Q&A with CHSRA’s Margaret Cederoth: Delivering Sustainable Railways
For Global Railway Review’s exclusive Delivering Sustainable Railways feature series, Margaret Cederoth, Director of Planning and Sustainability at California High-Speed Rail (CHSRA), talks about the importance of sustainability in California and the latest sustainability projects CHSRA have worked on.
Can you talk about the importance of sustainability for CHSRA?
Sustainability is at the core of why a high-speed, electrified rail system was voted for by Californians. It is a critical component of an economically dynamic and a carbon-neutral transportation future. Sustainability is important not just as the outcome of the California High-Speed Rail Programme, but as a driver attached to specific actions across all aspects of the system planning, design, construction and operations.
Sustainability is a core focus as we build the most technologically advanced, electrified and equitable transportation system to support the world’s fourth largest economy.
California High-Speed Rail’s trains, running on renewable energy, will massively reduce transportation emissions in California by offering drivers a faster alternative between California cities and strongly competing with carbon intensive short flights between the Bay Area and Southern California. Riding high-speed rail from San Francisco to Anaheim will allow riders to avoid emitting an estimated 389 pounds of CO2 on that trip for example (see our Carbon Footprint Calculator).
Not only will the project help California meet its emissions goals and fight climate change, eventually reducing CO2 emissions by up to 2.1 million metric tonnes annually, but by taking cars off freeways it will also noticeably improve air quality in disadvantaged regions including the Central Valley. But the benefits don’t only start with operation – we are also building the system sustainably.
We committed the system to be net zero carbon not just in operations, but the construction phase as well. Our policies and practices have reduced or avoided more equivalent emissions in the Central Valley than we expect the whole 119 currently under construction to create. We have done this through efficient equipment mandates, tree plantings, an over 95% waste recycling rate and habitat preservation and conservation.
What are some of the latest sustainability projects that CHSRA have been working on?
We are committed to building a high-speed rail system that has near and long-term benefits.
As I noted before, our policies and practices have reduced or avoided more equivalent in the Central Valley than we expect the entire 119-miles currently under construction to create. That is radical for a construction project in the US.
As part of our mission to bring high-speed rail to California, we have committed $714 million to Caltrain’s Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project.
We, in partnership with CAL FIRE, awarded $2.5 million in tree planting grants to offset greenhouse gas emissions associated with construction of the first portion of the high-speed rail system. So far, we have planted over 7,100 trees in disadvantaged communities and additional trees to reforest areas of the state.
As part of our mission to bring high-speed rail to California, we have committed $714 million to Caltrain’s Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project. This investment will increase Caltrain service, reduce emissions by 97% from today’s diesel service while allowing passengers to experience new electric trains!
In Southern California, CHSRA is providing $76.7 million for the Rosecrans/Marquardt Grade Separation Project in Santa Fe Springs. This will improve safety and traffic flow as well as air quality in the area.
LA Metro – the lead agency on the project – estimates that more than 112 trains and more than 45,000 vehicles use the crossing daily.
These are just a few examples. Of course, we are also maintaining a suite of construction sustainability practices and are focused on how to reduce carbon and increase equity in delivery still further. And we have an ongoing effort to target reducing embodied carbon in the rail infrastructure materials.
What are some sustainability milestones that CHSRA have reached?
Critical milestones include staying within our carbon neutral goal, as noted. But in 2020, we also received national recognition for the programme’s sustainability efforts. We received Envision Platinum verification for the programme from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, a non-profit organisation founded by the American Public Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Council of Engineering Companies.
The California high-speed rail programme is the largest transportation infrastructure project both in terms of capital investment and geographic area to earn an Envision award for sustainable infrastructure to date. The Platinum Envision award demonstrates that sustainability is achievable across large-scale and complex transportation systems.
Another milestone is the execution of a contract for the first high-speed rail stations in the U.S. that will be net-energy positive. This is a critical point in the delivery of sustainable rail service: the place where passengers can access the train.
Sustainability is a core focus as we build the most technologically advanced, electrified and equitable transportation system to support the world’s fourth largest economy. In pursuing carbon neutral objectives, CHSRA has meaningful targets toward which we aim our work.
Our goal is to accelerate the delivery of the system’s value for communities, in the near- as well as long-term, be it through small business participation or the delivery of public spaces in stations designed to revitalise California’s great cities. We’re also dedicated to restorative practices, such as preserving natural resources and valuable habitat.
Some key milestones highlighted in this year’s 2022 Sustainability report include:
- Restoring more than 2,972 acres of habitat and protecting more than 3,190 acres of agricultural land
- Avoiding or sequestering 420,245 pounds of criteria air pollution – the equivalent of removing one natural gas-fired power plant from the grid for a year
- Increasing small business participation to more than 760 businesses
- Generating $13.7 billion in total economic activity in the state, with 56% of our investment in disadvantaged communities.
In your view, what are some of the biggest barriers when it comes to increasing sustainability in rail?
Sustainability is not a cost-additive element of the programme, rather, our implementation is focused on reducing total life cycle costs while achieving aggressive sustainability goals. But it needs to be made clear: funding is a big barrier for us. Carrying out mega infrastructure projects is never easy, let alone a first-in-the nation high-speed rail. Creating new grade-separated passenger rail lines and/or overhauling old ones are very expensive tasks. While we estimate our project costs much less than expanding roads and airports to accommodate the same number of riders, it still requires the kind of support only federal commitments can provide. The savings and benefits in the long run are worth it and will create a significant positive impact on the environment.
Sustainable rail works best when it is a part of a diverse, dense public transit network where it is possible to efficiently travel from home to destination via a variety of convenient interconnected systems.
Second, despite the growth in third-party metrics for sustainable infrastructure, despite aggressive policy goals by state and federal governments to reduce vehicle travel, the value of the system to the transportation network and how high-speed rail will transform that network is poorly understood. Accurately estimating the future ridership of the system given the repercussions in population and economic growth post pandemic is difficult.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic also extend to global supply chains and the resulting market instability and record-high inflation which have impacted prices for construction commodities like concrete and steel as well as labour – and it’s not just impacting our project. Large infrastructure projects all over the world have felt the impact of this market instability.
Electrified passenger rail is the future and, as the nation’s first high-speed rail line, we remain committed to an aggressive goal of having an operational Merced to Bakersfield high-speed rail service by 2030 to 2033.
Can you tell us about some of challenges that CHSRA have encountered in regard to sustainability targets? And how did you overcome them?
We are building in an environmentally vulnerable area in the Central Valley where the air quality is already challenging. In order not to exacerbate these issues, we are pursuing a vision of all-electric construction sites. This vision builds on our existing requirements that all off-road construction equipment must meet the highest emission standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For all future construction contracts, we will require contractors to use only zero emission vehicles (ZEV) for on-road project fleets.
The challenge is aligning advancing policy and market availability of equipment with small businesses and grappling with the practicality of charging infrastructure to serve ZEVs on a long, linear construction project with multiple construction sites.
In addition, we are not forgetting who will use our stations: our passengers. We are designing stations with a focus on ease of navigation and accessibility. Our stations will feature abundant natural light and ventilation to enhance our passengers’ well-being. The stations will be built to the highest CalGreen and LEED standards and will make extensive use of healthy building materials.
The challenge is realising those standards and aggressive timescales, while making sure our stations also improve the areas for the people already living there by continuing to work with communities, ensuring we have open communication with impacted residents throughout the process. We will use an equity lens in our designs so that stations connect the communities in which they are located.
Stations can reverse urban blight, revitalise downtown areas, inject artistic energy into station neighbourhoods and create a sense of place that all community residents feel connected with. We are doing our best to make sure that is what our stations do for our passengers.
What does the future of sustainability in rail look like to you?
In a word, integration. Sustainable rail works best when it is a part of a diverse, dense public transit network where it is possible to efficiently travel from home to destination via a variety of convenient interconnected systems. Transitioning away from single occupant fossil fuel vehicles catalyses the greatest impact when that transition is coupled with renewable energy powered mass transit.
The future of sustainability in rail must incorporate adaptive techniques to anticipate and be ready for more and more intense weather events driven by climate change.
Critically, as transportation electrifies and even as we play a crucial role in reducing the transportation sector’s emissions, the future of sustainability in rail must incorporate adaptive techniques to anticipate and be ready for more and more intense weather events driven by climate change. Preparing for the foreseeable impacts of the climate crisis now will allow us to avoid the future costs of these impacts.
Resiliency, and enabling electric rail to function in the event of grid outages, must be a focus. For example, high-speed rail implementation includes the required infrastructure upgrades to the transmission grid to handle a high-speed rail load, contrary to assertions that our system will burden the grid. There is a key opportunity, which we’re planning to leverage, to use solar generation on our own land, tied to battery storage, to entirely offset the electric propulsion load. These generation and storage resources provide back-up power to the rail system in the event the grid is affected by heat waves, fires, or other emergencies. In the era of climate change, resiliency of this system is top of mind.
California also sees the value of rail stations as the heart of 15-minute cities, revitalising the communities around them. I see multi-modal hubs with stores, restaurants and cultural events like the stations in Europe that everyone references when they envision what the California high-speed rail stations can be. These districts are comfortable to walk in, universally accessible, with the best air quality. We are building a rail system to be seamlessly connected to other local transit systems, providing a range of sustainable travel options for users. Realising these stations through equitable community partnerships that address the individual needs of the area is the foundation for that future.
There is a bright future for sustainable rail projects, a future of equitable, environmentally friendly mobility, if we can get the funding and support for them at the federal level.
If you would like to take part in our Delivering Sustainable Railways feature series, or would like to nominate a colleague, please email: Elliot Robinson, Editorial Assistant, Global Railway Review.