Monday, January 16, 2012

When will railroads start electrifying?

I was disappointed to read in the February issue of Trains magazine that another electrified short-line railroad has parked its old locomotives and taken down catenary, converting entirely to diesel operation.  The line connects Luminant Energy's Martin Lake generating station to a nearby lignite coal mine.  However, the character of traffic along the line has changed a lot in the last decade or so, leading to some logistical challenges.  At the same time, locomotive maintenance has become more difficult simply because there are so few electric locos in the U.S. and parts are in short supply.

The lignite coal from the nearby mine is too dirty these days to meet current emissions regulations, so sub-bituminous coal from the Powder River Basin has been getting shipped in since 2000.  The original trains operating on the tracks weren't very long—only about 20 cars—because the fuel could be produced more or less on demand.  However, unit trains coming out of the PRB region are typically 100 to 120 cars long.

It also seems that the plant has had to deal with waste materials in new ways over time.  Bottom ash, fly ash, and byproducts from scrubbers all need to be handled.  I'm not entirely sure I believe them, but apparently these issues combined to make the electrification impractical for Luminant.

I find this disappointing since trains powered by electricity have huge energy savings, huge savings in terms of carbon output, and are quieter and more powerful to boot.  As I look toward a future where extracting petroleum becomes more complicated, energy-intensive, and expensive, I find it ridiculous that we are still tearing down electrified infrastructure.

Fortunately, I think we've more or less hit bottom.  There are probably more electrified miles of track being installed than there are being torn out, but that's really only due to the investments we're making in electrified urban services—primarily light-rail and streetcars.  Expansion in the freight world remains nonexistent, even though we need to be looking at the task of electrifying tens of thousands of miles of track nationwide, an enormous endeavor that will cost tens or hundreds of billions and take decades.

Of course, the story of electric trains in the U.S. has followed a path pretty similar to that of high-speed and passenger rail in this country.  There was a lot of development in the early 20th century, but efforts petered after World War I.  Catenary was pulled down extensively after World War II, and there were some famous last throes such as with the Milwaukee Road deciding to tear out their electrified mountain division in 1970, just in time to be hit by the 1973 oil embargo (though the Milwaukee was in such a bad financial state at that point that it wouldn't have changed their ultimate fate).

Railroads have been teasing at the idea of re-electrifying ever since the oil crises of the '70s, but none of the Class I carriers added any electric mileage as far as I can tell (and Conrail ended electric operations along the Northeast Corridor in 1981).

BNSF and Norfolk Southern got some news for talking about electrification following fuel price spikes in 2008.  I haven't been able to find the original comment, but a statement attributed to BNSF said that electrification would only be practical once gas reached $4.00 per gallon.  Of course, I suspect either the BNSF representative misspoke or someone else mistakenly inserted the word "gas" when they meant "diesel", but maybe they actually did mean $4.00 gasoline...

At any rate, the average gas price in 2011 was $3.56.  Retail diesel prices have been considerably higher than gasoline, somewhere in the $3.80 to $3.90 range for the past year, but again it's not clear if BNSF cares about retail prices—they buy fuel in bulk and therefore care about contract prices, which are considerably lower (they currently seem to be about $3.00/gal).

So, we're either a dollar away from electrification or ten cents away.  BNSF representatives have become a bit dismissive of electrification in more recent comments to the media, but it'd be interesting to find out what sort of incentives they'd need in order to move forward.

I wouldn't be surprised to see some mandates come down from local or state governments requiring electric trains in the coming years, though any such efforts would likely face huge legal battles.  I could imagine California pushing it through on emissions grounds.  It'd also be interesting if Chicago required electrification, since they are so central to the movement of goods across the country.  Ideally, changes there would ripple across the country, but there'd be the possibility of railroads moving their switching operations elsewhere.

Railroads should probably also participate in cap-and-trade systems in order to bring in revenue from a shift toward electrons.  China reduced their trains' energy consumption by 60 percent per ton-mile from 1980 to 2007 (though admittedly they were still running plenty of steam trains not so long ago)—but that was still the reduction across their entire system, only about 1/3 of which has been electrified so far.

Some recent events in the U.K. could make electrification faster and cheaper: The Reason & Rail blog had a story about a £35 million ($54m) "factory train" which is planned to be used for installing catenary infrastructure along the country's rail network.  It's being designed to allow about 1 mile (1.6 km) of track to be electrified per day.  In theory, this should reduce the amount of money it takes to install catenary poles and wires (though Alon Levy mentioned in the comments that substations are a bigger factor when looking at costs).

Of course, living next to a rail line myself, I think there's a decent chance that value capture could provide at least some assistance (though likely only in busy corridors going through highly-urbanized areas).  I am constantly awakened by train traffic on BNSF's St. Paul subdivision, so I have a vested interest in making that line quieter.  Electric trains are not silent, but they should be quieter than what I get going past my apartment today.  My sense is that converting the line to electric power would significantly improve land values in my neighborhood (though I'm not sure the amount of revenue that could be generated would be enough to tip the balance).  A (multi-decade) tax holiday for the railroad property itself could also be considered.

There's also the straight argument that electrification increases a rail line's capacity.  I suppose this is an outlier, but Trains magazine reported in their November 2009 issue that on one segment of rail in China, "passenger traffic jumped from 32 to 108 daily trains [...] while annual freight traffic rose 71 percent, from 42 million to 72 million tons" following electrification.  I imagine there were improvements to the ground-level infrastructure as well, but clearly electrifying railroads could really help us as we think about rebuilding the passenger network in this country.

The arguments against passenger rail by the railroads themselves always come down to capacity, but if we've got railroads that already have electric service in the back of their minds, I again have to wonder what sort of incentive they need to bring that to the fore.  Will there be a point where it would be cheaper for state DOTs to get the capacity they need for passenger rail by contributing to an electrification project rather than exclusively spending money on track improvements?

Well, that's probably a slim chance.  I don't hold out much hope that the rails near my place will have catenary strung any time in the next decade or so, but it does seem that there are other places in the country where it makes sense.  Clearly, since the wires are already there, freight trains should return to using electric power in the Northeast Corridor on a regular basis.  Other areas along the East Coast, the New York–Chicago corridor, and in California should also seriously look at it.

As important as it is to rebuild our passenger network and add high-speed rail, electrification of our freight network even more important.  Fortunately, it dovetails nicely into those other two efforts, and they can support each other.


  1. Nice write-up. I recently read an excellent book called Transport Revolutions that puts forth a plan for reducing petroleum use in the US, a chunk of which would come from electrifying freight rail. I think they calculated the fuel savings, emissions reductions, etc, so I'll see if I can dig that up and post here.

  2. Ok I finally looked it up, and it looks like they just gave fuel savings - electrifying would move the same amount of freight with half the fuel, .1 megajoules per ton-km vs .2. I guess that's pretty much what you wrote.