Dear California, just let the trains run

Photo Credit: Getty

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) in April approved regulations to ban the operation of diesel locomotives in California and the rule goes into effect on January 1, 2024.

Here’s what California is requiring:

  • Starting in 2026, the state’s locomotive operators must set aside hundreds of millions of dollars annually to fund a transition to a zero-emission rail system.
  • Passenger trains operating in California starting in 2030 must be powered by either grid-based electricity, on-board batteries, or fuel cells—propulsion systems CARB collectively dubs as “zero emission (ZE) configuration.”
  • Freight trains operating in California in 2035 and beyond must also operate in ZE configuration. CARB’s regulations also apply to existing (already built) locomotives. Starting in 2030, any locomotive 23 years or older may no longer operate in California. Bear in mind that diesel locomotives “typically have a useful life of 40 years or more,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • By 2042, 50 percent of annual fleet usage in the state must be from ZE locomotives, and 100 percent must be ZE locomotives by 2047.

Rail is the most basic infrastructure of interstate commerce. “Freight rail accounts for around 40 percent of long-distance ton-miles—more than any other mode of transportation,” the Association of American Railroads (AAR) reports.

Trains don’t switch locomotives when crossing state borders. If engines must be built to CARB’s standards to operate in California, manufacturers will come under heavy pressure to build CARB-compliant locomotives for all states.

CARB’s rule is just the latest initiative in California’s quest to be a global “climate leader.” As usual, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to be enabling CARB’s regulatory ambitions. The EPA in November finalized a rule purporting to “preserve the ability of California to adopt and enforce certain emission standards regulating non-new locomotives and engines” (emphasis added). Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, the EPA “has green-lighted Sacramento’s plan to outlaw diesel locomotives.”

However, California will still need to go through the waiver request process with EPA, a process that involves public notice and comment period, so there is a chance for the agency to give pause to California’s request.

In April, CARB also approved regulations to end sales of medium- and heavy-duty combustion-engine trucks by 2036, including the drayage trucks (“big rigs”) that haul freight from rail lines to ports and vice versa.

In short, California is trying to control the two largest modes of interstate commerce. Each rule on its own could prove highly disruptive to the US economy. In combination, the ripple effects could well be global, given that California is home to two of the largest and busiest ports in the nation.

The rail industry is pushing back. “Union Pacific is deeply disappointed in the California Air Resources Board’s decision to impose burdensome regulations on the railroad industry, which fail to take into consideration that the technology and infrastructure needed for success do not exist,” the company told FreightWaves.

AAR warned that the technology for ZE freight trains “has not been sufficiently tested in prototype or operational service and is not commercially available on the market today.”

Indeed, citing US Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, Diesel Technology Forum reports that of the 26,000 freight locomotives and 431 passenger rail locomotives operating in the US in 2018, all freight trains were diesel-powered, as were all passenger trains except those operating on electrified lines such as Amtrak’s Northeast corridor and the Harrisburg, PA line.

Smaller train companies are scrambling to understand how to comply with this regulation and survive. As noted, under CARB’s plan, locomotives 23 years or older will not be allowed to operate in California after 2029. Yet smaller company locomotives are often 40-50 years old and still operational.

The smaller companies play a crucial role in short line rail service, providing the “first mile” and “last mile” connections that feed goods from local economies into the national rail network for long-distance travel. If unable to shunt the rule’s cost onto their customers, some smaller companies could be “eliminated,” according to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA).

The ARR and ASLRRA have petitioned the Eastern District Court of California to declare CARB’s rule unlawful and invalid, and bar CARB from implementing or enforcing it. Petitioners argue that the rule is preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Locomotive Inspection Act, and violates the Dormant Commerce Clause by imposing substantial burdens on interstate commerce.

“The legal claims are compelling, particularly on preemption grounds, so there’s good reason to hope the courts will derail California’s runaway locomotive regulation,” writes Heritage Foundation scholar and former US Department of Transportation General Counsel Stephen Bradbury.

Rather than abolish diesel trains, CARB should stand in awe of these marvels of energy-efficient transportation. On average, US diesels move a ton of freight nearly 500 miles on one gallon of fuel.

It is one thing for private investors with their own capital at risk to bet on longshot technologies. It is quite another for a regulatory body with no skin in the game to impose multi-billion-dollar risks on others.

Finally, CARB should be reminded: Grocery store shelves still need to be stocked and our nation’s ports need to be accessible by locomotives and trucks—yes, even if that means running locomotives and trucks on diesel fuel.

America needs affordable, reliable, efficient rail transport.