Electrification Suddenly in Vogue Again

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.

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Even without a conversion to clean power, electrification reduces emissions. At its worst – with coal power, and light ridership – rapid transit still emits less than the cars it displaces. In addition, since the grid is going to have to be converted to carbon-neutral power anyway, it makes sense to move transportation’s power generation onto the grid from diesel generators, which cannot be so converted.

  • Adam

    “few corridors are actually being readied for conversion from diesel operation.”

    I hope the chicago-st. louis corridor is. The southeast HSR line from Richmond to Raleigh, although initially it will be run with diesel engines is being engineered so that it can transition to an electrified HSR express. That would allow complete electrification from Boston to Raleigh, NC and would be a good thing indeed.

  • Matt Fisher

    I was on the Deux-Montagnes Line in the Montreal suburbs. This was my first train ride. And in Calgary, when I was on the C-Train LRT, it was wind powered, and is wind powered. Hydro power is indeed the dominant form of electricity in Quebec.

  • Adirondacker

    freight trains using the line would presumably also be required to convert their operations

    They run three trains a day. Diesels can run under catenary. They would need at least two locomotives, one in service and one at the shop for inspection, maintenance or repairs. Not worth it unless they are electrifying other parts of the freight system. .

  • Joe Klein

    With some creative modifications diesel-electric can have a pantograph and control electronics added for operation under overhead. I remember reading years ago of an electrified short line that equipped a standard diesel-electric switcher with a pantograph to save fuel costs when operating on the electrified segments.

  • A good discussion. Freight railroads, as you mention, are investigating electrification — but it’s still a ways down the track.

    In an interview outside the North American Rail Shippers Association annual meeting in Chicago last month, NS Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Donald W. Seale said “we’re having some discussion and review” about the potential to at some point electrify some track and trains, but “We at NS don’t see rail electrification in the near term” for freight.

    The technology may be there — or close — but not the economics.

    Rather than electrifying their long-haul routes, freight railroads may start by electrifying local rail yards.

    See http://www.joc.com/node/411794 for more on this and links to a special report on freight rail electrification.

  • Adirondacker

    The technology may be there — or close

    The technology has been there for decades. There were big swathes of freight moving with electricity in the US until a few decades ago. There still is some. Lots of freight in Europe.

  • lexslamman

    Why not electrify all of Caltrain and Empire Corridors (Start NOW), all of the Michigan, Illinois, and Hiawatha corridors, and the Surfliner corridor (Next), then the Cascades, Lincoln Service (CHI-STL), Virginia service (DC to Richmond/DC to Lynchburg/DC to Newport News) and Vermont/Inland Route – to Albany) third? I think doing it this way gives our emerging high-speed rail corridors a leg up they desperately need.

    Intercity passenger rail should be electrified – higher power to weight ratio and regenerative breaking will make these trains energy efficient and give them better acceleration, making a positive impact on travel times.

  • Adirondacker

    Why not electrify all of Caltrain

    They will be, when California’s HIgh Speed rail system is built. It would be ….. inefficient to electrify it now, rip it all out and re-electrify it in 5 years.

    and Empire Corridors

    I’m sure they have been toying with the idea since the line was electrified between Grand Central and Croton a hundred years ago. They even actually talk about it now and then. They never do anything….

  • The stupidest part about Empire is that they don’t electrify the Empire Connection from Penn Station to Spuyten Duyvil. Right now Amtrak runs diesel trains all the way, even on the parts of the Hudson Line that are already electrified.

  • Nathanael

    The Empire Connection suffers from incompatible electrification systems. Metro-North uses under-running third rail DC, LIRR uses top-running third rail DC, and Amtrak/NJT/SEPTA use AC overhead wires.

    To run on both the Hudson Line electrification and the Penn Station electrification, an Amtrak locomotive would either need “flip-shoes” (simple) or (more complicated, but better long term) both a shoe and a pantograph and both AC and DC transformers. This is frankly a good idea but it’s tied up in failure to order new locomotives for Amtrak.

  • Nathanael, could you imagine all the egos that were at stake 100 years ago when each railroad CEO believed he had the better idea for electrification?

    Recently our company completed work for a descendant of Commodore Vanderbilt. All I can tell you about that experience is that the same insanity and substance abuse behind the under-running third rail and all the insanity in the bloodline that followed continues to the present day!

  • Ocean Railroader

    The Pennsyvinia Catenary lines that run from from New York to Washingiton get there power from a major hydro Dam on the Susacahanna River and what they could do is convert more of the power generators at that dam from house hold power sales to railroad power sales and add a few extra power lines and have then ship power to the proposed catenary line extensions.

    There was talks of extending the Pennsyvinia Catenary masts and lines to Pittsburg in the 1930’s we should dust off those old plans and extend the lines that way first and then extend the lines south to Pettersburg Virginia. The classic catenary masts have a good plan built into them with their top rows of trassmision wires that would allow them to take on power at a wind farm or a solar farm or a hyro station and ship it to substations along the lines.

    There is also something sad to that I noice in Pennsyvinia along the Susahanna River there is a mainline railroad with Pennsyvinia Catenary masts and all the masts are still standing but are stipped off their wires meaning that they don’t run off eletric anymore. Also in Lancaster PA there is a rail line that follows US Route 30 that has catenary masts but they were stipped of their wires. We could easly restore eletric power to these lines by adding new catenary wires to the masts that are missing their wires.

  • Woody

    Morgan, we all agree that airline travel is best for long routes, well, except perhaps for the more than half of all Americans who have never flown and tell pollsters that they never will.

    But it’s absurd to think that air travel at any price is the best way to get from Philly to Harrisburg, or from Worcester, Mass. to Springfield, from Norfolk to Richmond, from Charlottesville to D.C., from Greensboro to Raleigh, from Cleveland to Columbus, or from Columbus to Dayton or Cincinnati, or from Milwaukee to Madison, from Oakland to Sacramento or San Jose, much less to fly from NYC to Albany, from Albany to Syracuse, from Syracuse to Rochester, from Rochester to Buffalo.

    We need a transportation policy and a budget that recognizes that each different mode of transport has its best place. On this site, we focus on rail, which is the mode most overlooked when the gravy boat is passed around Congress.

    • A lot of the never-wills change their mind when service improves. Expensive, terrible air travel makes people swear off flying; convenient, cheap air travel makes people fly more. The same is true for trains and cars.

      On all the city pairs you list, the mode share of air is tiny. If a single one of them has a 15% air mode share I’ll be deeply surprised. The dominant mode of transport in the US at those distances is the car. Even on Los Angeles-San Francisco, more people drive than fly, if I remember the CAHSR ridership projection documents correctly. The breakeven point for air versus driving is about 900 miles – though this is a nationwide average, which includes many city pairs on which air service is infrequent and indirect.

      On city pairs dominated by air, constructing HSR is usually a folly, because the distance is so great that construction costs are very high. Only on routes that can be broken down into small components, such as New York-Chicago, or maybe New York-Atlanta, is this justifiable.

  • OceanRailroader

    You spend about 40 minutes to a hour dealing with entering into the Pennsyvinia Catenary Anomily when you have to change from oil powered trains to eletric in Washingtion DC coming up from Richmond and Newport News. If the NEC’s catenary was extended to Richmond it would save tens of tens of thouands of passanger’s from lossing hours waiting to get itno the Anomily’s gatway into it.

    Here is a video of what is really wrong with the NEC Catenary and how it’s preventing high speed rail

  • leon wilson

    Installed catenary from dc to richmond va and watch the
    rail ridership go up. Build it and the public will come.

    • Ocean Railroader

      Amtrak would also save a few million dollars a year by having Vrginia Power be able to add new 25Hz Single phase Amtrak Pennsyvinia Railroad power genetators at their North Anna Neclear Plant which they plan to expland by 1500 megawatts. These new 25Hz generators in Vrginia Power’s homeland would allow Amtrak to cut back on power which is historcally more expenssive in Mayland and Pennsyvinia along with taking pressure off of it’s Static Convter Stations in Pennsyvinia.

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