A group of progressive-minded activists and industry experts have proposed that the federal and state governments, together with the railroad industry, invest in a long-term project to electrify U.S. railroads. In a book published in October 2016, Solutionary Rail, a people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads to a clean energy future, they detail a plan that would update freight and passenger railways with overhead wires to carry high-voltage electricity generated in towns along the lines, and replace diesel locomotives with electric engines. These wires would also provide a new, nationwide electricity transmission system that would help deliver the electricity generated by distributed renewable energy sources. The book points to several advantages of an electrified railway over the existing U.S. system, but industry and government analysts are skeptical as to whether the plan could be implemented.

All analysts agree on one thing: long-haul transportation is more efficient by train than by truck. The physics of steel rolling on steel is much more efficient from an energy transfer perspective than that of rubber on concrete, generating only about one-fifth of the friction. Trains are also more efficient aerodynamically than trucks. All in all, railways move freight 1.9 to 5.5 times more efficiently than trucks, and with far fewer overall labor costs and far less air pollution than trucks. Truckers could also benefit from a shift to using rail for long-haul freight as they could work more reasonable hours by focusing on the last miles of the journey. A cleaner, more robust railroad system could replace substantial amounts of truck traffic, while making inter-city passenger service more reliable and competitive with highways and aviation.


Electric Trains vs. Diesel Trains

Though trains are more efficient than trucks, not all trains are equally efficient. Diesel-powered trains transfer about 30-35 percent of the energy generated by combustion to the wheels, while supplying electricity directly from an overhead powerline transfers about 95 percent of the energy to the wheels. Powering trains with electricity rather than diesel has several other benefits, according to the authors of Solutionary Rail:

  • While prices of diesel fuel are currently low, many analysts predict that the long-term trend is for those prices to increase. Conversely, prices of electricity are falling with the fast-growing use of renewable energy sources. Even at current prices, with the energy conversion rates mentioned above, it is estimated that it is 50 percent less expensive to power a train by electricity than by diesel.
  • The cost of electric locomotive engines is about 20 percent less than diesel locomotive engines on the global market, and maintenance costs are 25-35 percent less than for diesel engines.
  • Eliminating diesel-powered locomotives would reduce air pollution including soot, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides, all of which affect public health as well as the environment. This is especially important as many railroads pass through urban areas. It would also reduce noise levels in cities, as well as traffic deaths due to trucks (rail freight causes only about one-eighth as many fatalities as truck freight per ton-mile).
  • Switching from diesel to electricity would also help address the challenge of replacing petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels with cleaner alternatives as we seek to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only does Solutionary Rail call for railroads to be electrified, it also calls for the use of renewable energy sources to power the new electric railroad system. If transmission lines are built with enough capacity, renewable energy sources could be connected throughout the country, forming a nationwide electric power grid that also supplies all of our railway energy needs. In this manner, railway electrification would provide a new market for renewable energy but also give it access to many other markets. Such a widespread transmission network would also help address the intermittency of renewable energy: the variable production of energy by wind turbines and photovoltaic solar panels would be mitigated by the extensive range of sources (the entire country isn't cloudy or windless at the same time).


Why Didn't U.S. Railroads Go Electric?

If electric locomotives have so many advantages compared to diesel-powered locomotives, why aren't they more widespread in the United States? During much of the 20th century, U.S. railroads were the world leaders in innovation and in the use of cutting-edge technology. They now lag behind many other advanced nations, which have been investing for many years in electric-powered railroads. In the early to mid-20th century, steam engines were replaced by more efficient electric locomotives and diesel-electric (usually referred to as just diesel) locomotives. During that transition, U.S. railroad companies chose to switch to diesel over electric locomotives because of diesel’s much lower up-front costs, even though electric systems cost significantly less to operate and to maintain than diesel systems. Railroad operators in many other industrialized countries chose to switch to electric locomotives, partly because the railroads were owned by the governments of those countries, which could better afford the necessary transmission infrastructure. U.S. railroads have always been a regulated private sector industry, making it much harder for U.S. railroad companies to finance electrification upgrades than to build diesel-fueled systems. As a result, electrified rail is currently used on less than 1 percent of U.S. railroad tracks while electricity supplies more than one-third of the energy that powers trains globally.

A few passenger rail lines have been converted to electric power in the United States (Amtrak’s Northeast corridor and Harrisburg, PA, line), but the rest of passenger rail and all of freight rail is diesel-powered. The California commuter rail line (CalTrain) is currently being upgraded to very high speed rail (VHSR) service and will use electric power. The system is scheduled to be operational by 2022 and has an initial estimated cost of $5 billion. Other electric VHSR systems (which would be electric-powered) are also being considered around the country, but do not yet have funding.


Is Rail Electrification a Feasible Undertaking in the United States?

Making the transition from the current U.S. railway infrastructure to a nationally electrified rail system is not a trivial issue, and the Solutionary Rail proposal doesn’t provide a cost estimate for such an undertaking. It does, however, point out that many other nations (Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, China, India, Japan…) have made significant moves to electrify their railway systems, and many other countries are now engaged in efforts to do so. However, it is easier for those countries to secure financing for major infrastructure investments like this than it is for their U.S. counterparts because their railway services are government-owned and operated, whereas U.S. railroads are privately owned (except for Amtrak, which is partially government-funded).

The U.S. government could require that all railways be electrified by a certain date, if there were ever such political motivation. The large investment necessary is an obvious obstacle, and the interest in reducing the nation's carbon footprint by switching to electric rail is not strong in Congress. Such an effort would be more difficult in this country than in Europe or Asia, which have more dense urban populations. While several other technologically-advanced nations (e.g., Japan, Germany, France, Mexico and Australia) have marked a steady decrease in their consumption of petroleum (from which diesel is derived) over the past several years, the U.S. consumption of petroleum has been increasing, due in large part to demand from the transportation sector.i There is no national dialog about reducing the use of combustion engines, even though the transportation sector produces 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.ii


Public-Private Partnerships, Industry and Labor Groups Could Make the Difference

Some point to public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a way to fund an electrified rail network by using a combination of federal, state, private sector, and possibly regional, funding. PPPs have had success in several railroad projects in recent years, such as the Norfolk Southern Heartland Corridor that connected the Ohio-West Virginia-Virginia lines (which began operation in 2010), and the Alameda Corridor that links Long Beach to Los Angeles, CA (which began operation in 2002). The electrification of freight rail could start with a demonstration project along the Northern Corridor, which runs from Seattle to Chicago connecting several cities and towns along the way. Several financing schemes have been proposed to engage public and private entities in the investment process.

Several different industry and labor groups could be enlisted in a campaign to electrify. Railway electrification would provide new jobs for rail workers (and many other industrial trades) and so would appeal to labor unions, which could help gain public support for electrifying and modernizing railroads. Several railroad unions also support the transition to a more sustainable economy and would likely back railway electrification. For example, Railroad Workers United, representing rail workers from a set of unions involved in North American rail transport, has adopted a resolution to transition the railroad industry away from fossil fuel shipments to more sustainable business prospects. Railway electrification might also appeal to the agriculture sector as an efficient way of transporting food. Under the current system, agricultural goods represent a much smaller component of freight rail than fossil fuel shipments, and thus take a secondary position in rail traffic. With the increased capacity that electrified railways could provide, rail shipments could become much more timely and frequent than they are today. Electric utilities could also play a role in supporting the electrification of railways. Utilities are one of freight rail’s largest customers, primarily for the delivery of coal to power plants and hauling away coal ash. As utilities become less dependent on coal, the revenues of freight rail will decrease,iii unless the railroads develop a new business model, such as one that includes electricity transmission. Finally, Native American tribes could benefit from the project if their right-of-ways are properly negotiated and compensated and if they are given the opportunity to use the new transmission corridors to distribute electricity they generate.


The fact that no governmental action (federal, state or local) has taken place since Solutionary Rail was published in 2016 does not bode well. Shortly after its publication, one critic attacked the proposal to electrify railroads based on a set of economic arguments. However, the critic failed to take into account the environmental benefits of switching to electric-powered rail. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, prioritizing the reduction of fossil fuel use is necessary, and that includes transitioning away from diesel fuel. Such a transition will be expensive and time consuming, but that doesn't make it any less essential.


Author: Richard Nunno


i. Petroleum consumption in the United States has increased by 3.06 percent from 2013 to 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=30652

ii. Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Environmental Protection Agency, September 26, 2017, https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

iii. Railroads and Coal, Association of American Railroads, June 2017, https://www.aar.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AAR-Railroads-Coal.pdf.