The Climate Problem With Railroads

Pick something you’ve always loved, and consider breaking up with it for the sake of the planet.

I’ve always loved railroads. Always found them to be soothing, reassuring, exciting and great. Maybe because of that summer camp I attended where you could hear the trains running along the lake at night. Or that model train set my dad bought and set up with me. Or maybe all the great railroad songs… who knows.

For a while I also thought trains could be part of the climate solution. They’re much more fuel efficient than trucks per ton of freight shipped. And much easier to upgradeā€¦ they get more efficient every year. Railroads everywhere are raising green bonds to modernize their locomotives, electrifying tracks and cranes, trying to win back passengers from high-emitting airlines, and committing to greatly reduce their Scope I and II emissions.

Problem is, they also haul coal and oil. Millions of tons of it.

Railroads are a central part of the fossil fuel extraction and distribution machine – as much as oil companies and their pipelines or supertankers.

They haul 70% or more of the coal in the U.S. (and other countries like Australia, Russia, China and India), from tracks hard-wired into the mines and the power plants. They also haul significant loads of tar-sands oil from Canada to the U.S., while competing pipelines are blocked by courts and protests.

Coal use in the U.S. is declining, but there’s still plenty of it moving and burning, including coal for export. And globally, coal is booming – as are the railroads that haul it.

To add insult to injury, railroads are also still among the primary funders of campaigns to discredit climate science and oppose climate policies.

How can you fight climate change when you’re an integral part of the carbon-burning machine? You can’t.

How can we stop railroads from hauling coal and oil and get them to forego that revenue?

Hey Warren Buffett (owner of BNSF, America’s largest railroad and its biggest coal hauler), have you read the IPCC report?

That’s the question we need to be asking. What will it take to acknowledge what we’re really doing and stop burning up the planet?


I recently visited the Golden Spike observation tower overlooking Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Nebraska, where you get a bird’s eye view of yard operations (mile-long freights trains being put together).

We got up to the observation deck, joining a few other rail fans who’d traveled long distances to see this, and it was really cool.

Until I saw a massive coal train which had come in from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming (see video below). I think my love for trains died a little that day.