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Does Electrified Rail Make Sense?

Over at The Oil Drum, there's a fascinating (though long and somewhat technical) post by Alan Drake, an engineering consultant, laying out what it would take to drastically expand electrified rail in the United States. This would be a fairly straightforward way to reduce oil consumption and, for that matter, curb a good chunk of our carbon emissions.

It's worth dividing this blueprint up into a couple of components. The first, easiest step would involve wiring up all of uor existing trains that currently run on diesel and power them with electricity instead. That would reduce our daily oil consumption by about 2 percent—not jaw-dropping, but nothing to shrug at, either. And, as a bonus, electrifying all of the current commuter-rail lines would speed up service and cut travel times by 15 percent or so, since electric trains can accelerate and brake more quickly than their diesel counterparts. Better yet, electrified rail corridors could double as a high-voltage transmission backbone, bringing power to cities from remote wind and solar farms. Drake argues that a few modest federal incentives could bring all this about fairly quickly.

The second step would be to shift most of our long-haul freight shipping from trucks over to rail, which takes some planning and upfront spending, but is an outrageously sane idea on the merits. As Philip Longman explained in a recent Washington Monthly piece, an investment of $250 billion to $500 billion over 20 years would help us move 85 percent of the nation's long-haul trucks off the road and reduce the country's oil consumption by up to 22 percent. The best part? Our economy would also be 13 percent larger in 2030 than it otherwise would be, thanks to improved efficiencies. Fewer trucks on the road also mean fewer traffic accidents and less congestion. So this looks like a no-brainer investment, too.

Then there's the third and thorniest component, which involves expanding intercity and high-speed passenger rail as an alternative to cars and planes. The stimulus bill plunked down $8 billion for passenger rail projects, and Congress might shift even more federal funding toward rail when the big transportation bill comes up for reauthorization later this year. But it's easy to be pessimistic about whether we'll ever see enough money for a grand, Europe-style network of high-speed passenger rail that crisscrosses the country (as opposed to the occasional isolated project—the Acela in the Northeast, or the planned line between San Francisco and Los Angeles).

What would it take, politically, to get such a push? It's possible Congress would start scrambling to shell out big for passenger rail if oil prices shoot back up (as they're likely to do once the world hauls itself out of this recession) and airlines suddenly become economically unviable again, as happened this summer (the recession and oil-price plunge, oddly, gave them a bit of a reprieve). Of course, another possibility is that this all happens, and Congress just rushes to bail out struggling airlines, rather than staging a debate about whether we should spend all those billions on electrified rail networks instead.

(Flickr photo credit: GarySeven)

--Bradford Plumer