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Rail Coalition: Trains are the ticket to zero emissions

Date:

By Richard Bednarski

Commute times are increasing across northern Nevada. As the population continues to grow, rush hour could soon rival Sacramento and other large cities. An increase in congestion leads to increased vehicle emissions and the potential for worsening air pollution rises. 

The Nevada Rail Coalition (NRC) was established last year to advocate alongside the Sierra Club for development of both statewide passenger and commuter rail systems. This citizen-based initiative brings together unions, social justice organizations and diverse community associations. 

“The goal is to get cars off the road,” said Anne Macquarie, a transportation activist also with the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club. She has led projects with the Sierra Club for almost 10 years. Before that she was a transportation planner.

“Rail travel is convenient, comfortable and [an] energy efficient means of mass transit,” said Janet Carter, an executive committee member also with the Sierra Club. “Studies have shown that many people prefer train travel over any other form of transportation.” 

Rail travel is limited in Nevada, however, and the NRC is seeking to increase train routes, Carter added. The focus is not solely on passenger rail growth. Moving freight via train is also more efficient than by truck.

Under the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, there is $42 billion available to the Federal Railroad Administration for rail improvement projects, including restoration, intercity passenger rail and consolidation and safety improvements. 

Regional transportation organizations can apply for grants from the bill’s fund to lay the foundation for an expanded freight and commuter rail system in Nevada.

Rail produces less emissions

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation is the largest source of climate-disrupting emissions in the United States. It is also a major source of air pollution – pollution that more often affects people of color and lower-income communities.

total-us-greenhouse-emissions-513x600-9678922-5111829
Total Emissions in 2019 = 6,558 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent. Percentages may not add up to 100% due to independent rounding.

“Nevada’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory mirrors trends occurring across the western United States, where transportation-sector emissions (35%) now exceed those from the energy sector,” according to the State of Nevada Climate Initiative

Under this initiative, mitigation strategies include implementing a zero- to low-emission vehicle standard, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards and other vehicle related strategies. 

But it doesn’t include strategies focused on freight and passenger rail.

Heavy rail transit produces over 75% less emissions per passenger mile than an average single occupancy vehicle, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Furthermore, light rail systems produce 62% less emissions. 

“The progressive thinkers about transportation see that electric vehicles have a part in a low carbon transportation system and that part is to get from the train station to the last five miles,” said Macquarie. 

Regional organizations become rail champions

“Both cities [Reno and Las Vegas] have existing and operational rail infrastructure that can be utilized for passenger rail services,” the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) notes in the 2021 Nevada State Rail Plan. No state rail passenger service exists in Nevada, however, and a new state agency would need to be created to further develop a rail system.

The plan had unprecedented stakeholder input and approved a list of projects that could potentially be funded from the infrastructure bill.

Rail moves nearly a quarter of all Nevada freight according to NDOT Public Information Officer, Megan Ragonese. She said that a single mile-long train has the same freight carrying capacity as a 26-mile convoy of diesel trucks. 

“This is one reason that a large part of this planning effort focuses on freight rail,” she wrote in an email. 

The coalition is advocating for the construction of a robust regional rail transit for northern Nevada. A rail system like the one proposed by NRC and the Sierra Club has the potential to tap into neighboring commuter lines in California, potentially connecting northern Nevada to central California and the Bay Area.

ron-kaminkow-1094252-1252926
Ron Kaminkow

Railroad Workers United is a member organization of NRC and its General Secretary, Ron Kaminkow, has been operating a locomotive for 25 years. 

Kaminkow said that by harnessing the power of many diverse groups across Nevada, the NRC “hope[s] to build the diverse political coalition necessary to gain more and better rail service in the state.” 

One of the biggest roadblocks pointed out by both Kaminkow and Ragonese is obtaining track rights for the Union Pacific line that runs through town – specifically for a commuter line that would connect Reno to the Tahoe Regional Industrial Center (TRIC). 

Kaminkow said the existing infrastructure is a major benefit and could reduce the costs associated with implementing a commuter rail service.

“Rail offers solutions to the challenges of highway congestion, safety and pollution caused by an over-reliance on road-based transportation,” the rail plan notes. 

Expanding both freight and commuter rail would be pivotal and could reach a zero carbon footprint within the next 30 years. 

The vision

Some of the project components include extending California’s existing Capitol Corridor passenger train service to Reno and adding Amtrak stops in West Wendover, Lovelock and Battle Mountain, as well as connecting northern Nevada to southern Nevada using existing and abandoned rail lines. 

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The Nevada State Rail Plan outlines the feasibility of connecting the major population centers of northern Nevada via rail. Image: Nevada State Rail Plan

The Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency estimates over the next 20 years the number of workers at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center east of Sparks may increase by almost 700%. Interstate 80 is already congested under current levels.

A commuter rail system could reduce traffic on I-80 and other local highways. 

With an expanded rail system in place, freight could also more easily move about the state, and with fewer trucks on the roadways, the existing vehicle infrastructure would last longer and become safer, rail proponents said.

“As long as the city of Reno and Sparks and Carson City all keep growing, we’re gonna need an alternative. We can do it now or we can do it later,” Kaminkow said. 

He has walked every inch of rail line in Reno and has seen what he says is the potential for building out stations and additional rails beds. 

Kaminkow said there are vacant lots where it makes sense to place a train station or stop. 

Part of what the rail coalition envisions is using under-used existing rail lines. Union Pacific has several lines through Reno that could facilitate commuter trains. Capitalizing on vacant lots and using existing lines reduces the costs. 

“Besides the carbon impact of a car- and truck-based transportation system, there are other environmental impacts,” Macquarie said. 

Things like the impact on wildlife and land use are often not considered in regional transportation planning. 

“Rail is the safest means of transportation,” said Kaminkow. Last year there were 382 highway related deaths in Nevada, the most in 15 years. Moving people and freight to rails makes sense from a safety point of view.

Kaminkow said the benefits of a rail system go beyond safety. If more people and freight are moved via rail, air quality will improve. Leaving those most affected by air pollution to benefit the most. 

A rail system can also open up job opportunities for people without vehicles. Expanding equity through a robust public transportation system is something both Macquarie and Kaminkow said is necessary. 

“This is something that’s called transportation justice,” said Kaminkow.

It could be argued that the Reno/Sparks area is below this threshold. However, with projected population growth and the statewide goal of reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050, the threshold may have passed. 

“If the rail system is not a success from day one, the fact is, it’s in place,” Kaminkow said. 

“Once the sprawl is there, it’s super hard to put [in a rail system] retroactively.”

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