Freight Railroads are Addressing Climate Change

For nearly 200 years, freight railroads have provided modern transportation solutions to American businesses and consumers. As freight demand is expected to rise 30% by 2040, the nation’s railroads want to be — and must be — a part of the solution to climate change. Thanks to targeted investments, innovative technology and evolving operations, railroads are the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land. With policies grounded in data that encourage innovation, leverage market-based competition and allow for varied approaches among multiple stakeholders, freight railroads will deliver a more sustainable future for all.


A Responsible Transportation Solution

According to the Federal Highway Administration, railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume (measured by ton-miles) — more than any other mode of transportation. Freight rail is ahead of other surface transportation modes when it comes to its total carbon footprint.


U.S. freight railroads, on average, move one ton of freight nearly 500 miles per gallon of fuel. On average, railroads are three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks, with a single train removing several hundred trucks from the nation’s congested highways. Moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 75%, on average.


Less Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to fuel consumption. According to EPA data, freight railroads account for just 0.5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and just 1.9% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. AAR analysis of federal data finds: Moving more freight by rail instead of road would spur even greater GHG reductions. If 25% of the truck traffic moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, annual greenhouse gas emissions would fall by approximately 13.1 million tons; If 50% of the truck traffic moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by approximately 26.2 million tons.

Reduced Highway Congestion

A single freight train can take several hundred trucks off the nation’s highways. Not only does this help motorists breathe easier, but it also helps reduce the enormous economic costs of highway congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, highway congestion cost Americans $190 billion in wasted time (8.7 billion hours) and wasted fuel (3.5 billion gallons) in 2019. Lost productivity, cargo delays and other costs add tens of billions of dollars to this tab. Shifting freight from roads to rail also reduces highway wear and tear and the pressure to build costly new highways. And, with taxes and fees paid by commercial trucks falling far short of covering the cost of the highway damage they cause, privately owned freight railroads — which spent an average of well above $20 billion a year over the past five years in private capital annually on their network — relieve taxpayer burden, as well.

Committed to Driving Down Emissions

Railroads’ dedicated workforce harnesses technology and evolving operations and equipment to continue shrinking their already small carbon footprint. Thanks to this comprehensive approach, in 2021 alone, U.S. freight railroads consumed 790 million fewer gallons of fuel. They emitted nearly nine million fewer tons of carbon dioxide than they would have if their fuel efficiency had remained constant since 2000.

Current Projects

Many railroads voluntarily report GHG emissions from their operations to the Climate Disclosure Project (CDP), an international non-profit organization that helps companies disclose their environmental impact. All Class I railroads have committed to voluntary reductions in GHG emissions intensity by participating in the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), an international collaboration focused on limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. Other initiatives include a carbon-mitigation strategy that reforests thousands of acres in environmentally critical areas to offset rail’s small carbon footprint. Some railroads are also testing battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell locomotives. Moreover, AAR and its members have formed a dedicated working group to understand new low-carbon fuel technologies and other climate-related issues.

Innovative Technology

Advanced fuel management systems give the locomotive engineer real-time power and speed recommendations that improve fuel efficiency by up to 14%. Anti-idling technologies such as stop-start systems shut down a locomotive when it is not in use and restart it when needed can reduce unnecessary idle time by 50%. Technology can be found beyond the tracks and in rail yards as well. Zero-emission cranes — which recharge their batteries each time they lower a load — transfer goods between ships, trucks and trains in busy intermodal ports and rail facilities and reduce ambient noise and pollution.

Smart Operations

Through strategic investments, railroads find new ways to make their infrastructure, equipment and day-to-day operations more efficient. For example, improved rail car designs and distributed power (placing a locomotive in the middle or rear of a train) reduce the horsepower needed to move a train, which saves fuel. Thanks to these advancements, on a gross ton-miles per gallon basis (gross tons include the weight of rail cars and the weight of the freight in them), rail fuel efficiency in 2019 was up 82% since 1980 and up 17% since 2000.

Dedicated Employees

Railroads are committed to enhancing a culture of sustainability and know that the collective power of their highly-skilled workforce will advance sustainable practices and initiatives. Every railroader plays a role in protecting the environment, from developing fuel-saving software and sharing operational best practices with their contractors to improving overall environmental stewardship of the freight rail industry.

Recycling & Conserving

Not only are freight railroads committed to driving down emissions through technologies and smart operations, but they also recycle, reuse and manage resources, increase office operation efficiencies and conserve electricity, and protect the landscapes their trains move through.

Well Designed Policy Benefits the Environment

Policymakers can help create a more sustainable future by removing impediments to transporting freight by rail and promoting policies that enable the rail industry to move more goods more efficiently, and by promoting modal equality.

Encourage Competition & Harness Market-based Solutions to Reduce Emissions

Policies that demand change through market solutions — rather than prescriptive regulations — hold the greatest promise for lasting change and meaningful emissions reductions. Through well-designed policies, market behavior can — and will — shift toward lower-emission fuels and modes of transportation.

Drive Research & Adoption of Promising Technologies

Significant investments in national and sector-specific research are essential to unlocking energy solutions capable of powering our economy and reducing GHG emissions. These solutions include carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and alternative fuel sources. Just as important as discovering new lower-or-zero-carbon fuels and technologies is ensuring American businesses can test and adopt these innovations.


Partner with Industry to Advance Sector-specific Progress

Each American industry — including freight railroads — has its own unique set of advantages and challenges to reducing its environmental impacts. For long-term, sustainable gains, these stakeholders are essential partners in identifying and prioritizing proposals that will empower real change in their operations. Freight railroads stand ready to be partners in this effort. They need policymakers to understand what is already working, as well as what is untenable — such as electrification — for the nation’s nearly 140,000-mile rail network.

Carbon Calculator

With just a few clicks on this illustrative tool, see how shipping freight by rail helps eliminate carbon dioxide from the air and remove trucks off congested roads.