A New Climate Rule Could Change the Face of America’s Railways

An alliance of labor and environmental groups is taking on the rail industry to pass a rule that would create both zero-emissions trains and good union jobs.

Kari Lydersen


A new California rule mandating a switch to zero-emissions locomotives could create scores of new union jobs, especially if other states follow suit. But last month, the railroad industry filed a lawsuit challenging the rule, charging that states do not have the right to pass regulations stricter than federal limits on emissions. Meanwhile, railroad companies have largely ignored federal rules that are in place mandating a transition to the cleanest-burning diesel regulations, and experts say adherence to those existing rules would also create thousands of union jobs while greatly reducing the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) union has long been pushing for a transition to cleaner locomotives, in keeping with the spirit of a Green New Deal. UE general president Carl Rosen says the transition to clean locomotives fits with UE’s commitment to environmental justice and fighting climate change, and it could mean new union jobs including at the Wabtec Corp. locomotive factory in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Rosen testified on July 26 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety about locomotive emissions standards and their impact on jobs and health.

Setting stricter emission standards for locomotives is not only the right thing to do for workers and communities around the railroads, it will also stimulate American manufacturing, as new requirements for railroads to fully modernize their fleet will spur demand,” Rosen told the committee. Essentially all manufacturing of locomotives for the U.S. market takes place domestically, and much of it is union, with family-supporting wages and benefits.”

The Wabtec plant, where about 1,400 UE workers have been on strike since June 22, has seen more than 1,600 jobs slashed in recent years. Wabtec bought the plant—UE’s flagship membership base — from GE in 2019.

A study released this year by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that manufacturing green locomotives — zero-emissions electric and the cleanest possible diesel models — could add 2,600 to 4,300 jobs at the Wabtec plant and up to 5,000 new jobs in Erie County in associated goods and services.

Most of the drop [in Wabtec employment] is because railroads stopped buying new locomotives, no one has been making them do it,” Rosen told In These Times. One of our contract demands is [for the company] to commit to working with us to push green locomotives forward and do that work at our plant.”

Wabtec is already making battery-powered locomotives, including through a $100 million deal to place the locomotives in rail yards in Nebraska and California.

Cleaner locomotives would also provide health benefits for workers nationwide who spend their days in and around rail yards breathing dangerous diesel emissions.

Larry Hopkins is a rail crew driver in Chicago, ferrying conductors and engineers between locomotives and hotels. He lives between six rail yards on Chicago’s Southwest Side and is president of UE Local 1177, which represents the rail crew drivers employed by Hallcon Corporation.

“It’s all about corporate greed. The railroads are worried about profit and not lives. They act like they’re concerned, but they’re not.”

We are constantly breathing the fumes from those locomotives,” said Hopkins. He suffers from sinus problems he attributes to the diesel exposure over 13 years working for the company Renzenberger Inc., and then Hallcon Corporation after a 2013 merger. It’s all about corporate greed. The railroads are worried about profit and not lives. They act like they’re concerned, but they’re not.”

Meaningful regulation

The UE and other labor and health groups have been pushing proposals for funding cleaner locomotives that ultimately were stripped out of earlier versions of legislation that became the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

So now the UE and other advocates are pinning their hopes on state regulations, with California leading the way and other states likely to follow. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently drafting a new rule that would allow states to pass stricter emissions standards than federal law. The provision is part of proposed rules that would strengthen emissions limits on heavy duty vehicles including trucks — restoring protections that were derailed by the Trump administration.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulation approved in April mandates all switcher, industrial and passenger locomotives operating in California be emissions-free by 2030, while freight train locomotives must be emissions-free by 2035, unless railroads adhere to an alternate compliance plan that results in an equivalent reduction in emissions.

Under the rule, starting in 2024, companies must pay into a fund based on how much diesel pollution their locomotives are emitting in California, with the funds used for transitioning to cleaner locomotives. Locomotive idling — which releases copious emissions — will also be limited to 30 minutes.

The EPA first instituted emissions classifications and limits for diesel locomotives in 1997. The oldest, dirtiest locomotives are considered tier 0. Tier 4 diesel locomotives employ the latest technology and have relatively low emissions. Updated regulations adopted in 2008 called for most locomotives to meet tier 3 standards by 2012 and tier 4 by 2015. But as of 2021, fewer than 10% of the nation’s Class 1 locomotives met the tier 4 standards, according to UE’s analysis of federal statistics, and three-quarters were tier 2 or lower.

The UE’s Green Locomotive Project demands that almost immediately, all long-haul locomotives meet tier 4 standards, and all switcher locomotives in rail yards be zero-emissions. The project calls for transitioning to entirely zero-emissions locomotives over time.

You can take an old locomotive into the shop and bring a tier 3 out the other end,” said Rosen. A tier 4 by contrast is a significant leap forward in afterburners and things that require a much larger chassis,” he continued. But [railroads] aren’t even doing what they could to get to tier 3, because there are no teeth” in the federal tier regulations.

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Rosen noted that creating stricter, binding federal standards for rail emissions would likely be a slow process, so advocates are hopeful that the EPA will simply pass the rule allowing states to create their own standards before the industry lawsuit can shut such standards down.

If California does it, it will force the rail industry to clean up in general,” Rosen said. We could certainly see states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and others move on this sort of thing if it becomes possible to have states set their own standards. Once you have states like [California] doing it, it will become de facto national policy because locomotives have to move from place to place.”

Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, noted that California’s Clean Car rules have pushed auto makers to invest in electric and hybrid models. That rule, also promulgated by CARB, sets a schedule so that by 2035, all cars and light trucks sold in the state must be zero-emissions.

With the California car standard we’ve seen California leading the nation toward greener transportation,” Brubaker said. We hope they can do the same on the locomotive side. There are obviously far less locomotives than automobiles in the world, but with locomotives there are probably a greater percentage serving California than automobiles purchased in California. So California could — assuming they have legal authority to do so — push the locomotive market even more effectively than they did the car market.”

Environmental injustice

Rail emissions are widely recognized as a serious environmental justice issue, since people living around rail yards and along rail lines in urban areas are disproportionately people of color. CARB has estimated the California rules will prevent 3,200 premature deaths — and that one locomotive has equivalent emissions to 400 heavy-duty trucks.

Rosen noted that often the oldest locomotives are used in rail yards, since breaking down presents less risk there, meaning even more emissions for nearby residents and workers.

Cedric Whelchel is recording secretary of UE Local 1177 and a driver for Hallcon. I am a witness” daily to the pollution from switcher locomotives, he noted, and he wears a face mask to try to reduce the impact on his health.

When the engines are just sitting there idling, the smoke that comes out of the engine is a carbon footprint that people don’t understand,” he said. It affects everybody in different ways. It affects my breathing. The neighborhoods that they’re polluting are poor neighborhoods, and the corporations are not doing anything to try to fix the issue. If the government can step in and tell railroad workers they can’t strike” — as happened last fall when Congress adopted a resolution prohibiting railroad workers from walking off the job — they can also step in and tell the corporations that they have to go green.”

In driving around rail yards, he’s seen polluting locomotives idling for hours close to both homes and businesses.

Wherever they have room is where they park the engines, it could be near a daycare center if the tracks run there,” he said. They don’t think about the health and welfare of the neighborhoods.”

A Norfolk Southern contractor walks away from the tracks as a train approaches on March 9, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Greening rail yards is all the more crucial since they are often located near multiple sources of diesel and other pollution, like ports, trucking depots, oil refineries and factories.

The thing that is really important to keep in mind when talking about rail yards is that it’s not just one isolated source,” said Yasmine Agelidis, a Los Angeles-based senior associate attorney for Earthjustice. Rail yards are right next to warehouses and trucks, cargo handling equipment, sometimes oil refineries, large ships. There are just so many cumulative sources of this pollution.”

UE Local 1077 member Lauren Sims is a rail crew driver in Wilmington, California, an area near oil refineries, the port of Long Beach and other heavy industry, in addition to rail yards. In written testimony submitted to the EPA in June, Sims described how her son suffers from asthma, and she feels constantly affected by the emissions she breathes in at work.

The smoke from the trains, when it comes out, you can see it. You can see the smoke and smell it too,” Sims wrote. I get light-headed when I have to be parked next to the train engines. Even with windows rolled up, the fumes still come through the vents.”

In May, Hopkins testified before the EPA in virtual hearings regarding the proposed new rule.

We’ve got a serious problem” he told In These Times. I really believe thousands of lives will be lost due to these contaminated pollutants that frequent our air. Until the railroads invest in fuel-efficient safe trains, then this problem is going to continue. It’s a lot of work to be done, but I feel confident that we will prevail and we will move in the right direction to create more jobs and get some type of hold on not just the pollutants but climate change as well.”

Greener options

Switcher locomotives that operate in rail yards, reorganizing train cars, can run on batteries that are recharged within the yard. Electric battery-driven locomotives could also operate on longer journeys if they are paired with diesel locomotives, taking turns so that the diesel locomotives can pull when the battery needs recharging. Wabtec built battery-powered locomotives that have used this configuration on test runs in California, funded with a grant from the California Air Resources Board.

Locomotives can also be powered by overhead catenary electric lines that run along tracks, as is the case with many light rail systems and with long-haul trains throughout Europe.

Installing such electrical wires across the United States’ expansive rail network would be a massive undertaking and would require revamping of the electric grid. But some proponents, including those with the campaign Solutionary Rail, have argued for exactly this solution. Nationalizing the railroads, as workers and experts have advocated in recent years, could help facilitate such an ambitious long-term investment.

Brubaker noted that common dual-mode locomotives can run on either diesel or electric, offering more flexibility in a transition.

A diesel locomotive is really a diesel generator hooked up to an electric motor,” Brubaker said. There’s no reason you can’t hook up a catenary or extension cord and bypass the diesel generator and get your electricity from somewhere else to turn the electric motors already on the locomotive. Instead of running a catenary wire hypothetically from Denver to Chicago, you run a diesel locomotive until you get to the edge of greater Chicagoland at which point you switch over to catenary.” Brubaker says this alternative would provide major public health improvements in denser urban areas and chip away at greenhouse gas emissions.

A 2021 study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that running freight trains on battery-powered locomotives could actually be cost-effective, with tender” train cars carrying banks of batteries that could be recharged in rail yards.

Installing overhead electrification in rail yards would be relatively straightforward—and would create work for union electrical workers.

A battery-powered freight train would use half the energy required by a diesel-electric train, and taking into account falling battery prices and environmental costs of diesel, battery-electric trains are on track to be more cost-competitive than diesel-electric trains,” says a summary of the study. Since freight rail planning is centralized, the study suggests that railroads could achieve high volume use of fast-charging infrastructure, which would further reduce costs.” It notes that the battery cars could also be used to back up the grid during natural disasters.

Meanwhile, installing overhead electrification in rail yards would be relatively straightforward — and would create work for union electrical workers.

That technology actually has been used around the world for over 100 years, it’s very tried and true,” said Agelidis. If we were to bring that to the United States, not only would we get zero emissions, but there would be tons of jobs created putting in the rail lines, connecting that power source. Good union jobs.”

Research is also underway on using hydrogen fuel cells to power locomotives, which would mean zero emissions. As with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells on locomotives would produce electricity that would power an electric motor, allowing range similar to diesel engines without any electrical infrastructure or plug-in charging. Hydrogen-powered trains are already operating in Europe.

Funding and feasibility

Funding for zero-emissions locomotives is available through various California grants and federal programs. The green locomotive initiatives that UE and others have backed in proposed federal legislation would include subsidies for railroads to upgrade their locomotive fleets.

In a statement, the Association of American Railroads said that it is already doing much to reduce emissions, but greening locomotives on a faster schedule would not be feasible.

Initiatives such as zero-emission cranes, yard service vehicles and other technology are at work in yards across California and the nation as anti-idling systems, fuel management systems and the use of renewable fuels are simultaneously reducing locomotive emissions,” the AAR said in a statement. Today, the industry continues to pilot emerging technologies such as battery-electric and fuel-cell locomotives that can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria pollutants across the state and nationwide. However, despite billions in investments and an industry-wide push to unlock a zero-emissions solution, a clear technological path has not yet emerged and will require additional testing and development.”

Rail experts beg to differ.

The technology has been around for a really long time, it’s not one of those situations where we’re still waiting for the technology to develop,” said Agelidis. We’re just talking about bringing the United States up to date with the rest of the world.”

The association representing short-line railroads said in a statement, the rule mandates an incredibly abrupt, dramatic, unrealistic and counterproductive forced shift” that is not feasible” for most short-line railroads.

Agelidis isn’t convinced. We need to keep in mind that we’re not talking about mom and pop railroads here,” she said. There is funding available at the federal level and the state level to help support this transition to zero emissions. What we’d really love to see is the railroads come to the table in earnest and be curious about ways they can take advantage of this funding to improve the air quality and working conditions for people who have been impacted for a really long time by their operations, rather than just saying this is impossible.” 

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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