Frequently Asked Questions:
Solutionary Rail is a vision and an evolving strategy developed and supported by the expertise of the Solutionary Rail technical team. The details of implementation are complicated and will require extensive feasibility study. We strive to provide a reality-based assessment of the opportunities and challenges. We get a lot of great questions from interested readers, critics, rail and energy enthusiasts, so we've set up this FAQ section to help address those questions.
*Note: SR abbreviation stands for Solutionary Rail in regards to page numbers referencing information included within the Solutionary Rail book.
- What types of locomotives will be required for U.S. long-haul freight trains?
- How would such improvements on the railway right-of-way be taxed or assessed if they are publicly owned?
- How will this project enhance the US’s competitiveness in the global economy?
- How are the other Class 1 railroads going to react when they hear there is a public private partnership for one of them?
- What some national or state regulations that must be worked with, overcome, or modernized for such a project?
- What sort of foreign expertise might we need to draw upon for this project?
- Does the United States/North America currently have the industrial capabilities, technologies, and expertise to design, construct, and operate such a project?
- Does a Diesel Generation plant creating electricity more efficiently by use of fossil fuels than diesels locomotives on lines?
- Would development of Wind and Solar be part of the project proper? Would it be a public endeavor to create these facilities concurrently with Solutionary Rail improvements?
- Are railway improvements, such as quiet zones, tax write-offs for the railroads?
- Does BNSF still plan on switching to more Natural Gas engines than Diesels with price of oil?
- Would/Could it be possible for cars/trucks/multimodal operations to be charged while in transit on electrified rail? Pulling energy off of the overhead?
- What international precedents are there for electrified Rail operations?
- What will happen to workers in the fossil fuel sector?
- How will Solutionary Rail impact the trucking industry?
- What about environmental regulations (EIS Statements) in protected areas for projects?
- What about Dual use locomotives?
- What about trenching and burying the high voltage lines below ground rather than stringing them above the railroad ROW?
- What is the minimal distance needed between the catenary and the overhead transmission lines? Can they both use the same ROW safely and legally?
- What are the current obstacles to rural renewable energy?
- How feasible is it to run electrified trains on renewable energy?
- How reliable are electrified systems? In cases of inclement weather?
- What are the statistical advantages of electrified rail?
- Who owns the electrical transmission lines (Infrastructure)?
- Do you think the railroads and rail entities are going to be willing to work with such a project?
- What is the private sector involvement?
- How does electrification allow for more trains?
- What about building a maglev train system instead of upgrading existing tracks?
- Why don’t we wait for better battery and rail transport technology instead of building electrified lines?
- Is BNSF on board and supportive of the project?
What types of locomotives will be required for U.S. long-haul freight trains?
For widespread freight rail electrification to work again on a large scale in the U.S., there is a need for a new generation of all-electric locomotives designed specifically for the U.S. freight market. At the present time, the all-electric locomotives being manufactured in the U.S. are designed for passenger service, most notably the Siemens ACS-64. However, an in- production electric locomotive could be adapted for short-haul U.S. freight service. The Bombardier IORE European freight or the Siemens ACS-64 U.S. passenger locomotives could be modified to U.S. freight standards, but pulling lighter and faster trains than an interstate line-haul U.S. freight train. It is also possible for an existing U.S. line-haul freight locomotive model, with its higher weight, tractive effort and six-axle chassis, to be converted to all-electric by replacing the diesel engine with a catenary pantograph and transformer system.
Electric freight locomotives in Western Europe tend to be less powerful than their U.S. counterparts, which leads to a common misconception that all-electric locomotive technology is not powerful enough for U.S. freight rail. However, heavy all-electric freight trains used in China, Russia, Australia and South Africa are more appropriate electrification examples for U.S. freight rail. In fact, the heaviest all-electric ore and coal trains in these countries are much heavier than U.S. line-haul freight trains.
The weight of a long-distance, U.S. line-haul freight train ranges between 10,000 and 20,000 short tons. The most powerful diesel-electric locomotives used in U.S. freight service are the 6,000 hp GE AC6000CW (840 kN starting tractive effort, 740 kN continuous) and EMD SD90MAC (890 kN starting tractive effort, 734 kN continuous). However, U.S. freight railroads have moved away from such high-horsepower locomotives as they have found it more efficient to use multiple locomotives, of less than 5,000 hp each, as distributed tractive power in the front, middle and/or rear of a train. An example of a more typical large Tier 4 U.S. line-haul diesel-electric locomotive currently being manufactured is the EMD SD70ACe-T4 (4,600 hp, 890 kN of starting and 780kN continuous tractive effort).
An electric locomotive can be designed to match or exceed the performance specifications required by U.S. line-haul freight trains. In fact, the world’s most powerful locomotives are all-electric. In China, a single HXD1 two-section, all-electric locomotive set (19,300 hp, 1,140 kN starting tractive effort) is the most powerful locomotive currently used in the world, pulling entire 20,000-ton coal trains. For the 535-mile Sishen–Saldanha Orex line, South African Railways uses a 50 kV catenary system for hauling 41,000 metric ton (46,000 short ton) ore trains. These trains are pulled by up to nine all-electric Mitsui Class 15E locomotives (each with 6000 hp, 580 kN starting tractive effort) in distributed configuration, not unlike that of a U.S. line-haul freight train.
How would such improvements on the railway right-of-way be taxed or assessed if they are publicly owned?
It's not that the properties would AUTOMATICALLY not be taxed when owned by the SIDA, it's that we propose that the states that establish and own the SIDA agree that the SIDA-owned infrastructure be exempted when they set up the SIDA.
How will this project enhance the US’s competitiveness in the global economy?
This will both reduce shipping costs per mile and increase speed and reliability of shipping between regions in the US, which is a cost reduction for existing producers. As China invests in electrifying over half of its rail network, and focuses on transitioning from a low-wage producer to a high tech producer, it makes no sense for the US to gift them with an advantage in transportation efficiency.
How are the other Class 1 railroads going to react when they hear there is a public private partnership for one of them?
Our hope is that when and if it proves to be a success, their reaction will be "we want Steel Interstate corridors too!" The project wasn’t conceived to give any favoritism to any one railroad and all are welcome to compete to be the first showcase project. We hope the first built project will serve as a learning experience for the US railroad industry as a whole.
What some national or state regulations that must be worked with, overcome, or modernized for such a project?
The main national regulations that needed to be overcome to most effectively utilize the 80mph freight / 90mph passenger or 90mph freight / 110mph passenger track that we are advocating in Phase 2 have already been upgraded, just this last year, as the FRA modernized its regulations on passenger car crash safety, from the 1960's style buff strength standards which resulted in heavy passenger cars which therefore take more time to accelerate to take advantage of higher speed limits, as well as requiring the train to start braking sooner before entering a slower speed zone.
What sort of foreign expertise might we need to draw upon for this project?
While the US possess the core technical capabilities to pursue this project, it would be sensible to draw on the experience and advice of countries with substantial rail electrification. Switzerland is a country with a reputation for an efficient and well run system, with an enviable safety record, so Swiss rail professionals with experience in construction and operation of electrified rail systems would be a useful resource to draw upon.
One benefit of the Steel Interstate Development Authority approach is that the Development Authority may be more likely to bring in outside expertise.
Does the United States/North America currently have the industrial capabilities, technologies, and expertise to design, construct, and operate such a project?
For the infrastructure, the answer is yes. We are already doing rail electrification projects, on a much smaller scale, as we incrementally upgrade the passenger-rail-focused electrification of the Northeast Corridor. What is lacking is the funding to scale up.
For the rolling stock, the first locomotives would likely be imported from Europe or China, but if and when the first Steel Interstate corridor proves to be a success and more states get in on the act, some existing electric locomotive manufacturers may assemble their locomotives here if the scale of the market justifies it.
Does a Diesel Generation plant creating electricity more efficiently by use of fossil fuels than diesels locomotives on lines?
Does a Diesel Generation plant creating electricity more efficiently by use of fossil fuels than diesels locomotives on lines? Is there a savings by running electrified rail by electricity still created by fossil fuel plants over normal diesel electric locomotives?
Very little diesel is used for creating electricity. The increased efficiency would mean that the typical existing electricity supply would be more energy efficient and lower greenhouse gas emission per ton-mile than diesel powered locomotives running comparable speeds. However, we propose that the Steel Interstate Infrastructure Banks be chartered to operate with 100% sustainable, renewable energy.
Would development of Wind and Solar be part of the project proper? Would it be a public endeavor to create these facilities concurrently with Solutionary Rail improvements?
Our proposal is that the Steel Interstate Infrastructure Banks be chartered to obtain 100% of their power from sustainable, renewable energy, and to use infrastructure they own to support development of sustainable, renewable power . They would therefore act as a market customer for new Wind and Solar projects, and all transmission they must build to be able to assure 24/7 access to sustainable, renewable power can also be use to cross-haul renewable energy from sources in low population areas to the larger populated electricity markets at the ends and along the route.
Are railway improvements, such as quiet zones, tax write-offs for the railroads?
Any capital investment cost provides an offset against operating revenues, but avoiding property tax increases on the increased value of the infrastructure would typically require specific concessions from the state or local municipality.
Does BNSF still plan on switching to more Natural Gas engines than Diesels with price of oil?
We do not know this but would be interested to find out. We do know that they are still running their LNG test set, from an online post from January 2017 when it was seen and photographed by a railfan.
It would, however, likely make economic sense for BNSF to wait for higher diesel prices before moving past the test stage.
Would/Could it be possible for cars/trucks/multimodal operations to be charged while in transit on electrified rail? Pulling energy off of the overhead?
It seems like it should be possible. Electric Multiple Units typically have multiple pantographs, drawing power independently for pairs of powered cars in the set. If an electric car / truck piggyback / powered container car required more power than was available from the locomotive, a tender car with a pantograph and transformers could provide that power. The User Fee for the power would be per KWh, so if a train with substantial in-train power consumption ran on the corridor, it would pay higher user fees.
What international precedents are there for electrified Rail operations?
Railway electrification and modernization is already working round the world. High Speed Rail has already demonstrated its merits in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Upgraded, electrified services have also delivered benefits the world over, even if it is not full high speed rail. From Bulgaria, to Morocco, Ethiopia to China, railway improvements are translating into economic prosperity. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the United States had the top 10 fastest trains in the world, today, we are nowhere on list.
The United States has fallen far behind many other nations in terms of infrastructure competitiveness. Brazil surpassed the US in Soy Exports a few years back due to improvements in their infrastructure that resulted in cheaper exporting than from the US. The Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia has been fully electrified since 2003. Bulgaria and Hungary are teaming up to upgrade existing lines between Belgrade and Budapest to full high speed rail.
Our largest rival in terms of economy, China, has gone from no high-speed-rail service to having the largest network in the entire world in only 10 years. They have also continued to upgrade their conventional lines to increase services and speeds. More recently, China has undertaken global leadership with the New Silk Road Initiative, which includes a series of interconnected railways. The project allows for goods to be transported by rail over Eurasia to Europe in only a few weeks compared to months by sea.
Africa also is progressing ahead of the US with infrastructure improvement. China has built a new modernized, higher speed, railway in Ethiopia from the capital Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti. A trip that once took three days by truck now only takes a matter of hours. With freight services already started, passenger services are slated to start by mid spring 2017. Morocco is building a high-speed rail line for passenger service to connect Tangier with Casablanca.
The Goddard Base Tunnel in Switzerland (the longest rail tunnel as of present at 35 miles) was developed and constructed for both passenger and freight service. The premise was to take trucks off the congested roads, increase service efficiency and provide a boost to the economy. 65 passenger trains and over 200 freight trains will use the tunnel in a given day. This project, along with companion base tunnel projects through Switzerland, will increase service speeds and efficiencies while also drawing trucks off the congested road system. These projects allow trucks to be loaded onto trains in Germany and off-loaded in Italy, or vice versa.
In conclusion, railway modernization and electrification has been demonstrated throughout the world and brought numerous benefits. Railway operations are already the most efficient land-based transportation mode for moving passengers and freight over longer distances.
(See Solutionary Rail Chapter 2)
What will happen to workers in the fossil fuel sector?
We believe that every possible effort should be made to help these hard-working individuals transition to other energy sector jobs in the renewable field if their jobs become obsolete in the future. As of current, they are at the whim of the boom-bust cycle of a finite resource. This project will not end the fossil fuel industry.
Solutionary Rail is not a means to either enable or restrict coal and oil shipments.
SR Book pg 81
In fact, electric trains are more efficient for moving coal than diesels due to the amount of wear these loads exert on diesel operations. In fact, some coal operations utilize electrified rail for the transport of coal to power plants.
How will Solutionary Rail impact the trucking industry?
Trucks cannot be eliminated entirely from the freight transport. A short haul by truck is usually required at each of the trip (to and from rail)…. Yet even if the rail trip is 50% longer than the road trip it replaces, this still yields substantial energy savings.
PG 19 of Solutionary Rail’s book. PG 39-42
Solutionary Rail strives to work with the trucking industry, not opposed to it. Solutionary Rail hopes to offset long haul trucking and the great fuel consumption it incurs. Currently the trucking industry is facing a shortage of drivers with the average age of divers increasing at a rapid pace.
Overall, we wish to strive to work with the trucking industry, expanding the use and reliability of intermodal options for mutual benefits of everyone, including railroads and trucking industry. Rail and trucking are only parts of a larger interconnected transportation network and should be been as such.
What about environmental regulations (EIS Statements) in protected areas for projects?
Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) must be conducted on projects and will outline potential environmental dangers and constraints for the project to work with and mitigate.
Hence the need for a full feasibility study to be conducted to identify any environmental concerns and need for special capacity projects (such as larger, double track tunnels).
What about Dual use locomotives?
Dual-mode locomotives are heavier, but weight is actually an advantage when it comes to freight rail. A freight locomotive needs to be heavier than a passenger locomotive to help increase its tractive effort (measured in pounds or kN, different from horsepower). Ultimately, it depends on the unique conditions and traffic of the line if dual-mode locomotives are beneficial. Diesels can still operate on electrified lines, they simply do not pull power from the overhead wires, instead burning diesel to generate power. There are no clearance problems for diesels to operate on electrified lines.
A dual-model diesel-electric locomotive has two separate power plants: diesel electric and all-electric. This gives the flexibility to use all-electric mode with pantograph on track with an overhead catenary, and also operate in diesel-electric mode on track with no electric catenary. The main disadvantages of dual-mode locomotives are that they are more expensive to build and mechanically more complex, resulting in higher maintenance costs. They also lose some energy efficiency by carrying around the weight of one type of unused power plant (electric or diesel), while using the other.
Existing dual-mode locomotives designed for passenger service include the Bombardier ALP 45 DP and the EMD DM30AC. The 2012 SCAG freight rail electrification study concluded that the Bombardier ALP-45DP was the existing dual-mode locomotive that could most easily be converted to freight operation in North America13. These dual-mode electrics were built for New Jersey Transit and Montreal’s Agence Metropolitaine de Transport. In all-electric operation the unit has a maximum power of 4,000 kW (over 5,000 hp) and a starting tractive effort of 316 kN, while in diesel mode power is reduced to about 3,100 kW (4,200 hp). The ALP-45DP units, at over $10 million each, were more expensive than a comparable all-electric or diesel-electric locomotive, and have spent a lot of time in the maintenance shop with "teething troubles". There is limited experience around the world with freight dual-mode locomotives. Despite having more limited fuel capacity than a regular diesel-electric locomotive, even with electrification of main-line track, dual-mode locomotives could find application during electrification construction and maybe in non-electrified yards and sidings.
There also could be plenty of room for hybrid locomotives that could benefit from batteries- not only electric- diesel hybrids made more efficient from on-board batteries (like a Prius), but also electric locomotives that could use both batteries and overhead catenary. The battery/capacitor-catenary hybrid concept offers many opportunities: for areas with relatively short distances of incomplete catenary infrastructure (bridges/tunnels that have clearance issues perhaps), as well as backup even with 100% catenary system. The new "battery-trains" in Japan and Europe are of this type:
What about trenching and burying the high voltage lines below ground rather than stringing them above the railroad ROW?
In theory, you can underground any kind of power transmission line. However, in practice the cost per mile is at minimum four times greater than an equivalent overhead line. This cost discrepancy increases along with the voltage level. For example, Duke Energy quotes the cost of a 500 kV underground line being 10-25 times more expensive:
Underground lines fail very rarely. But when they do, the cost and time needed to repair one are far greater than for overhead.
For these reasons, utilities will only underground a high voltage line (69 kV and up) when the cost is justified in dense urban areas, very near an airport, or other such obstacles to a project.
Just because you cannot see an underground power line doesn’t mean that the permitting or environmental issues will be any easier. In fact, the environmental impacts of building underground power lines, when you how have to dig a new underground trench or tunnel, are often more invasive that building an overhead line. This is especially true going under rivers and streams. Building a high-voltage underground line is similar to building a buried pipeline, minus the oil spill risk.
What is the minimal distance needed between the catenary and the overhead transmission lines? Can they both use the same ROW safely and legally?
The answer is "it depends"... on the voltage level, any nearby structures such as bridges, buildings, other lines that must be crossed, even the altitude. The National Electric Safety Code , which governs utility transmission lines (and not to be confused with the National Electric Code), has formulas for all of this. The particular utility and local authorities having jurisdiction may also have their own additional rules.
The photo above shows separate 220 kV, 69 kV and 12 kV lines all sharing a section of the 100'-wide corridor of the Los Angeles-San Diego dual-track main line. In fact, these lines represent all three voltage levels of the Anaheim Public Utilities transmission and distribution system.
Taking the precedent even farther back, transmission lines and the catenary share the right-of-way in Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. The towers are configured like a big lower case "h". The transmission line is at the top of the higher leg, and the catenary is supported by the cross part of the "H". This is the same system the Pennsylvania Railroad put there decades ago so it must work pretty well. It clearly shows that high voltage transmission and the power to the trains operating beneath can coexist. The image above shows the large amount of transmission infrastructure that can be included in the same right-of-way. Note the old lattice catenary pole and signal cross beam.
What are the current obstacles to rural renewable energy?
Currently, many rural areas lack the infrastructure to transmit power to urban areas during peak production times (when there is surplus electricity created). Solutionary Rail envisions using the pre-existing ROW for transmission lines, both to power the trains and also to avoid procurement of new ROW for such infrastructure. The excess renewable energy of these areas can be the next cash crops for them.
How feasible is it to run electrified trains on renewable energy?
The Dutch today are powering their rail system by 100% wind energy and the trend is quickly growing throughout the world.
The United States has vast, untapped resources in solar and wind energy that are undeveloped due to the lack of transmission lines to transport the excess capacity to urban centers (where electricity is often much more expensive than in rural communities).
How reliable are electrified systems? In cases of inclement weather?
Incidents that would impact electrical generation, transmission systems or railroad power lines are substantially less frequent than the disruptions to a common local electrical system.
PG 20-21 in SR book.
What are the statistical advantages of electrified rail?
Powering trains by electricity is 95% efficient compared to the 30-35% efficiency of conventional diesel electrics.
… Thus an electrified locomotive can provide the same service for 44.7% of the energy costs. This is a conservative estimate since railroads would buy in bulk at heavily discounted rates.
Around the world electric locomotives are cheaper to buy and operate.
PG 19-20+ in Solutionary Rail’s Book (Chapter 2)
Who owns the electrical transmission lines (Infrastructure)?
Steel-Interstate Development Authority (or Authorities):
Public ownership of electrification and transmission infrastructure (via Federal govt. or some form of inter-jurisdictional collaboration by either States, or Tribes).
SR PG 55-59
Do you think the railroads and rail entities are going to be willing to work with such a project?
BNSF, UP, Norfolk Southern, the American Association of Railroads and other entities have investigated the idea of electrification in the past and are knowledgeable about the potential benefits. Railroads, like any company, are always interested in projects and technologies that can improve their operations and profits.
The American Association of Railroads (AAR) have a strong research component with the Transportation Technology Center (TTC) near Pueblo, CO and are constantly researching and proving new technologies that can increase their efficiencies
The large up-front costs may be the reason the railroads have not pursued this improvement on their own combined with the higher taxes levied on them from improvements in their infrastructure.
What is the private sector involvement?
While the Public Sector will be important in raising low cost capital for the improvements, private capital and investment will also be necessary to realize the numerous advantages of the full vision of Solutionary Rail.
Public-Private-Partnerships are needed to realize the vision and maximized benefits of such a project.
While many various private entities have direct incentives for undertaking various components of Solutionary Rail’s vision, the broader network of PPP coalesces these forces into a strong movement (coalition) in order to maximize benefits to both the private and public sectors and enables the construction of the project with less risk than an individual entity could on its own.
How does electrification allow for more trains?
Electrification, Centralized traffic control (CTC), and Positive Train Control (PTC) allows for better tracking and handling of trains and their movements. The technology allows for quicker acceleration and braking, permits trains to run closer together.
** The combined improvements envisioned by Solutionary Rail will add capacity and fluidity to the rail system, electrification being one component. Others are double tracking, realignment of curves, and capacity constraint projects (tunnels and bottlenecks).
PG in SR: 47-51
What about building a maglev train system instead of upgrading existing tracks?
Maglev has been designed for rapid passenger movements; not movements of heavy, dense, freight traffic. Maglev has potential for light, high-value, freight not heavy bulk commodities. Conventional, upgraded, rail offers the best opportunity for improved operations with the greatest flexibility for what to ship and where.
Why don’t we wait for better battery and rail transport technology instead of building electrified lines?
Currently, battery technology isn’t sufficient to power trains due to the heavy loads and long distances needed and probably won’t be possible for quite some time. Rail electrification is a proven technology available today.
The expense of electrification in the near term has to be weighed against the real total costs of delaying. That's where the Solutionary Rail argument, while still a very minority outlook, has its most important contribution. Overhead catenary is not only a proven technology, but the only foreseeable way that we can power long distance land trips of freight and passenger through non-fossil fuel based technology.
Overhead catenary is the only proven zero-emissions way to move a line haul freight train that consumes as much as several times more energy (15-25 MW) than a passenger train (1-10 MW).
That said, we support research and development efforts on all forms of zero-emissions transportation. There could be plenty of room for hybrid locomotives that could benefit from batteries- not only electric- diesel hybrids made more efficient from on-board batteries (like a Prius), but also electric locomotives that could use both batteries and overhead catenary. The battery/capacitor-catenary hybrid concept offers many opportunities: for areas with relatively short distances of incomplete catenary infrastructure (bridges/tunnels that have clearance issues perhaps), as well as backup even with 100% catenary system. The new "battery-trains" in Japan and Europe are of this type:
Ultra-capacitors are used to deliver large amounts of energy in a short time, but not able to (or intended to, even) store large enough amounts of total energy to power a vehicle over significant distance. Batteries also lack the energy storage capacity, charging time, lifespan, and cost effectiveness to power automobiles on a large scale- yet alone trains.
Non-continuous-power technology is only used on a very small number of light rail lines in the world. All are in temperate climates.
There are ups and downs in between, but in general, the average grade ascending from Minneapolis to Summit MT is 0.8%. The maximum grade is 1.2%. A 60 mph train needs about 4 horsepower per ton (3 KwPT). A bulk train needs 2 HPT (1.5 KwPT) to keep up 30 - 40 mph over most of the line.
A high speed truck shuttle train as we envision would be around 3240 Tons (assuming 20 Megaswing cars accommodating 40 trailers). A 3240 ton 60 mph train would need 9.7 MW. A 14,000 ton grain train would need 21 MW. This is just not going to happen with batteries, capacitors, flywheels, or any other kind of non-continuous power. In addition, without regenerative braking, the excess power of eastbound trains must be dissipated, not used to help westbound trains. In winter, trains would need around 15% more power yet.
Is BNSF on board and supportive of the project?
Solutionary Rail is currently working to establish a line of contact with BNSF, Berkshire Hathaway, and Warren Buffett.
BNSF has been aware of the merits of railway electrification and has explored the option in the past (See electrification below). Norfolk Southern has also investigated the idea of electrified service in the recent past.