Traveling to a Greener Future with Kara Oldhouser of Amtrak

June 25, 2024

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Kara Oldhouser is the Director of Sustainability at Amtrak, America’s intercity passenger railroad. Her 15+ years of professional experience in sustainability positioned her to tackle Amtrak’s diverse opportunities of adapting a centuries-old mode of transportation toward a resilient new era of rail. Her superpower of endless curiosity and a disarming smile help her collaborate on cross-departmental teams to advance the company’s Net-Zero goal and integrate climate considerations into design standards, policies, strategic planning, and project prioritization.

John Shegerian: Get the latest Impact Podcast right into your inbox each week. Subscribe by entering your email address at to make sure you never miss an interview. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. The find Closed Loop Partners, please go to

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John and I’m so excited to have with us today, Kara. She’s the director of sustainability of Amtrak. Welcome Kara to the Impact Podcast.

Kara Oldhouser: Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure to be here.

John Shegerian: You’re in the great city of brotherly love today and I’m in Fresno, California. How is it over there in Philadelphia today?

Kara: Oh my gosh, it’s absolutely perfect spring weather. Can’t wait to get outside.

John: I don’t blame you. Kara, before we get talking about what all the important work you and your colleagues are doing in sustainability at Amtrak, can you share a little bit about your story? Where did you grow up and how did you get on this very important journey that you’re on in sustainability?

Kara: Absolutely, I grew up in central Pennsylvania. They say you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. I still like to have that blended appreciation for the country, but definitely I’m a city lover. But when I lived in central Pennsylvania, I could see I had the pleasure of working in a little roadside stand and I could see how important it was to understand all of the systems that make our food available and just how important all of these natural systems really are. I didn’t realize how much of an influence that would be when I finally got into my academic experience, but I jumped off to the city. I went to school for an interior design and I think there were a couple of catalyst moments in my career development. I knew I always wanted to study design, and when I finally graduated and got a degree, I was able to work at a commercial architecture and design firm and the partners of the firm at the time were paying for any employee that wanted to take lead certification, which for people that are not familiar with that, it helps buildings become more energy efficient. You’re using less toxic materials, you have more daylighting. So I wanted to jump on that because it was emerging as a topic and I could see that really shaping the industry. So I took the exam and I passed it and it was the bug that bit me for wanting to really advance sustainability in the built environment and I loved the technical aspect of it. Then I loved just being creative and being able to apply things to address different problems and I think being able to nurture that creativity and problem solving has served me really, really well through these years. So after I left the architecture and design firm, I went off and had my own business for a couple of years where I consulted on energy efficiency. So it was still the same thread of sustainability in the built environment. Then I got picked up in a side job at Amtrak and it was for the real estate department and it was only for 10 months and I was seated right next to the sustainability team. At that point I had finished my master’s degree in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainability because I wanted my career to move from smaller projects to something that was leading programs and really trying to affect change on a larger scale for things that were a lot more complex. So the job in real estate wasn’t exactly the direction that I wanted to go, but I became fast friends with the sustainability team that had cubicles right next to mine and I’ll never forget this, I went down at the end of the day and I was going down the stairs to go home and one of my coworkers was also leaving at the same time and she was leading the sustainability team at that point in time and I asked her how her day was going and she said, not great. We have a sustainability manager position, we’ve extended two offers and both candidates have declined and we don’t have any candidates in front of us and I said, ”You do, and I’m throwing my hat to the ring.” So I submitted my application, I gave her my resume at eight o’clock that night and two weeks later I interviewed for the position and seven years later I’m in this role and it is one of the most exciting, interesting, complex, most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. So in a nutshell how I got here… [crosstalk]

John: I love it. But first of all, that’s just I love the story. Talk to me a little bit about were you dreaming of potentially trying to ask them to get a position there and then she just happened to ask and that’s why you were ready to say yes or she just asked you out of the blue, you weren’t even thinking about it prior to, and you just said, my hat’s in the ring immediately. Which way was it? Was it something that was thought before or just in the moment?

Kara: The whole reason I went to get my master’s is because I wanted a job like what they were offering and what’s crazy is that before starting at Amtrak, I was scouring the internet every day for new job postings that were that exact role. So when I found out that they were even hiring for that position and I didn’t know anything about it, but then I got to know the team and I got to know the company, I had to take a chance and raise my hand because it’s exactly the role that I wanted.

John: You want to talk about old adages are really true, right time, right place means a lot in life and you were ready though. You were ready to say yes and ready to go, which must have impressed them itself. That’s awesome. So talk a little bit about your role now, director of sustainability. As you and I know I started this show 17 years ago or so, and back then they were very few chief sustainability officers. They surely weren’t any chief impact officers or chief ESG officers or chief. It is so broad and so interesting now and it’s evolved so much. At Amtrak what is director of sustainability mean with regards to your day-to-day, week to week, month to month duties and how does that break out? Is it wide or narrow and how do you define it?

Kara: It’s wide, but you also have to have the ability to drop in deep on some things because you almost have to become that advocate that helps to guide a particular team that might not have a lot of exposure to sustainability and they need a little bit more handholding and support to be able to get them to implement things themselves. So my role, we are a team of six for a company of 24,000 people and it is a national role. So the 140,000 plus miles that we operate on, we’re 51 years old. So it’s definitely an established company. There’s established culture and processes, but there is momentum and an evolution that’s happening within the company, which is something that I recognized when I took on this position and I was excited to be a part of. So from my role, a day for me could look anything like jumping from a marketing call where they’re trying to embed sustainability in the experience that our customers would see when they go to It could be going through details of how a license agreement is going to work for a solar onsite renewable energy generation project. It runs across all aspects of the company. So it’s really important to become a subject matter expert in sustainability, but I also have to be a generalist to understand enough about how the company works and to be really curious about why the company’s moving in that direction or know enough about the mechanical complexities of diesel locomotives versus hydrogen versus electric versus battery. It’s just there’s so much that we can get our fingers into which our team stays really busy all the time because we’re trying to jump into these different areas.

John: I’m sure also it goes down, you just gave some of the broader topics, but then it also probably will winnow down to some of the how are you serving food and beverages on your trains and how are they packaged and how are we handling the post-consumer waste from that packaging, et cetera. So it’s big and large. It’s seeable, it’s non seeable. That’s fascinating.

Kara: Yeah. It’s everything from the customer experience to what we’re trying to change internally so that the customer experience is different.

John: Sure. Just from a macro basis, I was sharing with you a little bit before we started taping 17 years of history here at the Impact Podcast, and we’ve never covered what would be logically one of the best ways to travel across America and inside of America and part of Canada as we try to decarbonize this planet, trains seem to be a logical choice, is my macro thesis are somewhat on point?

Kara: It is. There’s definitely statistics of the level of investment that the country has made in highways versus rail, which I think could eliminate why there might not be more rail transportation available, which is something that we’re actively working on and have expansion plans. But you are totally right, the emissions from riding Amtrak versus flying are significant and even from riding Amtrak versus driving in a car by yourself, there’s comparisons across those and for the people that are on the East coast that might take planes from Boston to Washington DC or New York to DC, you are absolutely shrinking your carbon footprint by choosing different modes of travel transportation.

John: Well, my wife loves your cell training, that’s for sure. So I think she ever wants to get back on a plane again from Washington to New York or that whole area. She loves that Acela. So let’s talk a little bit about your initiatives. If you were to frame up your two or three or four most important initiatives that are your focus in 2024, what would they be, Kara?

Kara: I would say it’s a mix between our net zero by 2045 goal. So two years ago our board of directors approved our climate commitment, which really was a guiding set of actions for us for both carbon reduction and mitigation and then climate resilience. So those two parts, the mitigation and the resilience are helping us reduce what we’re contributing and it’s really ambitious and it’s going to be tricky, but we just put out a request for information, which is one of the things I’m super excited about. As I had mentioned, we have diesel locomotives. Those diesel locomotives that we operate off of the northeast corridor across the rest of the country make up 60% of our carbon footprint. So for us to transition that fleet to different technologies, we absolutely need innovation for that and so the RFI, request for information is one of those tools to help us see where the industry is ready for us to explore those different technology solutions, battery hydrogen, and then where on our network that would make the most sense because there’s different complexities and things that are too technical for us to get into, but that’s one area that I’m really excited about. It would be a massive shift and change for the company to change our fleet entirely of what we rely on for fossil fuels today. I would say the other effort that I’m really excited about and happy to get into any more of these in detail if you wish, is a national network climate vulnerability assessment. Historically, we have researched the northeast corridor. So for us between Boston and Washington DC, Amtrak owns the majority of the rail infrastructure between those two cities, and that is kind of our spine of the most concentrated service and ridership that we also have, that is fully electrified. So that’s different than the rest of the northeast or the rest of the national network. But we have all across the country been experiencing heat waves that are lasting longer, they’re coming more frequently, certainly in Fresno and parts of California. It’s come up in the news with the coastal erosion and the subsidence that’s happening in southern California, your atmospheric grievers that are happening. We have heat waves that are hitting the east coast that are really taxing to our infrastructure and so for us to look beyond the northeast corridor, we are going to look at I think 19 plus climate hazards that are stressing our system. The purpose of that is to understand where those climate risks and those hazards are changing most quickly and most rapidly so that those no pun intended, those hotspots are areas that we can look into because we absolutely need partnerships for us to be able to tackle some of those areas and preserve service and stabilize them as the climate is changing really rapidly. So those are the two that I’m really excited about that definitely take up the most time for our team.

John: I want to come back to them in a second. For those who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Kara with us today. She’s the director of sustainability at Amtrak to find Kara and all her great colleagues at Amtrak and all the important work they’re doing in sustainability, please go to Let’s go back to what you just said about the fact that Amtrak does business and has trained service in about 46 states and three Canadian cities, and climate change is real, is changed in my hometown of New York since I grew up. It’s much different. It’s definitely changed here in Fresno since I moved here with my wife and children back here with my wife and children. Let’s go to one of the major trends out there. This whole rise of AI. Is AI helping you with predictive analytics on climate change and climate impact when it comes to predicting the future and how to best adjust for the future with regards to your train service throughout those 46 states and the service that you have in Canada as well?

Kara: I can’t speak directly to AI and how that is working on predictive models for us. We are actively building the projections for mid-century out to the end of century outside consultants are helping us with that to bring in their expertise for it. There’s a possibility that AI is part of that assessment and that evaluation. I think for us it’s going to be really important to see where those changes are happening and then how we’re going to adjust our train schedules. I also think about the employees that we have in different parts of the country, LA to New Orleans and the types of conditions that they’re working in and how we can start preparing different types of training and build our facilities differently to make sure that we’re ready for those changing environments.

John: For every company that does business across this great country. The issue of diversity is important, and what I mean by diversity in this respect is in 46 states, they’re so interesting and diverse in terms of regions backgrounds, as you said, climate customers and stakeholders, how does that shape up in terms of laws and the shifting geopolitical things that are happening across America? How does that impact the important work that you and your team in the sustainability department and Amtrak are doing?

Kara: I see that showing up in different ways as Congress’s for-profit Corporation, we have a really unique position where Capitol Hill has a lot of influence in what we do, and even though we provide service across red states and blue states and purple portions of the country, our focus and I see this time and time again, our state’s focus on advancing different goals for what’s important to that state. So for example, this past summer we had our first electric vehicle bus, and so our EV bus transports customers between Seattle and Bellingham, and that’s the first one on our network. So we also have throughway bus service, which I don’t know if you know that of Amtrak. It’s not just rail, but we also make sure that we can connect people in areas that don’t have rail service today.

John: I didn’t realize that.

Kara: That’s great. Our state relationships are really, really important to us being able to advance things. We have states that are reaching out to us about conducting their own climate action plans. We have cities and smaller communities that are finding their way to the sustainability team, and those are all really valuable conversations for us to be able to share what we are working on and what we’re trying to accomplish, and then to learn what the states are also trying to accomplish so that we can put our funds together and our influence and just be able to try to tackle some of these really large complicated challenges in front of us.

John: You bring up a great point that I wasn’t even thinking about, but the issue of politics and rail. There’s also a real romance between many politicians who populate our Senate or Congress and even the White House with their historical work schedule where they rely on Amtrak and the rail system to go back to their hometown and then back to DC on a regular basis, and they get to see and be with their constituents, and they also get to enjoy the great rail system that we have. So that must also be real stickiness to your brand in Washington on Capitol Hill when you are making your case for changes that you need to continue to drive the success of Amtrak now and in the future.

Kara: My hats are off to our government affairs team. They are experts when it comes to managing relationships in Washington DC and Capitol Hill. Again, we are bipartisan, so we’re not taking sides on anything, and they work tirelessly to make sure that the policy environment that Amtrak is operating in allows us to do our absolute best and maintain the service that we need to provide for customers in 500 communities across the country that are rural, that are urban, that are everything in between. It’s a really essential service that we know the country needs and that needs more of actually.

John: That’s awesome. So going back to the RFI that you put out recently, you mentioned battery and hydrogen. Are there outliers that could and may surprise you when these information requests start being returned to you?

Kara: It’s possible. We’ve definitely been watching to see what Europe is doing, what Asia is doing, even domestically what the freight rail companies are doing because we’re operating on their network. So there needs definitely, there has to be symbiosis between what we choose and what’s also working for the freight rails. I’d be surprised if there was something that’s an outlier. I think we have a sense of the two strong front runners, but certainly going to keep our ears open.

John: Which is battery and hydrogen. If you, and again, how do they as a matchup today, if you were to assess what’s going on right now as you point out in Asia and Europe, who’s leading the race, which of those two are leading the race or is it a dead heat right now in terms of alternative energy sources for rail systems around the world?

Kara: I’ll say with a quick clarifier that there’s quite a bit of electrification that’s out there too as a third option and we already have that in the United States. There is a significant portion of Asia and Europe that are electrified and that makes it a lot easier for them. But to your more specific point, I could see battery as being a really good interim or a solution that would allow for shorter halls and in between cities, city payers that are easier to get to and don’t require a lot of infrastructure investment something like hydrogen would.

John: Right. I’m in the electronic recycling business, so we at, were keeping our eye on what’s going on in electronics and we were recently exposed to a new type of battery that came out of China for cell phones in our small gadgets. It’s a nuclear battery. Has that even been in the discussion? Is that a possibility when it comes to energy source for our rail system in the future or too much is unknown yet today?

Kara: We haven’t explored that much within Amtrak. We certainly rely on nuclear energy for our carbon-free electricity, but as an energy source for propulsion that hasn’t been in the mix for us today.

John: Got it. Kara, do you guys put together a sustainability report every year at Amtrak?

Kara: Absolutely, we have one that’s coming out probably at the end of this month.

John: Got it. It comes out and it lives in perpetuity up on

Kara: It sure does. Yep.

John: That’s wonderful. So talk a little bit about some of the biggest achievements, one of your favorite achievements to date that your team has achieved so far in the sustainability department looking backwards.

Kara: I love this one. It’s near and dear to my heart. It’s sort of, it is that blend of design and creativity that I get to tie into my day job. Several years ago there was a group who internally, they were responsible for refreshing our train cars and refresh includes taking out the carpet, the curtains, taking out the seats, all of those things and it was specific to our Ella fleet, which only operates between Washington and Boston. So they said, ”We’re going to have 12,000 leather seats with foam cushions and we need you to keep those out of the landfill.” I said, ”Okay, this is going to be a little daunting, but we’re going to figure it out.” So I found… I’m so excited about this. I found a woman owned recycler in Indianapolis. She was willing to take the foam to receive the seats entirely, all 12,000 of them and then there was, and this is also I think just total serendipity. There’s a nonprofit called People for Urban Progress and they’re also located in Indianapolis. So the recycling company offered to take the leather that was left over directly to People for Urban Progress, and we like to call them PUP for short. They did a collaboration with Amtrak where they disassembled all 12,000 seats. They hand wash every single one, and then they had these new patterns that they made with, they came up with an entire consumer goods line where it’s sunglasses cases, business card holders, they have a weekend duffle bag, they have a backpack, and it’s all made of these Ella leather seats that are so known for being on our trains between some of the busiest cities in the country. So we just relaunched that to make sure that we could help keep the product moving and get it into the hands of people that want a piece of history and some of Amtrak’s legacy. So that’s something that I’m super excited about.

John: Then the name of that organization is People for Urban Progress?

Kara: Correct. So their website is or you can go onto and find the products also.

John: We’ll put that in our show notes as well, We’ll put that into short. That’s wonderful. I love that story. Talk a little bit about what I call, and I’ve gotten to know this, so it’s my love letter to your whole fraternity. I think you’re part of the greatest fraternity on the planet of sustainability, ESG, impact circular economy officers across the world actually. I get to know a lot of you because of this platform and talk a little bit about benchmarking and inspiration and aspiration. Do you get it just within your industry in terms of other rail companies and other rail lines around the world and colleagues around the world, or do you look for it outside of the industry? What other industries do you look at when you’re getting your inspiration and aspiration, Kara?

Kara: That’s a really good question. We definitely keep our eye on what our peers are doing in the domestic rail industry, the commitments that they’re making and science-based targets, that’s something that we’re working on and are actively pursuing. We definitely look to Europe because we find that in the rail industry, they’re really good at it and they have certain EU regulations that push them harder and faster to get to better benchmarks than what we’re required to accomplish in the United States and so I think that’s a really good lead for us and something for us to push towards. It’s not just within the rail industry that we also keep our eyes on. Certainly looking at the competition of air carriers and electric vehicles and seeing that these different modes of transportation are also something that we need to keep our eye on, not necessarily just for benchmarks, but if you think about it, we need to continue making progress even as a sustainable mode of transportation because the number of electric vehicles that will make their way onto our roads might start to shave away at that lead that we, and so we need to continue to push and really advance the goals that we’ve set before us.

John: They talk about, obviously we know there’s autopilot when it comes to planes and more and more autopilot when it comes to now cars. Is that coming to the train industry as well, the rail industry as well?

Kara: Oh, I haven’t heard of that.

John: Okay.

Kara: I know that our train engineers are heavily trained and it’s a really specialized skillset that they take really seriously. I haven’t heard anything about automation.

John: Just wondering if as we electrify all our different modes of transportation, as you say, airlines and also obviously automobiles and they’re showing different trends, I wonder if those trends transfer to all modes of transportation or they’re specific to just some one or the other. Talk a little bit about the future. This is already, we’re in the middle now of 2024. It’s a fascinating year with elections coming up. There’s a lot of externalities that we have no control over, obviously. What are you most excited about as you make your way through 2024, but also beyond what are you looking at as major trends that we all need things to get us out of bed, to challenge ourselves to be better? We all could be better, not all these people, but obviously as brands that we represent. What are you most excited about that’s upcoming in the years ahead, two or three years ahead next year or the year beyond? Let’s just look at brand Amtrak.

Kara: I’m really excited about our new fleet that’s coming online. I think the American public is ready for a modern rail experience, and we are so anxious to be able to deliver that. I think along with those modernized train experience that our customers will have, there will be efficiencies that come along with it. I’m really excited to see what those are because we can anticipate what that might be in a test scenario and a lab situation. But being able to actually have them out in revenue service and getting our customers experience and their feedback on it, but seeing how much fuel we’re using or how much more energy efficient it is on the Northeast Corridor would be really interesting to be able to start seeing those metrics and then look at how they’re going to change what we’re projecting for our net zero goals and our emissions reductions. I’m also really excited about the results from the National Climate Vulnerability Assessment. I’d love to nerd out on it and envision the maps that we’re going to get that will help different parts of the company be able to see where there’s really great opportunities that could just change our perspective on things. I think those two things stand out to me. I also just really enjoy the development that I see within Amtrak of the employees who are raising their hands almost on a weekly basis, saying like, hey, sustainability is actually really important to me too. I had a conversation this morning actually at the water cooler because that still happens, and this woman just joined the company a couple of weeks ago and she was telling me about her job and she asked me what role I’m in, and I told her and she said, ”Oh my gosh, I’m so excited to hear that we have a sustainability team. That’s awesome. I’d really like to contribute and be part of it.” So just watching that momentum and the growth happen as more people are hired to Amtrak and more people bring their own personal values to our company. I think that’s one of the greatest things that we offer and have as a company within our culture, is people really care and it’s a mission-based company, which definitely changes the types of values that people bring with them personally to try to make a change professionally and I find that to be one of the most rewarding things of working with my colleagues.

John: You bring up a couple of great points there. First of all, although you and I are doing this wonderful interview over Zoom and thank God for Zoom and it got us through the pandemic and everything else, thank God that so many great companies have gone back to office because you would not be able to have that personal cooler talk that you just had this morning that was very important to connectivity between a new employee and a legacy employee like you and make that connection and understanding. I think we need to have more and more of that, the personal connection, because as we know, the depersonalization of society was already happening before COVID, it only accelerated after COVID because of all these devices that we all love and have become semi addicted to. So I think there’s a great, great benefit to in-office meetings and in-office, both professional meetings, but also just interpersonal meetings. Secondarily, you bring up a great point with the boomers like me that are getting older that didn’t have any classical training and sustainability, both in lower schools or even in university, it wasn’t available. It’s now ubiquitous to our school systems at a very young age all the way up to, of course, university and master’s degrees and PhDs. But more than that, it’s become part of our cultural vernacular. My children are very much into the environment. They’re 37 and 31. Their children are going to be also as all of that generation, are we seeing a rise because of the generation that really does care about an environment that does really care about how they vote with their pocketbook and their dollars on brands that really care about the environment on a growth in rail travel in the United States and beyond?

Kara: We’re definitely seeing a changing customer sentiment. A couple of weeks ago for Earth Month, we went into 30th Street Station, which is this iconic landmark, beautiful station. If you ever have a chance to roll through, I’m sure you have, having grown up in New York City, and we just wanted to gauge with our customers and raise their awareness that Amtrak has a sustainability group, but more importantly, we have our own commitments and we ask them if they would take a survey so that we could hear from them and understand what decisions they make, what those criteria are, and where having an environmental impact on buying a train ticket or riding public transit, where that falls in their level of importance. We are definitely seeing an uptick in people, excuse me, choosing to take the train instead of fly. We are seeing customers click through on understanding what their carbon emissions are. We have this tiny little green leaf on the webpage. We saw a 2000% increase in our sustainability landing page just within the first two weeks of them adding that to the landing page of because people want to understand what companies are doing. Like you said, that they’re choosing to put their dollars towards company. What are their values and do they share the same values as the customer? So that’s a way for us to communicate internally the importance of it, and our leadership agrees they’re seeing it, and they definitely don’t contradict us in that way.

John: Right. That is wonderful. Kara, this has just been amazing. As you and I know, there’s no finish line in sustainability. It’s a journey. So I just want you to know you’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast to continue the Amtrak journey in sustainability. For our listeners and viewers to find Kara and our colleagues in all the great work and important work they’re doing in sustainability, please go to Kara, thank you for all you do for the environment. Thank you for all you do in sustainability, and thank you and all your colleagues at Amtrak for making the world a better place.

Kara: John, thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.

John: This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry with thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit