It's Time to Electrify the Railroads


In our post on Joe Biden and Amtrak, a commenter asked " How do other countries handle acquiring land for such use? Do you think we're truly beyond getting an infrastructure in place?" The answer is, we don't need to acquire the land, and the infrastructure already is mostly in place.

Over at the Oil Drum, Alan Drake lays out what should be done to develop a coherent program to reduce oil consumption, cut greenhouse gas emissions, fix the electrical grid and improve the speed and reliability of transport without using oil:

• Electrify 36,000 miles of mainline railroads
• Expand Railroad capacity and speed by adding double tracks, better signals and more grade separation
• New 110 mph tracks for passengers and freight added to existing rail ROWs as a second step
• In many, but not all cases, use the railroad ROW as new electrical transmission line corridors
• Promote the use of rail lines, usually spur lines, as wind turbine sites with rail transported cranes and materials
• Take advantage of the lower marginal economic costs of railroads, where the more we use it, the less it costs per unit. A diffuse economic benefit for many sectors of the economy.

strategic rail network usa image

Drake notes that the US has 177,000 miles of railroads, 32,421 of which the Department of Defense calls strategic and which is in good shape, cris-crossing the country. He also notes that the Russians managed to electrify the Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Murmansk, so the "distances are too big in America" excuse doesn't count. Russia is pretty damn big and is 43% electrified, while being a fossil fuel exporter.

It will save a lot of energy: Transferring freight from truck to electrified rail trades 17 to 21 BTUs of diesel for one BTU of electricity. Simply electrifying existing rail freight would trade 2,6 to 3 BTUs of diesel for one BTU of electricity. And while right now it means shifting trucks to electrified rail is now trading CO2 from diesel to coal powered electricity, "Electrifying 80% of railroad ton-miles and transferring half of current truck freight to rail would take about 1% of US electricity. 1% is an amount that could be easily conserved, or, with less ease, provided by new renewable generation and/or new nuclear plants."

He concludes:

"Electrifying America's Railroads is not going to be enough to solve our energy and environmental problems without many other Silver BBs. But it is difficult to model a realistic solution that does not include electrifying our railroads and shifting much of our truck freight to rail.

The question is not "if" we will electrify our railroads, but "when" and "how fast." ::Oil Drum

electrification by country image

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