Canadian, British, American railroad officials fighting to replace diesel locomotives.
With efforts to combat climate change ramping up and ridership on public transportation increasing steadily, electrification of main-line rail corridors is in. Yet, though railroads in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. are studying a conversion to electric traction for passenger and freight trainsets, few corridors are actually being readied for conversion from diesel operation. And even if electrification occurs, rail operators need to be assured that their electricity providers are carbon-neutral if the full advantages of traction operation are to be realized.
Railway electrification has a number of major advantages, including reduced environmental impact, faster running times, and lower operating costs. These benefits are clear in the case of true high-speed rail, which is nearly impossible with diesel locomotives. But freight carriers see improved operations with electrification as well, seeing eliminated fuel transport costs; the simultaneous operation of high-speed passenger and freight trains on the same corridor is more feasible when the passenger corridor is electrified as well. In addition, the numerous negative effects of diesel locomotives — notably heavy local-point air pollution — often stand in the way of rail service expansion in urban communities, where people are understandably hesitant to allow significant pollution.
In the United States, with few passenger carriers possessing adequate finances to pay for such conversion, the freight industry is taking the lead. Norfolk Southern, a major transporter, is studying electrification of heavily used corridors that could be profitable for use by passenger services. Similarly, BNSF Railways has similarly investigated electrification of many of the major corridors that it controls in the western parts of the country. Freight trains could operate along both electric and non-electric corridors using dual-mode locomotives much like those used by several commuter rail lines that provide service to New York Penn Station. This would not only provide carriers the ability to increase capacity and service in congested areas but also allow through trains to less densely utilized areas of the country. Freight operators want to orchestrate their involvement in electrification with the rebuilding of the American power grid, a major priority of the Obama Administration; new “smart” power lines could be constructed alongside tracks. As American rail investment expands, electrification of freight rail corridors with a focus on well-used lines could be a first step.
Indeed, in California, the use of traction power along the Caltrain corridor between San Jose and San Francisco may be one of the first completed elements of that state’s high-speed program. The project’s construction would require include the purchase of all-new electric locomotives for commuter rail trains that would share the corridor with fast trains; freight trains using the line would presumably also be required to convert their operations.
Canada’s two largest cities are considering the electrification of their commuter rail networks. In Montréal, the AMT regional transit network and Hydro-Québec, that province’s primary power provider, are working together to replace the diesel trains currently used on four of the city’s routes. Hydro-Québec has an incentive to pay for the conversion, as its power plants would be primary beneficiaries of expanded use. The majority of Québec Province’s power comes — unsurprisingly — from dams, so trains would be operated using renewable power. The Deux-Montagnes line, which is electrically operated, has proven more effective than the city’s other diesel lines; conversion of 250 km of diesel operations would cost upwards of $300 million Canadian over the course of a 15 year period beginning in 2011.
Toronto, which has no such similarly strong existing network of renewable power distribution, is nevertheless also considering electrification of its GO Transit commuter network, a project pushed by local citizen group the Clean Train Coalition. The city’s network is expanding rapidly, with one line through the Georgetown neighborhood expected to see 300 to 500 trains a day in a few years once an airport express begins operation. Yet the diesel trains steaming through the community would significantly increase pollution levels, so electrification is a viable mitigating option.
In the United Kingdom, ridership has increased 60% since 1994, but capacity is close to its limit. The construction of a new high-speed west coast line is a long-term option, but improvements in the meantime will allow more trains to run on the same tracks. Electrification on corridors such as those between London and Cardiff and between Edinburgh and Glasgow would be economically viable, according to a series of industry studies on the state of the U.K. rail network. Incorporation of commuter rail lines into the Crossrail project through central London would also require moving to traction power. Overall, the country seems ready to push for electrification on any commercially viable corridor.
Of course, the most promising advantage of using electric power to move rail cars has little to do with efficiency or speed improvements; rather, electric propulsion allows trains to become carbon-neutral, something airplanes will never be able to claim in the near future. If we are to encourage using electricity to power trains, we must ensure that the electricity used is as clean as possible. Building an American electric high-speed rail network — no matter how time competitive with airline travel it might be — would be ecologically disastrous if the United States continues its dependence on coal, whose use will never be “clean.” We must not deny the fact that airplanes are more environmentally efficient than trains if the latter are powered by polluting sources.
Yet there are alternatives that would make electrification a clean option. In France, where nuclear power represents 80% of power production and traditional renewables another 10%, TGV high-speed trains operate at 200 mph with virtually no contribution to climate change. In Spain and Germany, wind mills provide an increasing percentage of overall power generation. Along with electrification of rail networks, U.S., U.K., and Canadian utilities must increase investment in alternative power technologies that will reduce their respective carbon footprints. Taking that step would make installing traction power on the railways a win-win situation for everyone.