New Paper Reveals Rail Industry Was Leader in Climate Denial Efforts

By Justin Mikulka, s a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

A recent paper analyzing the major players in the organized efforts to attack climate change science and delay action had a surprising revelation — the biggest contributing industry/sector was not oil and gas but rail/steel/coal with the most active organization in the climate denial movement being the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

In the paper, Networks of Opposition: A Structural Analysis of U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Coalitions 1989-2015,author Robert Brulle, looks at “key political coalitions that worked to oppose climate action. In conjunction with their allied trade associations, these coalitions have served as a central coordination mechanism in efforts opposed to mandatory limits on carbon emissions.”

And the allied trade association that was most active was the AAR. Why would the rail industry care about climate change and be active in promoting denial? Coal.

Coal has historically been the biggest business for U.S. rail, and still generates over 16% of Class 1 rail revenue in 2018, according to the AAR. Without coal the U.S. rail industry has a major revenue problem — which explains the decades of climate denial activity documented in this new paper.

Of course, the U.S. coal industry is in serious decline despite all of the climate denialism funded by the rail and coal industries. Moody’s has estimated that the rail industry is facing a loss of $5 billion in coal revenues (from current levels of approximately $10 billion) by 2030.

That reality hasn’t stopped the AAR from continuing to push coal while not acknowledging climate change. In a May 2019 publication on rail and coal, the AAR fails to mention climate change while also touting debunked ideas like “clean coal” as potential lifelines for the dying coal industry.

AAR and History of Science Denial

In my book, Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, I document how the AAR has a history of adopting the climate change denial model of attacking known science to delay, deny and repeal safety regulations. This is the model that worked well for the tobacco industry and continues to be an effective method for lobbyists like the AARto work with members of Congress and regulators to prioritize corporate profits over public safety.

Much like how Exxon knew the science of climate change long before it started spending big money to mislead the public about that reality, the rail industry and the AAR have done the same with safety measures like modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

As I have documented for DeSmog, the rail industry and the AAR and regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration all have agreed that, based on the research, ECP brakes are far superior to the current brakes used on oil trains.

Until new regulations were proposed to require those brakes on oil trains in the future. Then the AAR and industry just changed the story and said there was no science supporting the safety benefits of ECP brakes — after years of being on record saying the opposite. In one case lobbyists for the AAR were in Washington, D.C. lobbying against modern brakes while a derailed oil train was still burning in Illinois.

The AAR even ran ads on Google attacking the facts of ECP brakes.

Image: Screen capture of Google ad from American Association of Railroads.

The industry has taken a similar approach to denying the science of the impacts of sloshing on train derailments and ignoring the risks of trains that are too heavy and too long.

And perhaps the most egregious example is the rail industry working with the American Petroleum Institute to deny the known science of oil that is the reason oil trains are known as bomb trains. The oil industry claims it doesn’t understand the science of oil — one of the great science denial claims of all time — and as with all such claims it is about putting profits over safety. The rail industry learned this lesson well.

Climate Change Will Wreak Havoc With Rail

While the rail industry has worked to protect its financial interests by supporting climate denial efforts, it also is an industry that is facing huge climate related challenges — well beyond just the loss of its coal business.

In March, the journal Transport Policy published the paper Impacts of Climate change on Operation of US Rail Networks that estimated the costs of temperature increases due to climate change could reach $45 to $60 billion by 2100.

Temperatures extremes — both hot and cold — cause big problems for railroads because metal rails don’t react well to extreme temperatures. The industry has known for years about “sun kinks” which is the term for when metal rails buckle in extreme heat which can cause train derailments.

In July, Mashable featured the issue of heat and railroads and the outlook wasn’t good.

“This is not a problem that’s going away,” Paul Chinowsky, a civil engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the Transport Policy paper, told Mashable. Chinowsky also noted that rail companies are already stopping traffic during the hottest times of the day in places like Virginia and Arizona. And the article notes the many problems for rail caused by the record heat wave in Europe this summer.

Just this week, Alex Hynes, the managing director of Scotland’s railway, admitted the reality of rail and climate change when he stated that, “The railway in this country can no longer cope because of climate change.”

Flooding on the Tracks

Extreme temperatures are not the only climate related problem facing the railroads. Due to the favorable topography, rail lines tend to follow bodies of water and often travel along lakes, rivers and the ocean putting much of the rail infrastructure at risk of extreme weather causing flooding and sea level rise flooding tracks.

One well known risk is the Northeast Corridor of Amtrak — the busiest stretch of track in the country that runs from Boston to Washington, D.C. — which is at risk of chronic flooding due to sea level rise.

Despite the clear evidence of the risks supported by a study that Bloomberg was able to acquire via a Freedom of Information request last year, Stepen Garder, Amtrak executive vice president and chief commercial officer, told Bloomberg that “We don’t see any fundamental risks to the integrity of the corridor.”

The reason given to Bloomberg why Amtrak didn’t release the report to the public was that “it could possibly cause public confusion.”  If the public is confused about the reality of climate change and sea-level rise the rail industry and AAR are a big part of the reason why.

Despite some attempts to continue to deny reality, the rail industry can’t hide from the facts forever.

On the website for rail company Union Pacific it acknowledges that “the Earth’s climate is changing” and then lists some of the potential risks including, “extreme weather events, such as blizzards, floods and hurricanes” as well as “the impact of potential sea level rise.”

The rail industry has a big climate problem that is going to cost it huge amounts of money and present some potentially unsolveable problems like, “Where do you relocate the busiest section of track in the country when it floods?”  The answer to that question is essentially … you can’t.

The rail industry engaged in short term thinking with its support of climate denial and now coal is dying and the bill is going to come due for the reality of climate change as it wreaks havoc on the rail industry.

Andrew Quinn, a civil engineer at the University of Birmingham and lead author on the paper Rail Adapt: Adapting the railway for the future summed up the new reality of how railways can no longer deny climate change.

“Every decision [rail companies] make should take into account climate change,” said Quinn. “This is an ongoing thing.”

The rail industry should stop wasting money on science denial because it will need every last dollar to deal with the looming climate-related crises it faces.

Image: Flooding on the tracks north of MNR‘s Garrison Station Credit: Metrolpolitan Transportation AuthorityCC BY 2.0

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18 comments

  1. Brooklin Bridge

    The answer to that question [relocation of tracks] is essentially … you can’t.

    I know. The RRs can use tax payer money and eminent domain to build new railroads wherever and whenever they want. As long as the congress critters get their shiny new quarters for corrupt campaigns and high living, all goes ever more swimmingly. Indeed, swimming is going to become a critical skill. Be that as it may, problem solved! And the crazy thing is it actually would be in the public’s interest to some degree though no where near as much as if public benefit were the actual design intent.

    Or is it? Would the aviation cabal er, industry, to mention one possible opponent, have anything to say about it? Also, I’ve never been quite sure why the only reaction to any mention of any thing in any way related to trains and people as travelers on them is: Oh heavens, the country is way too big for trains. It’s a terrific example of group think. As iron clad as three sides to a triangle. So much so that even mentioning the word in conjunction with moving goods about generally evokes a yawn as if you were talking about old cowboy movies.

    Reply
    1. Big River Bandido

      Oh heavens, the country is way too big for trains.

      Yes, I’ve always found that mentality to be nuts. One of the busiest, most underserved corridors in the country is between Chicago and Omaha. It’s about 500 miles and takes roughly 8 hours to drive, not including traffic in and out of each terminal city. Between those two points, the most direct route follows I-80 and the old Rock Island line most of the way. About a million people live along that corridor, and since the the Rock went bankrupt in 1978 there’s been no passenger rail service at all. (The company had been in steady decline for decades, as testified to by the condition of the road itself, the travel time, and unreliability of service.)

      Trains traveling at over 200 mph are not uncommon in Europe, Japan and China. The fastest maglev trains have been clocked at well over 300 mph. At those speeds, it would take roughly this number of minutes to travel from Chicago to each of these cities along that route:

      30 – Davenport
      45 – Iowa City
      75 – Des Moines
      85 – Council Bluffs
      90 – Omaha

      That’s just one corridor. Those numbers are “game changers”.

      Reply
      1. L_44_E

        forget ground level high speed passenger trains.
        go for 90 foot above ground, four parallel 30 inch “I” beams.
        Outer are express between larger cities, non stop.
        Inboard stop every 25 to 40 miles for passenger on / off.
        Use existing right of ways, like I80.
        First is Toronto / Detroit / Chicago

        We had 125 mph tracks from Chicago to St. Louis about 30 years ago.
        Could not because street and road crossing vehicle hits would have jumped bloody high. Even with large, wide drop gates as an experimental fix.

        Reply
      1. Brooklin Bridge

        The French may have beaten us to it. Macron, or His Majesty as he might frame it (a greedy bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur as others would put it), is spearheading a concentrated and potentially very profitable effort to privatize, starting with the ever popular public-private, ahem, partnerships, one of the best train systems in the world, the SNCF, along lines that – if, no…, once it succeeds – will ultimately put the Union Pacific and their fraudulent Crédit Mobilier to shame.

        Reply
    2. Acacia

      Also, I’ve never been quite sure why the only reaction to any mention of any thing in any way related to trains and people as travelers on them is: Oh heavens, the country is way too big for trains.

      To which you point out that the distance from Tokyo to Osaka is pretty close to that from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and the Japanese ran their first Shinkansen on that route over fifty years ago — something that will probably never happen in third world California.

      But hey, AI-powered self-driving cars for the masses are coming real soon now, right?

      Reply
  2. Off The Street

    Maybe folksy Warren Buffett can sit down for an interview with someone outside of the captive financial press to discuss how what his train and utility investments are doing.

    Reply
  3. a different chris

    A question:

    1) I’m a train fan-atic. Love them
    2) I don’t know much about civil engineering so maybe not a problem, but:

    I skimmed the link and couldn’t find what I was looking for. I believe we had to rename “Global Warming” to “Climate Change” because the troglodytes were just annoying on the subject. Every time it snowed, sigh….

    But it really is Climate Change locally. Hotter hots, colder colds, or both. So my question (I know, finally) is could there be important areas cough California cough where the yearly temperature excursions get so great that the magnitude of the rail expansion and contraction simply cannot be dealt with given today’s materials?

    That is, all I found in the article was “early warning systems” and such. But that’s fine if you have a rebuild incident every few years. If every year the track needs to be twice rebuilt to compensate for late-spring-thur-fall vs late-fall-thru-early-spring expansion considerations, then how does that work economically?

    Reply
    1. Titus

      As to today’s materials used for tracks, the steel commonly used on rail beds is poor, but yes better materials do exist on working railroads. Then there are processes in building and operation to keep tracks straight, also not generally used in the US. Mag-lev doesn’t use contact with tracks, is used in China so with that technology it is moot. Look outside of the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains by law are limited by congress to a top speed of 78 mph. That’s just one of the self imposed impediments to deal with to start with. Travel anywhere from 500 miles should be by train. Not the crappy ones we’ve got but not something we need NASA for either.

      Reply
  4. FKorning

    It doesn’t even have to spell the death-knell for coal. Electrified trains are shining example all over Europe.
    The power generation could well come from coal, which centralised at the plant, could easily accommodate
    chimney stack scrubbing and carbon capture, inputs to algal bio-deisel digesters, or thorium extraction. Any of these scenarios is a win-win for industry and society at large.

    Reply
  5. ptb

    Uncle Warren Buffet? Say it ain’t so.

    BNSF, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is the biggest choo choo network. It was bought specifically to profit off transporting Canadian bitumen to the gulf coast refineries, and the pipeline alternative was held up by the previous administration, as a courtesy to Buffet.

    That said, rail is a good thing, when it is used instead of cars and trucks – something that countries that actually care about climate change are doing.

    Reply
      1. Synoia

        He talks philanthropy out of one-percent of his mouth and “ruthless one-percentism” out of the remaining 99%.

        It is unlikely he gives 50% of his efforts to philanthropy.

        Reply
  6. VietnamVet

    Warren Buffett, wind farms and electrified railroads are all tied up together. But, it comes down to planning. The earth has finite resources and an environment evolved to utilize solar energy. Electrified rail is the most energy efficient way to move people, goods and commodities. Not only due to climate change but the global economy also is reaching the end of offshoring of manufacturing to low cost labor regions. The adjusted cost of petroleum that causes a global economic collapse keeps getting lower. The only alternative is to make things near to home. Plus stealing another country’s oil is extremely dangerous.

    Peace and electrified rail transport is a survivable future.

    Reply
  7. Tyronius

    America’s railroads are the only major transportation system not currently nationalised. This is a fundamental impediment to badly needed upgrades. The notion that America is to big for high speed rail is a self serving joke on us, perpetrated by the oil, automobile, trucking and airline industries. This is just one more area of American life in dire need of an application of common sense. Will we ever pull out of this tailspin of shortsightedness? The world wonders…

    Reply
  8. L M44 E

    16% railroad revenue from hauling coal.
    If coal mining decreases, we still have barges bringing West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southern Indiana and Illinois coal up the Illinois river to Chicago. Thence over to the steel mills along the south shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana.
    The coal cars can haul garbage. Yup, load them up instead of dumping into the ocean.
    Dig, dig, dig out in the Arizona no where and dump the garbage. Process for break even cost.
    Methane capture is one.
    Also the 16% is being made up by hauling the conatiners, both our imports, empties plus exports!!

    The AAR does have massive government input. The writer has it the other way – that AAR influences gov’t. I utilized the AAR technical requirements for tankcars. These are based on ASME (american society of Mechanical Engineers) and copy for example welding procedures, qualifications and quality.

    Chicago area has the high speed rail buzz again. This is the third go round. The group promoting appears to have government sponsorship – which I disagree with. An outside lobby, promoting something we cannot do at ground level and the hard working taxpayer supports wages and benefits for the louts!!

    Reply
  9. J4Zonian

    Flying & driving are also at the mercy of climate & extreme weather. Planes can’t take off or land when runways are softened by heat; they fly less well; are threatened by flooding, failure of support systems, & climate-related ill health of passengers and crew.

    Inequality & the psychological conditions that cause it are the main levers on climate catastrophe; people do ecological harm in direct proportion to their income & wealth—regardless of their intentions to be green, btw. In some limited ways we’ll have to return to conditions even the very rich lived with until the 1950s—traveling slower in some places is one. Like the rich themselves, flying is one more of their indulgences the world can no longer afford. In many ways it will be an improvement in everyone’s lives.

    But minor improvements in the efficiency of things that have to be eliminated are irrelevant—and a waste of time & money. Even if electrification & alternative fuels happen as more than novelties, flying & private driving are still less efficient than mass transit, less fair than public transit, & will have to be given up except where there are no other choices. What’s left will have to be minimized and decarbonized.

    If civilization is to survive, rail—including high speed rail—will be the transportation of the 21st century. China went from about 20 miles of HSR line to 16,000 in 10 years, and the US is almost uniquely suited to emulating that; we need to start building a meta-national HSR network, hooked into other free mass transit hubs, the instant progressives have enough power.

    Reply

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