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Electrification and expansion of railroads as a response to peak oil

One of the quickest and most effective responses to the realities of a post-Peak Oil economy is to electrify and expand the main-line railroads (about 35,000 miles in as little as 6 years) and later the busy branch lines (another 35,000 miles). The railroads burn slightly less than 300,000 b/d and inter-city trucking uses about 2 million b/d. Inter-city freight includes some of the most essential uses of oil today, such as delivering food and a variety of critical materials.

Replacing 300,000 b/d with electricity is good. Replacing 2 million b/day is significant. Creating a transportation system that can quickly, reliably and efficiently transport food, critical materials and people without oil is a vital national security concern.

Shifting freight from trucks to electrified double stack trains will trade 20 BTUs of refined diesel for 1 BTU of electricity (potentially renewable). The economic, national security and environmental benefits of such a trade are self-evident. Electrified railroads are much more energy efficient and will last a half century longer than natural gas powered trucks.

The switch from road to rail is aided by a simple economic fact. The more we use roads, the slower and more expensive they become. The marginal cost of new capacity is higher than the cost of the installed base. With rail, the more we use railroads, the faster and cheaper they become. The marginal cost of new capacity on existing Right-of-Way is significantly lower than the average cost. This paper proposes shoving us down that virtuous curve of increased use, lower cost and faster service as quickly as possible.

Before the stick of post-Peak Oil drives freight off the roads, how can we create a carrot that will entice freight and create a better, faster, cheaper and more reliable transportation system than the one we have today?

Reliability, speed and cost are the issues that determine which modes shippers choose. An aggressive goal, with a maximum commercial investment (costing about 2 AIG bailouts), is to attract half of today’s truck freight to rail within a decade. And in an oil supply emergency, ramp that half up to 85% of today’s truck traffic.

Besides electrification, adding about 15,000 miles of double track, rail over rail bridges, grade separation, better signals, cutting edge inter-modal yards and other detail improvements will dramatically speed up rail traffic and allow room for increased passenger service. Changes to railroad operations, including an increased emphasis on scheduled service and serving the needs of customers, will also be needed.

Today, half of the main rail lines operate on a single track. This is comparable to two way traffic on a one lane road. Delays waiting for trains coming the other direction are a fact of life. Double tracking not only speeds up traffic but it also increases capacity by a factor of 3 or 4. Costs are not even doubled. The Right-of-Way is already there as are signals and grade crossings.

Electrifying the main lines may take just 6 years (7 or 8 years with the aid of Mr. Murphy) if we put forth the same effort seen in the tar sands of Alberta. Double tracking 15,000 or so miles will take longer, perhaps a decade or a dozen years, but even a few thousand more miles of double track will have a significant impact. Fully funding the $5 billion CREATE program will reduce transit times through the rail hub of Chicago by a day or more and benefit the entire nation.

The shift from truck to rail can take several forms. Double stack container trains are the most efficient. In Europe, truck drivers drive to a loading point, load their tractors and trailers on the train and then get their required rest period in a sleeper rail car. In between is the US practice of rolling the trailer onto a flatcar and having a different driver pick it up at the other end.

Longer term, factories and warehouses will move back to rail spurs, or rail spurs will be built to them, thus allowing dock-to-dock service by rail.

There is a Step Two that is a significant improvement to our existing oil based transportation system. As we finish electrifying and expanding our existing rail system, we can add a 3rd track to as much as 14,000 miles of rail ROW. A third track for express freight (fruits & vegetables, JIT inventory, packages, seafood) at 90 to 100 mph can be coupled with semi-High Speed passenger service at 110 to 125 mph. The two “regular” tracks can be used for passing. CSX Railroad asked for federal funding for a comparable system from Washington DC to Miami (and was turned down in favor of more highways). SBB (Swiss Rail) is preparing to offer 160 kph (100 mph) express freight service.

Rail investments can be quite cost effective. BNSF upgraded and double tracked its Transcon line from Los Angeles to Chicago, 2,217 miles, for $2 billion. As a result, the Transcon is the #1 container rail line in the world, surpassing the Trans-Siberian which was electrified in 2002.

Warren Buffett appears to see the same potential that the author does, because he paid $44 billion for BNSF Railroad.

The investments required are significant but the benefits dwarf the price of the investment!

And the bulk of the work can be done in a decade if we work as hard at electrifying and expanding railroads as we did in boiling more tar out of sand in Alberta!

This is a two page summary of a 21 page “An American Citizen’s Guide to an Oil-Free Economy, Chapter 1 - Electrified Railroads” that is awaiting publication.

Alan Drake is a consulting engineer whose avocation is studying the electrification of railroads.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)

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