Recently I published an assessment of major geographies’ and economies’ treatment of decarbonization of rail. The thesis was simple: India, Europe, and China are wisely electrifying rail rapidly and the US (and by extension Canada and Mexico) are pursuing bad approaches. North Americans showed up in droves in comments on LinkedIn and in CleanTechnica to make excuses. And it’s not just the poorly informed, but the Association of American Railroads (AAR) that are denying reality strenuously.
In the initial article, I pointed out that three geographical regions with similar geographic extents, similar extremes of weather, similar extremes of geography, 25% of the world’s GDP and 45% of the world’s population, had all looked at all of the data on rail and reached the same conclusion: electrification with grid-tied catenary overhead lines and some batteries was the answer for everything except some tiny edge conditions. India: 83% and rising fast. China: 72% and rising fast. Europe: 60% and rising. Meanwhile, one country and the much smaller by GDP and population neighboring countries of Mexico and Canada who basically have to go along with whatever the US does, have looked at the same data and completely ignored reality.
For this visualization, I’ve added the Russian Federation, despite it being a smaller economy and clearly a rogue and failing state for one simple reason: the Trans-Siberian Railway. That’s the longest railway in the world across some of the roughest, coldest, most remote, and rugged terrain in the world. How do they keep it rolling along its tracks? Electrification with overhead catenary wires. It runs 5,771 miles (9,288 km). That’s over twice the width of the US. Oh, and the Russian Federation has about 37% of its rail network electrified. I’ve also added Mexico and Canada to make it clear that one major developed continent just doesn’t get it.
Note: I’ve excluded Africa and South America because the kilometers of rail is much lower. There are interesting data points in both continents, of course, but this is focused on major rail networks in major economies. That said, it’s worth noting that Morocco by itself has four times more high speed rail than all of North America, and that rail is faster too. And it’s electrified. For that matter, Australia has more electrified rail than the US, and its population is millions short of Texas alone.
So what are the excuses that North Americans make? And are they endemic in the thinking of experts as well as random internet commenters?
Well, the first one is that our population density is too low to support high-speed rail. That’s likely the most common objection. So let’s assess it, using, of course, American-supplied data.
Hmmm. Siberia doesn’t look any more densely populated than the US Prairies or Canada. In fact, look at China. Look at those massive interior regions with barely anyone living there. Clearly other major geographies look at sparsely populated areas and say, ‘electrified rail through these regions is the answer’, not ‘let’s keep burning fossil fuels in the age of the climate crisis’. Yet numerous commenters make it clear that comparative population density doesn’t say what they think it says.
This isn’t limited to American exceptionalists. Here’s a Canadian expert, one Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of CUTRIC, the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium in 2022: “our large geography and low population density.” It’s head-scratcher why an urban transit group did a report on lagging electrification of all rail in Canada, but I guess CNR and CPR were uninterested. The trade association, aka lobbying group for US freight rail, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) doesn’t quite play the card in their bluntly and inaccurately titled position paper Oppose Rail Electrification & Support Sensible Climate Policy, but you can hear it hovering in the background.
For Canada, of course, there’s a clear answer. We don’t have a rail network per se, we have a rail corridor that goes east to west across the country rarely straying more the a couple of hundred kilometers from the US border. 66% of our population lives within 60 miles (100 km) of the US border. 90% of our population lives within 100 miles (160 km) of the US border. Rail runs through the populated strip of Canada, just as the Trans Canada Highway does. Yeah, one highway across the country.
There’s a growing consensus in Canada (outside of the oil patch and its oily clingers-on) that the energy corridor Canada needs is a major HVDC pipe through every province with connections down into the US along the way. And there’s an obvious right-of-way running across Canada through every province with connections down to Canada, the rail system. And the two together suggest that combining the efforts of electrifying rail and running HVDC along the rail are highly complementary activities. Even one of the last Conservative Prime Ministerial candidates proposed in 2019 that electricity transmission be included with pipelines in the rail energy corridor.
Mexico actually attempted to electrify a major rail corridor, but that failed. In stretches the infrastructure is still there, just without wires. Time to dust off those plans and extend them.
But, of course, the US is the elephant in the bed with the beaver and the agouti. If the elephant rolls over, the rodents, regardless of their unusual size, are still crushed. If the elephant sneezes, the cute and historically over hunted rodents get COVID.
And so back to the AAR report. It leaned on an odd study published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Rail Transportation and Engineering Center (RailTEC) from 2016. Apparently electrifying rail is too hard.
Remember, about 45% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s GDP have 60% to 83% penetration of electric rail with overhead catenary lines powering locomotives that are usually capable of running on the catenary overheads or their internal diesel generators. Most of the rail lines outside of China were built decades ago, often well over 100 years ago. Virtually all electrification of these rail lines occurred after they were built, added to operational rail lines. Keep this firmly in mind.
So what does the report say that the AAR quotes? “There is no “off the shelf” zero or near-zero emission locomotive technology for North American line-haul freight service.”
That’s correct. Technology which is bog standard in vast swathes of the world, which was added to operational rail roads after they were built, with massively scaled industries delivering locomotives, doesn’t exist. I had assumed the AAR as a lobbying group was misrepresenting a report by a university, so I went to the study so that I didn’t malign their work accidentally. But that quote is directly from the RailTec report.
I’d already dealt in the original article with the reality that the rest of the major geographies have equally harsh geography and challenges. But what does the AAR say? That electrifying rail is close to impossible in the US because:
“This would require: Building a catenary system in every kind of geographic location, including congested cities, isolated deserts, rugged mountains, and across rivers; Delivering electricity through thousands of rail tunnels, many of which lack sufficient space for catenary wires; and Rebuilding many major bridges to provide clearance and support for catenary wires.”
Yes, exactly what India, China, Europe, and the Trans-Siberian folks managed to do without breaking the bank. But America can’t?
There’s also the fascinating claim: “Additionally, an electric locomotive able to satisfy the extremely demanding requirements of heavy long-haul freight railroading would cost far more than a new diesel locomotive costs today.” Yes, all of those hybrid diesel-electric locomotives that can have catenary adaptors added aren’t fit for purpose. The rest of the world’s freight requirements are completely different to North America’s. Sure.
Let’s look at the table of data I worked up for the previous assessment. The US has about a billion fewer tons of freight kilometers (btkm) than Europe or China. Does anyone really think that Europe and China have radically easier freight rail requirements than the US?
What it does show is that the US has an awful lot of rail that’s barely used. Taking Europe, the btkm to rail length ratio is about 16:1. China is about 20:1. The USA is about 8:1. That means the rail network is much better used in those countries and so it’s possible to invest in them. The US is an outlier in having such an inefficient rail system.
This is actually one of the few accuracies in the AAR document: “America’s freight railroads operate overwhelmingly on infrastructure that they own, build, maintain, and pay for themselves.” But it doesn’t get the comparison right. Instead of asking if that makes sense in the context of electrification of rail, it instead says that inland shipping and road freight don’t pay for waterways or roads, so it’s a competitive disadvantage if rail owners have to spend any money on rail. The right comparison is to other major geographies to ask if the US system makes any sense. Guess what China, India, and Europe (along with most other countries) have in common. Yeah, the state owns the rails, and often the rail operators too.
But in the US, rail was built by the original robber barons, and continues to be privately owned and operated by modern day equivalent corporations. As a result, far too many rails, and absolutely no incentives for the private corporations to optimize or electrify. Instead they cry poor. It’s too expensive for them. It’s too expensive to replace the locomotives. Even if the government funded all of the infrastructure work, it’s too expensive for the poor rail companies and they would be uncompetitive with road freight. Yes, the AAR paper says that.
You don’t even need to convert the locomotive much. The average US freight train has about 60 cars. Add one battery boxcar with a catenary overhead connection. Plug it into the locomotive. Modify the locomotive slightly to allow electricity to come from something other than its diesel generator. Flow grid electricity through to the locomotive when it’s connected, and use the battery to receive regenerative braking electricity instead of wasting it by pushing it through resistance heating coils on the locomotive roof. Have the battery electric be used for additional oomph up steeper grades or odd patches where it’s actually expensive to run catenary lines, like the tunnels the AAR states are too expensive to modify.
On that point, Popovich, et al., published a study that they’d done in the journal Nature Energy about just battery boxcars in 2021. A single boxcar of batteries could provide motive power for an average US freight train for 149 miles (241 km), and the conversion to provide power from the boxcar to the freight engine is relatively trivial. Tunnels aren’t 149 miles long. Freight engines have diesel generators and electric motors. That wasn’t even catenary-connected, that was just batteries. And for those who pay attention, yes, that’s a sub-journal of the highly respected journal Nature, and Nature Energy has a five-year impact factor of 72.478, which is to say absurdly high. Without looking, that likely makes it the most prestigious peer-reviewed journal in the energy space, and peer review is top notch. Of course, this just adds to the recent announcement by one of Germany’s biggest states that hydrogen was three times as expensive an option for rail as grid-tied and grid-tied/battery hybrid systems.
As I’ve published elsewhere, my expectation is that all inland and two-thirds of near-shore shipping will be battery-electric, that container shipping will grow a lot while bulk shipping declines more, and that containers of batteries will be winched off of trains and ships in transshipment ports for recharging. There are already containers of batteries being shipped with full power connections for grid and behind-the-meter storage by Tesla, Wärtsilä, and others. This is such an obvious pathway that not accepting reality on it makes people look quite remarkably dim.
Any other face palms in the AAR report? Oh, yes, partial electrification can’t work because freight would have to be shifted between locomotives fit for catenary vs diesel operation at the edges of service areas. I really wish I was making this up, but you can read the AAR report yourself if you like. They make the claim that it’s every mile of rail or nothing, they radically inflate the costs of adding catenary, they radically inflate the costs of hooking locomotives up with externally supplied instead of internally generated electricity, and then of course find that there’s no possible way to electrify even a single mile of rail. It is a remarkable document, and one whose claims I’ve heard in various ways from numerous commenters.
As a reminder on that last paragraph, India is at 83% electrification, China is at 72% electrification, and Europe is at 60% electrification. None of these vast geographies are having the slightest operational challenges that the AAR claims will occur despite mixed rail networks. It’s like the AAR thinks no one outside of the US exists, or thinks that no one inside the US will bother to look at what other countries are doing. Oh, wait, that last one is actually much more true than not.
As I actually took CNR’s freight operations course for their internal staff, clambered over a diesel-electric locomotive in their yards, thought hard about and proposed rail decarbonization solutions for CNR, and solutioned and kicked off their automated, map-based, geofenced, asset management solution project covering 10 provinces and 18 states, I feel comfortable saying that none of the reasons that the AAR lists have anything to do with why they don’t want to electrify. CNR and VIA Rail were both my clients, and I spent a lot of time understanding North American rail business models to serve them effectively, in addition to looking at rail globally more recently.
The US has too much rail laid down in a deeply inefficient and poorly maintained network. A real solution would be to rip up half of it to get to Europe’s ratio of rail to freight. Get rid of the barely used segments entirely. Electrify the 50% to 80% of easy to electrify segments out of the remaining rail. Add battery container cars and catenary links in a hybrid system.
When I say poorly maintained, this is what I mean. This is a chart of derailments by cause in the US. Virtually all of the ones at the left side of the chart are due to poor maintenance of rails, switches, and crossings. Eliminating half of the rails while moving the same amount of freight would be a good way to solve that problem.
What is the AAR in favor of? Well, they don’t mind batteries in locomotives and yard switching locomotives, so there is that. And they call out hydrogen. That’s it. The batteries are obviously fit for purpose, although putting them inside locomotives is a foolish idea when containers of them can be dropped on container flat cars behind the locomotive so trivially. But it’s kind of hard to take the AAR seriously about battery-electric when their position document is named “Oppose Rail Electrification.”
As for hydrogen, the German study which found 3x the cost is very easy to explain. Green hydrogen is made with renewable electricity. That’s about 70% efficient. Then it’s compressed and distributed at significant expense because hydrogen is very energy diffuse by volume, wasting another 10%+. Then it’s used in fuel cells which are about 60% efficient. Even if the electrolyzers were free, and they aren’t and won’t be, your energy costs are at least three times just using the electricity directly in batteries and grid-tied applications. It’s not rocket science. In fact, the German study is probably being very nice to hydrogen’s cost case and making all sorts of assumptions about low-cost renewable electricity with high capacity factors and cheap electrolyzer in order to get down to only three times the cost. It’s more likely 5-6 times the cost, operationally. And synthetic fuels are worse.
So why are so many people in North America making all sorts of absurd, easily disproven excuses for not electrifying rail? It’s back to private ownership of the rails themselves. In Europe, China, and India, the state owns the strategic transportation asset, sizes it to need, and maintains it. In the United States, the government owns the roads, for the most part, and the government maintains freedom of passage on waterways and owns the canals and locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
But in America, private corporations own the rails. They don’t maintain them well by international standards. There are too many of them. Someone cited over 700 owners of different segments of US rail in a comment, something I haven’t been able to verify, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
And the rail corporations don’t want to spend any money at all. Apparently they are hoping that this entire climate emergency will blow over, and they will be allowed, uniquely, to keep burning diesel. They must hate that instead of being able to tout their green credentials as the lowest CO2e per mile form of ground transportation, now they are are being pressured to clean up their act.
If the US wasn’t grid-locked on sensible infrastructure strategies for the most part (see my discussion with Jigar Shah of the DOE for examples in part 1 and part 2) then the US would nationalize all rail lines and infrastructure, rip up half of them, electrify the 50% to 80% of the rest that makes the most sense, and require operators to get batteries and catenary connections. But imagine the US deciding to nationalize rail lines. That’s deeply unlikely. And imagine the US funding electrification of the main lines owned by BNSF, CNR, and the majors and ignoring the hundreds of other lines completely. That’s a recipe for pork-barreling disaster from the usual suspects, so rational electrification is still unlikely.
The US transportation blueprint makes it clear that the country is going to waste a lot of time and money on hydrogen and synthetic fuels which will always be more expensive than biofuels, and as such won’t be used.
What is likely going to happen is the following. The US is going to go the wrong way on freight rail. The rail companies are going to cling to diesel as long as they can. They will keep their diesel generators in their locomotives running likely forever. If the price of fossil diesel in the US ever includes the price of negative externalities and gets too expensive, they’ll probably use biodiesel that should be reserved for shipping in their trains instead, wasting a resource and making marine decarbonization harder. The noise and air pollution from diesel locomotives in urban areas will persist for decades longer than it should. The price of freight rail will rise per ton, becoming less competitive with road freight.
And wither goeth the elephant, so goeth the beaver and the agouti. Instead of having rational rail electrification policies, the Mexican and Canadian governments will be forced to play the stupid US games. As the rest of the world electrifies its rail rapidly and adds battery-hybrid capability, the US will have a few battery-electric locomotives running in switching yards, short track areas, and will claim that it’s a world leader.
Meanwhile road freight is going to electrify rapidly. It’s going to get the massive fuel cost benefits from running on electricity instead of diesel and more expensive diesel replacements. And it’s going to be taking advantage of advances in autonomous road transport to platoon 3-5 vehicles with fewer drivers and get breaks on hours on the road as the operators will be able to sleep in shifts. Lower labor costs, lower fuel costs, no pollution or noise issues, a much different cost ratio between rail and road, and road freight in the US is going to eat a lot more of the freight segment from rail.
The Association of American Railroads is lobbying hard to radically reduce rail as a freight delivery option in the US. It’s the exact opposite of a rational business strategy.
UPDATE: We reached out to the US DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy with the following question:
Q: Given that 45% of the world’s population sharing 25% of the world’s GDP with geographical, population density and climate extremes equivalent to the USA have electrified rail networks of 60% to 83%, why are you positing hydrogen and synthetic fuels as equal levers to grid-tied and battery electrification?
A: DOE, DOT, EPA, and HUD are actively working to develop detailed mode-specific plans, as noted in the Blueprint, which will be released later this year. This will include a rail-specific plan with additional details on the planned rail strategy.
We have also reached out to AAR and RailTEC with some questions and will update this article as we hear back from them.
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