Changing Railroads in the U.S.: Is now the time for a national electrification program?

Garlynn Woodsong is an occasional guest contributor.

According to this Washington Post article, A Switch On the Tracks: Railroads Roar Ahead, the U.S. railroad industry is currently booming. They’re hiring workers and expanding their facilities, as opposed to just six years ago, when they were laying off workers. They expect that high fuel prices will lead to a continued boom for railroads even as the economy continues to soften.

Also, apparently a diesel railroad engine can haul a ton of load four times more efficiently than a diesel truck. This allows the railroads to position them as the green shipping alternative.

This is all fine and good, but what about communities adjacent to the tracks? A couple of tons of diesel exhaust is a couple of tons of diesel exhaust, no matter how efficiently it is being used to haul its load.

Can our nation easily begin to retrofit the national railroad system to become electrified? The railroads are currently coming to Uncle Sam looking for a handout. Maybe the form of this handout should be tax breaks for electrification projects?

A modern diesel railroad engine is, apparently, something like a hybrid: A diesel generator provides electricity to turn the electric motors. Unlike a hybrid, it does not significantly use batteries in its operation, however. I wonder if a program to add pantographs (catenary arms) to diesel engines could work, to allow them to get the electricity for their electric motors from overhead wires, where available (say, in urban areas, to begin with) and to use their diesel engines where no overhead wires had yet been installed?

An issue with electrification, some might say, would be the extra-tall railroad cars now commonly used by freight railroads.

Catenary height in Europe is a standard 20 feet, and can be as high as 23 feet in Amtrak’s NE Corridor. The maximum height of shipping containers is 9 feet; two of these stacked on top of one another, in a well car with 25″ of clearance above the tracks, would be about 20 feet tall, still leaving nearly three feet of clearance between the top of the car and the highest catenary lines. If most of the U.S. is currently non-electrified, then it would be a simple matter of standardizing at the 23-foot catenary height to allow the U.S. to continue using double-stack trains as it began to electrify its national railway system.

What does this mean for Portland? Why not start the electrification program here? We could electrify all of the railroad tracks in the tri-county area (maybe using a mix of clean air funds, surcharges on shipping and maybe even a diesel tax), retrofit the engines that live here, and have electric switchers meet inbound long-haul trains at the borders of the region.

What’s the favorite tenet of planners everywhere? “Make no small plans.” This, IMHO, is no small plan — but why let that stop us?

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