Do you want fries with that?

Last week, I attended a community meeting in Long Beach to discuss a potential intermodal rail yard expansion project. After the railroad representatives gave their presentation on why the expansion is good for the local community, good for business and good for the environment, they got an earful for the next hour and a half from a community that is overwhelmingly opposed to the project.

At the end of the night, it was clear the railroad reps had clearly underestimated their audience, expecting that they would sign off on plans to increase the number of trucks rolling through neighborhoods by 750,000 per year, pumping diesel exhaust into the lungs of residents.  

Adding 750,000 diesel truck round trips per year through an already heavily-polluted neighborhood will increase the cancer risk less than eating one extra hamburger a week -- or so said the railroad representative trying to persuade a skeptical crowd that his client’s proposed intermodal rail yard expansion project is good for the environment.  I like a good burger now and then, and find it pretty hard to believe that eating one is worse for me than having diesel trucks driving by my house 1,500,000 times (750,000 round trips).

The reasoning behind the railroad’s claim is that regulations by the State of California will clean up the truck fleet over time.  That may be true -- but the trucks will be cleaned up whether the railroad project is built or not.  Given this, the way to achieve the maximum reduction in diesel emissions at the current facility isn’t to expand it, but rather to leave it as is.  Exactly the same analysis applies to the alleged reductions in emissions from diesel locomotives which, due to recent EPA rulemaking, will also occur whether the new rail project is built or not. 

The Port of Los Angeles, assisted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, has been working on an electric drayage truck capable of hauling a 50,000 lb. cargo container 5 miles to the nearest intermodal yard where the container would be picked up and put on a train.  The electric truck is expected to be in production within a year.  David Freeman, President of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, asked the hapless railroad speaker whether his client would commit to buying and using electric drayage trucks when they become available.

The railroad rep said “No.” 


Baloney.  Intermodal rail yards have been shown to increase cancer risks for rail yard neighbors.  A substantial portion of that risk is directly related to diesel particulate emissions from trucks that service the rail yards.  Well, reasoned the railroad rep, the railroad can’t control the trucks that deliver containers to it. 

Baloney.  How about the truck driven by Osama bin Laden carrying a ticking bomb?  Of course the rail yard can refuse entry.  And to take a less extreme but also potentially lethal example, the rail yard can refuse entry to a heavily-polluting diesel truck whose emissions are known to carry enormous health risks, especially to children.So why not go electric and eliminate the diesel engine from the equation?  The railroad rep could not answer President Freeman’s question.  Given today’s prices for diesel fuel, electric trucks will be substantially cheaper to run than diesel on a per mile basis.   

President Freeman wants the Port of Los Angeles to be the cleanest and most progressive in the world.  So does NRDC.  The railroads -- and the trucking industry -- need to get with the program and help the Port move away from diesel power and towards power from clean, sustainable electrical generation.  If they don’t -- I guess we should all get used to more hamburgers.