Solutionary Rail is a book with a strange title that proposes a plan to solve two critical infrastructure challenges with a single effort. Electrifying the US rail system and installing electrical transmission lines that serve to both provide power to the rail system and to transport electricity from capillary generation sources to the destination of most rail traffic — urban centers.
Transporting People & Products
The core of the solution is the electrification of the rail system in the United States, which has the potential to unlock clean, reliable freight and passenger mobility for the entire country. To truly enable efficient transportation of people and goods over these rail lines, track modernization is required. Updating existing lines enables higher speeds on the existing thoroughfares without the expensive upgrades required for full-blown high-speed rail.
“Electrified rail can move the economy as a whole beyond reliance on fossil fuels” — Solutionary Rail
Improving the speed of existing rail lines while at the same time updating them to modern electric rail technology has the potential to transform the public perception of rail and, ultimately, the public and commercial utilization of these assets. Trains that run more frequently from major city to major city across the broad expanse of the United States and not just the eastern seaboard have the potential to make rail travel time-competitive and cost-competitive with air travel given the significant incremental time required at most airports to get through traffic and security prior to a flight. Faster, more reliable, electrified freight trains could draw high value cargo off diesel trucks clogging freeways and back to far more efficient tracks.
Moving Electricity to Where It’s Needed
In parallel to the upgraded rail lines, new electricity lines will be required to power these electric rail superhighways. Instead of installing the minimum gauge required to power the trains, Solutionary Rail suggests the installation of arterial high-voltage transmission lines that, in addition to powering the trains themselves, serve as conduits to move power from remote generation areas — like wind farms in central Kansas — to city centers where the power can be better utilized.
“Railroad corridors could serve as electricity superhighways transmitting wind and solar energy from remote rural areas to metropolitan markets.” — Solutionary Rail
Optimizing existing assets by installing high-voltage lines where lower-voltage lines would have gone maximizes the value the general public, rail passengers, rail operators, and both public and private utilities while adding incremental value to regional utilities, distributed generators, and the overall national grid system.
Distributed wind, solar, and hydro power resources are often not co-located with demand for electricity, diminishing its value due to insufficient transmission lines or the high capital costs required to develop new transmission lines. Installing a solid backbone of modern power distribution across our nation is a prerequisite for the distributed, renewable, sustainable electricity grid of the future. With all legacy power generation coming from finite resources like coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear, the truly sustainable, renewable future is inevitable. Building the grid we need just makes sense, and with all grid investments being infrastructure level, longer-term investments, it is sound and supported by data.
Solutionary Rail proposes a demonstration line to be installed across the Northern Corridor route in the United States that will demonstrate the viability of both the rail upgrades and the paired high-voltage transmission line concept. The corridor proposed has been considered in the past for electrifications but, as with many other electric rail pilots in the US, has struggled to gain long-term support.
The Northern Corridor is not an accidental or arbitrary selection, but rather, has a long sordid history with electric rail. Great Northern installed the first three-phase AC rail system in the Western Hemisphere along the Northern Corridor over 100 years ago in 1909 and included the first electric rail system in the world to use regenerative braking. Many other segments of the Northern Corridor line were electrified in the early 20th century, bringing with them new innovations in electrified propulsion that paved the way for rail systems in use today around much of the world.
Indeed, rail system operators from around the world came to see and learn from the innovative rail system for reapplication in their local rail systems. Jim Scribbens is quoted in Solutionary Rail from his book Milwaukee Road Remembered as saying that the line “quickly became the object of attention throughout the world. Representatives from the railways of Western Europe and Japan travelled to Tacoma and Deer Lodge to gain firsthand knowledge of this brilliant star of the rail world.” Looking back, it is clear that these early electrified innovators paved the way for the leaders in electrified rail installations operating today, and most of those early innovations took place on the Northern Corridor.
The shift to long-distance interstates and cheaper diesel locomotives ate away at the electrified routes until they were a mere shadow of their former glory.
Benefits of Rail Electrification
The US has electrified portions of its rail system in the past, but the technology has ebbed and flowed with administration changes. As a rule, electrified rail systems have a higher upfront capital cost with lower operating costs driven by reductions in fuel consumption and lower maintenance costs. This presents the same chronic barrier that many emerging renewable technologies face like photovoltaic solar, personal electric vehicles, and even wind power. Higher capital costs tend to scare off project managers and would be technology leaders, as the prospect for lower operating costs of a new, unproven (or less proven) technology comes with an inherent risk. Nevertheless, electric rail consistently comes in with a lower total cost of operation over its life.
Electric rail lines produce zero emissions at the point of use. This means that communities adjacent to rail lines will no longer suffer the side effects of the noxious emissions from diesel-fired rail but will instead benefit from the quieter, more functional electric rail lines.
Due to their lower maintenance requirements, electric trains run a higher percentage of the time and are less prone to mechanical failures. This translates to a real-world improvement in reliability, further enhancing the proposition for potential customers who must rely on the trains for their travel needs. Increased reliability also makes trains a more attractive option compared to air travel, which is notoriously unreliable. Whether it be a mechanical failure, overbooking of flights, or weather challenges, air travel is widely known for interrupting business travel and vacations alike.
The Path Forward
Solutionary Rail is not a mere book but a platform designed to bring a revolutionary idea to the masses. A book that seeks to catalyze “a people powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future.” That movement started with the visionary concept that has been fully fleshed out in the book itself (Amazon link). If the idea tickles your fancy, buy a copy; search out the authors, supporters, enthusiasts; and get involved. This is an idea so massive, it is going to take an army to bring it to life, and each and every one of us has a role to play.
The originators of Solutionary Rail come from The Backbone Campaign, which was started to do exactly that — bring together passionate advocates from across the US and around the world to bring this powerful concept from paper to the plains, from idea to Iowa.
Get informed. You can take action first by getting informed about the full solution. Head over to the Solutionary Rail website where you can learn more about the full proposal and the demonstration project the team is working on. Buy the book, read it, then pass it on to others who are interested in solutions to the climate change crisis or mass transit.
Take local action. Engage your state’s governor and congressional representatives to let them know that you want electrified rail solutions in your state. Educate them on the benefits of electrified rail and the full Solutionary Rail solution. Ask them to work with their peers in neighboring states to bring the solution to life.
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