Monday, October 25, 2010

Electrifying the Railroads - Alan Drake's manual

While I was away Alan Drake sent me his “An American Citizen’s Guide to an Oil-Free Economy -A How-To Manual for Ending Oil Dependency.” It is only now that I am able to review it. His objective is sound
We can transfer our economy, bit by bit, to the new, more efficient and oil-free replacement as our present system becomes increasingly more fragile and eventually unsustainable. These plans all rely on mature, proven and economically viable technologies and not the current “Hunt for Miracles” that Secretary of Energy Chu has so aptly described his department’s Advanced Projects Research.

As new technologies develop, as they will, and are debugged and scaled up, our plans can be adjusted to incorporate these new solutions. Yet we can make a viable, workable plan with what we have “on the shelf”, ready to go today. We need not gamble our future on “Just-in-Time Technology” appearing at just the right time and with just the right technology. No miracles are required, simply foresight, persistence and hard work.
Alan is a great believer in the energy savings that can be achieved with a transfer to electrically powered railways. I largely agree with that underlying premise, and in Europe particularly, generally travel by train, where I have a choice. In his manual Alan points out some of the considerable savings that can be achieved if the country were to switch to an enhanced electrically-powered railroad system, relative to the oil-based transportation that we currently enjoy.

There are two factors that are required to achieve, in the long run, considerable energy savings, as well as a move toward energy independence, rather than our continued, and growing dependence on importing oil. The first is the transition itself, from diesel locomotives to electrically powered engines. It is a change that has already occurred in many parts of the world. He points out that the current system, which relies heavily on diesel-powered truck transport, could reduce energy costs comparatively, from 20 Btu’s of diesel power, to 1 Btu of electrical power, if long-distance haulage was carried out using Double Stacked Trains. In Europe, without the stacking, the trade-off is still 2.5 to 3.0 Btus of refined diesel converted to 1 Btu of electricity, with a slight reduction (circa 10%) in transit times. He cites Switzerland, China and France among those making the change. Roughly 30% of the 10,000 miles of track in the UK is electrified and the system is one of the busiest in Europe. (And on a personal note I have seen the density of passengers increase over the years as I ride the trains from London to Carlisle and beyond. And, in Austria, an off-peak trip from Vienna to Graz last week was made in a train that was close to full.)

Double Stack Train (Source )

He notes the lower maintenance costs of train over road transport, and given the delays that have been encountered around the country this summer as more highways were repaired under the Stimulus program, that is not a small consideration. I am reminded of a British Rail ad from some years ago, showing a commuter looking at his watch aboard a train running past a highway blocked and stalled with cars, and complaining that the train was running 5 minutes late again. (On the road into St Louis this summer delays of more than half-an-hour have not been uncommon as the highway has been widened near Pacific). Rail is also a safer method of transport (he conjectures the savings in life would be from 4,000 to 5,000 individuals a year).

However the second step that must be made is to increase the capacity of the existing rail system. Even as far back as 1998 Brennan was writing for the USDA of concerns that the existing system was reaching capacity.
Employment in the industry fell from 532,000 in 1980 to 256,000 in 1996. Similarly, rail mileage fell from 179,000 miles of road in 1980 to 147,210 in 1996. Over the same time period, the number of freight cars fell from 1.7 million to 1.2 million and the number of locomotives dropped from 28,094 to 19,269 units.

Even though their miles of track and number of employees, cars, and locomotives decreased after deregulation, railroad output has increased. Measured by carloads originated, output increased from 22.2 million carloads in 1980 to 24.2 million in 1996. In addition, shipments of intermodal containers and trailers increased from 3.1 million to 8.2 million over the same time period. Measured in terms of revenue ton-miles, the growth has been even more impressive. In 1980, railroads handled 919 billion ton-miles of traffic. By 1996, that number had increased to 1,356 billion ton-miles of traffic. U.S. railroads have been able to move this increased volume of freight by handling larger shipments over a longer distance at a much greater velocity. . . . . . However, the recent rail congestion problems suggest that U.S. railroads may have reached the practical limit of their possible productivity increases without major expansion in the capacity of their basic infrastructure. Increasing the volume of freight movements on a fixed network by handling larger shipments over a longer distance at greater velocities cannot be continued indefinitely. Indeed, one of the lessons of the western railroad crisis is the sensitivity of current railroad operations and the productivity of major sections of the U.S. rail system to even a slight downturn in the velocity of the system.
To overcome this more of the track will have to be converted from single to double tracking. However, as Alan points out, most of the infrastructure is already in place, and the right-of-way established, so that it will not incur the high costs of a totally new development.
Good cost estimation is difficult given the variety of issues with the existing infrastructure. However, rail investments can provide superb value for money. An excellent investment example is BNSF double tracked and improved 2,217 miles (Los Angeles to Chicago) for slightly over $2 billion recently. BNSF more than doubled track capacity and now offers 70 mph express container freight service.

A $2 billion investment made BNSF’s Transcon line the world’s busiest container rail line (the Trans-Siberian is #2). By comparison, $2 billion spent on highway expansion projects would have no national and limited local impact. For example, $2.3 billion is proposed to just rebuild the Milwaukee Zoo interchange and $1.2 billion to add two lanes to the Huey Long Bridge outside New Orleans..
The arguments that he makes are strong and should be persuasive, after all – as he points out -
Warren Buffett (BNSF Railroad is his largest single investment) and Bill Gates (30% of his non-Microsoft stock portfolio is in CN Railroad) are hardly charity cases.
Smart though they may be in foreseeing the benefits of investment, the money is not yet being fully invested to make the transitions that Alan feels are needed.
The following are reasonable cost estimates for what is being proposed, given the available information, in 2010 dollars.

• Electrify 36,000 miles of double track railroads - $100 billion.

• Double track 15,000 miles of single track, new rail over rail bridges, better signals, improved curves and grades – $75 to $150 billion.

• Grade Separation (a cost that should be borne by highway budgets) could easily absorb $50 to $100 billion.

• Semi-High Speed “3rd track” on existing ROW - 7,000 to 14,000 miles - $140 to $280 billion.

• Strategic Railcar Reserve – perhaps a couple of billion dollars for mothballed used equipment. New equipment, when used is not available, should be an order of magnitude more expensive.

• Improved Intermodal Centers – a very rough estimate to supplant 85% of existing truck traffic would be $50 billion or so.
Given the investors, it will be interesting to see how this catches on.


  1. Ummm. And what will be the source of power to generate the electricity used by these new trains?

    This proposal only makes sense if Mr. Drake is also calling for a vast expansion of nuclear power -- which would be a good thing, whether that power was used to drive trains or to meet other human needs for power.

    Some commentators have pointed out the great lack of European freight transport by rail. There is no European equivalent to the super-efficient mile-long US freight train, just as their is no US equivalent to a high speed French passenger train.

    Apparently, it is very difficult to schedule both freight and passenger trains on the same track.

    But none of that changes the basics -- we are facing a supply-side challenge on power sources. Let's get the horse in front of the cart. We should first identify the lowest cost sources of post-fossil power, and then adjust our power-using systems accordingly.