In his recent commentary (Nov. 27, 2012), Danny Ryan suggested that rail service is the environmentally-sensitive transportation option.
"The car era as we know it is coming to an end," he declared. Other rail advocates have expressed similar sentiments.
Truth be told, rail service is not always as "green" as its supporters would like us to believe. Yes, a full passenger or freight train with many cars, pulled by a clean, modern locomotive, can be a green alternative to trucks and cars. But a half-empty train, with few cars and limited frequency of service, drawn by a polluting old diesel locomotive is anything but environmentally friendly.
Here's the deal. Trains, trucks, and automobiles rely on the same power source: the internal combustion engine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from internal combustion engines in everything from small lawn mowers to earth movers.
After 40 years of EPA oversight, automobile engines have become impressively clean and efficient. They now employ computer-controlled electronic fuel injectors, catalytic converters and other sophisticated technology to achieve reductions of approximately 95 percent in exhaust emissions from pre-regulation levels. Many modern automobiles now go more than 40 miles per gallon, and plug-in hybrids already get more than 90 miles per gallon. And that's just a start.
Thanks to EPA regulation, diesel trucks have also achieved dramatic reductions in exhaust emissions. These vehicles now employ computer-controlled electronic fuel injection, cooled exhaust-gas recirculation, particulate filters and other technologies.
EPA began regulating emissions from locomotives much later, in the early 1990s. Diesel locomotives have a service life of many decades, and a very large proportion of diesel locomotives now in service predate EPA regulation. The locomotives used by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad were generally built in the 1950s, many decades before modern emission-control systems were available. As a consequence, their exhaust contains substantial quantities of soot and other toxic substances.
Just how damaging are these emissions? According to the Clean Air Task Force, "Diesel exhaust is a hazardous mix of carcinogens, respiratory irritants and inflammatory agents. Diesel particles act like magnets for toxic organic chemicals, many carcinogenic." These dangerous particles are released at ground level, where they are inhaled, carried deep into our lungs, and absorbed into our bloodstream. They found that "America's 11 million diesels - buses, trucks, trains, ships, and construction equipment - emit pollutants that lead to 21,000 premature deaths each year and create a cancer risk that is seven times greater than the combined risk of all 181 other air toxics tracked by the EPA. Scientific studies link pollutants in diesel exhaust to a myriad of public health effects, including asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and premature death."
Given the success of EPA regulation of on-road vehicles, the greatest problem is with older diesels, and particularly off-road diesels, that have not been subject to EPA regulation. Diesel engines in locomotives have a displacement of 12 to 30 times as large as the Cummins diesel engine in a heavy-duty Dodge pickup truck, exponentially increasing their capacity to produce and emit toxic substances. The soot we see emanating from these locomotives may be a source of nostalgia, but it is also a potential source of illness and death.
Local train advocates now envision regular freight service, overnight Pullman service, passenger service and tourist excursion trains as they seek to transform the near-abandoned rail bed from Thendara to Lake Placid into a busy rail corridor. In addition to the very real doubts about the demand for such services, and the vast public expenditure required to update the rail infrastructure for this purpose, we should carefully consider the substantial emissions of toxic substances that would be an unwanted by-product of rail restoration. We should anticipate that the locomotive engines will run or idle continuously throughout much of the year, resulting in a steady additional output of toxic substances into the environment and into our lungs.
Unlike much of the U.S., we are fortunate that the air in this region is clear and clean. If the rail bed through the Adirondacks were ever to serve as an active rail corridor, the old pollution-belching locomotives would frequently pass in close proximity to our homes and schools. The health risks of this plan merit serious consideration when the unit management plan review is conducted.
People in our community who treasure clean air may prefer instead to transform the old rail bed into one of the nation's finest recreation trails. Please add your name to our roster of 10,000-plus supporters by going to www.thearta.org and clicking the sign-up icon.
David Banks is a Lake Clear resident and is a member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates board of directors.