Not too long ago I revealed an evaluation of main geographies’ and economies’ therapy of decarbonization of rail. The thesis was easy: India, Europe, and China are correctly electrifying rail quickly and the US (and by extension Canada and Mexico) are pursuing dangerous approaches. North People confirmed up in droves in feedback on LinkedIn and in CleanTechnica to make excuses. And it’s not simply the poorly knowledgeable, however the Affiliation of American Railroads (AAR) which are denying actuality strenuously.
Within the preliminary article, I identified that three geographical areas with related geographic extents, related extremes of climate, related extremes of geography, 25% of the world’s GDP and 45% of the world’s inhabitants, had all checked out the entire knowledge on rail and reached the identical conclusion: electrification with grid-tied catenary overhead traces and a few batteries was the reply for every part besides some tiny edge circumstances. India: 83% and rising quick. China: 72% and rising quick. Europe: 60% and rising. In the meantime, one nation and the a lot smaller by GDP and inhabitants neighboring nations of Mexico and Canada who mainly should associate with regardless of the US does, have appeared on the identical knowledge and utterly ignored actuality.
For this visualization, I’ve added the Russian Federation, regardless of it being a smaller economic system and clearly a rogue and failing state for one easy purpose: the Trans-Siberian Railway. That’s the longest railway on this planet throughout among the roughest, coldest, most distant, and rugged terrain on this planet. How do they preserve it rolling alongside 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 community electrified. I’ve additionally added Mexico and Canada to make it clear that one main developed continent simply doesn’t get it.
Observe: I’ve excluded Africa and South America as a result of the kilometers of rail is far decrease. There are fascinating knowledge factors in each continents, after all, however that is centered on main rail networks in main economies. That stated, it’s price noting that Morocco by itself has 4 occasions extra excessive pace rail than all of North America, and that rail is quicker too. And it’s electrified. For that matter, Australia has extra electrified rail than the US, and its inhabitants is thousands and thousands in need of Texas alone.
So what are the justifications that North People make? And are they endemic within the pondering of specialists in addition to random web commenters?
Nicely, the primary one is that our inhabitants density is simply too low to help high-speed rail. That’s doubtless the commonest objection. So let’s assess it, utilizing, after all, American-supplied knowledge.
Hmmm. Siberia doesn’t look any extra densely populated than the US Prairies or Canada. In actual fact, have a look at China. Take a look at these huge inside areas with barely anybody residing there. Clearly different main geographies have a look at sparsely populated areas and say, ‘electrified rail by these areas is the reply’, not ‘let’s preserve burning fossil fuels within the age of the local weather disaster’. But quite a few commenters make it clear that comparative inhabitants density doesn’t say what they assume it says.
This isn’t restricted to American exceptionalists. Right here’s a Canadian knowledgeable, one Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of CUTRIC, the Canadian City Transit Analysis & Innovation Consortium in 2022: “our giant geography and low inhabitants density.” It’s head-scratcher why an city transit group did a report on lagging electrification of all rail in Canada, however I suppose CNR and CPR have been uninterested. The commerce affiliation, aka lobbying group for US freight rail, the Affiliation of American Railroads (AAR) doesn’t fairly play the cardboard of their bluntly and inaccurately titled place paper Oppose Rail Electrification & Help Wise Local weather Coverage, however you’ll be able to hear it hovering within the background.
For Canada, after all, there’s a transparent reply. We don’t have a rail community per se, now we have a rail hall that goes east to west throughout the nation hardly ever straying extra the a few hundred kilometers from the US border. 66% of our inhabitants lives inside 60 miles (100 km) of the US border. 90% of our inhabitants lives inside 100 miles (160 km) of the US border. Rail runs by the populated strip of Canada, simply because the Trans Canada Freeway does. Yeah, one freeway throughout the nation.
There’s a rising consensus in Canada (exterior of the oil patch and its oily clingers-on) that the vitality hall Canada wants is a significant HVDC pipe by each province with connections down into the US alongside the way in which. And there’s an apparent right-of-way working throughout Canada by each province with connections right down to Canada, the rail system. And the 2 collectively counsel that combining the efforts of electrifying rail and working HVDC alongside the rail are extremely complementary actions. Even one of many final Conservative Prime Ministerial candidates proposed in 2019 that electrical energy transmission be included with pipelines within the rail vitality hall.
Mexico truly tried to affect a significant rail hall, however that failed. In stretches the infrastructure continues to be there, simply with out wires. Time to mud off these plans and prolong them.
However, after all, the US is the elephant within the mattress with the beaver and the agouti. If the elephant rolls over, the rodents, no matter their uncommon dimension, are nonetheless crushed. If the elephant sneezes, the lovable and traditionally over hunted rodents get COVID.
And so again to the AAR report. It leaned on an odd research revealed by the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Rail Transportation and Engineering Heart (RailTEC) from 2016. Apparently electrifying rail is simply too arduous.
Keep in mind, about 45% of the world’s inhabitants and 25% of the world’s GDP have 60% to 83% penetration of electrical rail with overhead catenary traces powering locomotives which are often able to working on the catenary overheads or their inner diesel mills. Many of the rail traces exterior of China have been constructed many years in the past, usually properly over 100 years in the past. Nearly all electrification of those rail traces occurred after they have been constructed, added to operational rail traces. Maintain this firmly in thoughts.
So what does the report say that the AAR quotes? “There isn’t any “off the shelf” zero or near-zero emission locomotive know-how for North American line-haul freight service.”
That’s right. Know-how which is lavatory normal in huge swathes of the world, which was added to operational rail roads after they have been constructed, with massively scaled industries delivering locomotives, doesn’t exist. I had assumed the AAR as a lobbying group was misrepresenting a report by a college, so I went to the research in order that I didn’t malign their work by accident. However that quote is immediately from the RailTec report.
I’d already dealt within the unique article with the fact that the remainder of the main geographies have equally harsh geography and challenges. However what does the AAR say? That electrifying rail is near inconceivable within the US as a result of:
“This is able to require: Constructing a catenary system in each sort of geographic location, together with congested cities, remoted deserts, rugged mountains, and throughout rivers; Delivering electrical energy by 1000’s of rail tunnels, a lot of which lack ample area for catenary wires; and Rebuilding many main bridges to supply clearance and help for catenary wires.”
Sure, precisely what India, China, Europe, and the Trans-Siberian of us managed to do with out breaking the financial institution. However America can’t?
There’s additionally the fascinating declare: “Moreover, an electrical locomotive in a position to fulfill the extraordinarily demanding necessities of heavy long-haul freight railroading would price way over a brand new diesel locomotive prices as we speak.” Sure, all of these hybrid diesel-electric locomotives that may have catenary adaptors added aren’t match for function. The remainder of the world’s freight necessities are utterly completely different to North America’s. Positive.
Let’s have a look at the desk of knowledge I labored up for the earlier evaluation. The US has a few billion fewer tons of freight kilometers (btkm) than Europe or China. Does anybody actually assume that Europe and China have radically simpler freight rail necessities than the US?
What it does present is that the US has an terrible lot of rail that’s barely used. Taking Europe, the btkm to rail size ratio is about 16:1. China is about 20:1. The USA is about 8:1. Which means the rail community is a lot better utilized in these nations and so it’s attainable to spend money on them. The US is an outlier in having such an inefficient rail system.
That is truly one of many few accuracies within the AAR doc: “America’s freight railroads function overwhelmingly on infrastructure that they personal, construct, preserve, and pay for themselves.” Nevertheless it doesn’t get the comparability proper. As an alternative of asking if that is smart within the context of electrification of rail, it as a substitute says that inland transport and street freight don’t pay for waterways or roads, so it’s a aggressive drawback if rail homeowners should spend any cash on rail. The correct comparability is to different main geographies to ask if the US system makes any sense. Guess what China, India, and Europe (together with most different nations) have in widespread. Yeah, the state owns the rails, and infrequently the rail operators too.
However within the US, rail was constructed by the unique robber barons, and continues to be privately owned and operated by modern-day equal companies. Consequently, far too many rails, and completely no incentives for the personal companies to optimize or electrify. As an alternative they cry poor. It’s too costly for them. It’s too costly to interchange the locomotives. Even when the federal government funded the entire infrastructure work, it’s too costly for the poor rail firms and they might be uncompetitive with street freight. Sure, the AAR paper says that.
You don’t even have to convert the locomotive a lot. The typical US freight prepare has about 60 automobiles. Add one battery boxcar with a catenary overhead connection. Plug it into the locomotive. Modify the locomotive barely to permit electrical energy to return from one thing aside from its diesel generator. Circulate grid electrical energy by to the locomotive when it’s related, and use the battery to obtain regenerative braking electrical energy as a substitute of losing it by pushing it by resistance heating coils on the locomotive roof. Have the battery electrical be used for added oomph up steeper grades or odd patches the place it’s truly costly to run catenary traces, just like the tunnels the AAR states are too costly to switch.
On that time, Popovich, et al., revealed a research that they’d accomplished within the journal Nature Power about simply battery boxcars in 2021. A single boxcar of batteries might present motive energy for a mean US freight prepare for 149 miles (241 km), and the conversion to supply energy from the boxcar to the freight engine is comparatively trivial. Tunnels aren’t 149 miles lengthy. Freight engines have diesel mills and electrical motors. That wasn’t even catenary-connected, that was simply batteries. And for many who listen, sure, that’s a sub-journal of the extremely revered journal Nature, and Nature Power has a five-year affect issue of 72.478, which is to say absurdly excessive. With out wanting, that doubtless makes it probably the most prestigious peer-reviewed journal within the vitality area, and peer evaluation is high notch. After all, this simply provides to the latest announcement by one in all Germany’s greatest states that hydrogen was thrice as costly an choice for rail as grid-tied and grid-tied/battery hybrid methods.
As I’ve revealed elsewhere, my expectation is that every one inland and two-thirds of near-shore transport will likely be battery-electric, that container transport will develop loads whereas bulk transport declines extra, and that containers of batteries will likely be winched off of trains and ships in transshipment ports for recharging. There are already containers of batteries being shipped with full energy connections for grid and behind-the-meter storage by Tesla, Wärtsilä, and others. That is such an apparent pathway that not accepting actuality on it makes individuals look fairly remarkably dim.
Every other face palms within the AAR report? Oh, sure, partial electrification can’t work as a result of freight must be shifted between locomotives match for catenary vs diesel operation on the edges of service areas. I actually want I used to be making this up, however you’ll be able to learn the AAR report your self in case you like. They make the declare that it’s each mile of rail or nothing, they radically inflate the prices of including catenary, they radically inflate the prices of hooking locomotives up with externally provided as a substitute of internally generated electrical energy, after which after all discover that there’s no attainable strategy to electrify even a single mile of rail. It’s a outstanding doc, and one whose claims I’ve heard in varied methods from quite a few commenters.
As a reminder on that final paragraph, India is at 83% electrification, China is at 72% electrification, and Europe is at 60% electrification. None of those huge geographies are having the slightest operational challenges that the AAR claims will happen regardless of combined rail networks. It’s just like the AAR thinks nobody exterior of the US exists, or thinks that nobody contained in the US will hassle to have a look at what different nations are doing. Oh, wait, that final one is definitely rather more true than not.
As I truly took CNR’s freight operations course for his or her inner workers, clambered over a diesel-electric locomotive of their yards, thought arduous about and proposed rail decarbonization options for CNR, and solutioned and kicked off their automated, map-based, geofenced, asset administration resolution challenge overlaying 10 provinces and 18 states, I really feel comfy saying that not one of the causes that the AAR lists have something to do with why they don’t need to electrify. CNR and VIA Rail have been each my purchasers, and I spent quite a lot of time understanding North American rail enterprise fashions to serve them successfully, along with taking a look at rail globally extra not too long ago.
The US has an excessive amount of rail laid down in a deeply inefficient and poorly maintained community. An actual resolution can be to tear up half of it to get to Europe’s ratio of rail to freight. Do away with the hardly used segments solely. Electrify the 50% to 80% of simple to affect segments out of the remaining rail. Add battery container automobiles and catenary hyperlinks in a hybrid system.
After I say poorly maintained, that is what I imply. This can be a chart of derailments by trigger within the US. Nearly the entire ones on the left facet of the chart are as a result of poor upkeep of rails, switches, and crossings. Eliminating half of the rails whereas shifting the identical quantity of freight can be a great way to resolve that drawback.
What’s the AAR in favor of? Nicely, they don’t thoughts batteries in locomotives and yard switching locomotives, so there may be that. They usually name out hydrogen. That’s it. The batteries are clearly match for function, though placing them inside locomotives is a silly concept when containers of them could be dropped on container flat automobiles behind the locomotive so trivially. Nevertheless it’s sort of arduous to take the AAR severely about battery-electric when their place doc is called “Oppose Rail Electrification.”
As for hydrogen, the German research which discovered 3x the associated fee may be very simple to elucidate. Inexperienced hydrogen is made with renewable electrical energy. That’s about 70% environment friendly. Then it’s compressed and distributed at vital expense as a result of hydrogen may be very vitality diffuse by quantity, losing one other 10%+. Then it’s utilized in gas cells that are about 60% environment friendly. Even when the electrolyzers have been free, they usually aren’t and gained’t be, your vitality prices are not less than thrice simply utilizing the electrical energy immediately in batteries and grid-tied functions. It’s not rocket science. In actual fact, the German research might be being very good to hydrogen’s price case and making all kinds of assumptions about low-cost renewable electrical energy with excessive capability elements and low-cost electrolyzer with a view to get right down to solely thrice the associated fee. It’s extra doubtless 5-6 occasions the associated fee, operationally. And artificial fuels are worse.
So why are so many individuals in North America making all kinds of absurd, simply disproven excuses for not electrifying rail? It’s again to personal possession of the rails themselves. In Europe, China, and India, the state owns the strategic transportation asset, sizes it to wish, and maintains it. In the USA, the federal government owns the roads, for probably the most half, and the federal government maintains freedom of passage on waterways and owns the canals and locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
However in America, personal companies personal the rails. They don’t preserve them properly by worldwide requirements. There are too a lot of them. Somebody cited over 700 homeowners of various segments of US rail in a remark, one thing I haven’t been in a position to confirm, but it surely wouldn’t shock me.
And the rail companies don’t need to spend any cash in any respect. Apparently they’re hoping that this whole local weather emergency will blow over, and they are going to be allowed, uniquely, to maintain burning diesel. They have to hate that as a substitute of having the ability to tout their inexperienced credentials because the lowest CO2e per mile type of floor transportation, now they’re are being pressured to wash up their act.
If the US wasn’t grid-locked on smart infrastructure methods for probably the most half (see my dialogue with Jigar Shah of the DOE for examples partly 1 and half 2) then the US would nationalize all rail traces and infrastructure, rip up half of them, electrify the 50% to 80% of the remainder that makes probably the most sense, and require operators to get batteries and catenary connections. However think about the US deciding to nationalize rail traces. That’s deeply unlikely. And picture the US funding electrification of the principle traces owned by BNSF, CNR, and the majors and ignoring the a whole lot of different traces utterly. That’s a recipe for pork-barreling catastrophe from the same old suspects, so rational electrification continues to be unlikely.
The US transportation blueprint makes it clear that the nation goes to waste quite a lot of money and time on hydrogen and artificial fuels which can at all times be costlier than biofuels, and as such gained’t be used.
What is probably going going to occur is the next. The US goes to go the incorrect means on freight rail. The rail firms are going to cling to diesel so long as they’ll. They’ll preserve their diesel mills of their locomotives working doubtless endlessly. If the value of fossil diesel within the US ever consists of the value of unfavorable externalities and will get too costly, they’ll most likely use biodiesel that ought to be reserved for transport of their trains as a substitute, losing a useful resource and making marine decarbonization more durable. The noise and air air pollution from diesel locomotives in city areas will persist for many years longer than it ought to. The value of freight rail will rise per ton, changing into much less aggressive with street freight.
And wither goeth the elephant, so goeth the beaver and the agouti. As an alternative of getting rational rail electrification insurance policies, the Mexican and Canadian governments will likely be compelled to play the silly US video games. As the remainder of the world electrifies its rail quickly and provides battery-hybrid functionality, the US may have just a few battery-electric locomotives working in switching yards, quick observe areas, and can declare that it’s a world chief.
In the meantime street freight goes to affect quickly. It’s going to get the large gas price advantages from working on electrical energy as a substitute of diesel and costlier diesel replacements. And it’s going to be benefiting from advances in autonomous street transport to platoon 3-5 automobiles with fewer drivers and get breaks on hours on the street because the operators will have the ability to sleep in shifts. Decrease labor prices, decrease gas prices, no air pollution or noise points, a a lot completely different price ratio between rail and street, and street freight within the US goes to eat much more of the freight section from rail.
The Affiliation of American Railroads is lobbying arduous to radically cut back rail as a freight supply choice within the US. It’s the precise reverse of a rational enterprise technique.
We’ve got reached out to AAR, RailTEC, and the US DOE (EERE) with some questions and can replace this text as we hear again from them.