Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

For topics on Class I and II passenger and freight operations more general in nature and not specifically related to a specific railroad with its own forum.

Moderator: Jeff Smith

Denver Dude
Posts: 80
Joined: Wed Jan 18, 2012 12:04 pm

Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Denver Dude » Thu Nov 28, 2019 1:38 pm


Gilbert B Norman
Posts: 14221
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:52 am
Location: Clarendon Hills, IL (BNSF Chicago Sub; MP 18.71)

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Gilbert B Norman » Fri Dec 06, 2019 2:42 pm

Dude!!

You have raised an interesting point that I hope those of us around here who follow affairs of the freight railroad industry (that's 90% of it) will choose to discuss.

First, let it be noted as a disclaimer, I am a former employee of the only North American road that electrified lines primarily to handle freight traffic - the MILW ('70-'81). But after reviewing the immediately linked article, I must agree (and that my road went on a folly).

Of interest are two recent encounters I have had Overseas. One was with an English speaking gal with Fedex in Warsaw. She knew Fedex made use of rail in the US, and asked me why weren't railroads electrified to the extent they are "over here"?

I showed her some photos of US trains over which she was astounded and I said they generate their electric power as they go. I also added "could your transmission systems provide that much power to ONE train"?

She wasn't sure, but neither am I (Mr. Nas, you out there?).

I further noted that what electrification there is over here is solely used by passenger trains, and outside of the electrified Boston-Washington route, there are simply not enough of them anywhere to justify the "first" (capital) cost of such.

My second encounter was this past August with an educated (London School of Economics) gal who was with the Ugandan Transportation Ministry. We talked about freight transportation. I showed her photos (on my phone) of freight trains over here. Same reaction; why don't you electrify? Here I was evasive as I didn't want to "talk down" to a member of a Third World country's government.
Last edited by Gilbert B Norman on Sat Dec 07, 2019 11:53 am, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
Ken V
Posts: 920
Joined: Thu Mar 11, 2004 10:14 pm
Location: Toronto, ON

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Ken V » Sat Dec 07, 2019 3:29 am

Gilbert B Norman wrote:
Fri Dec 06, 2019 2:42 pm
First, let it be noted as a disclaimer, I am a former employee of the only North American road that electrified lines primarily to handle freight traffic - the MILW ('70-'81).
It should be noted that BC Rail electrified its Tumbler Ridge line in the 1980s, a freight only line serving two coal mines. The line was de-electrified around 2000.
Ken V. Moderator: Most things Canadian.
Any time could be train time!

D Alex
Posts: 173
Joined: Fri Dec 08, 2017 5:15 pm

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by D Alex » Sun Dec 08, 2019 10:15 am

Mass electrification (such as the Pennsylvania Railroad did in the early 20th century) made a lot of sense in urban areas during the steam locomotive age; extensive coal smoke from low-speed trains made urban areas less livable, so there was greater incentive to invest in the infrastructure needed. Also, they found greater efficiency from central power distribution of power rather than the incredible inefficiency of a coal-powered locomotive. Not to mention the cost of maintaining/starting the fire in a steam locomotive. But there is also the cost of maintaining the distribution system, which wasn't as expensive a century ago as it is now.

European countries mostly invested in such systems starting in the steam age, but have kept it going mostly because of government support. Europe is more developed (like our east coast), so the benefits of supporting a 'cleaner' propulsion system are more obvious. In many of these countries, fuel is more expensive, especially those countries with few domestic oil reserves. We don't have that problem currently. Also, diesels are much more flexible; they can go anywhere that a rail exists. You don't have to worry about over-taxing a distribution system with diesels, either. And diesels have become relatively cleaner and less noisy as well. And they cost less to run. so, without fairly expensive government incentive or involvement, we won't see a return to electrification of freight any time soon. Someday, maybe, but not now.

Gilbert B Norman
Posts: 14221
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:52 am
Location: Clarendon Hills, IL (BNSF Chicago Sub; MP 18.71)

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Gilbert B Norman » Sun Dec 08, 2019 11:02 am

Mr. Alex, sure wish there was a way to put your immediate posting in the hands of the Ugandan gal I met last August traveling from Rosenheim (where she boarded) to Munich (East - airport - in my case). You have laid out the economies of Diesels in freight service so much better here than did I to her.

troffey
Posts: 126
Joined: Sat Jan 21, 2017 8:36 pm

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by troffey » Mon Dec 09, 2019 5:59 pm

Gilbert B Norman wrote:
Fri Dec 06, 2019 2:42 pm
Dude!!

You have raised an interesting point that I hope those of us around here who follow affairs of the freight railroad industry (that's 90% of it) will choose to discuss.

First, let it be noted as a disclaimer, I am a former employee of the only North American road that electrified lines primarily to handle freight traffic - the MILW ('70-'81). But after reviewing the immediately linked article, I must agree (and that my road went on a folly).

Of interest are two recent encounters I have had Overseas. One was with an English speaking gal with Fedex in Warsaw. She knew Fedex made use of rail in the US, and asked me why weren't railroads electrified to the extent they are "over here"?

I showed her some photos of US trains over which she was astounded and I said they generate their electric power as they go. I also added "could your transmission systems provide that much power to ONE train"?

She wasn't sure, but neither am I (Mr. Nas, you out there?).

I further noted that what electrification there is over here is solely used by passenger trains, and outside of the electrified Boston-Washington route, there are simply not enough of them anywhere to justify the "first" (capital) cost of such.

My second encounter was this past August with an educated (London School of Economics) gal who was with the Ugandan Transportation Ministry. We talked about freight transportation. I showed her photos (on my phone) of freight trains over here. Same reaction; why don't you electrify? Here I was evasive as I didn't want to "talk down" to a member of a Third World country's government.
By my math, Mr. Norman, a 4,400HP locomotive under 25KV wire would require about 130 amps at full power. Obviously, not every locomotive in every train runs at full power all the time, but that would seem to be the number to make sure we can accomodate. Adding a second, third or fourth unit to a train increases that amount correspondingly.

Translating that power to wattage, each 4400HP unit would be drawing aprroximately 3.3 megawatts of power. That is a fairly significant draw-a megawatt's worth of generated power is roughly equivalent to the power required for somewhere between 400 and 900 homes for a year, depending on the region of the U.S (https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1209/ML120960701.pdf if you'd really like to dive into the weeds). So while it would probably be possible, electrification of any carrier would require a substantial upgrade to generation and transmission facilities.

Gilbert B Norman
Posts: 14221
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:52 am
Location: Clarendon Hills, IL (BNSF Chicago Sub; MP 18.71)

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Gilbert B Norman » Tue Dec 10, 2019 9:17 am

Mr. Troffey, I wish you were with me to answer that intelligent, educated, Ugandan gal's question.

It is no wonder that the PRR electrification never went further than HBG, and that roads such as the BN and UP that went as far to string some wires quickly said "that's all folks".

I guess if North American roads were prepared to operate 1000 ton trains (that's a big one in Europe), the story would be different, but they're "a bit bigger" over here.

Here's are some "big trains over there":

https://youtu.be/cB-EZEvAeaQ

Gilbert B Norman
Posts: 14221
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:52 am
Location: Clarendon Hills, IL (BNSF Chicago Sub; MP 18.71)

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Gilbert B Norman » Wed Dec 11, 2019 11:50 am

Another "big train" up close and personal:

https://youtu.be/yjfFsuBzFm8

Hope everyone enjoys Siemens' rendition of "Do, Re, Me"; it's so Austrian :P

NRGeep
Posts: 1085
Joined: Tue Sep 28, 2004 9:33 pm

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by NRGeep » Thu Dec 12, 2019 2:56 pm

Mr Norman, is it a myth that a Japanese group made a proposal in the 70's to purchase the Milwaukee Road and "modernize" the electrification of the main line and were rebuffed?

Gilbert B Norman
Posts: 14221
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:52 am
Location: Clarendon Hills, IL (BNSF Chicago Sub; MP 18.71)

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by Gilbert B Norman » Thu Dec 12, 2019 3:55 pm

Mr. Geep, those are two distinct proposals you note. One was to electrify all of Lines West, and that a locomotive builder (can't recall which one) was going to "front" all costs and the MILW would simply purchase "power by the hour". Not sure why, but obviously it never came to pass.

The second occurred during 1980 and was reported upon by at least the Chicago Tribune. Japanese maritime interests proposed buying Lines West from the Estate. Their intent was to push the Land Bridge concept.

Needless to say, not much more was said.

There is an extensive topic over at the Fallen Flags forum, and I think we should defer further discussion to the topic over there:

https://www.railroad.net/viewtopic.php?f=81&t=9541

User avatar
amtrakhogger
Posts: 1971
Joined: Sun Jun 25, 2006 12:16 am
Location: "F" on the Camden and Amboy

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by amtrakhogger » Sat Dec 14, 2019 10:35 pm

I don't see the Cato Institute in the footnotes/references. This sounds like something they would put out.
You think that was slow? Next time it will be even slower! Ya see, the headlight will be coming through the steam and its
never gonna get there!

ConstanceR46
Posts: 429
Joined: Tue Feb 28, 2017 10:57 pm

Re: Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea

Post by ConstanceR46 » Fri Dec 20, 2019 1:04 pm

Of note is that electrifying large networks in relatively non-dense countries isn't fiction. China and Russia both electrified miles upon miles of track, China specifically going from steam to some of the most powerful electrics in the world within a period of around 20 years.

What people won't tell you is that this works because both have nationalized systems.
china does trains better
nationalize the class 1s

Return to “General Class I and II Discussion”