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Stop Ignoring Rail, America

A step-by-step approach that makes greater use of electric rail to reduce America's dependence on oil.

By Alan Drake

This article is reprinted from the ASPO USA Peak Oil Review for 9 July 2007. We also recommend reading Local Rail on The Oil Drum.

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.

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