Friday, November 18, 2011

Some Thoughts About Electrification

The Keystone Corridor East, Harrisburg to Philadelphia is electrified. That it is electrified allows for an the integration and utilization of Amtrak equipment used on the Northeast Corridor.

What would happen if the American freight railroad system were electrified? How would electrification of the Keystone Corridor West benefit the restoration of passenger rail service Pittsburgh to Harrisburg?

Our oil based transportation system is a substantial problem to the country’s defense and preparedness. An elegant solution is to create a parallel non-oil based transportation system using proven, decades old technology. Such a system would be based upon electrifying the American freight railroad system. That is something better than what the country has. Until it is created, we will remain on an oil based treadmill.

What would a parallel, that is, a non-oil based transportation system alongside that of the existing oil based transportation system do?

First, electrifying the American freight railroads would create a transport system not vulnerable to interruptions of oil supply.

Second, in the event of months or years long interruptions, an electrified non-oil based transportation system would allow the American economy to function.

Third, electrifying the freight railroads would increase their capacity and their line haul speed capability.

Fourth, an electrified railroad will use remarkably less BTU’s to do the same transportation function as the oil based transportation system. That would translate into lower costs for freight and passenger transport service.

(Note: The proposal to create a national defense, non-oil based transportation system by electrifying the freight railroads can be found at )

When consideration is given to the self evident national defense defect caused by the oil based transportation, that by itself is argument enough to undertake the electrification project. While there have not been months long interruptions to oil supply for decades, the probability for an interruption continues. The interruption might not be by a government’s hostile action but by worldwide competition for oil resources. Or, a severe hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico could create the bottleneck. Whatever way our oil supply might be impaired, our reliance upon an oil based transportation system is nonsensical.

It is anticipated that the American freight railroad system will begin to develop bottlenecks by 2020. If nothing is done to increase capacity, by 2035 there will be severe problems in operating the freight railroads. The rule of thumb is that electrification creates a 15% increase in railroad capacity. It is accomplished by faster operating speeds and a more effective braking ability.

With electrification, freight speeds would then be compatible with passenger speeds. What does this mean? In 2004 the BNSF Railroad and the CSX Railroad attempted to operate a higher speed intermodal service for United Parcel Service Company, from coast to coast. The service was to be operated at passenger train speed. The upshot in 2004 was that with current freight train density, the addition of a higher speed train adversely affected normal freight operations. The best efforts of BNSF and CSX together with existing freight density could not avoid an operational quagmire for those companies. The UPS service had to be abandoned.

Another example of the difficulty to restore rail passenger service are the findings of the 2003 Woodside Consulting Company’s study for the NS Corporation and PennDOT for additional passenger trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, the Keystone Corridor West. The study found that in order not to interfere with an average 104 freight trains a day, and to accommodate 3 additional trains, 6 round trips; 66 miles of track would be required to be relaid. Even with that, there would be no increase in speed for the trip. The current speed is 30 minutes shorter than it was a 100 years ago.

Electrification would create a freight railroad system that is compatible and capable of supporting restored passenger rail services.
It has become apparent that the approach to restoring rail passenger service is disconnected from the fundamental difference from other world railroad systems: The American system is privately owned. It is FREIGHT. Freight is the distinguishing basis of the American railroad system.

Electrification means there would not be interference with the purpose of American railroads: FREIGHT. Electrification means compatibility and new opportunities. Whether restored rail passenger service in various corridors is a public or public - private partnership or conceivably a private investment; it is unlikely to happen without the private enterprise owners of the American railroad system being given sufficient incentives for the job. Frankly, the incentives must be dramatic and as such, must be, to get the job done. And, this is an economic incentive that needs to be done for its near term and future benefits.

How much would electrification cost? Using the estimates from Penn Design of the University of Pennsylvania’s 2010 study for creating a new 220 MPH capable high speed railroad from Boston to Washington, a rough estimate was $6 million a mile for two tracks. That estimate included catenary, substations, signals, motive power conversion, grade crossing upgrades and highway grade separation where needed. In comparison, the rule of thumb by PennDOT is that rebuilding a mile of interstate highway costs $10 million and building a new mile of interstate  averages $20 million.

Electrification would facilitate the restoration of rail passenger service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, the Keystone Corridor West. Such an electrification project would be a first step in the electrification of a national electrification of the freight railroad lines in order to set the stage for restored passenger rail services. The high speed passenger services in Europe and Japan were built upon a foundation of conventional speed service and higher speed (125 mph) services.  With restored rail passenger services, conventional and higher speeds, an effective feeder system would be created to support an actual high speed rail service with 220 mph capability in Pennsylvania and the country.

Best of all, it would be a non-oil based transportation system prepared for an interruption to oil supply.

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