For years, UP switching yard is among Utah’s worst point sources of pollution. The Legislature is now doing something about it

HB405 would require switcher locomotives to use emission-free power by 2028.

At times during the winter, the emissions coming from the Union Pacific Railroad’s rail switching yard in South Salt Lake equal those off nearby Interstate 15 at rush hour.

This is because the railroad uses the dirtiest switcher locomotives available in the United States. For years, Utah lawmakers have tried to get the Omaha, Nebr.-based UP to voluntarily repower the diesel rigs it uses to assemble trains for interstate trips with cleaner technology to help reduce air pollution on the Wasatch Front even offering to cover a third of the cost.

In a sign the Legislature has finally lost patience with the Class I freight hauler, which earned a record $6.5 billion last year, a bill sailing through this session would require railroads to convert their switcher fleets to emission-free hydrogen-fuel cell or battery-electric power by 2028.

Many major polluters, like Rio Tinto and Utah’s oil refineries, have invested millions in reducing emissions and producing cleaner fuels, according to HB405 sponsor Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

Union Pacific is not one of those good corporate citizens,” Schultz, the House majority leader, told the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee on Tuesday. “The railroad is upgrading switchers in other states, but Utah isn’t on their list even though we have the worst air quality in the nation and world at times.”

The committee advanced the bill, which was then unanimously approved by the entire House.

The bill would apply only to switchers used in rail yards, where at least four operate.

Union Pacific owns 45 of the 63 currently operating in Utah, mostly at the three rail yards on the Wasatch Front, according to the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ). The busiest is the Roper Rail Yard at 650 W. Davis Road, just south of State Road 201. The cleanest locomotives available meet the Tier 4 standard, yet all of UP’s switchers in Utah are either Tier O or Tier 0-plus.

Replacing such a locomotive’s powertrain with Tier 4 technology, costing about $2 million, would reduce its emissions by 89%, according to DAQ.

“This isn’t a situation where it’s very expensive for negligible improvement,” said Ashley Miller of Breathe Utah. “These companies need to be held accountable for the pollution they create, especially when there is technology available to reduce it so significantly. They need to step up and do the right thing for the people of Utah.”

But the high-polluting locomotives’ air quality impacts are exacerbated by their water-based cooling systems, according to Daniel Mendoza, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist.

“During the entire winter season, late fall and early spring as well, they have to be idling 24/7,” he testified on Tuesday. “Otherwise, the engine block would crack if the water freezes. So, unfortunately, during our worst periods of air pollution during the wintertime, it is when these engines are constantly running.”

He noted the presence of nine schools within a 2-mile radius of Roper, forming a perimeter that reaches well into economically marginalized neighborhoods in West Valley City, South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City.

Addressing the committee, Union Pacific spokesman Nathan Anderson emphasized the company’s overall climate and clean air commitments but did not speak to the specific charges leveled by Schultz.

“We’re proud of our climate action plan working toward a cleaner future. We expect innovation, disruption and transformation as technology develops to meet the needs of our industry,” Anderson said. “Trains already produce about 75% fewer emissions than trucks and are part of an overall cleaner solution.”

He said the company plans to cut emissions 26% from 2018 levels by 2030 through increased reliance on renewable diesel fuels.

“Increased use of these alternative fuels will allow us to make significant environmental gains with our current fleet while evaluating promising but fledgling technology in the locomotive space,” Anderson said. “We do not anticipate battery electric technology to be sufficient or available at scale for operations until after 2030. During the vetting period, it’s critical that the available fleet meet customer needs and keeps the nation’s supply chain fluid.”

While Union Pacific upgrades its locomotives elsewhere, its Utah switcher fleet continues to pump 3,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants into the airshed, representing one of the largest single “point sources” in Utah.

“A few locomotives might make a minor difference, but it won’t solve the air quality problem,” Anderson said. “Voluntary agreements are better than mandates.”

Schultz concurred voluntary action would be better, but noted none has been forthcoming from Union Pacific.