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Electrifying Transportation for Homeland Security

By Steve Dunham

Journal of Homeland Security, February 2004, revised February 2008. Copyright 2008 Analytic Services. Reprinted by permission.

Converting more of America’s mainline railroads to electric propulsion could increase the nation’s security by reducing America’s almost complete dependence on oil to fuel its transportation systems.

“Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy,” says the U.S. Department of Energy. “Currently, it supplies more than 40% of our total energy demands and more than 99% of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks.”1

However, the lifeblood is in limited supply, and there are no donors to provide a transfusion. According to the CIA World Factbook, world oil production averages 78.9 million barrels a day.2 World consumption stands at 80.29 million barrels a day (29.3 billion barrels a year).3 The problem is not so much the 1.7% shortfall as the fact that oil production looks certain to drop drastically in the coming decades. The “proved” world oil reserves total 1,297 billion barrels4—a 44-year supply at current rates of consumption, except that oil consumption is predicted to reach 97 million barrels a day in 2015 and 118 million in 2030.5 Consumption might increase faster, too. “The growing hunger for oil in major developing countries, particularly China and India, will exacerbate the situation,” wrote Norman Friedman in 2008. “Current world oil production cannot support Chinese and Indian car ownership at the rate to be expected in a decade if their rates of development hold.”6 And then the “proved” reserves might be nowhere near as large as reported.7

“In the event the United States is confronted with a serious disruption in oil supplies,” states the Department of Energy, “the Strategic Petroleum Reserve can provide an emergency supply of crude oil.… President Bush has ordered the Reserve to be filled to its full 700 million barrel capacity by 2005.”8 That’s a short-term strategy. At the current U.S. rate of oil consumption (20.8 million barrels a day),9 it would last 33 days, 15 hours, and 41 minutes. Even with severe rationing, it would last months, not years.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption is devoted to transportation.10 Fortunately, some efforts are under way to shift America’s transportation system to fuels other than oil. The “FreedomCAR,” for example (the CAR stands for Cooperative Automotive Research), is a project of the Department of Energy and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (a cooperative endeavor of DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors)—“an effort to examine and advance the pre-competitive, high-risk research needed to develop the component and infrastructure technologies necessary to enable a full range of affordable cars and light trucks, and the fueling infrastructure for them that will reduce the dependence of the nation’s personal transportation system on imported oil and minimize harmful vehicle emissions, without sacrificing freedom of mobility and freedom of vehicle choice.”11

“In 1996, General Motors (G.M.) launched the first modern-day commercially available electric car, the EV1,” noted the Public Broadcasting System in a discussion of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? “… After California regulators saw [G.M.’s] electric car in the late 1980s, they launched a zero-emissions vehicle program in 1990 to clean up the state’s smoggy skies.

“Under the program, two percent of all new cars sold had to be electric by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. The car required no fuel and could be plugged in for recharging at home and at a number of so-called battery parks.… A little over 1,000 EV1s were produced by G.M. before the company pulled the plug on the project in 2002.” The EV1 was efficient and convenient for typical short-distance use (under 60 miles per day) in a metropolitan area. “In the wake of a legal challenge from G.M. and DaimlerChrysler, California amended its regulations and abandoned its goals. Shortly thereafter, automakers began reclaiming and dismantling their electrics as they came off lease.” Some “say G.M. intentionally sabotaged their own marketing efforts because they feared the car would cannibalize its existing business. G.M. disputes these claims.”12

One area of conservation using existing technology is seeing continued growth: the shift of long-distance truck movements onto trains. The Association of American Railroads claims that “on average trains are three or more times more fuel efficient than trucks” and that “a typical train takes the freight equivalent of several hundred trucks off our highways.” Piggyback or intermodal service “has quadrupled in the last 25 years, rising from 3 million trailers and containers in 1980 to more than 12 million units in 2006 and 2007.13 Federal limits on service hours for commercial truck drivers14 may boost the shift to rail.

This area of fuel economy is driven by government-regulated market forces. However, market forces alone are unlikely to produce a revolution in transportation fuels any more than they are likely to produce a FreedomCAR or a system of Interstate and Defense Highways. The latter cost $129 billion from 1958 through 1991.15 Just as tax dollars created a transportation system that favors petroleum-fueled private vehicles for most trips, public investment can shape a transportation system that favors alternatives.

Public investment in the past two decades has already greatly expanded the availability of electric transportation using existing technology. This is a necessary step, and it is part of the short-term and long-term solutions for the same reason: whatever combination of power sources is used in the future, they will undoubtedly be used to produce electricity. (Greatly expanded electric transportation will require an overhaul of the nation’s electric power grid, something that is necessary in any event.)

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

believes that the nation can achieve great benefits by the increased use of hybrid-electric vehicles and electric transportation systems in place of gasoline and diesel powered automobiles, buses and trucks. With the more widespread use of vehicles and systems that utilize generated energy and efficient electric drive propulsion, there can be significant reductions in transportation fuel consumption and emissions. Furthermore, increased use of electric and hybrid electric transportation can contribute to our nation’s energy security.16

As an efficient way to meet urban transportation needs and reduce pollution, 26 U.S. cities have built, expanded, or resurrected electric transit systems since 1970.17 What has progressed at a slower pace is the growth of electric intercity transportation. In January 2000, Amtrak completed electrification of its mainline between New Haven, CT, and Boston, 157 miles. This extended an existing electrified railroad that reaches from New Haven to Washington and from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, PA, the last segment of which was electrified in 1938.18 Since then, because the initial cost is so high, only a few commuter railroads have converted any trackage to electric power.

If the funding were available on a scale comparable to the tax dollars that funded the Interstate Highway System, would railroad electrification be worthwhile? In 1992, the California Department of Transportation studied the technical feasibility of electrifying the commuter rail service between San Francisco and San Jose, plus an extension to Gilroy (77 miles total). Electrification “offers the potential for faster train service coupled with reduced operating costs through savings in fuel, crew and vehicle maintenance costs,” said the consultants’ report. “Reductions in noise and air pollution are also important benefits. These advantages, however, are gained only at the expense of major capital investment in the electrification facilities—electrical substations, overhead contact wiring, electric locomotives, and related equipment.”19 The report concluded that electrification would be cost-effective, mainly due to lower operating and maintenance expenses, if service increased from 66 daily trains to 114. Since then, the service has expanded to 98 weekday trains.20 California has completed preliminary engineering and the environmental assessment/environmental impact report.21 The 1992 report pegged the cost at $103.1 million for electrification plus $62.5 million for enough electric locomotives to operate a schedule of 114 trains, for an overall project cost of $165.6 million, or about $2.2 million a mile.22

Amtrak’s contract for electrification between New Haven and Boston was for $321 million (about $2 million a mile), though federal auditors estimated the final cost at closer to $600 million (nearly $4 million a mile).23

Nationwide, there are hundreds of miles of railroad lines with more than a hundred trains a day, where electrification could be viable today. Electrifying the busiest routes would be a forward-looking move to prepare our nation’s transportation system to shift away from fossil fuels. Given the freight railroads’ heavy investment in diesel power, however, the economics do not favor private investment in electrification to guard against fuel shortages that may be a decade or more away. This is a matter of transportation policy, not just profitability, making it an area appropriate for a public-private partnership.

While FreedomCAR and its ilk may one day provide flexible local and individual transportation, national railroad electrification of the busiest routes offers a way, with existing technology, to move large volumes of freight and passengers without necessarily using petroleum.

A good starting point would be the corridors identified by the Federal Railroad Administration for possible high-speed rail development.24 At this point, high-speed trains (110 mph or more)25 on those corridors are mostly a possibility, and federal investment has been limited mostly to grade-crossing elimination. Also, the Federal Railroad Administration has invested in research to develop a fossil-fuel locomotive that approaches the efficiency of an electric locomotive.26 While this is welcome as a means of conservation, it does not do much to meet the long-term need of employing an alternative to fossil fuels.

The designated high-speed corridors not currently electrified total about 8,400 route miles. At $2 million to $4 million a mile, the whole cost of their electrification would be $17 billion to $34 billion. Yes, we are talking real money, though maybe not as much as the federal highway budget for one year (typically about $39 billion27), and a public-private partnership would require private-sector contributions, if not in cash, then in benefits such as right-of-way use and passenger train access.

Electric automobiles for medium- and long-distance trips are still a developing technology. Electric railways are commercial, off-the-shelf technology; the research and development are already done, a lot of it accomplished in Europe. Now, before oil reserves disappear or before another Mideast crisis jeopardizes the western hemisphere’s oil supply, is the time to begin converting America’s trunk railroad lines to electric power—ensuring a different kind of transportation and homeland security.


Click on an end note number to return to the article.

1. Oil” page on the Department of Energy website.

2. CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order—Oil—Production.”

3. CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order—Oil—Consumption.”

4. CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order—Oil—Proved Reserves.”

5. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Annual Energy Outlook 2007.”

6. Norman Friedman, “Oil, Oil, Everywhere?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2008.

7. Graham Jones, “World Oil and Gas ‘Running Out,’”CNN, 2 Oct. 2003: “The world’s oil reserves are up to 80 percent less than predicted, a team from Sweden’s University of Uppsala says. Production levels will peak in about 10 years’ time, they say.”

8. “Oil” page on the Department of Energy website.

9. CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order—Oil—Consumption.”

10. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, position paper on “Hybrid-Electric Vehicles and Electric Transportation,” June 2003.

11. U.S. Department of Energy, “FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership Plan,” March 2006.

12. Public Broadcasting System, “PBS Now,” “Who Killed the Electric Car?June 9, 2006.

13. Association of American Railroads, “Overview of U.S. Freight Railroads,” Jan. 2008.

14. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “Hours-of-Service Regulations—Revised October 1, 2005.”

15. Federal Highway Administration, “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”

16. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, position paper on “Hybrid-Electric Vehicles and Electric Transportation.”

17. Paul M. Weyrich, “Electric Rail by Location in US and Canada,” New Electric Railway Journal, Aug. 1, 2007.

18. Pennsylvania Railroad Electrification,” Transportation History Sources.

19. California Department of Transportation Feasibility Study for Electrifying the Caltrain/PCS Railroad Final Report, October 1992.

20. Caltrain to Start Expanded 98-Train Schedule on March 3,” Caltrain press release, Feb. 19, 2008.

21. Caltrain Projects, “Electrification Program,” 2008.

22. 1992 Morrison-Knudsen Caltrans Caltrain electrification report, pp. 9-1, 9-2.

23. Janice D’Arcy, “Acela: A Poor Track Record,” Hartford (CT) Courant, Sept. 28, 2003.

24. Federal Railroad Administration, “Corridor Descriptions,” Oct. 21, 2005.

25. The Federal Railroad Administration classifies track into categories beginning with Class 1 (15 mph for passenger trains, typically on terminal trackage). Class 5 (80 mph) is too common to be considered high speed. Classes 6, 7, and 8 (110, 125, and 150 mph, respectively) are generally considered high speed in North America. See Kevin P. Keefe, “Track Classifications,” Trains Magazine website.

26. Federal Railroad Administration, “Next Generation High-Speed Rail Technology Demonstration Program,” Oct. 24, 2003.

27. U.S. Department of Transportation, 2007 Budget in Brief.