Electrified Rail: An Overlooked Mitigation Strategy for Peak Oil?

This a guest post by Alan Drake.


Roger Bezdek is one of the co-authors of the "Hirsch" reports, AFAIK the only official US Government analysis of what to do about Peak Oil. Below is a link to an interview with Dr. Bezdek with links to his two reports.


I have reservations about the proposed mitigation strategies (~$5 trillion for coal-to-liquids, oil shale, enhanced oil recovery and better vehicle efficiency) and believe that he has overlooked mitigation via electrified rail.

I sent him the following email without response.

Dear Mr. Hirsch, Dr. Bezdek and Mr. Wendling:

I believe that your two reports for the Department of Energy on Peak Oil overlooked the best single option in dealing with this problem. I have attached two related papers of my own for your review and comment before spreading them more widely.

The best solution, in my opinion, is for you to simply incorporate them into your suggested mitigation strategies as an addendum and I would be willing to co-operate fully in that. However, I will try to promote this option as public policy in any case.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

Dr. Bezdek will be a speaker at the ASPO conference in Boston (I will be moderating a Saturday after conference workshop). In that context, I sent him the following eMail. It summarizes in advocacy form my basic policy for dealing with Peak Oil.

Dear Dr. Bezdek:

The short version of my position is that the best Peak Oil mitigation options are two related steps that we can take. They may, or may not be enough, but they are the best and first steps that we should take.

One - Electrify our freight railroads and replace the double and triple tracks taken up in recent decades. (Double track has ~x4 the capacity of single track). See EU & Japan. Russia finished electrifying the Trans-Siberian in 2002 and finished to Murmansk on the Arctic Ocean last Christmas Eve. There are no technical obstacles to electrification or higher general freight capacity that cannot be resolved in one decade.

Two simple public policy steps are required IMO to implement. Any railroad that electrifies is exempt from property taxes (also encourages track improvements to meet demand) and putting tolls on Interstate highways (as Eisenhower originally wanted to do). Accelerated depreciation is always good.

In twenty years, over 2 million barrels/day of refined diesel could be saved in a Peak Oil environment.

Two - Build Urban Rail on an urgent basis. Start on ~$120 billion in plans (some active, some dusty) within one to three years. As the first wave is under construction, design a second larger wave and a still larger third wave, all completed within 20 years.

The United States built subways in the larger cities and streetcar lines in 500 cities and towns (as small as 18,000) from 1897 to 1916. The US had about 90 million people, 3% of today's GNP and primitive technology (coal, mules and sweat). Can we do one fourth as much today with x30 the GNP and modern technology ?

Public policies were successful in transforming our urban form from 1950 to 1970. Virtually every downtown was abandoned and most pre-WW II housing was "trashed". We can transform our urban form in twenty years, that is a demonstrated historical fact.

Public Policy ? 90% federal funding (same as Interstate Highways) and reduced bureaucracy. I prefer a two path approach (federal process & get 90% funding up front OR build it locally and get results based funding ex post facto).

Oil saved ? DC Metro saves 1/2 to 1 billion gallons/year, directly and indirectly. Multiple x50 over twenty years with an urgent, but not crash effort. Peak Oil will push Transit Orientated Development more than VA loans and highways pushed "white flight" decades ago.

Two and a half - Promote electric trolley buses. Public Policy: FTA funding at 92% for electric trolley buses, 75% for fossil fuel buses.

Promote transportation bicycling. Make it patriotic to use less energy, especially oil.

Electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion and rail is much more efficient than rubber tires. Shifting freight from heavy trucks to electrified railroads replaces 20 BTUs of diesel with 1 electricity BTU. Most recent data is that 0.17% of US electricity is used for transportation (including 8,000 subway cars of NYC). The electricity needed for the steps above can easily come from either conservation or new wind installations.

Unlike CTL, oil shale and EOR, my proposals have positive feedback with Peak Oil. The worse things get, the more oil they "produce".

Peak Oil will be a large and brutal hammer. People and industry will flock to the shelter of non-oil transportation IF IT EXISTS! Otherwise, they will just be beaten down.

I have more (a semi-high speed passenger and freight rail network, geothermal heat pumps & solar water heating to replace oil & NG, compressed NG for specialty transportation, bio sources of monomers, Strategic Rail Reserve to supplement the SPR, nationwide HV DC electricity grid) beyond these basic steps.

BTW, my favorite example is Switzerland 1945. A western industrialized democracy maintained a decent quality of life with 1/400th of US oil use/capita. Electric transport, bicycles and shoe leather maintained society and the economy.

Three years later, oil demand exploded by a factor of 30. If the US used as much/capita, we could join OPEC as the #3 or #4 oil exporter.

Switzerland today (since 2000) is working on a 31 billion Swiss franc program to replace heavy trucks with (hydro) electric rail. Adjust for population and currency and it is equivalent to the US spending $1 trillion over 20 years improving our railroads.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

I also sent this follow-up eMail, where he pointed out that a rail line to Dulles had not been built.

Dear Roger,

It is a matter of priorities and finances. I am familiar with the Tyson's Corner-Dulles extension (and the Purple Line to the north, and the 40 miles of streetcars that DC wants to build. I have helped DC DOT with their streetcar plans).

The TC-Dulles line did not make the cut for the first 103 miles of Washington Metro. There is an unwritten rule at FTA, "one line at a time". So DC Metro could not get serious until they finished the Green Line and the first 3 mile extension beyond the original plan.

The Bush Administration effectively cut federal matching from 80% to 50% AND tightened criteria in response to a growing demand for more Urban Rail. This "raised the bar" but the need for the TC-Dulles line increased as well. The FTA also slowed disbursements by increasing study requirements, etc. Rationing by queue.

It is my understanding that the first half, to Tyson's Corner, is in detailed engineering design. The first attempt, using a subway in Tyson's Corner came in too high to meet current criteria, so they are looking at corners to cut. Elevated rather than subway is being considered, despite operational issues that this will cause.

Grant 90% federal funding and ground will be broken on TC-Dulles within 18 months.

The slowness you see is the deliberate result of federal decisions. OTOH, the French (who are building a tram line in every city of 250,000 that "votes correctly") are renowned for the quickness of their study, design and approval process. This from a nation well known for endless bureaucracy! But they see strategic value of these tram lines and react accordingly (as they did with nuclear power).

I admit that no endangered species reports were required in 1903 before NYC subways could be built, but there is fundamentally no good reason that the process should take more than 6 months longer today than it did 100 years ago to design and build a subway or surface rail line. We have computers, not slide rules and paper, a century of experience, and modern technology, not just "coal, mules and sweat".

I can forward more information and I look forward to discussions with you. I am arriving a day early at Buckminister Hotel and staying two days late for sight seeing. If your schedule allows this might be an ideal time to meet.

Best Hopes,


Attached is a personal list of Urban Rail projects with existing design work and route selection already done. I am sure that I have missed some. Depending upon the depth of dust, etc. on these plans, almost all could be under construction within 1 to 3 years if it were a national priority. Simply giving 90% federal funding would be all that would be required in most cases

The following list was composed by Lyndon Henry and the author from memory and likely overlooks some projects. The degree of engineering on file for each project varies significantly, and much of the information is dated. However, all of the projects noted below could start construction in one to three years if it was an urgent national priority.

A rough guess is that the projects below would cost roughly $125 billion to complete.

Albuquerque - Light Rail and Commuter Rail plans
Atlanta - Beltway Light Rail, Northern suburbs Light Rail extension, downtown streetcar
Austin - Two Light Rail Lines plus Commuter rail and downtown streetcars
Baltimore - East-West Light Rail Line, 4 mile extension to current subway
Birmingham AL - Streetcar lines
Boston - All rail plans promised as environmental offset to "Big Dig"
Buffalo - Planned extensions to current light rail subway
Charlotte - All plans currently scheduled
Chicago - Expansions to Metra, South Shore Line
Cincinnati -Light Rail plans voted down
Columbus OH - Light Rail and streetcar lines
Corpus Christi TX - Streetcar line
Dallas - All plans through 2015 and all 2015-2030 options (roughly 145 mile system)
Dayton OH - Streetcar plans
Denver - 117 miles of Light Rail and Commuter Rail (already locally funded)
Ft. Lauderdale - Light Rail and streetcar plans under active development
Honolulu - Line currently under development
Houston - All plans voted for, 65 new miles light rail 8 miles commuter
Indianapolis - Light Rail Line plans
Kansas City - Light Rail Line proposed
Las Vegas - Light Rail plans
Little Rock - Short extensions of existing streetcar line, Light Rail line
Los Angeles - Red Line "Subway to the Sea", Vermont Avenue subway, XX miles of Light Rail, electric trolley bus plan, electrify commuter rail
Louisville KY - Light Rail line plans
Madison WS - Streetcar and Commuter Rail plans
Memphis - At least two Light Lines in comprehensive plan
Miami - 103 miles of elevated Rapid Rail (subway type) + Miami Beach streetcar (already locally funded) 90% of the population would be within 3 miles of a station and half within 2 miles of a station
Minneapolis-St. Paul - Central Light Rail connector between the cities
Missoula MN - Commuter Rail
Nashville - Commuter Rail in process
New Orleans - Desire Streetcar Line, Riverfront Streetcar Line extensions
New York City - 2nd Avenue Subway, 3rd Tunnel under Hudson, Penn to Grand Central connection, Staten Island Light Rail, New Jersey Light Rail extension, commuter rail improvements
Ogden UT - Streetcar plans
Orange County CA - Center Line Light Rail plan voted down
Orlando - Light Rail plan voted down
Phoenix - 90 miles of Light Rail already approved
Pittsburgh - Two Light Rail Lines north from current, under construction line
Portland - Green Line (both routes, one funded, other "studied" for future build)
Raleigh-Durham NC - Streetcar plans
Sacramento - Additional Light Rail expansion
San Antonio - Light Rail plans voted down
St. Louis - All plans evaluated, perhaps 100 mile system
Salem OR - Streetcar plans
Salt Lake City - 90 miles of Light Rail, streetcar and Commuter Rail (vote soon to accelerate)
San Diego - Light Rail spur to North, another to West
San Francisco - New TransBay tunnel, trolley line, BART extension, eBART
San Jose - BART extension, several Light Rail extensions
Seattle - Proposed north extension
Spokane - Light Rail line planned
Tampa - 1992 and later plans
Toledo OH - Streetcar plans
Tuscon AZ - Streetcar plans
Washington DC - Tyson's Corner-Dulles extension, Purple Line, 40 miles of streetcar lines in DC
Winston-Salem NC - Streetcar plans

As I mentioned yesterday in the comments , this really is one of the big ideas I learned from TOD over the last year. It's funny that as people continue to search for some exotic cure-all liquid fuel (ethanol, coal to liquids, biodiesel, hydrogen, compressed natural gas), we mostly ignore one of our biggest old technology assets - electricity.

And to repeat another comment I made yesterday, here's my thinking on electricity:

    * You can make it from pretty much anything, including renewables
    * For the fossil fuels, it's much more feasible to sequester the carbon (and other nasties) from fixed sources like power plants, than from millions of tailpipes.
    * It doesn't require many exotic new technologies. Better batteries seem to be the major technology need.
    * It works well for mass transit (subways, streetcars, buses, etc), long haul freight and short haul automobiles.
    * An electric driven transportation system re-centers life around towns, cities and transportation hubs.

It certainly won't be cheap to build out the infrastructure required, but over the long term, I think it might be our best shot. At least that's what all the evidence I see now tells me.

As for NYC, the major issue is time I feel. We are eventually going to complete the projects you list, but it's all being done piecemeal in segments and it will take decades to make a big impact. Replacing many bus routes with electrified vehicles that have dedicated right of way building off many of the proposed Bus Rapid Transit Routes would be a quick additional increase to capacity.

I also recently wrote about extending regional passenger rail service back to Scranton, PA and then up to Binghamton, NY as a way to re-center those exurban areas. Much of the ROW still is in place.

Thanks for all the great work on this Alan.

One other fact: Electric traction is less wasteful than internal combustion in providing for mobility.  If modern civilization is to continue to be mobile it is going to have to depend more on the underrated electron and not liquid fuel, be it petro- or bio- in origin.  

A multi-pronged approach would be best.  I'd shy away from putting all of our collective eggs in light rail or even rail in general.  In many cases it does make sense.  But other decisions transportation and land use-related must be made:

1) Are we going to try and preserve everything in existence or will we selectively abandon (and salvage for scrap) certain types of settlement or whole regions?
 -why try and extend service if the area has no longterm prospects.  
2)The opposite now, are there areas near existing infrastructure that ought to be more intensively developed to better utilze those resources?
3)Are there new forms of settlement going to form that concentrate residents in a single place, putting them close to agricultural resources, education, simple goods manufacture and basic service providers.  Think to various relocalization projects underway or discussed?  
4) What are we going to do about the "marginal places" where the addition of missing land uses (eg adding commercial and agricultural activities) make the place viable


  1. sidewalks.  duh
  2. bike paths/lanes and improved parking.  Most close tasks can be reasonablly be accomplished via biking. Definately short distance commuting.
  3. bikes and bike technology - Improve the bike offerings to encorage: all-weather comfort, electric assist, expanded cargo capacity, safe children transportation, better delivery applications.  Many of these already exist (I use some already) but would benefit from lower costs and higher awareness.
4)Ridesharing/hitching network.  How many times have you gone somewhere only to find out someone else was going that way too?  A system that matches drivers to passengers would definately encourage more car pooling
5)Rail electrification. start with the mainlines and go from there. Encourage freight to be shipped this way.  container use helps this.  Double tracking and selective re-alignments in many areas will make freight travel faster and allow for the re-introduction of passenger rail.  Reactivate older branches and ROWs.
  1. Urban rail extensions.  Use the appropriate rail tech.  Large cities should stick to heavy rail.  Can you believe one of the 2nd Avenue subway alternatives was light rail?  thats not appropriate.  Intermediate sized cities will benefit from light rail, the more grade seperated the better. If some small towns have legacy streetcar infrastructure in place and can put it to use, more power to them.  
  2. Personal Rapid Transit- In certain circumstances, PRT would be ideal, mostly in large mixed use campus settings with no large peaks in travel demands.
  3. Internet and telecommunications:  Even better, if you can accomplish something online or virtually, then you DONT have to travel somewhere.  How many trips has the internet already saved us?
  4. Hybrid or battery trolley busses- Some places and locations it isnt practical to install rail.  In those cases run busses that can: (a) draw electricity from a wire in denser urban settings (b) run off battery power for longer stretches like up to 5-10 miles between wires and/or (c) run an internal combustion engine at an efficient setting to power a generator to keep charging the batteries.  This technology exists.  Plus if any transportation mode will benefit from fuel cells, the bus will be it.  A trolleybus-fuelcell combo may be the long term goal.  If we can only have to manufacture H2 from water via renewables, applying the fuel to municipal fleet vehicles could be probably quite manageable.  Again, use the overhead wires for urban areas, fuel cells for those areas in between
  5. Electric Cars.  Screw the ICE engine.  Scratch the fuel cell.  Plug in hybrids (near term) and straight-up electric cars need to be the way of the future.  If we cant do that, at least mode choices 1-9 are still available.  I'd advocate a stronger future for electric cars IF we had...
  6. Dual-Mode. -  Even better.  Imagine a network of elevated monorail-styled track network that you'd drive your electic vehicle onto and proceeding automatically, drawing current directly from the rail.  Dual mode combines the practicality of the electric car (short distance travel) and gives it long distance potential.  Now you could drive only up to 5-10 miles, enter the rail system, being guided automatically and then exiting and driving the remaining 5 or so miles to your destination.  Public transit applications would include creating bus runs that took advantage of rail locations to create numerous flexible running lines, dial a ride and so on.  A simple offline station (like for PRT) would allow totally automated PRT style use within the rail network.
  7. Sail assisted shipping.  Maybe not going back to preindustrial transoceanic vessels but more modern sail arrays to reduce fuel usage.
  8. Dirigibles.  If for some reason we can no longer fuel our airplanes, we could still take to the sky in airships.  Just need some hydrogen and fair weather to make this work.  Any takers?  Granted these things didnt have the best track record in the thirties but is there any reason why they wouldnt work with some more modern design elements.

If all else fails, walking works for most of us.
Hah, replying to my own post...  

Bottom line is, if the settlement is light and the travel demands (peak usage) is light, personal vehicles and bicycles are appropriate.  As distances decrease and densities increase bus service and biking are best.  Higher densities and demand loads require rail of some flavor, reserving the heavy rail subways for those crush load demands of Tokyo or the like. Long distance trips by large numbers of people are best mad via train.

We need to make our transportation choices based on our land use patterns and if we cant make a particular mode of transit work, then perhaps we should adjust our land uses

unplanner, I hope you will forgive me.

I'm always really nervous about this tactic. But I feel I have to pursue it. I learned it from Jerome a Paris. (Lie) I knew it way before that.

Follow my lead.

Don't ever reply to your own post. Some of the best writers in the blogosphere fall prey to this. Westexas among them. Never ever do this. I'm hoping to eradicate this process. Oily.

Is anyone here at TOD connected with the McCain campaign?  Following on Jim Burke's excellent proposal on yesterday's Drumbeat, Alan ought to be promoted for a position as an undersecretary in the Dept. of Transportation in whichever party takes the 2008 presidential election.  
I don't know whether Alan is interested in politics, but I wanted to make sure we help promote his hard work by featuring some of it as essays. I have always been a fan of Alan's ideas, and hopefully this will catch the attention of someone in politics with a passion for this area.

Thanks for your tireless work on this, Alan.

Hi Love Oregon.

Well, actually I didn't suggest Alan for Secretary of Transport, though that might not be a bad idea.

What I did do was suggest/request that TOD do a special thread "advice to the next president" where we could air the various components of what they might do to alleviate GW, reliance on Middle Eastern Oil, and mitigate PO.

The presidential candidates are putting their position papers together right now, and we have some hope of influencing their directions if we compile our thoughts now.

Yesterday someone posted a link to the NEI's Energy Markets Report which has a spreadsheet listing all new power stations for 2006-2010 (on page 8).

For next year, there will be 8 times as much wind energy install as coal (11,754 MW vs. 1,450 MW).

Unfortunately, this situation will reverse itself by 2009.

2009 & 2010 should see 18,469 MW & 15,142 MW respectively of coal burning plants. Wind drops to 742 MW and 687 MW respectively.

I don't know if wind has a much shorter lead time, and (hopefully) there will be far more wind installed than projected. However, looking at the enormous surge of coal generating plants coming on line at the end of the decade, we have a very good idea of where electricity for electric transport will be coming from.

Mountaintop removal for fuel.

"I Love Mountains.org" was advertising with TOD for awhile, and I would strongly urge everyone to look at their website and check out their video (they are working with conjunction with Google Earth to show the full extent of mountain top remove in the Appalacians).

Anybody advocating for greater reliance on coal really needs to look at this issue.

I have always been a fan of Alan's ideas

Would those be the 'save New orleans' no matter what, the New Orleans/New York/San Franscicso shoudl be saved no matter what, or the live in a shack without water-sewer services ideas?

This is a fine post about what he's doing for rail.  Rail is a fine plan to keep a transportation grid working (although some people are gonna end up loosing their land via Emm. Domain as rail is re-asserted)   Electrified rail is a great 'excess wind/PV power exists on the grid and can't be stored' application.

But not everthing Alan says is a good idea.

Its like opposing making ethyl alcohol from corn.   Something has to keep Oil CEO fueled up....if he wasn't drinking, would he be posting?

Probably not. But I've got another question. If I wasn't posting, would I be drinking? Philosophical, I realize. But it has to be asked. Especially since I'm not drinking. What is it with you guys and alcohol? Haven't you discovered harder drugs yet?
Pragmatic minds never work out in government positions.
Its like inserting hot coals in a stack of snowballs.

How true !

Best Hopes,


I thinks this will be repeated again and again.
This list of projects in major cities along with proposed budget of $125 billion is VERY realistic and something the entire country could get their head around.

If Obama is reading this (or any other forward-thinking politician from any party)...this is a step...a big baby step to energy independence for this country.  More and more people want this.  

It means jobs, national focus on doing SOMETHING..anything about our energy problems, a focused national population on a positive project that builds our pride instead of negative projects that bring us shame, hope for our future.

I believe it will pay any candidate off in spades to consider these ideas seriously.

My 2 cents worth.

Thanks Alan and Robert for the work (research and PR).

folks, seriously, this is an article you can send to anyone who will listen.  Obama, McCain, WHOEVER.  It's not that hard to do with teh internets...
It might also make sense to have some post something on other blogs like DailyKos. I really liked this post because it listed set of projects that are in the works that we could speed up if we desire to do it. Its really pragmatic but targeted. Looking quickly they seem broadly distributed as well.

So I know Professor also says to make links to other sites. How exactly do these work? Are these sites that aggregates links to many places?

One of the details that will need to be worked out is getting all of the new trains produced, and then maintaining them all.

I read in the Atlanta paper that they are having real problems keeping an adequate number of train cars in service. The frequency of repair, especially of the motorized doors, is extremely high, even of the new cars that have been delivered. They have been forced to cannibalize some of the new cars, to keep as many as possible operating. I think that part of the problem is that the cars are made overseas, and long-term support is a problem.

At the 2004 APTA conference (where I presented a paper) that had one session devoted just to doors !

I sat through part of one presentation (boring) but I think that there are good solutions out there.

Due to "Buy America" provisions, foreign designs are built in this country.  A factory is set up, cars for one or more cities are built, factory dismantled.  Support from foreign sources.

One purpose of the strategic rail reserve (Step 5 in below link)


Is to create a larger reserve fleet and to help create a stable US industry.

Best Hopes,


This is a link to the Atlanta Jounal article.
Then how about installing doors that passengers open manually?    For safety purposes, it seems to me that an automatic locking mechanism while in motion would be sufficient.
From conversations I've had with people at MARTA, it appears that the door opening mechanism in the new cars were overengineered.  If you look at the mechanism for the doors on the older cars, it's quite simple but on the new cars it looks like the game mouse trap.  I use MARTA everyday to get to and from work and I've noticed that it's almost always the new cars that have problems with door sticking open or acting wobbly when the car is in motion.

As far as the reliability of the new cars goes, since every transit system has different cars, everything in them appear to be unique.  There is no savings from producing in large scale and after a few year the parts become scarace because no one wants to warehouse or product parts for vehicles with so few numbers in service.

If the nation standardized around just two or three vehicle types for each of the different types of rail (heavy, light, streetcar), it could both reduce cost and increase reliability.  Obviously if this happened then the more rail lines in service would just make the savings and reliability go up even further.


Great work first off!  Here's a suggestion though.  Turn that email into a easier to read bullet format.  I got bogged down once you started using

Oil saved ? DC Metro saves 1/2 to 1 billion gallons/year, directly and indirectly. Multiple x50 over twenty years with an urgent, but not crash effort.

Just a thought so it's easier to grasp and for those you are sending too since they are probably short on time and want the meat of your argument staring them in the face.

Just a thought.

For interest, here is the map of the UK rail system, with those tracks which are electrified highlighted. As you can see, much of the London commuter traffic and many of the long distance lines have been electrified for years.
Thanks for posting that. I was looking for something like this last night. I will be moving to Aberdeen in a few months, and I have been intensely studying the rail options there. I am trying to position myself for a very low-energy lifestyle.
Robert, I'm jealous!  I want to go to Scotland!  Makes me think of 'Local Hero', which if you haven't seen it, you should!

"If the Oil's out there, a Knox Engineer will find it, cause a little time may be all we have left.."

Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Denis Lawson
Great Soundtrack by Mark Knopfler!

Bob Fiske

One of the best movies of all time.
I think this is great. But our smaller yet sprawling metros won't be fully served by rail transit any time soon. What about the electric catenary bus, as is used in Seattle, San Francisco and Cambridge, MA? Granted, rolling resistance is greater with rubber tire, but capital costs are far less, as existing roadways can be used.
from my too long missive:

[Step] Two and a half - Promote electric trolley buses. Public Policy: FTA funding at 92% for electric trolley buses, 75% for fossil fuel buses.

I did not emphasis it (in part because buses do not generate TOD, and the indirect energy savings of TOD).  Yet, post-Peak Oil, transit agencies will be hard pressed to outbid others for diesel and this is an oil & energy savings.

Hope this helps


BTW, San Angelo Texas built a 3 mile streetcar line in 1908.  In the 1910 census they had a population of 17,8xx.

One of the battles we fight is the lack of urgency on the part of the general public.  

I am struck by the number of places where I read people saying that the new discovery in GOMEX somehow "disproves" Peak Oil, the number of people who don't compare the maximum size of the discovery against total world consumption (an easy way to shake people up).  And for that matter, the number of people who see lower gas prices and think that life has gone back to normal.  With this lack of urgency, the public will be somewhat less interested in alternate solutions such as rail..

On the other hand, I do see some signs here and there that make me optimistic, but the pace of progress is frustratingly slow, and it is hard to say whether it is enough or not.


I appreciate the advantages of rail vs trucking, but I cannot find data which provides a basis for comparing a diesel-electric-engine-driven system to an electified rail system from an energy demand perspective.  Years back I saw some work which pointed to the advantages of electrified rail in mountainous zones, but not elsewhere, and as I recall the analysis did not look at the energy cost of system vs system.

Can you provides links to material which would support your advocacy of electrified rail in the stead of the current diesel-electric motivated system?  Or journal articles, as the case may be?


A short quick answer ATM.  Hopefully more later.

My bookmarks have:





(The Indian Rail site has a wealth of very detailed infromation and articles about old vs. new electrification but nothing on converting diesel to electric, despite ongoing conversion in India).

I have some more on my other computer.

I have had discussions with Ed Tennyson who supervised the electrification of track from Philadelphia to Harrisburg (he also testified against GM in the trolley case where they were fined $1,000).  In his 80s but still QUITE sharp.

Also Bob Reuter who worked on Amtraks' electrification from New Haven to Boston.

From both I got the "rule of thumb" that energy requirements for drop by x3 in the mountains or congested urbanized areas (lots of regenerative braking) and by x2.5 on the plains.

Larry Conrad, VP Engineering of Brookville Equipment (last US small locomotive manufacturer) said that all electrics were "more than twice as energy efficient".  They make small electric locos for coal mines, tunneling, etc. and are familar with all types.

This rule of thumb predates the new GE diesel-electric locomotive P-42 with about 8% fuel savings.

Another way of looking at this is both loco types have electric final drives.  One uses a small diesel ICE generator with zero transmission losses, the other uses grid power with some transmission & transforming losses.  Only small islands & emergency generators use diesel generators due their poor economics, a result of their relatively low efficiency and expensive fuel.

The relative thermodynamic efficiencies of grid generation vary (wind lowest, nuke next, coal slightly better (low 40% at best), NG CCGT at close to 60%, hydro at over 95% but this analysis is nonsense given the different fuel types).  So I just did an electrical BTU vs. diesel BTU delivered at the loco (as do most other people).  All of the well known losses in the diesel ICE in order to generate electricity fall on the diesel mode vs. the electric mode since both end up supplying electricity to an electric motor.  Electric locos lose perhaps 1% in an on board transformer vs losses in an ICE motor.

Add to this the recovery of regenerative braking.

My "20 diesel BTUs exchanged for 1 electric BTU" claim came from a x8.1 gain to rubber tired heavy trucks to diesel-electric rail with an additional savings of 2.5 to 3 by going all electric, with a potential 6% to 10% T&T loss in electricity.  Using a more exact number than "20" would give a misleading sense of accuracy which is not supported by the variations in reality.

Hope this helps.  If not please contact me after Boston ASPO meeting (time limited till then).

Best Hopes,


I have done some searching and calculating regarding energy efficiency based on real-world systems.  You can find the results here.  There are plenty of links from that page.

The most striking thing is the advantage of rail over road and air, but electrification clearly has its advantages as well.  Even a 300 km/h train (TGV Duplex) can manage over 500 passenger-mpg (gasoline equivalent) in actual service (they manage 80% occupancy, apparently).  A "standard" large North American commuter train (F59PH pulling 10 bilevel coaches) with 80% of seats filled, and operating at much lower speeds, obviously, manages "only" 330 pax-mpg.

Yes !!  I remember Strickland's table but could not find it :-(

Please note that the high speed rail with electric power gets 500+ pax-mile/gallon equilavent whilst a slower (aerodynamic drag is largest drag down till about 40 mph for most rail) diesel-electric gets "just" 330 pax-mile/gallon.

Given that aerodynamic drag increases as the square of speed at lower speeds, this supports (suggestive not conclusive) my statement.  An electric commuter train might get 1,000 pax-mile.  I would like to get MARC fuel #s (they run both electric & diesel-electric locos in commuter service from Maryland into DC).

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

Thanks, Alan and JZG.  I'll pore over these links and may be back at a later date with some remarks.

Any comments on the work of Roger Kemp and the UK debate on operating rail system efficiencies?

Environmental impact of high speed rail (2004, ppt
, 2006 htm)
    Take the car and save the planet (IEEE Power Engineer, 2004,
   Transport energy consumption (2004, pdf)

Comparative Analysis of Energy Consumption and CO Emissions of Road Transport and Combined Transport Road/Rail (pdf)

Rail loses the environmental advantage (Informed Sources,      6/04)

It looks like the take-home message is that to optimize energy efficiency these systems must be carefully designed and more carefully scheduled and operated. Otherwise, off-peak load factors kill their inherent efficiency advantage.

For the US (my main concern) I am against TGV/ICE type high speed rail, in part because it cannot handle freight as well.

I would prefer a limited network of semi-High Speed rail with freight at a maximum 100 mph (160 kph) and average 90 mph (144 kph) and pax at max 110 mph (176 kph) and average 100 mph (160 kph).  

The network would connect larger cities within 250 miles (400 km) of each other in a chain.  The current Amtrak NorthEast corridor would be a start.  DC-Richmond-Charlotte (spur to Atlanta)-Jacksonville-Orlando (spur to Tampa)-Ft.Lauderdale-Miami would be one chain.  Philly-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Detroit-Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City-Tulsa-OK City-Dallas(Ft Worth) (spur to Austin-San Antonio)-Houston would be another.  Another chain from San Francisco to San Diego (spur Phoenix-Tuscon).

The electricity savings from slowing down (consumption basically at square of the speed) out weigh all other factors in energy savings.

Semi-HSR freight would be faster than trucking for perishable & priority goods and time competitive with air (with good management, just a bit slower).  Lower costs could steal some of the air traffic as well.

Sorry, but I do not have time to study the links ATM.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

Many European cities also use electrified bus systems  that run off the powergrid via a system of overhead cables(Salzburg, Austria, is the example most familiar to me).  Maybe the infrastructure for this would be even less expensive than for street-cars?
Seattle has Electrified buses in major routes as well.
Electrified rail? Why? Amerika Heil! Vee have gazoleene all over zee place.
According to Hirsch&Co, oil shale and coal will fill the gap. God help up us.

Alan: thanks a lot and keep on the good work. As an european though I can not point out that there is a one major chicken&egg problem in your ideas for promoting mass transit: In order people to like and demand mass transit you need to have small, walkable and friendly neighbourhoods. On the other hand in order people to want to live in such neighbourhoods they need to have viable transportation options. I think that what your plan can achieve in our current arrangement at best is creating "pockets" of walkable communities around rail stations. I know that it could be a start but it is still too far from full-scale urban living.

"According to Hirsch&Co, oil shale and coal will fill the gap. God help up us."

Amen to that!

One of the few good things I can say about Bush's bankrupting of the government is that it will lack the funds to destroy the American West and turbocharge global warming, by subsidizing oil shales, etc.

But besides that, there are enormous gains to be made through conservation. For instance, as we have frequently noted here, autos are less than 2% efficient (20% engine efficiency to move a 10% payload -- both rounding up.)

Similarly, most households could get by on the electric or NG energy they use on clothes dryers. These atrociously wasteful appliances can be replaced by a $2 clothes line and $3 worth of clothes pins.

The only thing that will move consumers is price. If the market is politicised, people will "demand" that their wasteful habits be subsidized.

Therefore, I say "bring on the shortages, bring on the high prices." Only then will this monumental waste get squeezed out of the system.

These atrociously wasteful appliances can be replaced by a $2 clothes line and $3 worth of clothes pins

I quite agree !

But do we have the industrial capacity to make that many wooden clothespins ?  Or must we import Chinese plastic clothespins to meet the potential demand ?  With oil depleting where do we get the plastic from ?  And the steel for the springs ?

How long will it take to ramp up production of clothes lines ?  A nearly moribund industry that has surely been out sourced ?

Remember, we are talking about 100 million clothesline less households that MUST be converted !

Great idea, but is it practical or even feasible ?



Hahaha, thanks Alan :)
I guess I have to disagree with attacking clothes driers.
I use an electric drier. 240v x 20a = 4800 watts
4800w/1000 = 4.8 kw x 2 hrs week (1 hour per load)x 4 weeks = 38.4 kwh. 38.4 kwh x $0.10 per kwh = $3.84 per month.
It isn't rational to expect people to hang clothes outside to dry in rainy,windy,cold, snowy, freezing weather.
Considering that the avarage household uses between 1200 and 2000 kwh per month of electricity in their home I think there are much better places to focus on energy reduction that will gain much more in reductions with less adverse effects.
My biggest uses of electricity are: water heater, water pressure pump and running furnace (heating/cooling). Finding ways to cut usage in those areas will be much more productive and better accepted (especially by those that have to do the laundry <BG>)
Hi Jon. Thanks for responding.

There are two bottom lines in your post: 38 KWH, and $3.84.

$4  a month for electricity is not noticable; however, if you think of it as strip mined coal, it adds up. It adds up to mountain top removal.

I live in an old copper mining town, with an abandoned pit. Since the technology is getting better, they have been thinking of reviving the pit and doubling it in size. I asked a miner friend how long it would take to remove the oak covered hills (1,200' tall) in the way (thinking it would be a couple months). He eyed it, and pointed out that this is a small pit, so they wouldn't bother bringing in the big equipment; but with the medium sized rigs he figured a couple days.

Destroying the earth is actually quite affordable. And since all we see is the price of the end product -- whether copper or electricity, we are shielded from what is done in your names (or for our consumer convenience.

As for the 38 KWh/month; that is more than my wife and I use per month TOTAL. Actually, including our electric scooter, we probably use 20 to 25 KWh per month. And we live quite comfortably, since our tiny home is extremely energy efficient.

People like having mechanical slaves, and become addicted to them very quickly. Unfortunately, those slaves entail things like mountain top removal.

I guess the only way to reach consumers is politically, to make it far more difficult to remove mountain tops; thus increasing the price of coal and hence of electricity. Then people will have reason to conserve, and for producers to switch to wind.  

I have to say that I feel much of electric clothes drying is an obscene waste. It uses a huge amount of totally needless electricity. My biggest beef is that CCRs all over the entire country actually ban clothes drying outside - by far the easiest and most efficient use of solar power available today. Of course there are exceptions - the rainy days, the shirt you need tonight, etc. However, we should be blessing hanging clothes to dry, not villifying it!  We are in CA and dry our clothes outside from March till now and later. It saves hundreds of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually for almost no effort.

I also know that most families around us run their dryers much more than 2 hours/wk. I would say next door (with 2 small children) it is closer to 5-6 hours/wk - and they wonder why their bill is high!

I agree and saw an artcile about Portland Oregon that illustrated that point.  One blogger described Portland as Vienna (Wein ?) surrounded by Phoenix Arizona.

Miami is a good example of what "could be".  With population as it is today, 90% will live within 3 miles (4.8 km) of an elevated Rapid Rail "Metro" and half will live within 2 miles (3.2 km).  Many within bicycling range in their climate.  Add new TOD around most stations and Miami can become quite livable for many without a car.  All towers will be within 3 blocks of a station (happening already, in 2004 15 of 23 cranes were within 3 blocks of a station).

South Denver and Salt Lake City also have plans that will impact a good % of their people.

As posr-Peak Oil hits people, they will be driven closer to these oasis of non-oil transportation.  I want to provide the carrot, Peak Oil will a big enough stick !

Best Hopes,


Hmm...quiet today.

Alan, I would say that in the blogosphere silence is agreement and your proposals are a no-brainer at this point. Now all we need are some brave politicians to start talking about how turn of the 20th century technology is going to be the wave of the future. No new techno-gadets, no exotic agri-fuels, no hydrogen, just good old fashioned electrified rail.

Put people to work on - Good union jobs with health benefits.

Invest in renewable sources of electricity.

Build vibrant walkable communities instead of isolated suburban boringvilles.

New Orleans is a perfect place to start a rail service. The city is sinking, move the residents to higher ground and build a state of the art rail system to where the jobs are. The tourists would use it too. They could charge the tourists extra, of course.;-)
Well given the below link, how could such a plan NOT work out!
Hello AlanfromBigEasy,

BIG THXS for all your efforts!!!  I have posted before how much I am in favor of your proposals.

If the US, by some miracle, suddenly went whole hog on RRs & Transit oriented Development [TOD] do we still have sufficient steel-making and metal-lathing capacity internal to our shores?  Or would this essential infrastructure need a drastic ramping up first to kickstart RR & TOD?  I sure hope this is not an industry that has already been outsourced to China or someplace else.

Do you have any ideas on how fast GM and Ford could retool their factories to support rail & rolling stock: ala WWII shift to tanks and planes?  Or would it be better to let the car mfgs. die and pump the money into expanding the existing rolling stock corps? If we use proven, old designs pumped into computers & CAD, and don't try to re-invent & re-design every detail; the priority is to support quick manufacturing: it seems this retooling shift could be done in just a couple of years.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

The foreign manufacturers that supply Urban Rail rolling stock face a "Buy America" policy for FTA funded projects so they set up shop for a few years and almost always close their doors after a few contracts, and then reopen them again elsewhere.

A list of these closed shops, from Pittsburg CA to Pittsburg PA would be a good place to start.

New Orleans has built 32 streetcars "in house" in the transit agencies 1884 Carrolton barn to our own design (improved 1923 Perley Thomas).  Not simple but possible !  Also rebuilt one 1897 workcar and 35 1923/24 Perley Thomas's in house.

If we slow domestic automobile manufacturing up, there will be plenty of steel.  The New Orleans streetcars had 95% or 96% US content (FTA requires only 80% US content and gets 80% to 81%).  Corten is a favorite steel alloy and that may get tighter (often used for bridges).  But a slowing of new highways should free up capacity there as well.

Best Hopes,


"A rough guess is that the projects below would cost roughly $125 billion to complete."

Only $125B.  Gosh, isnt that money better spent securing our Iraqi oil--er, promoting democracy in Iraq?  Just think, that small sum will provide us with another 3-5 months of staying the course.

All of this is well and fine...but will never be accomplished without a minimum 25c/g tariff on imported oil. How did 50c on imported ethanol get thru so easily?

I think one of the biggest issues facing road based transport regardless of how the vehicals will be fueled will be huge increases in the cost of road maintenance and construction.

We are already seeing this today and since road construction is tied to the price of oil directly in the price of asphalt and indirectly in the cost of equipment and fuel its easy to see road construction and maintenance costs being far higher than they are today once oil becomes expensive.

Rail maintence is not cheap.


Although rail also requires maintenance it seems that some of the modern methods can reduce maintenance costs significantly.

Also I'm not sure about the difference between light rail maintenance and rail that also carries heavy freight trains.

But their is no large requirement for oil products for rail.
Its steal concrete and wood so the costs and maintenance schedules are more a engineering problem and it seems that construction costs vs maintenance schedule can be controlled.

The more spent on construction the lower the long term maintenance costs. And I don't see why electricity cannot be used extensively in rail construction and maintenance of electric rail lines.

I don't have any real answers but I suspect once the costs for roads vs rail is included rail will win ! :)

SOP for US Mainline freight rail being rebuilt is with concrete ties (estimated life for newest ones, 50 years) and superheavy rail (heaviest in the world I think).  Significantly heavier than that used on iron ore lines in Sweden according to Magnus.

Curves are often built with alloy steel.

BTW, the 1824 streetcar line near where I live (St. Charles) was transitioning from wood ties to recycled plastic ties that have no expected maximum life in streetcar service.

One can mix plastic & wood ties (both are resilent) but not with concrete ties (rigid).

The Swiss rail tunnels under construction now are designed to last at least 100 years with HEAVY traffic (several hundred trains/day) going at high speed (up to 250 kph).  I would like to get the details on their construction.

So you are quite right.  Higher initial construction  with costs lower later maintenance costs significantly.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

The Swiss rail tunnels under construction now are designed to last at least 100 years with HEAVY traffic (several hundred trains/day) going at high speed (up to 250 kph).

My own interpretation of "several hundred" is at least 500. For a given fixed point in the tunnel, that's another train going by every 173 seconds. What's the stopping distance for a train going 250 kph? What's the safe interval between them?  I have to believe that it's much longer than a minute-and-a-half from leading engine to leading engine.

From memory the two way traffic in the projections was in the two hundreds/day with projected growth from there.  Mixed speed trains as well (freight from 160 kph (special) to 120 kph (regular).

Swiss Rail (SBB) has a superb reputation for safety and all else.

Even Amtrak runs the double track electrified North East Corridor in both directions on both tracks with CTC controls.  The best way (with sidings) to maximize traffic density.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

Hi folks

The Channel Tunnel between England and France was originally designed for 20 trains an hour each way (one every 3 minutes) at a maximum speed of 80 mile/h.  I have no idea whether they have ever actually achieved that traffic density, but if you think about the logistics of lining up 20 main-line trains that close to each other it seems like a difficult thing to do (but maybe someone else knows differently!).

If you're in the UK at any time stand on the platform at, say, Wolverton or Bletchley stations on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) in the evening peak and you will see what a high-density main-line operation looks like.  Alternatively check out http://traintimes.org.uk/map/ for a flavour.



I'd imagine with regular maintenance, those tunnels would last much longer than 100 years, barring some major earthquake.  Infrastructure still in use from Roman Times prove that solidly engineered (and maintained) structures have lifespans that outlast several civilizations.  
The design life is before major maintenance will be required.  Things like new track, road bed, signals, wiring need to be replaced.

If an earthquake fall blocked one of the twin tunnels, the Swiss would rapidly dig it out.

The Swiss are adding to their national wealth.  This is a straight, flat (0.1% grade I think) high speed rail route under the Alps.  One set of tunnels from Zurich to Milan and the other from Bern to Milan (with a turn possible towards France).

I wonder what the EROEI is for these tunnels ?  They will replace heavy trucks crawling over the Alps with flat, straight raillines running on hydroelectricity.

Plenty of energy in for 17 years of tunneling (for the biggest tunnel).   How much energy to be saved over the life of the project ?

Best Hopes,



Have you ever visited Hong Kong? We have four MTR lines (Mass Transit Railway - in the Hong Kong context, the 'subway'), two 'KCR' lines (Kowloon-Canton Railway - basically two passenger rail lines), LRT (light rail, in the 'New Territories'), and even an old tramway system, still running east-west and vice-versa across Hong Kong island after a hundred years or so (I think - the equipment certainly looks it!). Only one in seven families owns a car (But the roads are still clogged from the Mercs and the BMWS, the taxis and the largest bus fleets in the world...)

I have been in HK long enough to get jaded with the place, but I still think the MTR is one of the glories of the earth. A train [that seems to arrive] every couple of minutes, several million passenger journeys per day (in a population of about seven million)... it's beautiful.

I compare this to my native Australia, where cheap gas rules and the car is the only way to get about, much like in the US.

If the US had any common sense left in the formation of public policy, I think you would be appointed national dictator (in the old Roman sense) for transportation... but as Westexas has said, the Iron Triangle rules. The US may be in for a very rough time, quite unecessarily.

Very sad. Best of luck.

The Bush Administration effectively cut federal matching from 80% to 50% AND tightened criteria in response to a growing demand for more Urban Rail.

anyone have more info on this?

The law says up to 80% Federal matching for qualfifying "New Starts" Urban Rail progects.  Same for bus "rapid transit".

New improved bus service projects (and that it all it is) are still awarded 80% FTA funding despite mostly dismal results.

The FTA has made it known that new rail projects that ask for more than 50% will not be approved (despite uniformly good results).  Seattle found out that they could not make the cut at 50% matching, but if they cut their request to 20% (or 22% ?) that they could get some FTA $, so they did.  They wanted their first light rail line so badly, AND they were rich enough, so they paid for 80% (78%) of it themselves.

New Orleans got the last 80% FTA funding before the rules changed for the Canal Streetcar Line.  Pittsburgh also got more than half under provisions I do not understand (perhaps they paid 100% for earlier project and used that as matching or good politics or ... ?)

The Interstate Highway System was built with 90% federal funding.   The same level would get a LOT of Urban Rail built.

Best Hopes.

Alan Drake

Awesome, thankyou.
The law says up to 80% Federal matching for qualfifying "New Starts" Urban Rail progects.  Same for bus "rapid transit".

New improved bus service projects (and that it all it is) are still awarded 80% FTA funding despite mostly dismal results.

The FTA has made it known that new rail projects that ask for more than 50% will not be approved (despite uniformly good results).  Seattle found out that they could not make the cut at 50% matching, but if they cut their request to 20% (or 22% ?) that they could get some FTA $, so they did.  They wanted their first light rail line so badly, AND they were rich enough, so they paid for 80% (78%) of it themselves.

New Orleans got the last 80% FTA funding before the rules changed for the Canal Streetcar Line.  Pittsburgh also got more than half under provisions I do not understand (perhaps they paid 100% for earlier project and used that as matching or good politics or ... ?)

The Interstate Highway System was built with 90% federal funding.   The same level of funding for Urban Rail would get a LOT of Urban Rail built.

Best Hopes.

Alan Drake

Washington DC Metro Expansion Delayed 1 Year by Federal Delay in Funding

The first half of the Tyson's Corner-Dulles expansion (Silver Line) has been delayed by at least one year due to delays in appropriating funds from the FTA.  Local funding is in place, property taxes have been increased and tolls raised on the Dulles Toll Road. All FTA paperwork is approved but the "check is NOT in the mail !"

Hard to have "Best Hopes"


Switzerland today (since 2000) is working on a 31 billion Swiss franc program to replace heavy trucks with (hydro) electric rail

One of the reasons, if not the only reason, they do that is because they are in between Germany and Italy, two of the biggest economies on the earth, with France next door. Since Switzerland can only be accessed through a few narrow passes from the north and the south, they are by now completely fed up with all the thousands and thousands of trucks pounding down their limited infrastructure. (West is a bit better, but not by much)

So they build the trains, and insist on that passing through trucks get loaded on the trains in Basel and unloaded deep into the italian plains.

It has actually very little to do with energy.

I followed the campaign and they put as many good reasons as they could in the program with "something for everyone".  Just good politics as long as every interest catered to is valid and a social and/or economic good.  1 billion Chf (of 31) will be spent on quieter railcars is an example.

Remember that they voted in 1998 for a program to be finished in 2020.

Would the US spend $1 trillion on getting rid of 18 wheelers (with a 22 year wait from vote to completion) ?

Two Swiss I worked with definitely included long term energy security (linked to Global Warming in their minds, hydroelectric power is a "warm fuzzy" security blamket for many Swiss, they remember WW II when that (and wood) were the only energy sources for 6 years).

Some of the reasons for voting 31 billion Swiss francs for a LONG term solution are:

Getting rid of heavy truck congestion for the next generation (congestion could affect future Swiss exports).

Reducing pollution for the next generation

Long term reduction in Global Warming

Long term energy security for Switzerland (see WW II energy, the Swiss take national survival VERY seriously.  See their impressive military today.  Who is going to invade them ?  See also their gold reserves)

High speed passenger rail to several major cities (some in just a decade).

Quieter rail cars

Rural rail access improvements

Getting more economic benefit from Germany & Italy trans-shipments.

That said, energy security by replacing imported oil with domestic hydroelectric power was a major driver in the "yes" vote.  It was for the two Swiss I worked with and seemed to be in the newspaper editorials, etc. at the time.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

I mentioned this strategy to Robert Hirsch while at the Pisa conference. He said that they were just interested in finding new transportation fuels in their first report.

My thinking is that the authors worked undet the premise that the present way of living in the USA may still be possible if we just find new transportation fuels. This limited their thinking on what are the best mitigation strategies.

I just came from a talk by Scott Bernstein who has good understanding on what needs to be done.


S. Korpela