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Photo by Jaroh, via creative commons

When it comes to environmentally friendly modes of transportation to move goods across Canada, the train is considered best.

About 28 per cent of Canada’s emissions come from the transportation sector and of that about four per cent is from railways.

Canada’s freight rail industry says it has reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity by about 40 per cent since 1990, while increasing its workload (measured in revenue tonne kilometres) by 83 per cent, according to the Railway Association of Canada (RAC), which represents the passenger and freight industry, including leading players such as Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP).

“We really believe that railways are part of the climate change solution,” says Michael Gullo, RAC’s director of policy, economic and environmental affairs.

The drop in GHG intensity is driven in part by new technologies that help to monitor and curb fuel consumption, as well as operational efficiencies such as running longer trains and putting a locomotive at both the front and in the middle to maximize power and velocity. Some of these efficiencies are part of the so-called “precision railroading” model, which includes cost cuts and improved service, pioneered by well-known industry executive Hunter Harrison, the former CEO of both CN and more recently CP.

The federal government has recognized the environmental advantage of rail, calling for a shift in the transport of goods from truck to rail as part of its economy-wide target to reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Transport Canada is also working on new regulations, in consultation with the industry and environmental groups, to reduce locomotive emissions under the Railway Safety Act. The government says it’s the first time it will regulate air pollutant emissions from locomotives.

Though railways may not be the main target of environmentalists seeking ways for Canadian industries to clean up their businesses, some pressure is being applied. The biggest issue is the use of diesel fuel to power locomotives. While rail companies are considering natural gas and other alternatives, the cost of upgrading infrastructure is a major challenge – particularly for the freight rail industry given the geography it has to cover.

“That’s a future potential,” Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba’s I.H. Asper School of Business, says of the alternative fuels.  “We’re not at that stage yet … It’s one of those yet-to-be-developed opportunities.”

 

Good business sense

Canada has the fifth-largest railway network in the world, or more than 44,000 kilometres of track used to transport about $280 billion worth of freight each year, according to RAC. That’s about five million carloads. Rail can move one tonne of freight more than 200 kilometres on a single litre of fuel, it says, the equivalent of removing more than 300 trucks from the highways.

Gullo says Canadian freight railways strive to operate “as efficiently as possible” by operating 24/7, 365 days a year, maximizing long-haul movements and train lengths and consolidating traffic flow. That helps to reduce fuel consumption and, in turn, lessens its GHG intensity.

“It makes exceptionally good business sense,” Gullo says. “The better railways are at minimizing the amount of fuel they use, the lower their GHG portfolio is,” he adds. “There is a natural incentive to use your fuel wisely now. It’s not like the days of old.”

Gullo says the railway industry see itself as a “highly efficient, low-GHG opportunity for driving down emissions in the transportation sector.”

It’s also a “ready-made opportunity” for the federal government to consider as part of its climate change strategy, he says, adding that Canada would reduce its emissions by 3.7 million tonnes annually if it moved 10 per cent of truck traffic to rail.

RAC is calling on the government to invest more in rail infrastructure and technology to reduce fuel emissions, and recommends that revenues collected from carbon pricing programs be directed to rail, similar to what the Quebec government has done with its Green Fund.

“As a critical component to growing the economy, and with a long-standing commitment to reducing emissions, Canada’s railway industry can deliver prosperity while becoming part of the country’s climate change solution,” RAC said in a submission made last year to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

RAC says it’s in talks with the federal government to extend a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for reducing emissions, which expired last year. Gullo says the industry is hoping to negotiate a longer-term agreement that is aligned with Canada’s 2030 emissions target.

Transport Canada says the Canadian rail industry has been voluntarily reducing emissions through agreements dating back to 1995 and expects the MOU to be renewed. It also expects to finalize updated locomotive emissions regulations this year.

 

More innovation needed

Canada’s rail industry “deserves some credit” for its work so far in reducing emissions, but more can and needs to be done, says Steve McCauley, senior director of policy at Pollution Probe.

“Fuel switching is where the biggest priority should be,” McCauley says. “That’s where the industry is going to have to be innovative.”

Pollution Probe and other environmental groups say the rail industry will need to invest in technology and alternative fuels if it wants to reduce emissions long term.

“Natural gas, whether it’s compressed or liquefied, is a potential short-term opportunity, but that still doesn’t get towards zero,” said Eli Angen, Ontario director of the Pembina Institute. “We have to be looking at things like biodiesel, hydrogen and electric.”

Railways are working on a transition away from diesel-powered locomotives to alternative fuel sources such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), but the pace is slow.

According to RAC, as part of a pilot study from 2012 to 2013, CN was the first railway in North America to pioneer an LNG-powered locomotive that moved freight between Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta.

In its recent submission to the federal government, RAC says long refuelling processes and higher-than-expected maintenance costs, as well as a drop in diesel fuel prices, “have stalled the mainstream application of this technology in the railway sector.”

Railways were ahead of the transportation sector in moving to more efficient diesel, says Prentice. That’s why he’s optimistic they will continue to work on reducing their environmental impact.

“The railways really have the potential to be zero-carbon emission,” he says, adding it just may take some time – especially for the freight rail industry.

He notes that all trains are electric, but the electricity just happens to be generated through the use of diesel.

“The difficulty for the railways of going straight electric is the cost of all of the infrastructure required,” Prentice says.

The size of the country doesn’t help. Electrification is more doable for passenger rail, given the market is usually more contained to a particular region. It’s why, for example, Via Rail is working on installing electric-hybrid trains in the busy Windsor-Quebec City corridor and the Ontario government is eyeing electric GO trains in the Toronto-Waterloo Region corridor.

Still, Prentice says, “the incentives are aligned” for the freight rail industry to continue to pursue low or zero emission solutions in the future.

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