Railroads for Sustainability: What Can We Do?

Reader Jason Sinclair asks us about trains and railroads. "It occurred to me today that we have a grossly underutilized and under-funded system of railroads in the U.S. and Canada, but that these railroads could be quite useful in a move towards sustainability. Railroads are much more efficient for moving goods than trucks and use quite a bit less fuel. Furthermore, I think they work on diesel fuel so they might work on bio-diesel. This may fly in the face of the "buying local" idea, but it may help to move things around in a more eco-friendly way. Can you folks dig up more information on this? Is there a way for us treehuggers to encourage more train use and for the railroad companies themselves to use bio-diesel (if they can)?" Continue reading for some ideas.As with any big corporation and large country-spanning infrastructure, it's a bit hard to get railroad companies to change. But there are many indirect ways for you to encourage them. The best way is, of course, when a popular organized campaign makes demands and argues for a win-win new paradigm (ie. "If your companies does this, it will benefit that way and consumers/nature/etc will benefit that way...").

The most obvious way to encourage train-use is to take the train yourself whenever possible. If you sometimes travel relatively short-distances by plane, maybe you could convert those trips to train rides? If you live in a suburb, maybe there are light-trains that go into the city.

You could also write to your elected representatives (on various levels - city/state or province/federal) and ask for a better train infrastructure, suggesting that it would make their city/state or province/country more competitive, slow down road wear and accidents, help clean up the air, etc. That's where joining an organization and bunching up with many people can pay off. You could even try to make it a local electoral issue by writing to local newspapers before an election. But as with any political action, it can be very hard to get the attention of the right people, and since you probably aren't a lobbyist with lots of money to throw around, things will probably be frustrating. Our best bet right now is that rising oil prices will make the transportation of goods by truck more expensive and that trains will gain back some marketshare, leading to investments in the infrastructure and, indirectly, better service for commuters and travellers too.

Rising oil prices could also lead to the use of more biodiesel fuel. In that area, your options are also to write to railroad companies and suggest it, or to buy some of their stock and go to a shareholder meeting so that you can suggest it as a shareholder.