Thanks to targeted investments, innovative technology and evolving operations, railroads are the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land. As stewards of the environment, railroads are committed to creating a more sustainable future for everyone.

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. As the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land, freight railroads, on average, move one ton of freight nearly 500 miles on one gallon of fuel. Trains are also three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks, on average.

Freight rail is ahead of other surface transportation modes when it comes to its total carbon footprint. Through smart investments that target lowering emissions and building a resilient network, railroads are working hard to create a more sustainable future for everyone.

Less GHG Emissions

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are directly related to fuel consumption. According to EPA data, freight railroads account for just 0.5% of total U.S. GHG emissions and just 1.7% of transportation-related GHG emissions. Moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers GHG emissions by up to 75%, on average. AAR analysis of federal data finds that if 25% of the truck traffic moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, annual GHG emissions would fall by approximately 13.6 million tons.

EPA: U.S. GHG Emissions from Transportation – 2021

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 $23 billion a year over the past five years in private capital annually on their network — relieve taxpayer burden, as well.

Advanced Technologies

Since GHG emissions are directly related to fuel consumption, freight railroads have strategically implemented technologies like locomotive fuel management systems and anti-idling systems to drive down GHG emissions and make rail operations even more resilient. 

  • Reducing Locomotive EmissionsToday’s locomotives emit fewer criteria pollutants and GHGs. Advanced computer systems improve fuel efficiency by up to 14% by calculating the most efficient speed, spacing and timing of trains while monitoring locomotive performance. Idling-reduction technologies, such as stop-start systems that shut down a locomotive when not in use and restart it as needed, can reduce unnecessary idle time by 50%.
  • Reducing Yard Emissions: Railroads are driving down emissions and reducing community impact with every operational decision in rail yards — from adjusting the small truck “hostlers” that ferry equipment around the yard to developing multiple technologies that speed truck entry from two minutes to about 30 seconds.

Evolving Operations

Railroads continually 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.

Railroads are also 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. Thanks to this comprehensive approach, in 2022 alone, U.S. freight railroads consumed 765 million fewer gallons of fuel and emitted 8.6 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide than they would have if their fuel efficiency had remained constant since 2000.

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.

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.