Supporting the Drive to Net Zero Emissions by 2050

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA
ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

ASLRRA PERSPECTIVE, RAILWAY AGE FEBRUARY 2024 ISSUE: Short line railroads are in business to provide shippers with reliable and competitive transportation service. Doing so requires constant attention to improving operating practices, upgrading infrastructure, and maintaining safety. While that is by necessity their focus, a growing number of short lines are also devoting serious time and resources to maximizing the environmental advantages inherent in rail transportation.

Anacostia Rail Holdings (ARH) has commissioned and just released a new report examining the feasibility and benefits of operating short-haul intermodal services destined within 150 miles of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. On behalf of Pacific Harbor Line (PHL), which serves as the neutral switching operator for the two ports, ARH commissioned the study in September 2023 to examine how short-haul intermodal operations can address logistical and environmental issues commonly associated with containerized freight movement. As ARH President Peter Gilbertson said, “This concept has the potential to offer benefits to the ports and the surrounding community in terms of sustainability, unlocking capacity and reducing congestion—although implementing such a service also has challenges. We felt it was important to consider the parameters under which a transportation alternative like this might be viable.”

The study, produced by two top firms with recognized expertise in intermodal rail operations—Oliver Wyman and Leachman & Associates—showed that a short-haul rail shuttle from the existing Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to an inland port could be cost competitive on a per container basis for shippers compared to direct truck drayage and could result in the elimination of 5,100 truck moves every weekday. That adds up to a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. This ARH initiative lays the foundation for additional feasibility studies by these California ports and national transportation policy-makers and may well jump start similar efforts by the dozens of ports served by short line railroads. 

On the other side of the continent, Georgia Central Railway and Heart of Georgia Railroad, both affiliated with Genesee & Wyoming (G&W), have filed with the Federal Railroad Administration a request to allow a pilot of a new zero-emission battery-electric rail container technology by Parallel Systems in South Georgia. G&W believes the development and adoption of this technology has the potential to capture short-haul container business now moving almost exclusively by truck, opening an entirely new market opportunity for many smaller short line railroads. 

The plan for the “Georgia Pilot” is structured to demonstrate the ability of this new technology to operate safely and concurrently with existing conventional rail freight services. It would not replace existing conventional freight services on short lines, but rather open new short-haul container markets now handled by trucks. If successful, the technology will create new financial stability for many short lines, while reducing roadway congestion, improving safety, and decreasing carbon emissions.

ASLRRA, in partnership with Lake State Railway, Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad, and Michigan Technological University, is leading a project to evaluate short line locomotive emissions through field testing and controlled testing of non-traditional fuel technologies, including additives and injectors. Measuring the emissions and fuel economy benefits will enable and encourage short lines to adopt emissions reduction strategies. We believe these technologies could be applied to thousands of short line locomotives across the country and are a low-cost and immediately available method of reducing CO2 emissions while further emission reduction technologies are being developed. 

For some years now, ASLRRA’s Annual Conference and Exhibition has included the so-called “Green Zone” in our Exhibit Hall featuring rail industry companies that provide products and services that improve the environment and promote sustainability. This year some 70 companies will host exhibits, the highest participation rate since the program began. Offerings will include recycled products, lubricants, batteries, and all manner of engine and equipment technologies that can help short lines contribute to cleaner air and a healthier environment. This year’s Conference will be held in Kansas City, March 24-26.

As part of its Association activities, ASLRRA has joined and promoted a variety of federal government and private programs designed to engage individual companies in protecting the environment. We are an affiliate member of EPA’s SmartWay program, which offers tools short lines can use to communicate how shipping by rail can help customers meet their company’s environmental goals. In 2023, ASLRRA joined Operation Clean Sweep, a campaign by private industry to reduce plastic resin loss to the environment. 

Short lines are not the largest segment of the national railroad network, but we like to say that our importance is not our size but rather who and where we serve—rural and small-town America where we are often the shippers’ only connection to the national rail network. So it is with our environmental initiatives. Short lines are not the largest companies with the most financial resources available for research and development. But short lines across the country such as those described above are devoting serious time and effort to making their companies as responsive as possible to today’s environmental challenges. 

For more examples of short line railroad initiatives, big and small, improving their environmental footprint, go to

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