Washington, D.C. — America’s freight railroads are stepping up with innovative strategies aimed at reducing emissions and building climate-resilient infrastructure. For Earth Day 2024, here are five things to know about how railroads are meeting the challenge of climate change:

1. Freight railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume—more than any other mode of transportation—but contribute just 1.7% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. One of the most significant advantages of freight railroads is their environmental efficiency. Trains are inherently more fuel-efficient than trucks, capable of moving one ton of freight an average of 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel, according to the Association of American Railroads.

2. Last year Forbes recognized numerous Class I railroads as companies best positioned to be net-zero by 2050. Rail companies are investing heavily in sustainable technologies to further minimize their environmental impact, from electric cranes to biofuels that can reduce GHG emissions by 20% to hydrogen fuel cell engines. These initiatives aim to reduce emissions while maintaining the efficiency and reliability of freight transportation.

3. Every North American Class I railroad has an approved target with the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi), which independently assesses corporate emissions reduction targets. Targets are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In 2022, for example, railroads consumed 765 million fewer gallons of fuel and emitted 8.6 million fewer tons of CO2 than they would have if their fuel efficiency had remained constant since 2000.

4. Freight railroads invest approximately $23 billion annually to harden their networks against climate-related disasters like floods, wildfires, and storms, ensuring supply chains stay connected. Recognizing the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, freight railroads are prioritizing climate resilience in their infrastructure planning. This includes elevating tracks to mitigate flood risks, upgrading to more resilient materials, installing detectors for seismic, wind, and water threats, and mapping vulnerable areas of the network for adjusted maintenance. For example, because heat can negatively impact steel tracks, railroads have rolled out various strategies that have reduced track buckling-caused accidents by 52% between 2010 and 2021.

5. If 10% of the freight shipped by large trucks shifted to rail, GHG emissions would fall by more than 20 million tons annually—the equivalent of taking four million cars off the highways or planting 300 million trees. Trains are on average 3-4 times more fuel efficient than trucks, on average. By transporting goods via rail instead of road, companies can significantly lower their carbon footprints.

In conclusion, freight railroads are playing a vital role in the fight against climate change by investing in green technologies, prioritizing climate resilience, and innovating in their operations. As the U.S. transitions towards a low-carbon economy, the efforts of rail companies underscore the importance of sustainable transportation solutions in mitigating climate change and building a more resilient future for generations to come.