“Doing more with less” while reusing and recycling as many company resources as possible is a well-established principle among the nation’s freight railroads.

Many railroads have implemented reuse and recycle programs throughout each stage of their business. They regularly monitor waste produced by their operations and work with third-party waste management companies. The breadth of waste that railroads recycle or reuse includes used lube oil, locomotive and signal batteries, crossties, rail ties, asphalt, concrete, engine coolants, paper, cardboard and electronic waste.

Rail operations are fundamentally environmentally responsible: most steel rail tracks, locomotives, railcars and ballasts have lifespans beyond 25 years, which protects natural resources by requiring only infrequent replacement. And during their working lives, much of the critical equipment, such as locomotives, can be refurbished and modernized to minimize their environmental footprint and expand their usable service life even more.


For example, at its Juniata locomotive shop in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Norfolk Southern remanufactures locomotives into more efficient machines with lower emissions, benefiting both customers and the environment. “We can strip a locomotive down to the bare frame and completely rebuild it, including the engine, alternator, wiring, cab, trucks, combos and running gear — all in 6.5 days,” the company says. The railroad also operates a locomotive emissions-testing facility to test locomotives year-round to comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations and increase fuel efficiency.


Canadian National (CN) minimizes new materials by reusing and recycling capital-intensive materials at the end of their long lives. For example, steel rail tracks are repurposed and moved from the main rail lines to the company’s secondary rail lines and then moved onto rail yards. Finally, they are sold to be recycled into new steel products. Concrete rail ties are crushed for sub-grading in yards and roadways. The company is “maximizing the useful life of materials and reducing waste generation at the end of their life,” said Felismina De Oliveira, the CN’s former Director of Procurement & Supply Management. “It enables us to do our part to contribute to the circular economy while saving costs and generating additional revenues.”


Kansas City Southern employs a petroleum refiner to collect used locomotive oil and removes all free oil from spent locomotive oil filters. The railroad also monitors CO2 emissions from company-wide rail operations to track energy efficiency and environmental improvements. BNSF developed spill-prevention measures after analyzing fuel and lubricant leaks at one of their busy yards.


Railroads take active steps to preserve water in their operations and mainly use it to wash locomotives and other equipment. To reduce reliance on this finite resource, several railroads carefully track their water use and find ways to use less, including by harnessing rainwater.

CSX, for example, has invested in a multimillion-dollar water reuse project at the Curtis Bay Coal Pier in Baltimore. The project increases the collection and use of stormwater for dust suppression activities instead of potable water. All told, the railroad uses 60% less water today compared to 2016. Some 85 wastewater treatment facilities that Union Pacific has put in place across its operations capture and treat water from equipment washing and maintenance, while Canadian Pacific reuses wastewater from treatment plants to wash its locomotives.