Sunday Train: 21st Century Steel Interstate

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

crossposted from MyLeftWing

Having lost sight of our goals we redoubled our efforts
– Mark Twain

I have blogged on this topic before (links below the fold), and the concept is both powerful and simple. Electrify main rail corridors and provide the capacity to support 100mph Rapid Freight Rail. The points are direct:

  • Electric rail freight needs under 10% the energy of diesel truck freight
  • Even with short-haul trucking to origin railhead and from destination railhead, 100mph Rapid Freight Rail is faster door to door freight than long-haul trucking
  • In underused Rights of Way, rail capacity is decreasing cost, with additional capacity cheaper than existing capacity
  • As a side-effect benefit, any system that supports high reliability scheduled freight delivery automatically support substantially upgrade passenger rail services

With the focus on Long-Haul Freight, this proposed system has been dubbed the “Steel Interstate” (pdf).

Virginia is facing a Dinosaur Economy proposal to expand I-81 to  eight lanes to cope with the combination of truck and car traffic. RAIL Solutions has turned to the Steel Interstate that:

  • is a lower cost alternative
  • is not addicted to oil,
  • and takes semi-truck traffic off I-81, rather than imposing more semi-truck traffic on the motorists using I-81.

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Some previous Electric Freight Rail diaries can be found under the rail electrification tag at Burning the Midnight Oil.

Prospective Energy Savings

For addressing the problem of climate chaos, the energy efficiency gains of electric freight rail is the most critical feature. As RAIL Solutions notes:

Trucks carry about a quarter fewer ton-miles of freight than railroads, but use about 11 times as much total fuel. In 2006 this amounted to about 930 million barrels of oil.

So just shifting from truck to rail represents a savings on the order of [11/75%]= 14.7 times.

The problem is getting shippers to make the shift. For freight where bulk shipping cost is the dominant factor, rail already dominates. For the rest of the freight market, the reason they don’t now is because rail does not offer adequate “door to door” transport times to be time competitive.

But if the freight moves 100mph and stays in motion continuously from origin railhead to destination railhead, that means that even with a short haul by truck to the origin railhead and from the destination railhead, long haul Rapid Freight Rail would offer both lower costs per ton mile and faster door-to-door times.

And its often possible to get the origin and/or destination railhead still closer to the origin and/or destination loading dock by swapping between diesel and electric locomotives. This is, indeed, why its possible to pursue the RAIL Solutions strategy of establishing a pilot test of the Steel Interstate concept between Harrisburg, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee … because the ultimate origin and destination railhead can be wherever it is most convenient to transfer the container from truck to rail.

It is true that if the Steel Interstate system is adopted nationally, that will offer an incentive to firms to locate next to a branch rail line, so they can transfer containers on-site and haul them to loading docks by electric yard trucks. But the Steel Interstate is perfectly capable of working with today’s truck-oriented logistics system, so there is no problem of, “you go first / no, you go first”.

Electric locomotives offer several advantages for Rapid Freight Rail, since they have both better torque and better power/weight ratios, for better acceleration.

They are also more energy efficient. The electric motor is more efficient than the equivalent diesel or diesel-electric motors. Compared to diesel-electric locomotives, they save the weight of carrying the power plant on-board. And when the electric motor is used for dynamic braking, the power can be returned to the line, rather than being thrown away as waste heat as when a diesel-electric locomotive uses dynamic braking.

Overall, electric rail saves enough energy compared to diesel rail that it reduces total CO2 emissions even if the electricity is generated by coal. If the electricity is provided instead by wind power backed by natural gas, the savings in CO2 emissions will be greater than the savings in energy.

Prospective Oil Savings

The actual oil savings gained will depend on, first, how much diesel truck freight is taken over by electric rail freight and, second, how much diesel rail freight is taken over by electric rail freight.

Shifting truck freight dominates fuel savings, because, as noted above, that is where the most fuel is wasted.

Most of the long haul trucking and much of the medium haul trucking can be taken over by electric freight rail, if we have a nationwide network of Rapid Electric Freight rail paths. Of course, given the nature of short, medium, and long haul trucking, it is substantially fewer than 50% of trips that consume 50% of fuel – and it is precisely those trips that are, first, most sensitive to the energy cost savings of electric freight rail and, second, where faster door to door times are available even with a truck/rail/truck trip. Millenium Institute modelling reported by Alan Drake at the Oil Drum indicates that 50% of truck freight miles might be captured.

This would be a savings of about 465 million barrels of oil.

Rail Freight consumed 84 million barrels of oil in 2006, and electric freight is both more energy efficient and more cost efficient than diesel freight, once there is sufficient electric rail traffic to cover the cost of the electric infrastructure. And its feasible to simply swap a diesel locomotive for an electric locomotive when a branch line connects into an electrified mainline. So it is quite conservative for a national system capturing half or more of current rail freight ton-miles, saving 40 million or more barrels of oil.

So over 500 million barrels of oil a year is plausible. Saving oil is most urgent when there is an oil price shock or an interruption of oil supply, and in either case we would be able to beat these targets as fast as electric locomotives can be produced and put to work.  

How Do We Get There From Here: Track

So, say we want to get there from here. How do we do it?

A discussed in last week’s Sunday Train, while 220mph Express HSR needs all new corridors, 110mph Emerging HSR does not. The same holds true for 100mph Rapid Freight Rail: medium freight rail (see below) packed for high speed freight can use existing rights of way.

A large number of the Rights of Way in this country were originally laid out for four tracks – since after all, two local and two Express tracks was the ultimate goal of early would-be rail barons. However, after eighty years of YOYO – Your On Your Own – treatment from the Federal government, while road and air received hefty capital subsidies, commercial railways have focused on providing freight at the lowest possible cost, which has meant using the minimum amount of line. So much of the operating rights of way in the country have single, bi-directional track, with sidings at very wide intervals where the train heading the other way waits its turn, and outside the Northeast Corridor, the corridors in heaviest use have double track.

With that as the current situation, mixing 60mph mainline Heavy Freight Rail and 100mph Rapid Freight Rail is a matter of having sufficient track capacity. This can be provided in several tiers, depending on the frequency of freight traffic:

  •    On bi-directional lines with very light traffic, a Rapid Freight path can be provided by time-slicing: by allowing Heavy Freight at certain times of day, and Rapid Freight at other times of day. A siding is required at both sides of the section for a train (normally a Heavy Freight Rail train) to “wait its time”.
  •    At higher traffic levels, a single bi-directional line can be provided with dual track for sections – 10 miles of dual track for every 50 miles of track means a 60mph Heavy Freight Train only ever has to wait for a Rapid Freight for forty minutes. At the same time, two Heavy Freight Trains can pass each other on the dual track section instead of one sitting in a siding, so the occasional delays waiting for priority Rapid Freight is made up by faster “crossing” movements between Heavy Freight.
  •    At still higher freight levels, two main tracks are provided and one Rapid Freight track, with switching to allow one mainline track to be used as a passing track for Rapid Freight going in opposite directions
  •    At the very highest freight levels, four tracks are provided in a classical Express/Local layout, with the Heavy Freight tracks in the middle and the Rapid Freight tracks on the outside.

At the outset, the focus of the Steel Interstate proposal will be on the third level: on attracting sufficient heavy freight to require at least two tracks, and then a third track provides the additional capacity required for high speed traffic.

There is a steady incremental upgrade path from the most lightly used branch line to freight corridors that are every bit as busy as today’s Northeast Corridor is for passenger traffic. Provided that a four-track wide Right of Way has been provided, and with enough forward planning, an ongoing series of incremental upgrades can take the track from the lowest capacity branch line to the highest capacity trunk line.

How Do We Get There From Here: Electrical Infrastructure

While track can be upgraded in incremental steps, so we can build what we expect to need “today”, and expand capacity “tomorrow” as circumstances dictate … we need to have overhead electric catenary for the entire length of the route carrying the electric freight rail.

Once in place, this can be expanded incrementally along with the track. It makes sense to have an upgrade path for the track sketched out so that the catenary support structure does not stand in the way of the upgrade path – but unlike the rail, there is a single big first step that must be taken.

At $100/barrel oil, user fees would be able to refund bonds issued to construct the infrastructure, so I have previously suggested an import tax on imported oil that starts at $1/barrel at $50/barrel and below, and then phases out for oil prices between $50/barrel and $100/barrel. The tax would be used to fund repayment for the electrical infrastructure, so that user fees could be established that are competitive even at low oil prices, and pegged to the price of diesel up to $3/gallon. The more bonds are repaid from user costs, the more capacity remains in the fund to expand the electrical infrastructure.

However, for a trial system to establish the real world operating advantages of the Steel Interstate … that is not necessary. What is required is an existing interstate that is being stretched to capacity, where there is an existing proposal to engage in a massive, costly, road widening project.

It is sometimes a decreasing cost investment to take an existing Interstate Highway from four lanes (two each way) to six lanes. Even in those settings, it is normally an increasing cost investment to expand beyond that point.

Overpasses have to be reconstructed. Interchanges have to be reconstructed, which gets more expensive per lane. There will be changes required to entry and exit ramps, and associated eminent domain – but unlike the original interstate, eminent domain on property made more valuable by the presence of the Interstate.

And where the expansion is primarily to accommodate truck traffic, the state engaging in the expansion has to throw good money after bad. Heavy truck traffic creates far more damage per ton than automotive traffic, while paying a smaller share of fuel taxes per ton. And adding a state tax onto diesel leads to long haul trucks refueling across the border.

If the Federal Government could be persuaded to devote the same percentage of money to an electric Rapid Freight Rail corridor that is long enough to capture road freight traffic along an alignment, then a State Government could quite be in a position to save money up-front by contributing to a Steel Interstate instead. After all, one additional mile of 60mph grade track can add more freight capacity than two lanes of Interstate Highway.

And since the rail is cost competitive with the highway on the basis of covering its own maintenance costs, the state avoids leaving a maintenance cost time-bomb for the next generation – those same budgetary time-bombs that are have been going off for over a decade along heavily used Interstate Highways.

What would we need?

  • Transport Committees in the two chambers that are willing to put rail on a level footing with roads. Check.
  • An administration that is willing to put rail on a level footing with roads. Check.
  • A state government faced with a massively expensive boondoggle of a road building project that is willing to put rail on a level footing with roads … well, still working on this one.

If you are a resident of Virginia, Pennsylvania or Tennessee, do go to RAIL Solutions and check them out, and press your state government to get on board. It is Virginia that has a devoted advocated of the 8-lane I-81 project as head of the state Department of Transportation – but that is not an elected position in Virginia, and the Governor can over-ride the State Secretary of Transportation and order a study of the benefit/cost of a Steel Interstate versus the road project. If you are a resident of Virginia, you need to lobby your governor – and if you are a resident of Pennsylvania or Tennessee, you need your governor to talk to Virginia’s governor.

How Do We Get There From Here: Regulation

The final step in the puzzle is the system of Federal Railroad Administration regulations. The FRA has a system of regulations for the existing freight rail system. This establishes the dreaded “FRA compliance” issue that bedevils efforts across the country to establish local passenger rail services. It is oriented to the needs of freight railroads to move massive loads at bare minimum cost, dominated by “it gets there when it gets there” scheduling.

And we will still need this. Our bulk freight transport needs will not go away as we build up our Rapid Freight Rail capacity. Simply accommodating Rapid Freight Rail within one framework will either compromise the needs of Rapid Freight Rail or compromise the needs of Heavy Freight Rail. So if we are going to be building Steel Interstates, we need a second entire category of freight rail.

Now, many of these changes discussed here could be put into place as line-by-line regulations – for example, it is not unusual for a branch line to have weight limits that are lower than the ordinary 33 ton per axle loading of Heavy Freight Rail mainlines. However, if we want to have a cost-effective system, that means we need to avoid one-off designs, tailored to the needs of each distinct “Steel Interstate” corridor. We need a common target for manufacturers need a common target to shoot at, so they can achieve economies of scale.

The first part of the puzzle is weight. The faster a train goes, the more stress is placed on support structures by trains with the same amount of weight per axle. Reducing the weight per axle makes it easier to go fast. And, at the same time, railroads already dominate the very heavy end of the freight market – the freight that Rapid Freight Rail must capture does not require the same freight levels per axle.

In order to ensure economies of scale, it makes sense to adopt a limit very close to some international weight limits, which ensures that there are already electric locomotives in use that respect those limits. Some European railway systems have 22.5 metric ton per axle load limits which, converting to short tons and rounding up, is 25 short tons per axle.

The second change is signaling. There is a standard that comes into place next decade for all freight railway lines that share track with passenger rail. Further signaling improvements are required for operating passenger operations at 125mph. This should be a universal standard for all Rapid Freight Rail.

Electric Rapid Freight Rail will have better acceleration and and braking characteristics, and will often be built “around” an existing mainline system. In order to reduce capital costs of the Rapid Freight Rail infrastructure, the normal 1% (1:100) gradients for mainline Heavy Freight Rail should be raised to 2.5% (1:40).

And finally, for passenger rail systems share track with Rapid Freight, crash prevention and resistance standards must be developed that are appropriate for that specific class of freight rail.

Some tracks are Heavy Freight Rail only, some tracks are Rapid Freight only, and some tracks are scheduled for the different type of rail traffic at different times of day. And instead of one “regular” class of rail and an endless variety of “irregular” classes of rail, there are three types of rail vehicles – compliant with FRA Heavy Rail, compliant with FRA Rapid Rail, and compliant with both.

Getting Involved with the Fight

RAIL Solutions is a grassroots citizens group, you can get information on joining them here. Contacts for U.S. Representatives are here. Contacts for Senators are here. You can contact the US Dept. of Transport asking for a distinct Rapid Freight Rail regulatory system here.

If you have any contact information for other groups working on Steel Interstates, leave them in the comments and I will update the various copies of this essay with the contact information.


    • BruceMcF on September 6, 2009 at 21:16

    … because I have to get a Sunday Afternoon bike ride in.

  1. it was Goodyear that successfully lobbied for buses ability to deliver to the curb, beginning the decline of the passenger rail service.

    Has the pendulum swung? Can the railroads find an economic toe hold on freight movement?

    Even if they use diesel, trains can move more tonnage per gallon than a tractor/trailer.

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