The two trade groups representing freight railroads are suing the California Air Resources Board over newly passed regulation that calls for the railroads to move away from diesel locomotives and toward “zero-emission configurations” by as early as 2030.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) say the regulation, passed in late April by CARB, calls for the industry to use technology that has neither been sufficiently tested in prototype nor is not commercially available in today’s market. 

Freight rail stakeholders have worked with California as they have developed technologies at promoting sustainability or reducing greenhouse gas emissions — technologies such as battery-electric locomotives and fuel-cell locomotives and zero-emissions cranes. But the new locomotive emissions rule is calling for the railroads to use technology that is not yet commercially viable, the two groups argue.

“While the urgency to act is real and unquestionable, CARB uses unreasonable, flawed assumptions to support a rule that will not result in emissions reductions,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a Friday release. “Railroads have urged CARB to take the proven path of collaboration and build on our shared successes, but those arguments were rejected out of hand. Railroads are working toward reliable, efficient zero-emissions technologies; however, they cannot simply be willed into immediate existence by policymakers.”

Short line railroads have argued that the costs to modify existing locomotives or purchase new ones could be too expensive and cost-prohibitive for companies.

“Short line railroads operating in California provide critical first- and last-mile service on lower density branch lines, keeping smaller shippers in rural areas and small towns connected to the national freight rail network,” ASLRRA President Chuck Baker said. “While the spirit behind this regulation is consistent with railroad’s environmental commitment, the rule itself is unworkable and infeasible for short lines — its implementation would literally bankrupt some small business short lines. And the rulemaking does not acknowledge the impact of the elimination of some short line rail service to Californians. 

“For shippers, it eliminates an efficient means to market and threatens the competitiveness of California’s products. For the public, it means the rising cost of products and a modal shift to trucks — a far less safe means of transportation resulting in more fatalities and injuries, more congestion on California’s roads, more burden on the California taxpayer to pay for road damage, and more micro plastics from shredded truck tires in the environment and water supply.”

In their lawsuit, AAR and ASLRRA argue that CARB lacks the legal authority to promulgate the rule because of the interconnected nature of rail operations. 

The new regulation, which must go through an approval process with California’s Office of Administrative Law before being implemented, requires railroad operators in California to use “zero-emissions configurations” starting as early as 2030. CARB defines zero-emission configurations as a zero-emission locomotive or a zero-emission-capable locomotive, according to a fact sheet on the regulation. 

The new rules, which CARB says are aimed at reducing the emissions of locomotives operating within California, have two notable deadlines: Switch, industrial and passenger locomotives built in 2030 or after will need to operate in zero-emissions configurations, while locomotives built in 2035 for freight linehaul operations will need to comply with the zero-emissions configurations.

The new rules also limit locomotive idling to 30 minutes except for certain circumstances, such as maintaining air brake pressure or providing heat or cooling to the locomotive cab, and they require locomotives operating in California to register with CARB and annually report on their activity, emission levels and idling data. These two conditions would go into effect in 2024.

To help companies with the transition, they can set up and deposit monies into a spending account that will go toward purchasing or upgrading to cleaner locomotive technologies, CARB said. 

There is also some flexibility for companies needing to comply with the rules if technologies aren’t available or an emergency situation arises, CARB said.

The different tiers pertain to when the locomotives were manufactured, with each tier having its own emissions standards, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Tier 3 units were manufactured between 2012 and 2014, while Tier 0 units were manufactured between 1973 and 1992.

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Related links:

Short-line operator: California’s new locomotive emissions rule could ‘kill’ industry

California passes rule to drastically cut locomotives’ emissions

California could phase out diesel locomotives

California expected to accelerate deadline for zero-emissions trucks

California intensifies efforts to slash railway emissions

Union Pacific spending over $100M on 20 battery-electric locomotives

BNSF, Wabtec put battery-electric locomotive to the test

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