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.)

4 thoughts on “Electrification and Expansion of Railroads as a Response to Peak Oil, By Alan S. Drake”

  1. I hope all the dreams of electrified rail take into account that currently, a lot of US electricity is generated by burning coal, and coal is approaching a peak production/consumption tipping point similar to peak oil.

    The other major resources needed – skilled labor to do the construction, factories to do the fabrication and iron to make the trains, rails, towers, and metal to draw the wires and cables.

    Right now scavengers, both owners and thieves, are selling scrap iron on a booming scrap market. Almost all is being shipped to China. I haven’t done an energy analysis, but I imagine that mining the ore, smelting and extracting the metal, requires more energy, and the equipment requiring specifically oil, than to reclaim scrap metal. In short, by buying scrap metal from the US, China inherits the energy expended to produce that metal.

    Replacing the metal being exported to China in the form of old equipment, old building siding, wrecked cars, and scrap metal with iron mined using today’s cost of energy seems to be a problem to me.

    So when you talk about significant expansion of rail lines, and building trains, please tell me you have assurance that the metal requirements can be met. I am not confident, however, when you wave your hand at the distribution losses of electricity, and that some “may be renewable”. You could find the project started, diverting resources that might have been more effective used in other ways, and founder on energy or metal scarcity before getting much accomplished. We have enough wasting of money and other resources today.

  2. The Europeans and Chinese aren’t dummies. They know what is coming and, unlike here in the USA, plan for more than the next quarter’s profit report. In Europe and China, the government has far greater control over business than in the USA.
    The US railroads also know that once peak oil strikes, whatever diesel is available, the government will be forced to allocate to the railroads whatever they need, so as to keep the economy functioning. The same will be true for large farms. Fishing might be out of luck, depending on the amount of food obtained for the diesel consumed.
    It is a good railroad plan, since electricity can be generated with coal, natural gas, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass, and a variety of nuclear reactions. Of these, only hydro is nearly fully utilized in the USA. Biomass has little net energy gain. Diesel fuel would be better used to grow food. Canada has a lot more hydro potential, but environmental impact will prevent its’ development until the crisis gets severe enough to threaten social order. If the traveling wave nuclear reactor can be perfected, electricity will be abundant. Oil will never again be. It will run out first, then the natural gas, then the coal.
    All studies done on the supply of iron ore indicate that at least 50 years of high grade ore supplies remain. Lower grade iron ore is measured in gigatons. Steel is easy to recycle because it is magnetic. Most new steel being produced today is going to build new things in developing countries like China and India. They won’t need to do that forever.
    The coming oil shortage is THE critical problem to address. It can destroy the economy that keeps us fed. Not too many of us can go back to the family farm and milk the cow and gather up eggs to keep from starving anymore. We need a job to earn money to keep the economy going. As soon as the price of oil explodes, many of those jobs will start to disappear as people are forced to spend more and more of their income on gasoline. That will force cutbacks in other spending on things that now employ millions of Americans. The economic contraction that results will make the current real estate crash seem like the good old days. The folks in Washington can’t seem to think that far ahead. And it is no longer very far.

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