An Intersection of Technologies and Infrastructures

Obama has released his plan for the expanded development of passenger rail in America.

Best practice in high-speed passenger rail is, of course, to power it electrically, from overhead wires. And these things use significant amounts of electricity. A quick search reveals that a French TGV train draws somewhere in the range of 6-12 megawatts. (For comparison, 6 MW is the amount of power consumed by 60,000 regular incandescent 100-watt bulbs.)

Most of the electricity that runs the TGV, of course, comes from France’s extensive nuclear power system. It’s unfortunate that Obama, with his admiration for things European, is not paying more attention to France’s very successful experience with nuclear power.

A quick look at the strategic plan indicates that only part of the proposed build-out would be in the form of dedicated (passenger-train-only) corridors (presumably electrically powered)–the rest would run on existing freight lines, although some of these might have overhead wires added to permit electrical operation. This New Republic article, and this National Review article, suggest that adding passenger traffic to these lines could actually increase energy consumption and CO2 emissions by driving more congestion of the lines and hence increasing freight transit times and reducing the attractiveness of rail vs. truck to shippers.

One thing that is not generally appreciated is that the U.S. has a large, efficient, and successful freight-rail network. A paper cited in the New Republic article asserts that while 38% of freight in the U.S. moves by rail, only 8% of European freight moves via this mode. Part of the difference is accounted for by geographical factors–shorter distances and more use of sea and river transport in Europe–but not all of it. This system is a huge national asset, and people should keep it in mind when they talk about the superiority of European and Japanese passenger rail to our own.

Indeed, it would have been nice if President Obama, in his speech on passenger rail, had mentioned the U.S. freight rail system and spent a few moments giving credit to the people–management and labor–who pulled this system up from the dismal state in which it existed 30 years ago and thereby made an important contribution to the economic well-being of all Americans.

10 thoughts on “An Intersection of Technologies and Infrastructures”

  1. Yes, the US freight rail system is excellent.

    High speed rail and freight just don’t go together. Apart from the timetable aspects, the track construction standards are very different. High speed requires very tight tolerances on construction and maintenance – far beyond the current quality level common in the US. The GE and EMD 4000 to 6000 HP diesel locomotives that dominate freight operations today are very efficient and relatively cheap units, but they can’t operate at more than about 70 mph else the high axle loads and unsprung mass cause too much track damage, and the wagons are unstable beyond this speed, anyway. To have a workable combined freight and high speed passenger operation would require completely new, sophisticated, and very expensive fast freight locomotives and wagons.

    So, at best, we could see another cripled TGV (Acela) running at reduced speed on shared track with a timetable randomized by the priority given to freight.

  2. “a timetable randomized by the priority given to freight”..unless government requirements insist that priority be given to the passenger traffic, thereby randomizing the *freight* schedules and causing a significant setback to the efforts to make rail freight delivery times shorter & more predictable and hence more competitive with trucking for high-value shipments.

  3. I never thought about how Europe moves freight before. Like most people, I assumed that Europe moved more people than the U.S. by rail while at the same time moving an equal or greater amount of freight. It should be obvious that high speed tracks won’t move freight effectively anymore than the Concorde could efficiently ship anvils.

    This is a good example of why the political process does not make good economic or environmental decisions. Such decisions involve to many tradeoffs to be decided by a process whose key quantum of information are sound bites and bumper stickers. In thirty years of reading debates about passenger rail in America I have never once read about how increasing passenger rail would impact freight service or how that would impact overall energy use. Clearly, few people have thought of this.

  4. If they really want to connect SF and LA, why not just create a “Super-BART”?

    (I’ve taken commuter rail around the NY area. The very idea of hiring someone to take tickets seems alien to me after using the BART for some time. Not to mention that the workers seem to retire at 55 with ridiculous benefits.)

  5. There are ways of blending passenger with some kinds of freight trains. Union Pacific regularly operate intermodal trains (truck trailers or containers, including twin-stacks) at 70 mph, and Santa Fe once ran a few intermodals at 90. Those trains would blend well with faster passenger trains, and a locomotive (diesel or electric) could be used for both types of service.

    The problems come when one mixes the slow, heavy unit coal trains (for environmental reasons, a lot of Powder River Basin coal from eastern Wyoming and Montana goes to the east coast) or conventional loose-car freight trains with the passenger trains. The coal trains don’t take well to the superelevation required for faster passenger trains, resulting in string-lining of the trains and blocked railroads, or in excessive rail wear. The loose cars can manage the tracks, although they run at lower speeds, meaning one freight train uses track capacity that three or four passenger trains could handle.

    For low passenger train frequencies (passenger trains at hourly or two-hour intervals) there might be relatively little freight train interference. Where the intervals become a half hour or twenty minutes, or where short fast passenger trains for multiple destinations share the railroad (the British model: you can go London to Liverpool or London to Birmingham or London to Manchester or London to Carlisle and Glasgow, but not to any of the above on the same train) the freight train interference becomes more of a problem. Britain is small enough to run the freights mostly by night. That won’t work in North America.

  6. It certainly helps if the freight traffic and the pax traffic are running at similar speeds…at some point, though, you reach the absolute capacity that the line can provide given the requirements for headroom between the trains. This is subject to improvement, of course, with improved signaling & control systems…Stephen, do you have any insights re the adoption of GPS-based systems stands with US railroads?

  7. of course all the bike trails that have been “built” as rail banking efforts will not be considered. no let’s take someone’s property and use it for the “common good”

  8. “Europe’s dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo. Between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73% from 68%, while rail’s share fell to 17% from 20%. The rest goes by canal or, in the case of oil and gas, pipelines. In the U.S. in 2005, 42% of freight was moved by train and 33% by truck.”

    The Wall Street Journal
    EU Looks to Cargo Trains To Ease Load on Trucking
    June 5, 2007; Page A6

  9. Positive train control is not yet mandatory, although I believe it will be required on any of the 110 mph corridors. (It’s also useful on heavily-trafficked freight corridors, where there is no longer a caboose at the end of the train with a flagman to protect the rear of the train with a red flag and a flare.)

    A lot of the railroad downsizing of the 1960-1990 era involved removing second and third tracks. It’s relatively cheap to put the tracks back, unless there are bridges involved. Many of the Amtrak delays people complain about occur on one-track railroads. Once a train gets out of course, everything else gets delayed, and crew cycles (a train crew goes off duty twelve hours after it has reported, by law, whether the train has moved or not) get disrupted, with knock-on effects even if the tracks are clear. Provide a second track, and strategic sections of a third track, and you more than double the carrying capacity of the line.

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