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Trains Are a Climate Solution, Just Not in the United States. Here’s Why.

Arcane EPA rules are threatening state efforts to clean up deadly pollution from freight trains.

© 2013 Birdman Photos/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

 

Update: In November 2023, EPA revised its old locomotive preemption rule, giving states and local governments clarity on their authority to regulate pollution from locomotives. This was a huge win for environmental justice and climate advocates. The decision, consistent with the recommendations below, reversed a 25-year loophole that forced communities living and working near railyards and ports to breathe dangerous locomotive pollution. The timing of the rules means states like California should be able to preserve their own state standards regulating locomotives and engines, though the fight continues against industry litigation and lobbying.

 

 

Trains should be a climate solution. But in the U.S., the freight rail system is causing both climate change and environmental injustice.

Polluting freight train and truck routes often run through or parallel to communities of color and low-income communities, which bear the brunt of the pollution from vehicles and engines. Living near freight railroad infrastructure comes with a slew of transportation pollution-related health issues: The freight rail system emits more carbon pollution than many states do. 

More than 13 million people in the U.S.—predominantly people of color and lower-income individuals—live and work near railyards, rail lines, and ports. In other words, over 13 million people are directly impacted by locomotive pollution and unjustly living through poor air quality and dangerous health issues that are literally cutting lives short. Locomotive exhaust contains pollutants like particulate matter (PM), which burrows deep into lungs to poison people, as well as nitrogen oxides, which create a lethal form of air pollution called smog—directly linked to heart, lung, and cardiovascular disease and asthma.

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A key problem is that the rail companies regularly “remanufacture” the oldest, most polluting, locomotives—essentially repairing them just enough to keep running and poisoning communities, for decades, with huge health consequences. These zombie trains, some of which were first set running in the last century, need to be replaced with clean zero emission locomotives, and fast. Communities are demanding action now

In response, the U.S. Senate has started holding hearings to call rail to account, and environmental justice leaders are powerfully calling for change. States also recognize this problem and are trying to do something about it. Because so much of the nation’s freight moves through the polluted Los Angeles basin, where millions of Americans live, California is at the forefront. California’s Air Resources Board recently passed a major rule that would fund much cleaner (and zero emission) locomotives, cut down on rail idling near homes and schools, and drive turn-over of the dirty ancient remanufactured locomotives. Together, these rules would cut smog-forming nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution by nearly 400,000 tons over the multi-decade course of its operations and, per California, cut “21.6 million metric tons of GHG, roughly equivalent to removing all heavy-duty diesel trucks from California’s roads for all of 2030.” That would save 3,200 lives and cut regional cancer risk by 90 percent. 

If the state rules go into effect, as they are supposed to this fall, the powerful rail companies that run most freight trains will finally start decarbonizing, like their counterparts in the trucking industry. That would help further commercialize the heavy-duty zero-emission technology we need to clean up the transportation sector, meet critical environmental justice goals, and help set the course for national progress.

The problem is that rather than clean up their act, the Association of American Railroads has doubled down, suing California to block the rules. The rules must be finalized and go into operation this fall, but the industry is doing everything it can to keep polluting and will accelerate its bogus but aggressive legal strategy as the rules go into force. If the industry wins, millions of people will suffer. 

Blog Post Image - Los Angeles

A freight train passes along the Los Angeles River. California’s recently-passed rules to fund cleaner locomotives are key to triggering decarbonization in the rest of the industry. © 2012 Downtowngal/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But if California keeps rail moving toward cleaner trains, not only will the air clear in long-burdened communities, but EPA will also have a strong model for badly-needed national rules. It’s time for the Biden administration to act to protect the state rules, and build a foundation for national action. Here’s how:

EPA needs to clear an arcane rail preemption regulation off of its books to take away the big rail companies’ shield against cleaning up. Decades ago, EPA wrongly issued an interpretation of the Clean Air Act suggesting that state authority to clean up zombie trains was limited (“preempted” is the technical term) by federal law. The rail industry will use this old preemption rule to try to keep those polluting trains running by blowing up the state rules before they can go into effect. EPA has proposed eliminating this state preemption in their most recent rule addressing heavy-duty vehicle pollution standards but the agency needs to act fast since the California rule will go final (and be subject to attack) by October.

EPA must finish scrapping its old preemption rules by October 2023 to ensure state (and then federal) action moves forward to protect communities.

 

Tackling pollution from trains is essential for tackling the climate crisis

The transportation sector is the most polluting sector of the U.S. economy, contributing to over one-third of our greenhouse gas pollution. And unlike power plants (the second-most polluting sector) the amount has actually gotten worse year after year. Since 1990, transportation pollution has risen by 20 percent with heavy-duty vehicles—like trains and trucks—contributing to a large portion of this pollution. 

Trains add 35 million metric tons of carbon pollution every year—more than what nine full states emit.

And beyond pumping out toxic pollution, freight trains are a literal vehicle of the fossil fuel industry, often used to transport the very coal and oil driving the climate crisis.

To be clear: While we often think of passenger trains as a more climate-smart form of transportation, passenger rail is just a small fraction of the trains across the U.S. The vast majority of trains are poorly-regulated freight trains, which are not electrifying in the same way as passenger rail, cars, and trucks are. These trains run on diesel, which not only accelerates climate change but emits cancer-causing PM and causes other serious health issues. 

Blog Post Image - Passenger Train

The vast majority of poorly-regulated trains carry freight, not people, and are not electrifying in the same way as passenger rail, cars, and trucks are. © 2016 Virginia Department of Transportation/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And while EPA is updating climate pollution standards for cars and trucks, per its mandate, EPA has not updated its locomotive pollution rules since George W. Bush was president—meaning decades-old locomotives continue to operate and pollute communities based on standards set 15 or more years ago. 

Shockingly, this means that truck transportation—as polluting as it is—is becoming cleaner than rail transportation. We’re electrifying trucks as the big rail companies just keep running their ancient, deadly, engines through communities. 

 

Rail pollution is an environmental injustice

As trains chug past neighborhoods, playgrounds, and schools, they spew diesel exhaust and create toxic pollution. Communities of color and lower-income communities, who more commonly live and work near freight routes, are forced to experience a disproportionate burden of this lethal pollution. 

There’s an undeniable link between diesel pollution from locomotives and health harms on communities. Pollution from locomotives, trucks, and yard equipment is linked to cancer clusters in neighborhoods near rail yards, where lower-income residents and residents of color are overrepresented. 

These communities, which live on the frontlines of diesel death zones, have been long-advocating for their health and safety by urging EPA to put states in the driver’s seat and protect communities from the risks of locomotive pollution. 

 

EPA can prioritize climate and environmental justice by getting out of the way. 

EPA has not updated federal locomotive pollution rules for trains for 15 years. An update is past due. EPA needs to lay the groundwork by supporting state action that can help advance the technology on which nationwide standards can be based. So, in light of California’s pioneering rules and rail’s ugly attack on those rules and the communities they protect, EPA needs to act first by finalizing its preemption rule fix by October 2023. 

And there is more to do. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has committed to prioritizing climate and environmental justice. After he speedily completes the preemption rule fix, he should keep moving on the freight system. Opportunities abound, from dedicating Inflation Reduction Act grant and loan funds toward electrification of trucks, trains, and freight equipment, to finalizing the strongest national rules possible for these sources. A new Evergreen memorandum lays out next steps across the sector. But the journey starts by clearing the way for long-needed action on freight rail, consistent with Administrator Regan’s environmental justice commitments. This is EPA’s opportunity to take another major step on that promise and deliver for the millions of Americans who deserve to breathe clean air and live in safe, healthy communities

The communities that lie along U.S. freight routes are hurting; the Biden administration should stand up to the rail barons and take action now.

 

An Update to Train Pollution Rules Is Overdue

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