Late last year, Sound Transit, the public transit agency serving the Seattle area, became the first major passenger light rail system in the United States to run entirely carbon-free electricity. In Europe, meanwhile, 2021 has been declared the “Year of Rail,” and companies like DB Cargo are leading a push to zero-emission rail by providing logistics customers like Mercedes-Benz with a zero-CO2, renewable energy-powered freight service.
Initiatives like these highlight the growing role cargo and passenger rail are playing in the global carbon-reduction effort, as well as the resulting emergence of carbon-free rail as a serious strategic option for meeting sustainability and emission-reduction targets and requirements in the U.S., Europe and other places where reducing carbon footprint is a high priority. The business case for carbon-free rail lately has become much more compelling — not only for cargo/freight transport and logistics companies, but also for their customers.
Whether it’s a manufacturer like Mercedes-Benz or a logistics and transport provider like DB Cargo, corporations around the globe are increasingly being held to higher ESG (environmental, social and governance) and sustainability standards — their own and those thrust upon them by regulatory policies. Moving goods by rail using exclusively electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar aids them in meeting those standards. In fact, rail emits significantly less CO2 than other cargo transport modes like air and road. If 10% of the freight shipped by the largest trucks was moved by rail instead, greenhouse emissions would fall by more than 17 million tons annually, or the equivalent of removing 3.35 million cars from the road, according to figures cited by the think tank Third Way.
For transport and logistics companies, zero-carbon rail also is a way to help customers achieve their net-zero and sustainability goals, which in turn strengthens business relationships with those customers, opening the door to additional opportunities. In the case of Mercedes-Benz, all its inbound rail transport of vehicle components is now completely carbon-neutral.
While carbon-free cargo and passenger rail clearly is moving off the third rail and into the transport and logistics mainstream, there’s still plenty of groundwork to be laid to make it widely viable and accessible as a supply chain option. The formation of extended, cross-industry business networks around the concept will be one important catalyst. As part of DB Cargo’s service, the company also is working with renewable electricity infrastructure companies to build additional generation and storage facilities. Sound Transit is partnering with local utility Puget Energy to power its carbon-free light rail lines.
Public-private partnerships — between transport and logistics companies, locomotive engine manufacturers, government entities and a wide range of other stakeholders — will be another important catalyst in the move to carbon-free rail, advancing efforts to pursue emerging technologies like hydrogen- and battery-powered locomotives, for example.
It’s also going to take powerful digital capabilities to support the expansion of carbon-free rail. Because what is not measured cannot be managed, all these stakeholders are going need the ability to precisely track, trace and disclose not only their own carbon footprints (from traction as well as their facilities and infrastructure), but also those of the companies across the value chains of which they are part. They’re going need to be connected digitally in order to readily share data and insight with one another. And they are going to need the advanced modeling tools to show them, based on the data, the best pathways to maximize their assets while minimizing their resource consumption and their GHG output, without compromising the quality or profitability of their products and services.
When the European Union declared 2021 the “Year of Rail,” it did so with the goal of “shining a light on one of the most sustainable, innovative and safest transport modes we have.” Carbon-free rail now appears poised to earn a share of the spotlight, and a much larger role in our transportation future.