DALL·E generated image of a freight rail locomotive doing a face palm, digital art

Europe, China, & India Can Electrify All Rail, Why Can’t The US?

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Over the past year, the US has leaned strongly into decarbonization again, after a detour in the wrong direction for several years. I’ve been assessing Republican and Democratic positions on both the problem and solution for years. In the past year, however, the US is again acting, and so I’ve been assessing its strategies and bills instead of campaign promises and, in the case of Republicans, inaction committees.

As I noted in late 2022, the new US hydrogen strategy was established in the wrong department of government, written by the wrong people as a result, with the wrong focus and as such represents a significant failure. By putting hydrogen under the Department of Energy, it’s treated almost entirely as an energy carrier and efforts to work with the capricious molecule are being targeted at that end of the spectrum. But, of course, hydrogen is a major industrial and agricultural decarbonization problem, and industrial strategy is under the Department of Commerce. A good strategy would have come from the DOC with input from the DOE, the DOT, and the USDA. It probably doesn’t help that the majority of the DOE’s budget is for nuclear and everything else is an also ran in the organization.

By contrast, the more recent transportation decarbonization blueprint is mostly good. It is actually a cross-department effort — DOT, DOE, EPA, and HUD — with serious assessment of the requirements of transportation. And it’s not just a refueling blueprint. The HUD involvement leads to a strong focus on urban density, transit, walkability, bikeability, and the needs of the bottom 20% of the socioeconomic ladder. The EPA involvement means that the air pollution implications for Americans’ health is not an oh-by-the-way benefit of decarbonization of transportation (although it would be regardless).

But still.

Summary of vehicle refueling alternatives from US transportation blueprint
Summary of vehicle refueling alternatives from US transportation blueprint

Look at all of that hydrogen. And look at all that hydrogen for ground transportation. And especially for the purposes of this article, look at hydrogen and sustainable fuels for rail. (As a somewhat mitigating note, the diagram makes hydrogen look more of a choice than the details do, and electrification of rail is considered.)

This is remarkable, given the status of the world’s rail today. Let’s take a bit of a tour of major geographies. And when I say major, I do mean that. China with its 1.4 billion citizens and a land mass equal to the US. Europe with its 749 million people in an area slightly larger than the US. And India with its 1.4 billion people living in a land area about a third the size of the US.

Table of statistics pertinent to rail assembled from multiple sources by author
Table of statistics pertinent to rail assembled from multiple sources by author

Vastly more people in each geography, obviously, but equivalent geographical reaches and geographical diversity. Railway lines that have to go just as far, and through just as challenging terrain. Clearly at multiple levels of development from the mature economies of Europe to the still rapidly developing China to the now rapidly developing India.

All economies that have massive volumes of goods and varying numbers of passengers traveling by rail. I was interested to discover that the US has more miles of rail than any of these regions and close to as much as China and India combined. The US is an outlier in terms of passenger rail miles, which is unsurprising in a country that loves cars and suburbs. No judgment, but rail is clearly still a massively important freight shipment mode, and transshipment of containers revitalized the industry.

So let’s look at that last row. One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same. In fact, the percentage of electrified rail is not even 1%, but the only source I had indicated that it was under 1%, so I rounded up.

Meanwhile, India is at 83% rail electrification, and is ahead of schedule to achieve almost 100% grid-tied electrification. I realized that when a headline crossed my screen about the country ordering 35 hydrogen locomotives. That struck me as interesting, so I checked a denominator. The country has almost 13,000 locomotives, so 35 is about 0.25% of its fleet. And the hydrogen locomotives are only being used on ‘heritage’ narrow-gauge railways, in other words tiny segments maintained for tourism reasons that happen to go through really inhospitable but beautiful regions where preserving the views actually has economic merit. Personally, I would have chosen biodiesel for that instead, but it’s such a tiny fraction of the space that I don’t really care. And the odds that the hydrogen fleet will grow is low.

China is interesting as well. It’s heading toward 100% too. It’s built 40,000 km (30,000 miles) of grid-tied electrified high-speed freight and passenger rail since 2007, with extensions to connect major cities in the neighboring countries of Laos and Vietnam in operation and under construction respectively. And it’s building electrified higher speed rail in multiple countries under its belt and road initiative. It’s actually possible that Ethiopia’s Chinese electrified rail route at 760 kilometers is by itself more than all electrified tracks in the US today.

And then there’s Europe, lagging electrification with only 60% so far. But news from one of the major economies in the continent, Germany’s state of Baden-Württemberg, one of the larger and richer states, is indicative of the direction. The state did a study, found hydrogen would be three times more expensive than grid-tied electric and almost exactly the same results for grid-tied battery hybrid electric, and has stated unequivocally that it won’t bother with hydrogen in the future. Sorry, Alstom, while you may have convinced Quebec to run one of your hydrogen locomotives along a stretch of track for a few months, you aren’t going to be selling that dead-end tech in Europe.

So let’s see. China and Europe run massively more freight across electrified rail than the US. The three regions have 1.8 times as many miles of rail as America, and climbing as China continues to build rapidly. All three are heading toward 100% electrified rail.

But the United States can’t electrify its rail? What’s up with that? Is it because American locomotives can’t use electricity? No, all locomotives operating in North America are diesel-electric hybrids. The motors that turn the wheels are electric, and when they are used for braking they generate electricity. The diesel engine is a generator, not a torque-traction engine as it is on big trucks. Do major suppliers of American locomotives not make catenary-tied locomotives? Nope, GE, Alstom, and every manufacturer has that in their kit bag because the large majority of the world uses it.

Is it because the US is special geographically? Nope, Europe and China are bigger than America and have equally challenging terrain, and it’s not like India is the size of Luxembourg or Rhode Island.

Does the US have special weather conditions? Nope, both Europe and China have lots of rail running in ice and snow in the north, and China and India both have trains running in hotter and muggier temperatures than the US experiences.

You might be able to make a case for the limited passenger usage of rail being something to consider, as the stench of freight engine diesel is something that might inspire rail passengers to support electrification, but that’s a hard sell.

Is it because rail electrification is vastly more expensive? Really? India can hit 83% on its way to 100% and the US can’t afford it?

Is it because it’s impossible to retrofit the 23,400 or so US locomotives for overhead catenary connections or add cars with batteries to them? No, overhead catenary connections are such bog standard connections that locomotives have been sold with them as an option, one which can be added later, for decades. And standard shipping containers with batteries in them are already on US rails, they are just going to grid and behind-the-meter storage sites, pre-built by companies like Tesla and Wärtsilä.

Is it because hydrogen or synthetic fuels made from hydrogen would be cheaper than electricity? No, hydrogen is at very minimum three times the cost of electricity because it takes three units of electricity to make one unit of hydrogen with equivalent energy. But of course with all the adders and inefficiencies, it’s more like 5-7 times as expensive. And because of that 5-7 factor, hydrogen and synthetic fuels always multiply any carbon debt of each MWh of electricity used to make them. Biofuels are cheaper than hydrogen or synthetic fuels and always will be, not to mention lower carbon for the foreseeable future, but they will also be more expensive than electricity, and wasting them on ground transportation remains senseless.

No, the US has one other way it’s unique compared to these regions. All of the rails are owned by private companies, not the government, and they refuse to electrify them. The real solution would be for the US to either nationalize the rails — not going to happen, one assumes, although hydroelectric dams are nationally owned and rail nationalization has occurred multiple times in the world — or to rationally incent the rail owners to electrify. Everything else is a waste of time, money, and carbon budget. Dealing intelligently with rail would be driving rapidly to electrification and pretty much ignoring everything else.

All of this means that in 20 years, the only major market for diesel locomotives will be the US, while the rest of the world eliminates the diesel generator from their trains. And it’s highly likely that the US will end up wasting biodiesel in the locomotives instead of preserving the stuff for marine shipping, where you can’t attach the ships to overhead lines. As for hydrogen locomotives, they’ll be an even tinier market.

And you know what tiny markets means? Higher prices. Yes, US rail policies mean that it’s going to force much higher capital and operational costs into its freight distribution system than the other major economies of the world will experience. As China’s purchasing power parity is already giving it around a 40% cost benefit on everything in its domestic economy, that’s not a rational choice.

Rail in the US is a case where a huge transportation segment is deeply out of step with the rest of the world, and that’s not because the reasons stand up to the slightest scrutiny. The US and the transportation blueprint are simply wrong about rail, and Americans will pay the price if this isn’t corrected.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 748 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard