Washington, D.C. — This Earth Day is no ordinary Earth Day. In a time of social distancing, the natural environment and outdoors have become an even greater comfort to many people. Outside many windows, people are finding small joys in the blooming of a tree, or the whistle of a train going by. People are looking for the reminders that while society has slowed down, life must go on.

As quarantine life continues and many are feeling more isolated than ever, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s still working. Oft-forgotten systems and supply chains are now center stage. As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, the sustainability of these networks is more important than ever.

Amid the uncertainty, trains keep on chugging. And while the freight rail network and its essential employees are working harder than ever to ensure people can maintain as much normalcy as possible, railroads are proud to do this vital work, across a 140,000-mile nationwide network, as the most sustainable way to move freight over land.

When the first Earth Day was celebrated 50 years ago, the railroad industry was in a state of uncertainty that was far from sustainable. It wasn’t until the passage of the Staggers Act in 1980 that the railroads were able earn enough revenue to freely invest their dollars into their networks, which had been starved for general upkeep, let alone innovation.

For the last 40 years, the railroads have continued innovating. Thanks to technology, fuel management systems and redesigned railcars, for example, trains today can move one ton of goods 479 miles on a single gallon of fuel—up from 235 miles 40 years ago.

These improvements combined with rail’s inherent efficiency edge means trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks on average, or put another way, that greenhouse gas emissions fall by 75% when freight is moved by rail rather than trucks. In fact, if just 10% of the freight moved by the largest trucks moved by rail instead, such emissions would fall by over 17 million tons. That’s equivalent to planting over 400 million trees. Without a doubt, moving freight by rail has the lowest environmental cost of any form of transportation over land.

That’s a big statement, especially given the fact that transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. However, freight railroads account for just 0.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and just 2.1% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Railroads and railroad workers are not only the unsung heroes of the transportation industry, but the unsung leaders of cleaner transportation in the future. While businesses across all sectors are looking inward to respond to the demands of climate change, rail transportation has much to be proud of as an innovator in sustainability.

For example, America’s Class I railroads have committed to meeting various climate goals:

  • BNSF’s most recent Corporate Sustainability Report, based on guidance from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, notes a 5.3% reduction in total energy use since 2014, with major reductions in its locomotive diesel consumption, which accounts for about 95% of its carbon footprint.


  • CN set science-based targets for its carbon reduction in 2017, committing to reduce emissions 29% by 2030 based on 2015 levels.


  • Canadian Pacific formed a cross-functional Fuel Conservation team in 2019 to drive discussions related to long-term fuel management objectives in addition to setting company-wide targets to reduce its impact. Since 1990, CP has improved fuel efficiency by 43%.


  • CSX pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 37% by 2030, based on a 2014 baseline, the company announced in March.


  • Kansas City Southern continues to reduce its diesel fuel consumption, including a 9.5-million-gallon reduction in 2018, through conservation and efficiency initiatives like idling-reduction, distributed power, remote technology and trip optimizers.


  • Norfolk Southern announced an absolute GHG emissions decrease of 2.6% year-over-year in its most recent 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, highlighting ongoing fuel-efficiency and emissions-reduction efforts. NS has adopted an aggressive goal to improve locomotive fuel-efficiency by nearly 9% by 2020.


  • Union Pacific announced in March that it will set science-based targets within the year to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and submit them to the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) to approve that the targets are in line with what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals.


Railroads provide a sustainable, resilient infrastructure network geared toward the future. While the American Society of Civil Engineers graded American infrastructure a D+ as a whole, U.S. rail came out far ahead, earning a B+. The continued success and commitment of the best freight rail infrastructure in the world can help the nation build toward a greener tomorrow.

From an industry stifled 40 years ago to an industry now deemed “critical infrastructure,” the railroads are here to help keep shelves stocked and food on the table for every American. Let this year’s celebration of the Earth be a reminder of the bounties that continue to feed us every day, and the importance of smart transportation, food, and energy systems working together for a more dependable future.