Railroads: Fast, Clean and ELECTRIC
By Helen Aki, Breakthrough Generation Fellow
Here at the Breakthrough blog, we've been exemplifying the personal electric vehicle as a step along the path to energy independence. The next step is to electrify our railroads and ramp up infrastructure so that freight that is currently driven thousands of miles by gas-thirsty trucks can be carried by electric rail instead.
France set itself a goal in 2006 to electrify "every meter" of its railroads within twenty years; Switzerland has been building a defensive non-oil transportation system since the 1920s; Germany has been building on their urban rail network since WWII. Japan, Sweden and Italy have all electrified over 50% of their rail; even Azerbaijan has 1,278 km of electrified rail (60% of its total). It's time for the United States to invest in an oil-free transportation system, which will be clean, safe, and efficient.
California has taken the initiative on electrification. Following the certification of its Environmental Impact Report, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has begun construction of an 800-mile electric rail project. The California High-Speed Rail will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, connecting Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego and other major cities along the California coastline. It presents an invaluable opportunity for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, job creation, and the expedition of transit.
The CA High-Speed Rail Environmental Protection fact sheet names four Californian problems:
1. Projected population of 50 million in 2030
2. $20 billion in annual losses due to wasted fuel and lost time from congestion
3. California is the 12th largest source of GHG emissions in the world, 41% of which come from transportation
4. San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles airports are overcrowded and need 90 new gates and 5 runways just to accommodate in-state travel
High Speed Rails, the Superman of transportation, can mitigate or solve all these problems, the fact sheet asserts, reducing the need for millions of trips via airplane or personal vehicle, and preventing the emission of over 12 billion lb. of carbon dioxide annually by 2030.
In addition to being environmentally savvy, the California High-Speed Rail is projected to create 450,000 new jobs by 2035, and generate $1 billion in revenue each year. Its initial cost of $40 billion is supported by both federal, state and private funding.
Funding (around $10 billion) for the High-Speed rail is up for a vote in November, and requires a simple majority in order to pass. If you live in California, make sure you support electrified transit!
Clean, Safe & Efficient: A National Electric Rail Proposition
Alan Drake recently wrote a piece for the Oil Drum called "Multiple Birds - One Silver BB: A synergistic set of solutions to multiple issues focused on Electrified Railroads," in which he proposes a national electrified rail system to reduce oil dependency and increase the efficiency of freight transportation. He makes the following points:
* In 2006, railroad oil consumption accounted for 231,000 barrels/day, and truck freight for 2,552,000 barrels/day.
* Trucks carry about a quarter fewer ton-miles than rail, but with 11 times the oil. One BTU of electricity used by an electric rail is the equivalent of 2.6 to 3 BTUs of diesel used by conventional rails, or 17 to 21 BTUs of diesel used by freight trucks.
* Transferring 85% of truck freight to rail, and electrifying half of US railroads, would save 2.3 to 2.4 million barrels/day, or 12% of all U.S. oil consumption.
The beauty of the electric rail is that it requires no new technology. Drake estimates that if an initiative to connect crucial areas of the U.S. by electrified rail was launched today, it could be implemented within six years.
A federal initiative promoting electrified rail could also nurture burgeoning renewable electricity markets. In urban areas, the electric rail would require electricity-providing substations every 20 or 30 miles. In remote areas, the rail would require its own high-voltage transmission lines. Their maintenance would provide hundreds of thousands or even millions of service jobs, and the electricity demand could provide novel opportunities for the installation of renewable electricity technologies, particularly wind. Drake excitedly suggests,
Rail spur lines could also serve as sites for long rows of wind turbines. Today, the size of wind turbines is often limited by the capacity of local roads and bridges to support the large cranes involved, even though "larger and taller" is better in wind turbine economics. Rail mounted or rail delivered cranes to a series of wind turbines could potentially install 5 MW wind turbines now seen only at sea.
Interestingly, Drake is disparaging of high-speed rail initiatives, asserting that there is not enough passenger demand to justify the installation of high-speed or semi-high speed rail over long distances. High-speed rails are greatly inefficient users of energy:
Energy consumption increases with the square of the speed, a 190 mph train will use 3 times as much energy as a 110 mph train, a 220 mph train 4 times as much. The USA is not France: we simply cannot afford the "best" service in this generation and we do not have the energy to waste on maximum speed.
However, Drake allows, high speed rails could provide both passenger transportation and serve as express freight lines. For example, fresh produce needs to be transported quickly, and the high speed rail could fill that important role.
Think about it: even the average domestically-grown tomato travels over 1500 miles to make it into a sandwich (so reads the "foodometer"). Dependence on foreign oil, and oil in general, makes it more expensive for us to get around. Likewise, it imperils the journey of tomatoes and other vital goods everywhere. Electrifying existing rails, and committing large-scale federal investment to building and maintaining electric rail infrastructure, is a matter of national security.
The California High-Speed Rail is an inspiring example of electric transportation progress. But electric rail on a national scale is a vital step towards maintaining economic and social security, and international competitiveness. Drake points out an example of a fundamental barrier which must be broken through before a large-scale, federal electric rail program can be initiated:
The traditional reason/excuse given by US railroads for not electrifying is that the electrification infrastructure will be subject to heavy property taxes, and railroad diesel is tax free. This is an obstacle not faced by other national railroads, most of which have electrified.
Come on, America: wake up and electrify rail!