How green are rail customers?

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

The Rolling Stones once crooned that you can’t always get what you want, but CN (Canadian National Railway Company) wants to try it for its agricultural customers.

Although the service provided by both CN and CP railroads improved quite a bit this past Fall-Winter-Spring season, primarily by being on time in providing enough grain cars for transport to various ports both east, west, and south, one railroad wants to offer a new tool to allow its customers a method to evaluate their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

CN recently launched its self-service sustainability tool—My Carbon Emissions—to enable customers to evaluate the environmental advantages of using rail for their specific shipments.

It’s an exciting concept.

Within the ag industry, we are constantly harped upon to reduce our GHG emissions by such and such amounts—but never has anyone said this is how you reduce them.

Although the CN My Carbon Emissions tool will not tell you how to reduce, it will provide you with a number showing the impact your transported grain is having.

At least this number isn’t arbitrary—it is individually specific to the customer.

It was 13 years ago when CN first debuted a Carbon Calculator to provide customers with a glimpse into their estimated GHG emissions, and most importantly for the railroad company, it showed how agricultural customers could reduce their emissions by utilizing rail transportation instead of truck, air, or waterways.

However, almost all deliveries—especially to overseas customers—can utilize all four transportation methods on one trip.

Available on the CN One eBusiness platform, the My Carbon Emissions tool provides customers with a detailed report of their estimated GHG emissions based on all their loaded shipments moved on CN and the emissions avoided by choosing rail over trucking. Yes, it’s a promotional thing for the rail industry in general.

Per CN, these insights into the environmental benefits of shipping via the railroad’s transcontinental network empower customers to make data-driven decisions that support their climate objectives.

CN wants to be a part of the climate solution and has set its science-based targets to reduce its Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions intensity by 43 percent and its Scope 3 emissions intensity for fuel- and energy-related activities by 40 percent by 2030 from a 2019 base year.

The railway realizes that as more companies—ag businesses, retailers, and farms—are also looking to quantify and ultimately lower their transportation GHG emissions, the information now available via the calculator will allow customers to access and easily understand part of their Scope 3 emissions.

It will also help identify opportunities for customers to make more environmentally friendly transportation decisions. CN also wants it to be known that the new tool further demonstrates its commitment to innovate and offer solutions for the evolving needs of its customers.

Doug MacDonald, CN’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, stated, “Rail has a tremendous potential to reduce the environmental impact of transportation, and we are pleased to offer this enhanced tool to our customers, who are at the heart of what we do.”

He continued: “Moving long-haul freight by train instead of [a] truck can reduce GHG emissions by up to 75 percent, and CN remains a leader in the North American rail industry by consuming approximately 15 percent less locomotive fuel per gross ton mile.”

The company is committed to setting a net-zero 2050 carbon emission target aligned to a 1.5°C scenario.

CN has stated that its carbon footprint encompasses its rail locomotive fleet, non-rail vehicle fleet, vessel fleets, and buildings and yards. It has determined that some 85 percent of its GHG emissions are physically generated from rail operations. As such, it is looking for ways to improve its locomotive’s operating efficiency and reduce its carbon footprint.

The railroad explained that by utilizing more fuel-efficient locomotives, leading-edge technologies, and many other programs, it has achieved a fuel and carbon efficiency improvement of 40 percent over the past 25 years and a 43 percent improvement over the past 30 years.

GHG reduction has been achieved via:

  • using fewer rail cars and locomotives to ship more freight;
  • promoting fuel conservation practices;
  • driving efficiency across the supply chain;
  • deploying leading-edge technologies;
  • operating through efficient routing protocols;
  • optimizing yard performance;
  • upgrading its locomotive fleet.

As an international transportation leader and trade enabler, CN transports over 300 million tons of natural resources, manufactured products, and finished goods throughout North America annually. It connects Canada’s east and west coasts with the southern part of the US via an 18,600-mile rail network.

But what about CP? Who’s that?

We’ve lauded the efforts of CN. Still, surely CP (Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.)—er, it has a new name after a grand merger and now has a more significant mouthful of letters, CPKC (aka Canadian Pacific Kansas City Limited)—has also got something similar?

It turns out that CPKC has released a web-based carbon emissions calculator that companies and customers can use to calculate their own GHG emissions.

They released it in September of 2022 when it was still known as CP.

But is it similar to the original carbon calculator that came out of CN 13 years ago, or is this version all new, and is it something CN is parroting?

It depends on whom one asks, so let’s avoid that scenario and instead point out what CPKC is doing. And those who use CPKC can continue to do so just like those who use CN can.

CPKC said that users of its carbon emissions calculator choose the size, weight, and frequency of shipments and the specific destinations for the freight.

Users can determine the lowest carbon-emitting form of transportation, examine an overview of life-cycle emissions from logistics services, and compare CP’s rail services to long-haul trucking alternatives.

Direct emissions from the rail service are estimated by using the amount and type of goods to be moved, conversion factors to transform this weight into the number of railcars and trucks needed, the origin and destination of the movement, and the GHG emission factors for truck and rail.

Indirect emissions are calculated as a proportion of the total estimated direct fuel combustion emissions.

These proportions are based on GHG emissions life-cycle analysis model results from GHGenius, a free-to-download model primarily focusing on transportation fuels in Canada.

The CPKC calculator does make assumptions, such as truck (long-haul or otherwise), rail, and drayage distances reflecting the shortest route available based on data from mapping tools. In this instance, drayage refers to transportation by truck from an ocean port or inland rail ramp to the next destination in the supply chain. We say “in this instance” because in the trade show industry, drayage can mean the weight of the goods being delivered to an event location, and the drayage fee is based on that weight.

“CP is committed to operating sustainably and being part of the solution in the transition to a less carbon-intensive economy in North America,” Keith Creel, the CPKC President and Chief Executive Officer, said in an earlier statement.

“We are pleased to provide customers with a tool that allows them to better understand the carbon footprint associated with their shipping options and make informed choices that benefit the environment.”

The tool does not include interchanges to or from other North American rail networks.

Aside from its trains, the company is working to reduce absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 27.5 percent.

CPKC was formed officially in mid-April of 2023 after the US rail regulator approved CP’s US$31-billion deal to purchase the Kansas City Southern Railway Co. It is the only railroad to stretch from Canada through the US and into Mexico.

Regardless of which rail company does what, both offer their customers a method to calculate the GHG emissions their transported products have created.

Related articles