DORSEY: Railroad merger and environment

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This column was published in The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

Railroad merger charts a clear track to environmental gains and carbon neutrality. Protecting our environment and reducing climate change-inducing emissions is complex and often defined by hard choices. While we may wish environmental protection was as simple as flipping a switch, the reality is rarely that straightforward.

There will never be a “silver bullet” when it comes to protecting our environment. I believe, rather than becoming frustrated by the absence of one-size-fits-all solutions, it can be just as productive to make thoughtful choices today that enable us to achieve incremental environmental gains — that may ultimately deliver breakthroughs over the longer term.

Sometimes, incremental environmental victories are hiding from us in plain sight. Take freight transportation, for example.

Every year, trucks, ships, planes and trains move billions of tons of cargo. While freight transportation keeps the global economy moving — it’s essential and unavoidable — it’s also a heavy driver of polluting emissions. According to MIT, freight transportation accounts for around 8% of global carbon emissions.

Curtailing freight transportation isn’t an option. Indeed, we are seeing and experiencing the downside of unplanned freight restrictions in the global supply chain chaos playing out now. We can do much more to ensure our transportation infrastructure is as modern, reliable and ecological-efficient as possible. And that it is good for our environment and our economy, too.

Such improvements, however, are expensive, often requiring billions in investment to provide infrastructure enhancements at scale. That’s why federal debates over legislation funding infrastructure revitalization are so hotly contested.

Sometimes, opportunities emerge to drive change in the communities we call home without draining the treasury. Here in New England, the proposed merger of CSX with Pan Am Railroad is an opportunity that can bring about big, positive environmental and economic changes quickly without breaking the bank.

The bottom line is simple: CSX is a Class I railroad, ready and able to modernize our region’s aging rail infrastructure. This means improved rail lines, updated locomotive fleets with lower maintenance costs and better fuel efficiency, and improved technology and operations. In 2019, CSX set a record as the only Class I railroad to average one gallon of fuel used to transport goods per thousand gross ton miles.

The benefits of a modernized, efficient regional rail system to customers are impossible to miss: shorter timelines, fewer delays, reduced costs, less pollution and more, await New England if the project is approved. CSX’s higher standards will enable upgrades and updates to the Pan Am network that the smaller, New England line cannot currently afford to make on its own. And throughout the longer term, the environmental benefits will grow many-fold as the region benefits from a railroad operator that, from all appearances, has the financial footing to actually ensure their actions match their rhetoric.

To be sure, rail is already the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land — at least three or four times more efficient than trucks. CSX — thanks to factors such as its modern, efficient fleet and its “Trip Optimizer” software — takes fuel efficiency to another level. CSX moves a ton of freight more than 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel, on average. Whereas, the average age of locomotives operated by Pan Am today is more than 40 years old. A merger will cycle in newer models in line with CSX’s nationwide operating standards as a Class I railroad. Further, CSX will be able to serve Pan Am’s existing network with fewer locomotives than what’s needed today — meaning even fewer emissions.

Reducing the numbers of trains and upgrading them would essentially end noise and pollution violations, as well as complaints shared by New England residents against antiquated Pan Am operations.

The merger between CSX and Pan Am is still undergoing review before the Surface Transportation Board. Approving the application could be a key step forward to moving us further down the railroad to net zero freight emissions.

Dr. Michael K. Dorsey is currently chief strategy officer for Solair and more recently served as a Macmillan Visiting Scholar at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment.

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