Environmental Impact and AAR Certification: Meeting Eco-Friendly Standards

Delve into the essential contributions of railroads in minimizing emissions and learn about the significant impact of AAR certification on enhancing both sustainability and safety within freight logistics.

Team McKenzie
May 9, 2024
Environmental Impact and AAR Certification: Meeting Eco-Friendly StandardsEnvironmental Impact and AAR Certification: Meeting Eco-Friendly Standards
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What's the most carbon-friendly way to ship goods overland? By train. Freight rail produces 6 times less CO2 than trucks. Electrification will reduce this, but without a stronger switch to renewables, the greater fuel efficiency of trains will keep rail important   Road transportation produced 2,230 tons of CO2 to move 26,807 billion tonne-kilometers of freight in 2021, while rail produced 170 to move 10,842 billion of tonne-kilometers. Neither, incidentally, is the most efficient way to move freight...that is water transportation - but that, of course, is only convenient for relatively limited areas close to oceans or navigable rivers.

However, despite its greater efficiency, the rail sector still needs to decarbonize. California predicts that trucks will become cleaner than trains in 2035, although this doesn't take into account either power production for electric vehicles or the environmental cost of producing giant batteries for electric semis. Decarbonizing rail travel is not as simple as electrifying more lines, although this is an important step. It also includes other eco-friendly initiatives.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) is dedicated to decarbonizing the industry and is setting certification standards to reduce environmental impact and improve sustainability.

Understanding AAR Certification and Environmental Regulations

The AAR plays a vital role in rail safety by providing voluntary certification to higher levels than regulation requires. AAR certification can be sought for a wide variety of parts and systems and is primarily designed to improve safety.

This has an impact on sustainability on its own in two areas. By increasing the durability of railcars and parts, it reduces the amount of carbon needed to manufacture them. It also increases safety for hazmat transportation, reducing dangerous leaks. A lot of hazardous materials are moved by rail because it is far safer than moving them by truck in general.

Another way AAR certification supports sustainability is by encouraging innovative and creative uses of materials to make railcars lighter overall. This further reduces the amount of fuel needed to move freight.

Emissions regulations for locomotives are regulated by the EPA in a program that started in 2008. The most recent rule from 2023 adjusts the relationship between the EPA and the states to be more flexible for non-new locomotives.

AAR certification and environmental regulations work together to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from freight (and passenger) rail.

Additionally, there are specific regulations for rail tank cars, which fall under the authority of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The AAR's Tank Car Committee (TCC) works with the PHMSA to handle technical design reviews and support certain tank car safety matters. Because of this, AAR certification requirements at least meet, and often exceed, regulatory requirements. These certifications also take less time to produce, meaning that they meet regulations that have yet to be released.

Certification and regulation continue to evolve as innovation speeds up. Sustainability is no longer considered an optional extra in any industry, especially logistics. While already highly environmentally friendly, freight rail has strong incentives to improve.

The Shift Towards Eco-Friendly Rail Practices

People have been building railroads for a long time, and the reason is efficiency.  Wagonways in 160th century Germany showed the value of rail. By using wagonways, fewer horses could safely and easily pull more freight. However, the railroad didn't come into its own until something better than a horse was invented to pull it.

1829 is considered a key date. In October 1829, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway set up a contest to encourage the development of a new steam engine. Steam engine technology was in a period of great expansion. Primitive steam locomotives were in use, but they were slow and unreliable. The Rainhill Trials sought to find something better.

And it did. Robert Stephenson called his locomotive the Rocket. The Rocket finished the Rainhill Trials at an average speed of 12 mph, faster than any horse...and it was the only locomotive to finish. Carefully preserved as a historic artifact, Rocket is still intact today and is currently on display at the Locomotion Museum, in Shildon, County Durham, but will return to its permanent home at the National Railway Museum in York in 2025.

The railroads never looked back and horses were retired from all but intercity tramways and short routes (where they remained useful until electrification). During the age of steam, rail travel was glamorous for passengers but vital for freight. Diesel locomotives first showed up in 1912 but didn't take over from steam until the 1930s, using the same diesel-electric systems still used on non-electrified routes today. Meanwhile, electrification was a niche thing on shorter routes but is now common in much of Europe and in more heavily populated areas of the U.S. (Steam is maintained only by enthusiasts and tourist routes).

With growing awareness of climate change and related issues, we have seen more innovation in recent years. Electrification is expensive on long routes that run through unpopulated areas, such as most of the U.S. heartland. Only the Northeast Corridor between D.C. and New York is electrified, with trains having to stop at D.C. to switch between diesel and electric traction. Meanwhile, in Europe, when the Channel Tunnel was constructed before the route between it and London was electrified, hybrid trains that could use both diesel and overhead power were used.

The federal government is providing grants to improve electrification, but it's a slow process. One major cost is getting the clearance for the catenaries, and many lines are not built with this in mind. There are tunnels in which it is impossible to put overhead trolley wires without altering their size. Innovation may solve this issue. Hybrid trains already exist and could switch to diesel while running through a tunnel or over a bridge. Newer electric locomotives could even run through a tunnel on batteries. Trains can also be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. These are particularly valuable over short distances and are now being used to power switching locomotives in Alberta, Canada. Biofuels can make diesel engines cleaner and more sustainable until electrification can be completed.

Recommended Climate Policies by AAR for Environmental Sustainability

The AAR acknowledges that environmental sustainability is economic sustainability, especially if trucking moves to zero emissions faster. They are encouraging initiatives such as hydrogen fuel cells, replacing diesel cranes with hybrids, and replacing wooden ties with more durable composites made from recycled plastic.

Improving the lifespan of railcars is also a key part of sustainability. The current limit for railcars is 50 years, but it should be possible to increase that significantly, reducing manufacturing costs and, of course, emissions. The AAR sets this limit (which applies to railcars used on multiple systems, not ones used locally) and has started to offer extended approval.

The AAR has called for government policies that:

  • Support research into low- and zero-emissions locomotives for use on non-electrified lines
  • Support decarbonization for railroad partners, which includes McKenzie Valve
  • Help railroads transition their fleets to zero-emission technologies
  • Recognize the value of rail as a low-carbon transportation
  • Support operational decisions to maximize fuel usage
  • Encourage testing of new safety technologies
  • Reform permitting to make, among other things, electrification easier

The AAR also supports moving towards a net-zero economy in general as rapidly as possible.

Topline Actions Recommended by AAR

Of these policies, two stand out as key recommendations.

The first is low- and zero-emission locomotives. While full-line electrification is ideal, it is also expensive, requires a lot of permits, and has issues related to tunnels and even environmental issues around construction. It is also likely to be embroiled in extended arguments about funding.

There will likely continue to be non-electrified lines in the U.S. for years if not decades, and low-emission locomotives will be a key part of the future.

Taking the lead are switcher locomotives, which require only a short range. Some of these are battery-electric with regenerative braking. Mainline battery-powered locomotives are being worked on. Electric-battery locomotives, which primarily power off of CAT but can run on batteries in areas with no CAT are also being produced for switching purposes and short-line work. Improvements in battery technology may make these feasible for longer routes with patchy electrification.

Hydrogen-fueled switchers are another alternative. The Korea Railroad Research Institute is developing a main-line liquid hydrogen-electric hybrid locomotive. This might also be an alternative for places with patchy electrification.

The second topline action is decarbonizing the partners of Class I railroads. Zero-emissions locomotives are also making major inroads on short lines, with shorter ranges and generally smaller loads. Railroad buildings can be decarbonized by, again, replacing ties, and rail yards are moving to hybrid and battery-powered cranes over diesel cranes.

Locomotive and locomotive parts suppliers are also part of the picture and should be encouraged to decarbonize.

AAR certification is a driver of sustainability in freight rail transportation. As the road sector begins to rapidly decarbonize, sustainability is going to be an important part of how the industry does business. All stakeholders should collaborate towards a more sustainable future.

At McKenzie Valve we seek AAR certification for the majority of our fittings. This is part of our commitment to safety and sustainability. Our goal is to help locomotive manufacturers and owners decarbonize manufacturing, updates, and repairs while providing high-quality valves and fittings that are durable and safe. We are also proud to inform people about innovation in our industry. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to us!

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