Op-Ed: How Electric Freight Trains Can Help Save Us
This article is about another type of EV that, if implemented on a wide scale, could result in a transformation that the nation hasn’t seen since the first railroad era of the 1860’s.
I am talking about the electric freight train, and using it to replace the diesel truck on a national scale. Few people realize that the implications of doing this would truly be a game changer. Why? The answer lies in the electric train’s amazing efficiency and versatility. The ultra – low rolling resistance of steel wheels on steel rails, combined with the high efficiency of the electric motor, allow electric trains to be up to 3 times as efficient as diesels.
They can offer a fuel economy of up to 1500 ton-miles per gallon equivalent, a remarkable figure. Trains equipped with regenerative braking can also frugally feed electricity back into the grid with minimal losses – a train descending a mountain, for example, can generate enough energy in this manner to almost pull another train up that mountain.
Unlike a diesel, the electric can get its propulsive power from many sources, most importantly clean and renewable sources. It offers clean operation in cities, reduces smog, and generates no emissions at the point of use. With so many great benefits, one has to wonder why they are not already in widespread use!
Yes, such a system would be enormously expensive to build, but it would be one of the best investments this nation could make. Once operational, it would start saving us vast amounts of money from Day 1, and, over the course of its operational life, it would pay for itself many times over. These savings could then be passed on to the average American, which would put a noticeable amount of money back into people’s pockets, and help stimulate the economy. This would be a very direct, and effective, type of economic stimulus that everyone would benefit from.
Think of a gallon of milk or a head of lettuce shipped from California to the East Coast for example. A considerable portion of its price is just the fuel cost needed to transport it across this long distance. You see this reflected in the price of food every time oil prices spike. Transporting food via electric freight trains could potentially reduce this fuel cost by 70%, and considerably reduce the overall price of food. The savings could then be passed right back on to the people.
Millions of our working class and lower to middle income families would benefit from this the most. Not just food could be shipped this way, but literally all goods, from mail, to clothes, toys, electronics, cars, and people’s property when they move – everything that currently goes by truck. Trucks would still be required, but only for the short distances from the train depots to the stores and ports, and local destinations. And for these short distances, they could be battery powered, or powered via an overhead wire, like electric busses in some cities.
So how do we set about accomplishing this? Given the large scope and interstate nature of such an effort, one option would be to assign it to a government entity, such as the Federal Railroad Corporation or Amtrak. An Authority could be created which would be responsible for land acquisition, track construction, electrification, procurement of the rolling stock, and operation of the system once complete, much like California’s High Speed Rail Authority. Upon completion, there would be 6 major routes; 2 east – west routes, one in the north and one in the south; 2 north-south routes, one along each coast; and 2 “criss-cross” routes. Other routes could be added later on an “as-needed” basis.
The Authority could potentially sell “Rail Bonds” to the public to help finance the enormous up-front costs, much like War Bonds were sold in World War 2. Also, construction could be government subsidized with our tax dollars, and possibly partially paid for by a gas tax or a “cap and trade” system. Another possibility would be to invite investors to invest money up-front, in exchange for partial ownership or revenue sharing once the system is operational. This would make the Authority a “private – public” partnership.
The Authority could also consider partnering with existing railroads to promote electrified freight service. Attractive, long – term, low – interest loans could be offered to enable them to electrify their tracks and build the necessary infrastructure. Alternately, generous subsidies, tax incentives, and carbon credits could be offered to rail carriers that choose to operate electrified freight lines. The more carriers replace their diesel locomotives with electrics, the better. Many may switch given an immediate, economic benefit. The private railroads would then operate in tandem in the “Federal Freight Rail Line”, offering even greater capacity. “Mixed use” trains which would move both goods and people should also be considered, and could prove economically viable in certain areas.
As part of this effort, the remainder of Amtrak, along with any local, diesel – powered commuter rail lines should also be electrified, since the equipment and materials to do so will be readily available in large quantities. The tracks and electric infrastructure should be built concurrently instead of separately. This would allow for each mile of track to be placed into service as soon as it is finished, bringing the benefits of the project to fruition sooner. The newly – finished tracks and train sets could then be used to transport the materials, construction equipment, and work crews to their unfinished ends as the work progresses.
A significant portion (say 75%) of the rolling stock and hardware for the project should be U.S. made to stimulate the economy and create domestic jobs. Companies like General Electric and Westinghouse once made great all-electric locomotives, and there is no reason they can’t do so again. Existing diesel – electric locomotives can probably also be fairly easily converted to pure electric power, as they can use their existing traction motors. This should allow for much of the existing rolling stock to be re-used, reducing the cost of the project. Building the necessary infrastructure such as transmission lines and possibly new power plants would also generate considerable new domestic jobs.
Once the system is operational, there could also potentially be a cross country “Truck Train”, in addition to freight service. Such a train would transport truckers along with their loaded trucks, similar to Amtrak’s Auto Train. Sleeper and dining cars could be provided for the truckers, or they could choose to sleep in their own cabs. Attractive fares could be offered for such a service. Given the high cost of fuel, and the ability to sleep or relax while still underway to their destination, I am sure many truckers would welcome such an option. Amtrak’s Auto Train could also be expanded in a similar manner to offer coast – to – coast service for people and their cars at an affordable price. Since the train would be electric, it would offset the emissions from these cars and trucks.
The main benefit of this project would be two – fold, both economic and environmental. It would thus offer something for everyone, conservative groups and environmentalists alike. As such, it might gather bi-partisan support in Congress. For Republicans and Conservatives, it would offer significant job creation in their home states, brought about by the construction, maintenance, and operation of the system.
Perhaps most importantly, it would allow us to keep the power source for the trains (electricity) “in country”, instead of forcing us to purchase it from OPEC and the Middle East. Think for a minute about what a great benefit this single thing would be. Along with it would come reduced casualties in our military, and reduced conflicts tied to the control of oil. As such, it could be considered a significant benefit to our national security. This project would go a long way to move America towards oil self – sufficiency, but of course, the long term goal should be to end the burning of oil altogether. Oil is much too precious to just burn – it has so many other valuable uses, such as lubricants, pharmaceuticals and plastics, etc., that it should be conserved and husbanded.
For environmentalists, this project would offer the golden opportunity to power the trains with renewable energy. Wind, solar, and geothermal power sources should be considered first and foremost when constructing any new power plants required for the trains. Nuclear power should be considered in areas where renewables are not feasible, since it is carbon – free. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) should not be used at all. Once operational, this rail network, powered by carbon – free electricity, would go a long way to take action against climate change, and provide economic benefits too numerous to list here. Coupled with the use of electric cars and trucks, these trains could truly help usher in a bright, carbon-free, and prosperous future.