Stop Ignoring Rail, America
By Alan Drake
Step One – Electrify US Freight Rail Lines and Shift Freight to Rail
Japanese and most European railroads are electrified. The Russians recently finished electrifying the Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Moscow to the Pacific, and to the Arctic port of Murmansk. So there are no technical limitations. Electrifying railroads and transferring half the truck ton-miles to rail should save 6.3% of US oil consumption.
Electrified railroads also expand rail capacity since they accelerate and brake faster. Today’s diesel railroads are roughly eight times more energy-efficient than heavy diesel trucks. Railroads carried 27.8% of the ton-miles with 220,000 barrels/day while trucks carried 32.1% of the ton-miles with 2,070,000 b/day (2002 data).
When we convert trains to electricity, the rule of thumb is that 1 Btu of electricity will do the work of 2.5 Btus of diesel on rural plains, and 1 to 3 in mountainous and urban areas. Generating electricity back into the grid when braking is the difference.
These savings are multiplicative. Switch freight from truck to diesel rail (x8 savings) and electrify the railroad (x2.5 savings) and end-use goes from 20 BTUs of diesel to one BTU of electricity.
Faced with cheap oil and toll-free interstate highways for decades, US railroads reduced their capacity (often by tearing up one of two tracks) and ceded much cargo to trucking. Today, intermodal shipments (local trucking, long distance by rail via containers) are growing rapidly – but this trend must be accelerated.
USA railroads have pointed to property taxes as the reason that they have not electrified (no taxes on their diesel, property taxes on electrification infrastructure). Exempting any rail line that electrifies from property taxes under the Interstate Commerce clause would promote the rapid electrification of many rail lines. Expanding capacity would then be more economically attractive without the burden of property taxes. Removing property taxes on electrified rail lines would take the thumb off the scale in the economic competition between rail and trucks. Trucks pay no property taxes, directly or indirectly, on their right-of-way. Trains do. Local property tax losses above a certain percentage of total taxes could have the excess compensated by the Federal Government.
Step Two – Increase Urban Rail Federal Funding
Building the gas-saving equivalent of twelve DC Metros would save 4% of US oil use (6% of transportation oil use). New electric mass transit will benefit the USA much more than new highways.
In 1970, 4% of DC commuters used city buses to get to work. Today over 40% use public transit. The difference is the 106 miles of Washington Metro. Washington Metro saves between a half-billion and a billion gallons of gasoline per year; changes in urban and suburban development patterns contribute to these savings. Such savings will only increase over time.
Miami passed a sales tax to build a 103-mile system of elevated "Subway in the Sky". http://www.miamidade.gov/trafficrelief/RailMap.htm [brown lines are 2016+] Twenty-five years to build a system that will save billions of gallons of gasoline: why so long? Limited Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding. Robust federal funding would result in an explosion of urban rail, from streetcars to light rail and rapid rail, combined with widespread commuter rail.
The Interstate Highway system was built with 90% federal funding; yet federal funding for new urban rail has been cut from 80% to de facto 30%.
The United States once built 500 electric streetcar systems in 20 years. Most towns of 25,000 and larger built a non-oil electrical transportation system. The USA did this with a population of less than one-third of today's, approximately 3% of today's GNP, and simple technology. We did it once; we can do it again!
Step Three – Promote Electric Trolley Buses
They require electrical infrastructure but electric trolley buses are cheaper and lighter, they last longer, they are pollution-free, and are quiet, smooth (much less jerky) and more attractive to passengers than fossil-fuel buses.
The FTA currently funds 80% of bus replacement costs on a twelve-year cycle; 15 years might be more appropriate. Perhaps FTA could fund fossil-fuel replacement buses on a 13.5-year cycle at 75% and trolley buses (with their electrical infrastructure) at 92%.
Step Four – Promote Transportation Bicycling
Only 0.4% of Americans commute by bike to work; 3.5% of Portland (OR) commuters use bicycles. Increasing the national average of bicycling commuting will have a measurable impact on oil consumption, and public health. Bicycling, like rail, has “Elasticity of Supply” in an emergency. Local steps plus national support, including making it patriotic to bicycle and walk, can help.
Step Five – Create a Strategic Railcar Reserve (SRR) to Supplement the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR)
One future scenario: The Islamic Republic of Arabia replaces the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the new Islamic Republic cuts exports to buy just essentials. The USA would face a severe and prolonged oil supply interruption.
The US government would immediately institute a variety of oil conservation measures and start draining the SPR. Demand would swamp the capacity of every urban rail system in the country. Freight railroads and Amtrak would be overwhelmed. Soon more severe oil demand restrictions would be required, such as rationing.
Every urban rail system will need more rolling stock. Rail cars are the first limiting factor. Freight railroads and Amtrak will need more cars as well.
More rolling stock will reduce USA oil demand and allow the SPR to last a few days longer. Once the SPR is exhausted, the SRR (and all the steps above) will still be benefiting the nation. Rail cars are made in the USA, their benefit will last much longer than barrels of oil, they can be used and not disappear in minor oil supply interruptions, and they are cheaper, per barrel saved, than $100+ oil in a prolonged emergency.
Urban rail systems should estimate demand in the case of an oil supply interruption and what would be required to handle this demand. Sometimes retired cars could be mothballed, but usually new cars would be required for the SRR.
Twenty BTUs of diesel fuel consumption replaced by one BTU of electricity is the energy trade by shifting from heavy trucks to electrified railroads. Replacing 2 million barrels/day of heavy truck diesel fuel would take just 1.4% of US electricity.
Transportation uses 0.19% of US electrical demand today. The gasoline-saving equivalent of a dozen new DC Metros would likely double that 0.19% figure.
These proposals would complement the widely discussed steps of higher CAFE, etc.. They are complementary and not mutually exclusive. And these steps can start immediately, they require no new technology, and they would have a significant impact in the medium term.
These steps would be faster than drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, would produce at least twice as much oil savings as ANWR would produce at its peak, and would never deplete (Prudhoe Bay is producing at 20% of its peak, Washington Metro hits a new peak in oil saved every year).
Sometimes good public policy is good politics. Reducing US oil consumption, reducing greenhouse gases, improving the US economy, reducing congestion, providing non-oil transportation alternatives, and reducing the number of 18-wheel trucks on the highways should be both good public policy and good politics!
Alan Drake is a consulting engineer and reformed accountant who has combined his interests in the iconic St. Charles streetcars 2.5 blocks from his home in New Orleans and Urban Rail in general, plus experience with engineering for efficiency. He is searching for economic solutions that address both global warming and post-peak oil issues.
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