Possible rail strike highlights trains’ climate action role

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As of this writing, it looks like the nation’s trains will keep on running. After unions representing more than 100,000 railroad workers threatened to strike over pay, draconian sick time policies, and harsh working conditions, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh hosted negotiations between unions and railroads that have reached a deal.

The deal will soon go to the unions for the vote. While workers didn’t get everything they sought they won increased pay and key changes to make their jobs more livable.

Much of the news coverage of this issue has focused on the economic impact of a potential strike. Indeed, if 115,000 rail workers struck, U.S. and international supply chains would freeze, and passenger trains would cease operation, throwing a wrench into commuter’s lives and traffic.

But the context is critical: these workers were being heavily penalized, even losing their jobs, for simply taking sick days. Their schedules are inconsistent and more or less at the whim of the railroad companies, and individual workers are often called on to pilot locomotives without backup. In retrospect, perhaps the railroads should have seen this coming and invested more in the well-being of their workers.

This issue is of great importance to those of us who care about climate change because rail is one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight to decarbonize. Transporting people by rail – similarly to by bus – produces far lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than doing so by plane or automobile. (While the typical U.S. passenger or freight train generates more CO2 than an individual car, it can carry far more, hence the use of “passenger miles”.)

For a personal example, on Thursday, MEP Executive Director Steve Morse was scheduled to return to St. Paul from Milwaukee via Amtrak after attending the US Water Alliance’s One Water Summit. Unfortunately, the train was canceled due to the possible strike, so Steve had to book a last-minute flight. Steve said, “The worst part was, my carbon emissions were multiplied by a factor of six.” In the future, recent investments in Amtrak for a second daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicago may make that particular trip easier.

My personal experience with rail is less extensive than Steve’s, but I have my own encounter with it to share. A few years ago, I visited Italy, starting from Milan and going to Rome. Using Italy’s high speed rail system, a trip that could have taken six hours or longer by car – and generated far more carbon emissions – lasted three quite comfortable hours. Of all the culture shocks, it was one of the most fun ones – and frustrating, given that we don’t have similar options here at home.

These examples illustrate the difficult gulf we have between what we could have in terms of transportation and what we have now, both in the U.S. and Minnesota. Currently, the U.S. has only one high-speed train, the electric-powered Acela, which runs between Washington, D.C. and Boston. Meanwhile, China, which began building its high-speed rail network only in 2008, now has a grid of more than 25,000 miles of electric high-speed rail. As solar and wind replaces coal and gas in electricity generation, the emissions of those trains dwindles down to near-zero.

That’s not to say that the U.S. can or should build new rail at such a breakneck speed. But if we’re serious about cutting emissions from transportation – Minnesota’s largest source of emissions – we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and trains are a powerful way to do that. We don’t have to shoot for the moon immediately – we can start by moving ahead with projects already in the works, and by reinvesting in the people and infrastructure we already have. If our state and country invest in our workers and in good train and transit options, people will be more likely to make use of these efficient and climate-friendly options.

In the Twin Cities, the MetroTransit Green Line light rail extension has been bogged down by routing issues and cost overruns. We hope to see its half-billion dollar funding gap closed and the project finally completed to connect thousands of southwest metro residents to the electric light rail network. Similarly, we would like to see faster progress on the Blue Line extension north of Minneapolis, currently scheduled to start construction in 2025, which will reach some of Minnesota’s most diverse communities.

Rail transit isn’t just a metro concern, either. Building the proposed Northern Lights Express between Duluth and St. Paul would create a fast, cleaner option for those traveling between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports (and link the two MEP offices by rail!) Similarly, shoring up the troubled northwest metro North Star line and looking more deeply at a proposed extension to St. Cloud would make taking transit a much more viable option for many commuters.

But as the very real possibility of a rail strike shows, our economy and our transition to clean energy don’t run simply on things, but on people. Trains and buses can’t run without workers who feel fairly paid, respectfully treated, and safe on the job – if they don’t, they’re well within their rights to take collective action. That is why we need a just transition to clean energy that invests in our infrastructure and our workers.

And as routes are built and prioritized, we need to make sure they effectively serve those that need them the most, especially low-income families and communities of color. Minnesota’s passenger trains aren’t just a fun way to bring fans to Twins and Vikings games, they’re vital infrastructure for many of our people to get to work, run errands and visit their family and friends. We owe it to them to get this right.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author 

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