in Canada and the U.S. Scope 3 emissions, 35% of CP’s emissions footprint, are associated with CP’s “value chain,” including purchased goods and services, other fuel- and energy-related activities, business travel, and employee commuting. 

Using CP’s 2019 emissions as a baseline, the railway says 80% of its total GHG emissions are addressed through its locomotive target of 38%, including 96% of Scope 1 emissions plus 53% of Scope 3 emissions. Meanwhile, 3.4% of CP’s total GHG emissions are addressed through its nonlocomotive target of 27%, including 100% of Scope 2 emissions and 4% of Scope 1 emissions. 

One of the ways that CP is reducing nonlocomotive emissions has been to install a large solar farm at its Calgary corporate campus.

“In recent years, CP has made impressive strides to increase fuel efficiency (and reduce GHG emissions) by improving existing locomotives, rolling stock, components and tracks; optimizing train configuration; using software for route and speed optimization and automation; improving fuel conservation from behavioral changes; and several other initiatives,” CP said. “We will continue our focus on fuel efficiency efforts in the near-term as we support the advancement of alternative fuels and emerging technologies, as these will require further validation and development before being deployed across our business.”

CP expects to produce an annual report starting in 2022 that will update shareholders on the railway’s progress towards its climate strategy. The railway also said that it plans to establish a carbon reduction task force, in which the company will evaluate actions such as internal carbon pricing, alternative fuels, renewable energy sources (such as on-site solar power and green power purchasing), use of electric vehicles and equipment, network modifications, and alternative propulsion for locomotives. These discussions will fuel CP’s research and development efforts. 

CP sees several risks as the world transitions to a lower-carbon economy, including emissions reduction technologies associated with competing freight modes such as trucks, rising carbon pricing, which could increase the costs of locomotive fuels, and changing energy markets, such as decreased demand for oil and coal and the ensuing reduction of their carload volumes.

But opportunities include the fuel efficiency associated with rail transport, the use of lower-carbon fuels that could also provide cost savings, new markets for low-carbon products such as biofuels and wind infrastructure, and a potential increase in freight rail demand as companies pursue lower-carbon transportation options. 

Norfolk Southern’s five guiding sustainability pillars

Norfolk Southern published its 14th annual report on corporate responsibility earlier this month, renaming it this year as the “Environmental, Social and Governance Report.”

NS (NYSE: NSC) developed five “pillars” to guide sustainability practices throughout the company. The railroad developed these pillars — decarbonization, facilities, circularity, suppliers and nature — to work in tandem with the GHG emissions targets it has set through its involvement with the SBTi.

“We’re focused on driving change, being proactive and managing for results. We’re going to continue looking for ways to drive efficiency in our business and lower our environmental impacts. It’s really about being the best steward that we can be of our assets, contributing to a better planet and adding value for our stakeholders,” said Josh Raglin, Norfolk Southern’s chief sustainability officer.

For the SBTi, NS said it is committing to reduce Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions intensity by 42% per million gross ton-miles by 2034, using 2019 as a base year. Some of the actions that NS has taken thus far include retiring nearly a third of the older, less efficient locomotives from its active fleet, which comes to nearly 1,000 units since 2019; modernizing locomotives to alternating current (AC) from direct current (DC) because two AC units have the pulling power of three DC units; using precision scheduled railroading to run longer and heavier trains and achieve greater fuel efficiency; equipping energy management technology with auto-control fuel optimization technology in over 90% of active line haul locomotives; and developing a strategy to right-size the company’s vehicle fleet as a means to address fuel economy and emissions reduction. 

NS also has an 18-member Corporate Sustainability Advisory Council, which works with Raglin to integrate sustainable business practices into daily operations. The council is made up of department heads and senior managers across the company.

Sustainability throughout the organization means working with external stakeholders on shared goals and helping shippers reduce their supply chain emissions, as well as seeking ways to improve locomotive fuel efficiency, among other endeavors, NS said.

In May, NS said it became the first major North American railroad to issue green bonds, totalling $500 million. 

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