Per Capita Davis: Reimagining the railroads
Back in 2016, Bill McKibben wrote the foreword for a book, the principal author of which is Bill Moyers, titled “Solutionary Rail — A people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future.”
My neighbor across the street, a train enthusiast, knowing of my interest in the climate crisis, gifted me a copy of the book. Though the book and its contents, not to mention the author of the forward, immediately caught my attention, it has taken me a while to get around to writing about it.
McKibben, a genuine hero of the climate crisis and one of the creators of 350.org, begins the forward by stating: “Rail electrification, as proposed in this remarkable book, is that rarest of things, a genuinely new idea and one that makes immediate gut sense.”
A new idea? What’s so new about trains? He points out that although it could have been done much more efficiently, not to mention humanely, trains were important in opening up the “granary that was the American prairie” and connecting the country coast to coast. The new idea that is “Solutionary Rail” is that trains can now be the key that unlocks access to “the vast pool of electrons represented by the wind power that howls across that beautiful land, and the solar power that is wasted daily in the American desert.”
He, and the book, argue that, “Transmission lines are hard to site — but railroad right-of-ways are the perfect option.” Basically, we are looking at a climate-friendly two-fer. One, siting wind and solar energy production along these rail lines enables us to take a substantial step towards the electrification of rail generally. The trains essentially provide built-in demand for the power produced from these renewable sources.
Second, the rail corridors can be “transmission routes from remote solar and wind resources to metropolitan markets.” Ideally, rail tracks would be reconditioned to accommodate high (or at least higher) speed rail, making travel by train a “practical alternative to driving and flying.
The book points out that railroads used to be the favored option for the transport of both goods and people. But construction of the federal highway system made “long-haul trucking a powerful competitor for freight and pushed rail to dependence on bulk shipments, predominantly coal and more recently oil. Those highways also drew passengers from trains, as did public development of airports.”
Further, the book argues there are advantages for rail operators in electrification. For example, since the cost of electricity as a fuel is less than diesel, and, since electric locomotives have fewer moving parts, electric locomotives can reduce operating costs an estimated 35 percent compared to diesel. Many of the trains running on diesel use that fuel to generate electricity to run electric-traction motors to turn the wheels.
According to the book, electricity directly from an overhead power line is estimated to be about 95 percent efficient in powering the wheels, whereas burning diesel loses about three-quarters of the energy before the fuel’s energy gets to the wheels.
The book also argues that America has lost its edge, its leadership, in transportation technology, with the example given that “electrified rail propels close to a quarter of global track mileage but under 1 percent in the U.S.”
Statistics seem to vary a bit by source, but according to at least one estimate, China, for example, by 2016 had just over 53,000 total miles of track, of which 41 percent were electrified, and Russia, with 54,000 miles, including the entire Trans-Siberian railway, has about 46 percent electrified. In Europe, almost every country has at least 50 percent of their rail lines electrified, with Switzerland the highest at 100 percent.
Of course, there are significant obstacles to this plan, but the proponents have been plugging away. To name just a few of the challenges: railroad companies would have to invest in electric locomotives and agree to have their rail lines and easements made available for electricity transmission; native tribes and other entities owning lands transected by the railroad would have to see value in engaging in power production for electricity being sent to cities; and modernization of existing rail lines would be required to accommodate increased train speeds.
And, it’s not as if money is no object. The book, as positive as it is about solutionary rail, admits that, although it is cheaper to operate an electric rail rather than a diesel system, its 2016 estimate of the cost to electrify 500 miles of double-track (so trains can go in both directions at the same time, without one having to wait on an off-ramp for another from the other direction to pass by) would be on the order of $1.25 billion.
Sounds like a lot, but recall that the U.S. government just doled out billions and billions to the airlines, and several trillions overall for the pandemic crisis. A few billion to build back a better transportations system doesn’t seem like it would be out of reach.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears in the print version of the Enterprise the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
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