A new CSX Corp. radio ad declares that even the most fuel-efficient hybrid car can't compete with a train, which "can move a ton of freight 423 miles on a single gallon of fuel."
"Too bad we can't all drive a train," the announcer says before urging listeners to visit CSX's Web site to learn about the Jacksonville, Fla., company's "commitment to protecting the environment."
Railroad companies, long a target of environmentalists who blame them for everything from deforestation to toxic spills, are marketing themselves as the ultimate eco-friendly, low-fuel-consuming industry.
With fuel prices at record highs and worries about global warming reaching critical mass, U.S. companies of all stripes are promoting their green credentials. That list includes plenty of businesses that wouldn't normally be associated with the environmental movement, such as oil companies or mining outfits. But the juxtaposition for trains is among the starkest.
Early in the 20th century, steam-powered trains, fueled by coal, cast off trails of embers that often ignited and denuded surrounding landscape. Train accidents and cargo spills still taint perceptions of railroad companies.
Freight trains now use much cleaner and more fuel-efficient diesel engines, and railroad companies are testing new engines that the industry is heralding as "ultralow-emission." Many environmentalists acknowledge that the railroads have a powerful argument, given that freight trains burn far less fuel than trucks and can help reduce highway congestion.
"In general, train transportation is much more fuel efficient than trucking, and we should be doing more of it," says Colin F. Peppard, transportation policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group.
Several rail companies are rolling out statistics to make the case that a switch to trains is good for the environment.
Norfolk Southern Corp. is running a series of environmentally themed television spots and has a "carbon footprint analyzer" feature on its Web site that allows customers to measure the environmental advantages of shipping by freight rather than truck.
Union Pacific Corp.'s Web site promotes the company's "cleaner and greener" fleet of locomotives and argues that if 25 percent of truck freight was diverted to rail, there would be "nearly 800,000 fewer tons of air pollution" by 2025.
Much rides on this approach.
For the first time in decades, railroad stock prices have been rising, and business is booming.
By one estimate, the railroad industry will need to expand its capacity by 88 percent in the next quarter-century, as highways get even more congested, fuel prices rise and more shippers decide to use trains to move their products. What's more, railroads - which used to carry mainly raw materials such as coal and timber - are increasingly transporting consumer goods from ports to cities.
As the industry begins billions of dollars worth of system improvements, it is increasingly seeking public money to help pay for some of the expansion projects.
The railroad industry also is trying to fend off calls for tougher federal regulations that would make it easier for shippers to challenge prices in areas where a railroad has a monopoly.
Some environmentalists say the industry hasn't done enough. In the Los Angeles/Long Beach area, environmental groups are battling Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., which are seeking to expand and modernize their railyard operations in the neighborhoods surrounding the nation's busiest port system.
Last year, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors air quality in the Los Angeles region, released a statement accusing the railroads of "spew[ing] toxic diesel soot into neighborhoods, backyards and school yards, posing health risk to residents."
Union Pacific Chief Executive Officer James R. Young said that a certain amount of community resistance is inevitable whenever a business tries to expand. "You have the not-in-my-backyard mentality," he said.
Norfolk Southern executives said they began to hone their eco-friendly message about three years ago with a television ad showing a tree lifting a freight container off a busy highway and placing it on a train.
Norfolk Southern's latest ads - a campaign dubbed "The Lonely Gallon," showing a family of gas cans looking on forlornly as a train whizzes by - will air about 400 times during the fall election season, the company said.