Electrification of North America’s Freight Rail Lines

Some of the lowest hanging fruit in the drive for cleaner, more efficient transportation is the eventual electrification of North America’s freight rail lines. Although increasingly common in the rest of the developed and developing world (the Trans-Siberian route is now electrified), only the Northeast Corridor in the US is electrified, and only passenger service uses electrically powered locomotives.

Besides doing a more efficient job with the freight it now handles railroads could absorb a lot more long-distance truck freight – both operationally and economically – with the 15% capacity gain from electrification. Plus there’s the follow-on benefits of 37K miles (the mainline subset of the roughly 150K miles of track in the US) of new electric grid right-of-way closer to fuel sources, and accommodation for future electric passenger service. The fresh income from right-of-way leasing could be a natural hedge against lost coal hauling income, and having railroads as a foundational customer could help the economic argument for new, remote, clean electric power sources.  More efficient propulsion will help to equalize trucking’s advantage of externalized costs.

The savings in carbon emissions from a wholesale conversion of US freight rail lines to electric operation is stunning. FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff estimated 55 gigawatts of power transitioning from diesel to grid power.

Cost estimates for catenary (overhead wire) vary by an order of magnitude (from about $300K to $3MM per mile) and haven’t factored in the efficiencies to be gained with a 37,000 mile learning curve. At the low end, with a cost of about $300K per mile, electrification of 37,000 miles of right-of-way would run about $11 billion.

The impetus for all this will probably not come from the large railroads (who are justifiably proud of the efficiency of their current diesel fleets), but from electric grid operators needing additional capacity, and electric power generating entities needing a connection to the grid . Railroads went through something similar years ago, by letting fiber optic networks run cable within the rail right of way and thereby helping fuel an explosive advance of telecommunications capacity. Railroads would not have constructed the network on their own but reaped the benefit of it as a business tool and a profit center with the ROW rental. As the large railroads seem happy with the diesel status quo, the first iterations of rail electrification may happen among the smaller “short lines”, who tend to be more entrepreneurial.

The grid operators get greatly reduced transmission line construction costs by starting with Right-Of-Way (ROW) ready to go as both politically vetted and partly constructed. Also it gives them access to remotely produced power from solar, wind, hydro, and biomass plants adjacent or close to tracks. The current grid is overtaxed and centered on fewer, larger plants; in the future the grid likely will connect to more, smaller generating sources further away from population centers. Rail electrification creates a large new customer – the railroad – close to the point of generation with usage at times of day (often) complimentary to the peak load.

Additional support should flow from railroad service and supply businesses standing to gain from a switch to electric power; locomotive manufacturers and infrastructure engineering and construction firms at first, and later freight car manufacturers and electric power producers.

Benefits to the rail industry

  • additional propulsion power source brings competition to diesel fuel
  • quicker (about %15) train acceleration creates track space for additional traffic, possible “sprinter” service with short, quickly loaded/unloaded trains running between longer, slower trains.  Below is an image of TruckTrain, an elegant sprinter concept in Britain.

  • higher speed also means better harmonization with coming passenger traffic.
  • zero air and fuel pollution from locomotives and much less noise
  • grid power for: wayside and crossing signals (having grid-connected crossing equipment would be a huge boost to safety), switch heaters, trackside cameras, transponders for freight tracking
  • supplement to liquid fuel for climate control power source (reefers)
  • freight cars can be power generators with regenerative braking, piezoelectric vibration harvesting, and photovoltaic solar roof panels
  • combined constituency for maintenance leads to more robust, secure infrastructure for both railroad and electric grid

Electrification Articles

The Oil Drum ran an exhaustive, terrific article by Alan Drake in July of 2008 which lays out the costs and benefits of, and possible ways to achieve electrification. Here are some highlights:

“Oil can be saved from the diesel that railroads use today (231,000 barrels/day in 2006) and from truck freight (2,552,000 barrels/day in 2006) by switching to electrified rail. Trucks carry about a quarter fewer ton-miles than rail, but with 11 times the oil.The USA has 177,000 miles of railroads, with the Department of Defense classifying 32,421 miles as strategic (STRACNET)… 36,000 miles should cover all of the main lines…”

“Electrifying 36,000 miles of US railroads could take as little as six years…”

“Transferring 85% of truck freight to rail, and electrifying half of US railroads… would save 2.3 to 2.4 million barrels/day. That is 12% of USA oil used today for all purposes, not just transportation.”

“Electrifying 80% of railroad ton-miles and transferring half of current truck freight to rail would take about 1% of US electricity.”

In April of 2009 there was a fresh flurry of interest around the idea of electrifying rail freight lines across the US.

http://www.joc.com/rail-intermodal/special-report-electrifying-freight-rail – Overview of the idea but the links inside go further.

http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2009/06/18/electrification-suddenly-in-vogue-again/ – Overview of the current situation in Canada, US, and the UK.

POWERING FREIGHT RAILWAYS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND PROFIT, Electrification—Why and How – Google the above title and it will take you to a pdf that discusses the Canadian railway system.

http://www.joc.com/rail-intermodal/csx-cautious-electrification – CSX and Union Pacific not looking to get involved with electrification, due to large diesel fleet and costs

http://www.joc.com/rail-intermodal/three-minutes-carl-dombek – Interview that discusses the connection between rail electrification and new power lines/grid

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