Does the Northwest need electric trains?

By Martha Baskin
Crosscut archive image.

Electric trains, like this one in Carlisle 300 miles north of London, are common in Europe and Asia.

By Martha Baskin

It would be a seismic shift for the region: Electrify a main line rail corridor with renewable energy. Make the line so competitive it can haul freight at a fraction of the energy it takes diesel-powered trucks and ignite a resurgence in passenger ridership — on electric trains at high speeds.

The Northern Transcontinental route, the one the Empire Builder follows from Chicago to Seattle, is the one where rail experts, renewable energy economists, climate activists and railroad workers say they could first demonstrate electric rail's low carbon potential.

The timing is right on a number of fronts, says energy economist Bruce McFarland, currently teaching in Beijing. McFarland is part of the “Solutionary Rail” movement, a wonky phrase that looks to solve a number of intersecting problems and create a dynamic, low-carbon future for rail.

First, says McFarland, public funding for highway maintenance in the U.S. is falling further and further behind, in large part because of the wear-and-tear created by heavy traffic, both passenger and freight. Electric rail uses only 5 percent of the energy it takes to move freight by truck. By making use of that advantage, we can shift maintenance burdens off highways, he says, and rail becomes a useful strategy for addressing the transportation funding crisis.

Second, private railways have experienced a growth in moving freight by rail since the middle of the last decade. Many rail corridors, says McFarland, are running at or near capacity. Railways like BNSF are already investing in multi-billion dollar projects like improving the Northern Transcontinental route. Technologies for electric locomotives and delivery of electricity to rail systems are highly developed the world over. Why not make use of them here, he asks, and help rail become the vanguard of a new low-carbon transportation solution — a solution where hauling non-fossil fuel commodities, like agricultural products and consumer goods, would be more cost-effective again?

The country and region aren't entirely strange bedfellows to electric rail. The electrified Northeast Corridor — a passenger rail line that is primarily owned by Amtrak — runs 453 miles between Boston and D.C., the longest electric rail corridor in the U.S.. The corridor’s Acela Express trains, in some stretches of the route, run at up to 150 mph. While New York Central Railroad began plans for electrification after the world's first urban electrification project, Gare d'Orsay, in Paris in 1900, the Great Northern Railway (now BNSF Railway) electrified the original 2.5-mile  Cascade Tunnel near Stevens Pass in 1909. In the 1930s rail electrification in the U.S. stretched nearly 3,100 miles. But by 1973 it was down to 1,778 miles, a complex saga of power politics, in particular those connected to the federally subsidized highway lobby and the automotive industry.

Electric rail advocates say the time is ripe for a rebirth where rail could become the backbone of a low-carbon, climate-sensitive transportation system. And there are plenty of models to show electric rail works — in Europe, Asia and South America. China is electrifying its busiest freight lines and expanding passenger service. Japan made history in the early 1960s with its famous electric-powered bullet trains, which continue to expand today.

Money would be the key to greening the Northern Transcontinental corridor between Chicago and Seattle and eventually realizing electric rail throughout the country. A first step, say advocates, would be to create a non-profit “Steel Interstate Infrastructure Bank Authority,” or SIIBA, a concept that's circulated for over a decade in parts of the country anxious to beef up rail instead of highways in their communities. This type of bank or development authority would be able to access public financing in the form of bonds.

Vashon Island activist Bill Moyer, director of The Backbone Campaign and a central player in solutionary rail, says SIIBA could access public bonds at far lower interest rate than those available to private investors like railways. Over the coming decades the development authority could collect usage fees for what would become public infrastructure. “The bullet points for the railroads,” says Moyer, “are speed, capacity and revitalizing passenger rail, low-carbon rail.”

BNSF considered electrification in 2009. Back then, the railroad faced the possibility of federal climate legislation, says Patrick Mazza, a cofounder of Climate Solutions and now a blogger with Cascadia Planet. The railroad was frank about saying there would be advantages to avoiding carbon pricing aspects of the proposed legislation. But he's convinced railroads would still be interested if they could receive financing help. BNSF estimates that costs would be close to $10 billion to electrify all their lines, he says. As a private company, BNSF has to raise the money itself. But if a new public-private partnership were created, with financing help from a “Steel Interstate Infrastructure Bank Authority,” it could kick-start electrifying BNSF's Northern Transcontinental corridor, say advocates.

“Our objective,” says Moyer, “is to create faster, more efficient trains with increased reliability.” What makes the Northern Transcontinental particularly appealing — the route runs from Illinois, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and the Idaho panhandle before heading through Washington —  is its potential to be powered entirely by renewables: sun, wind and hydro power. When you electrify, says energy economist McFarland, you increase speed because electric trains have better acceleration and braking than diesel trains. It's also less expensive to add horsepower to an electric freight train since power is obtained from the overhead wire instead of from a diesel generator built into the locomotive. Electrification will also reduce the operating costs of freight trains substantially, he adds. “Our baseline argument to the railway operator,” he says, is simple: Look at the money.

Advocates say the main selling points for electric rail are to jump-start a low-carbon transportation solution where rail can attract freight from polluting, highway-damaging trucks; help revitalize passenger rail; and guarantee good, sustainable working conditions for railroad workers. But the reality of exploding oil trains — four in the last four weeks alone — is not far from their minds. “I love this place,” says Moyer, who identifies himself as a fourth generation Washingtonian. “I can't imagine that anyone would think the highest role it could play is to be a fossil fuel corridor to Asia. We can do far better than that and we need to. But in the process of saying no to something, it's very important to figure out what it is we can yes to.”

The next step for electric rail advocates is securing a third-party feasibility study to verify the project's viability. Mike Elliot, a spokesman for the Washington State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineering and Transport, brought the proposal to Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, who has agreed to bring it to the Legislature. Rep. Luis Moscoso, D- Mountlake Terrace, and Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, have also expressed support. “This isn't a partisan issue,” says Mazza. “Republicans have just as much interest. Their farmer constituents are very concerned about being able to get their crops to market. Coal and oil trains have been pushing them out so they've had to use higher cost truck transport.”

BNSF's Northern Transcontinental from Seattle to Chicago is a nationally important shipping line for containers and agricultural products, although a big part of the line has become a conduit for fossil fuels. With the BNSF owned by Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway, electric rail advocates plan to appeal to Buffet to, as they put it, “leave a legacy for climate and future generations by moving away from fossil fuel propulsion and transportation to electrified rail and renewable energy.” Have they reached out to him just yet? They say they’re exploring options.

Those engaged in the issue will hold a conference March 21 in Olympia, "The Future of Railroads: Safety, Workers, Community and the Environment.  More information here


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.