“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.”

CPKC 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 CPKC reuses wastewater from treatment plants to wash its locomotives.

Energy efficiency and an environmental focus permeate operations.

Railroads have taken significant steps to curtail their environmental footprint in obvious places like locomotives and railyards — and in less visible areas, too.

CSX instituted a new e-waste buyback program in 2019 to separate e-waste from trash so that it can be refurbished, resold or recycled. “E-waste” refers to consumer and business electronic equipment near or at the end of its useful life.

By the end of 2019, CSX’s program had collected 8,300 devices and successfully diverted more than 630,000 pounds of waste away from landfills — the equivalent of more than 150 cars. Some 70% of discarded company laptops and 50% of discarded desktops could be refurbished and either resold or donated to those in need. In total, almost 98% of retired electronic assets were processed and resold or recycled in 2019.

Canadian Northern (CN) leveraged government and utility company subsidies to implement energy efficiency projects in office operations. The projects have reduced energy consumption and contributed to lowering emissions and reducing capital and operating costs. Specific projects included upgrading heating ventilation and cooling systems, installing more efficient air compressors and yard air lines to charge train braking systems and upgrading lighting. CN also is investing in energy-efficient data centers.

CPKC ramped up renewable energy efforts across its operations. For example, the company reduced the size of its data center in Wyandotte, Kansas, from 3,500 square feet to 800 square feet and installed more efficient cooling and lighting systems. These changes helped lower the data center’s electricity usage by 44% in 2018 compared to the previous year. Additionally, by 2018, CPKC used solar energy as a primary or alternative power source for 94 track signal locations and 14 mobile Wi-Fi pods mounted on solar panels at three intermodal facilities in the U.S. and Mexico.

Another major freight railroad, Union Pacific, reduced energy consumption in 2020 by 2.0 million kilowatt-hours, enough to power more than 239 U.S. homes annually. Many of the energy-reduction projects were employee-driven solutions, such as retrofitting facility lights with LED bulbs. Another key project was upgrading the air compressor system in the company’s expansive Englewood Yard in Houston, which will save 657,000 kWh annually.

The company also has made a significant investment in solar energy. It continues to accrue energy savings through solar panels at two intermodal facilities in Joliet, Illinois and Santa Teresa, New Mexico. The solar arrays are tied to the electrical power grid in both locations, providing energy to the electric utility and offsetting the amount consumed at these locations.

Environmental protection and restoration is a key goal for railroads.

Taken together, North American freight railroads have nearly 140,000 miles of rail lines crisscrossing the United States and traversing the borders with Canada and Mexico. Along their journeys across time zones and topographies, trains pass through a wide range of habitats, including national parks, forests, prairies and wetlands, which are home to rich and diverse species. Freight railroads are committed to protecting and improving the environments in which they operate. They do this through several approaches.

Before starting construction projects, railroads evaluate the likely environmental impact of a proposed project or development, considering socioeconomic, cultural and human-health impacts. Canadian National (CN), whose lines traverse wilderness regions across Canada and extend down to the Gulf of Mexico, conducts environmental and social impact assessments to understand potential ecosystem and biodiversity risks and identify mitigation measures.

CPKC’s careful approach to managing operations that travel through the Canadian and U.S. wilderness is a powerful example of preserving and protecting the natural ecosystem. To preserve wildlife along its lines, Canada’s federal government and CPKC completed a five-year grizzly bear research initiative, funded in part by a $1 million grant from CPKC, to better understand and prevent bear-train collisions. One protective measure that emerged from the effort included a robust investment by CPKC in a vegetation management program in Canada’s Banff and Yoho national parks to decrease plants that attract the bears near rail lines.

Due to concerns over coastal erosion, Norfolk Southern (NS) restored nine acres of shoreline near its Norfolk, Virginia facilities. NS brought in more than 2,300 cubic yards of sand — roughly 200 dump truck loads — to rebuild the eroded shoreline. Comprising an area the size of three football fields, the shoreline was restored with native spartina marsh grass, creating an oasis of green along an industrial riverfront that generates jobs and other economic benefits for the region. Nearly 24,000 plantings of native saltwater marsh will stabilize the shore and provide wildlife habitat for oysters, river otters, shorebirds and other wildlife on the Elizabeth River while protecting railroad property from rising coastal tides.

Railroads also manage growth near where they operate to improve ecosystems for generations to come and to mitigate pressing climate issues. In one example, NS teamed up with GreenTrees, a reforestation and carbon capture company, to plant six million trees on 10,000 acres in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, the nation’s largest watershed and vital wildlife habitat. The valley stretches from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in southern Illinois to the freshwater swamps along the Mississippi River down to the Gulf of Mexico. As GreenTrees’ largest corporate investor, NS is helping revitalize the region’s economy while improving its environmental health.