Op-Ed: How Electric Freight Trains Can Help Save Us


Electric Freight Train In Action

Electric Freight Train In Action

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.

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A Solution To Replace The Diesel Truck?

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.

Electrifying Larger Transportation platforms Offers Larger Emission Gains, Such As On This BYD K9 Bus

Electrifying Larger Transportation platforms Offers Larger Emission Gains, Such As On This BYD K9 Bus

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.

A Large Infrastructure Would Be Needed To Accomplish The Mission, But Could Well Be Worth It

A Large Infrastructure Would Be Needed To Accomplish The Mission, But Could Well Be Worth It

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.

Incentives Could Be Used To Accelerate The Plan

Incentives Could Be Used To Accelerate The Plan

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.

Cost Of Ongoing Operations Of An Electric Train Is Relatively Low

Cost Of “Fuel” For An Electric Train Over Today’s Diesel Transport Solutions Is Very Small

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.

Who Knew We Had So Many Stock Photos Of Electric Trains?

Who Knew We Had So Many Stock Photos Of Electric Trains?

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.

Categories: Battery Tech, General


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36 Comments on "Op-Ed: How Electric Freight Trains Can Help Save Us"

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Retrofitting existing trains from diesel to electricity could be inexpensive, given that diesel locomotives use a generator to create electricity, only to convert that electricity to motion through electric motors. Getting the electric infrastructure, however, could be costly and time-consuming. If we could have a solar infrastructure to power the electric trains, that would be great! Given a train’s large size, solar cells on the top of each car might actually work if there are enough cars… Hmmm…

“Given a train’s large size, solar cells on the top of each car might actually work if there are enough cars… Hmmm…”

Ummm, no. Solar cells on the top of each train car would not work. The solar cells wouldn’t generate anywhere near the electricity needed to move a train car, and adding more cars would just increase the energy deficit required to move the longer, heavier train. Freight train cars filled with cargo aren’t exactly light weight. Likewise, the batteries needed to store large amounts of electricity from regeneration or for power when it gets cloudy are also very heavy.

Solar panels would be best on the roofs of the warehouses from which the goods are shipped, on the roofs of train depots/stations/terminals and repair/maintenance shops.

It is intriguing, considering the amount of surface area the nation’s rolling stock represents. However, the freight cars are not connected to the catenary, and that would be additional equipment and wear and tear on the catenary itself. Or, you would need batteries on every freight car…as a concept, it sounds great, but it would require some serious studies.

What may be more useful and directly applicable is solar on the roofs of passenger railcars. These cars already have battery backup for emergency lighting, and each car does use electricity directly for lights, wifi and electrical outlets with power generated by the engine.

Electric trains are great, but diesel trains are already very good. Either way, we mostly just need to use them more.

Agreed. There used to be a great bumper sticker that was popular some years ago in Pennsylvania: “Keep On Truckin’…by TRAIN”

“George Berka is an aerospace engineer ”

As one aerospace engineer to another thanks for the great article.
We can do alot with electric transportation. Now we need to clean up the grid.
That’s the challenging part also.

Fact: all Georges who read InsideEVs are also aerospace engineers

Oh I just got it Dah He’s GeorgeB??

Another aero engineer here, but I keep my work closer to the ground.

I’ve got a crisp Hamilton that says I know your middle name, (=

Here in Sweden, all trains are electric and have been for many years. They are so much quieter than diesel-electric trains, and they don’t emit soot and dangerous particulates. Building the overhead electric power wires over long distances would be very expensive and time-consuming. But to continue using old diesel-electric propulsion would keep the U.S. behind much of the developed world in this respect.

However, the free market has little incentive to make this change, and anti-tax sentiment in the U.S. will make completing this important infrastructure project almost impossible, unfortunately.

I agree completely, though I will miss the awesome, deep, thunderous rumble of those 4,000hp V16 tubodiesels!

The Pennsylvania Railroad used to have electric freight from the 1930’s to the 1970’s but when Conrail and Amtrak took over they had a feud with one another over the former Pennsylvania Railroad Catenary system and Conrail stopped running electric freight trains. What they did after that was take down all the copper wire off of the catenary masts on the electric freight system but kept the electric trains running on the passenger rail system. One of the things they whined about when they took down the catenary wires was that oil was very cheap and most of the Conrail system didn’t have catenary wires on it.

What is interesting about Amtrak’s catenary system is that it gets half it’s power from several dedicated 1930’s 25Hz hydro powered generators on the Susquehanna River that are built to feed power into the 25Hz system which is very green.

Interesting info thx.!!

There where several proposals between the 1920’s and into the 1970’s to extend the Pennsylvania Catenary system into Pittsburgh Pennsylvania along their great western mainline. In fact they even started to try and do it starting out in the late 1920’s by first building up the system between Phil and New Jersey. In the early 1930’s as part of the New Deal program the federal government gave the Pennsylvania Railroad a low interest loan to build up the catenary system south from Delaware to Washington DC. But when they started building it they deiced to extend it to Harrisburg Pennsylvania around 1935. They had very active plans of extending it to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania but World War 2 started and it made the prices of metal go up and made the cost of building far more expensive so they kept it in the planning phase. The idea though did come back up in the 1970’s with the OPEC embargo but the idea quickly dried up with Conrail and Penn Central filling for bankruptcy. The Pennsylvania electric project was mainly done to get rid of dirty steam locomotives out of the urban areas of the major Northern Cities and laws where even… Read more »

Wow…I grew up near Harrisburg, and have always been a railfan (particularly of the PRR, although the corporation was long-gone before I was born). However, I did not know where some of the electricity for the Harrisburg-Philly catenary came from. That is really cool!

Nor was I aware of the details surrounding the electrification (or failure thereof).

I do know that General Electric’s GG-1 was an immense success, beginning with the PRR’s electrification. I believe the last GG-1 was retired in the 1980s.

They were used in passenger and freight service to great effect.

I think you answered your own questions in this article. There are plenty of electric trains, it just does not make economic sense everywhere. Much more on the forefront are natural gas powered trains. This is a standard diesel consisting of a engine and fuel car behind replaced by a retrofitted diesel and a following CNG or LNG tanker car. These make economic sense, to take advantage of lower natural gas prices. With electric trains, all you get is generation from a natural gas sources (or worse coal!), then use on a wired or battery power train. More cost, less efficiency, because of the conversion.

Intersesting also. Fuel car?? I thought the Diesel locomotives carried their Diesel in Tanks under the engine, not in a special car.

LNG and CNG are far less energy dense than diesel fuel, and they require either extreme high pressure (CNG) or extreme low temperature (LNG) containers. Thus the need for a separate/external tank to make them viable as a locomotive fuel.

I’m sure your correct about that. I got the overview about CNG/LNG trains from an article in the Wall Street Journal. Seems one big advantage trains have over trucks is that a CNG or LNG tank car can be hooked in back of the engine easily…

But in case of a train accident, it makes much more boom than an electric train.


Amtrak and the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s electric catenary system get half their power from hydro generators at some dams in Pennsylvania. They also take in Nuclear power and don’t really use natural gas.

Electric trains are simply more efficient, even if the electricity is powered by coal. Fortunately, coal is already under 40% of total US power generation, and it is dropping steadily as the older plants are shut down due to the inability to meet modern emissions standards.

The west coast would be awesome for electric trains, with all that hydro and the growing amount of solar, wind and geothermal.

Trains are also great from the standpoint that a lot of freight is moved overnight. This would use electricity that is normally in surplus. This would also take advantage of wind power, which is often most potent at night.

Seems to me that a Voltec concept, with a diesel-electric locomotive with electric pickups, would be ideal in the transition to all-electric. It runs on electric when it makes sense to string wires overhead, then we it gets to the remote sections without power, the trolley pickups come down, the engine kicks in and drives it the rest of the way. Seems to me that the existing locomotives could be retrofitted with this.

I’m not sure about re-gen braking at this scale where power is fed right from the grid without battery buffers. Do they use regen for BART, high speed rail, or other all-electric rail systems?
I found this “hybrid” train article that uses regen, but it uses a self-contained diesel-electric with batteries.


Seeing the extensive braking systems even on current Amtrak cars, never mind the four rotors per axle on France’s TGV! Regen on electric trains makes perfect sense to me.

I do not think that the surge in current would be a problem. Electric trains are quite a shock to the system when they accelerate from a stop, drawing 100s of amps of current. Given the expanse of the electric systems already in use, and the number of trains using those systems at any one time, I would think that regen would be very manageable, with little or no upgrades/modifications to the system. Only the engines would need to have control systems modified to allow regen.

You would still need braking systems as emergency backups, but they wouldn’t be used much, so they would last much longer, just like in hybrids and EVs today.

As far as I know, existing electric transport systems do not use regen. I could be totally wrong on this (I hope I am), but I’m afraid it’s probably true.

Diesel engines that can run on electricity-only under particular conditions have been around for a long time. There are some in the US that used to operate that way in cities where diesel is prohibited (such as for long underground sections). I do not know if they are still around in the US. I have heard that such diesels currently operate overseas (Europe).

Asyncronous, but essentially all of the electric trolleys in San Fransisco work like this, they are overhead electric but have batteries so they can change from one street to another, while also changing which overhead wires they are contacting. An interesting operation I watched happen a few times.

I rode some trains through Europe recently and was particularly impressed with the smooth quiet ride of their electric rail system. It would be a great thing to have here.

I live less than a mile from the Northeast Corridor, near Philadelphia, so I see an interesting mix of rolling stock. But the one thing I never see is dual hight cars because of the comparatively low crossings height. So the Truck Train wouldn’t work here. In fact, as a start, I’d like to see the Auto Train route extended north to Boston. But at this point I’m not holding out any hope.

This seems like it might be the one application where wireless inductive charging would make sense. If you logically placed the charging pads (acceleration zones, inclines, etc.) you could reduce the cost of the infrastructure and battery requirements. Track spacing is sufficiently wide to allow the charging pads to be placed between them.

It would also make it possible to convert existing tracks to electric, while allowing the legacy trains to use the same tracks. It would naturally take a long time for the fleet to change over, so this type of flexibility is really required. Start with a heavily used, high visibility route and a few demo trains to prove out the business case, then let private industry take over.

I agree 100% with the need to shift to electric freight.

I do not agree with acquiring new right-of-ways and building new track lines. We have railroad lines all over the place – some of which have been downsized, abandoned, or torn-up – but we have them.

The only issue is electrification. In the densely populated areas, that shouldn’t be difficult. It is my guess that electrifying the great expanses of wilderness in the plains and mountains would be a much taller and more expensive order.

I do not see the need to send truckers cross-country by train. We already have a robust, nation-wide intermodal network. Just ship the trailers, like they do now.

Trains have been electric in Europe for so long that I was amazed to see that almost no electric trains exist in the US.

It obviously is a big investment, but it’s also a very wise long term investment.

Yeah, I’m on board with this. Electrified trains are a great idea. Much cheaper to power them with electricity than liquid fuels.