Thursday, October 2, 2014

Solutionary Rail: Could the Northwest spur an electrified rail revolution?

This week Cascadia Planet shares the framing piece for Solutionary Rail, a new campaign to promote rail powered by renewable electricity as a low-carbon solution. Rail can have a much brighter future than acting as a conduit for climate-twisting coal and oil.  Higher-speed electrified rail can draw freight and passengers from roads to rail, providing economic options for railroads, jobs for rail workers and a low-carbon transportation that grounds economic prosperity. This piece outlines the challenges to rail electrification and solutions to make this vision happen. P.M.

The train going by seems like an ordinary part of the landscape.  But the reality is that the train made that landscape.  Rail, the fundamental vehicle for economic development of the U.S., the West and Washington State, grew cities and industries by providing capacity to reach markets. With a concerted effort to transform rail and its place in the transportation system, rail can again be an engine for a new level of economic development and sustainable prosperity

Re-envisioning rail transportation has the potential to create a much brighter future for our region, this country, and the world. A prosperous future based on 21st century modernized rail is technically realistic and economically achievable.  We call this concept Solutionary Rail, a strategic reinvestment in rail through electrification and service improvements designed to recapture the market for rapid delivery of high-value mixed freight and passenger service. To achieve Solutionary Rail, we need vision and the political will. 

Electric rail is dramatically more efficient than competing transportation modes and can provide sustainable, low-carbon transportation with replacement of fossil electrical generation by clean energy.   While little of the freight rail system in the United States is electrified, worldwide about 50 percent of freight rail ton-miles are powered by electricity. From Europe to Asia to South America, electrification works on long-distance rail. Electrification can work here too, reducing climate-twisting carbon emissions and health-endangering air pollution.  Electrification also reduces fuel costs once initial investments are made. One study showed fuel at an equivalent of 20 cents per diesel gallon.
A vision for higher-speed electrified rail from Steel Interstate Coalition

The BNSF (formerly Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) railroad is the dominant rail carrier in the state of Washington.  We seek to have the Solutionary Rail vision embraced by BNSF’s corporate owner Berkshire Hathaway, led by Warren Buffett.  The Backbone Campaign has created the Buffett Legacy Project to advance Solutionary Rail as an alternative to railroad dependence on fossil fuel shipments.   Rather than posing a threat to world climate, rail can meet transportation needs with vast reductions in carbon emissions.

Continued investment in coal and oil ports in the 21st Century makes a stable climate and prosperous future less likely. Clogging rail lines with coal and oil trains also threatens to push out more sustainable and profitable uses of the railway network.  Solutionary Rail creates far more jobs and greater economic health than fossil fuel trains.

We believe the place to start Solutionary Rail is Washington state, which in 2013-2014 has engaged the climate issue through the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup and Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce. Governor Jay Inslee is committed to a climate and clean energy agenda, as outlined in his book Apollo’s Fire. Solutionary Rail is a launching point for this clean energy revolution.

Five Elements of Solutionary Rail

First, electrify major rail lines beginning with BNSF Northern Transcon.  BNSF's Northern Transcon from Seattle to Chicago is a nationally important shipping line for containers and agricultural products, and is used by Amtrak for passenger service.  It is increasingly a conduit for fossil fuels including coal and unconventional oils. Fossil fuel shipments face growing public opposition for numerous reasons, but the economics of rail and our transport system has created a dependence upon such heavy commodity transport. Solutionary Rail offers an alternative to these controversial sunset industries based on electrifying rail, which will increase system capacity and train speeds using better-performing electric locomotives. Better service  will meet the demand for rapid delivery of high-value freight and passengers, giving railroads and rail workers better economic options.

The Northern Trasncon shown in black is the old Great Northern line.

Second, run electrified rail on renewable electricity.  Solutionary Rail envisions electrified locomotives employing renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels, sources that are now becoming economically competitive with fossil-generated electricity. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates potential electricity generation from wind in just the Dakotas and Texas is three times greater than electricity currently consumed annually in the United States. (National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2010-02-04, State wind energy potential 2010) Barriers to accessing these and other remote renewable sources are lack of local power demand and challenges transmitting power to distant urban centers. Electrified rail would create local demand. Railroad corridors offer an opportunity to rapidly expand transmission.
Third, heighten investment in rail infrastructure and track maintenance. Speeds of 90 to 125 mph are needed for higher-speed freight rail and improved passenger rail service. Infrastructure improvements will enable rail-based transportation powered increasingly by carbon-free sources to successfully compete with petroleum-fueled trucks, cars, and airplanes.  Specific measures include improving track to support higher speeds, restoring track to areas that have lost service, and eliminating system bottlenecks such as single track on major trunk lines.

Fourth, move freight and passengers from roads to rail.  Railways are generally three to four times more energy efficient at moving freight than trucks, in terms of revenue ton-miles per gallon of fuel consumed.  This energy-efficiency advantage is compounded by an additional factor of three when 25 to 30% efficient diesel-electric locomotives are replaced with 90% efficient electric-powered locomotives.  Nearly 2 ½ times as much carbon is released to the atmosphere from passenger transport as from freight transport in Washington State.  Together they represent 41% of total state greenhouse gas emissions.  Other countries, notably France, have made rapid strides in reducing carbon emissions from passenger transport by displacing private automobiles with electric trams. We can as well. An additional advantage is reduced maintenance costs on highways.  Freight trucks are responsible for a disproportionate amount of highway wear and tear.  Investments that promote a freight shift to rail could well pay for themselves by lessening highway damage. 

Fifth, reinvest in and restore local rail infrastructure and rail networks.  Transportation services are the foundation for modern economic activities.  Sustainable rail networks will provide a resilient foundation for locally-based economic activities that create wealth, stable employment, and prosperous communities.  In contrast, the economies of communities that are without rail, and hence totally dependent on fossil fuels, will grow increasingly brittle in the emerging post-carbon world. For rural and smaller communities rail access is key.

Overcome basic obstacles.

Obstacle 1: Proposals to develop coal and oil ports threaten to preempt other uses of rail lines.  Rail capacity is not an infinite resource. Most regions have bottlenecks; in the Northwest only three routes cross mountain ranges to reach coastal ports. A carbon-constrained world needs rail capacity to reduce emissions, not to transport fuels that increase emissions.  Even from the standpoint of railroad bottom lines, other forms of freight such as containers yield higher earnings than bulk coal or oil trains.  To retain the capacity to move freight and passengers onto rail, proposals for coal and oil ports must be rejected.

Obstacle 2: High up-front costs discourage investment.  The railroad industry typically invests close to 20% of revenues in capital upgrades, far higher than most other industries. The high initial costs of electrifying lines make these low-priority expenditures. Public interest in sustainable and high-quality rail service justifies public policy support to level the playing field for needed investments. We therefore recommend creation of an interstate development bank led by Washington state.  The bank could leverage the capacity of public agencies to raise low-cost capital that would fund publicly-owned rail electrification infrastructure. This would require a new public-private partnership with railroads. 

Obstacle 3: Powerful trucking industry interests will resist a shift to rail.  They cannot be blamed for defending their business.   But while trucking will continue to play a role due to its greater flexibility, the overall benefits of shifting to rail will require de-emphasizing the semi in favor of the engine. 

Overcoming these obstacles will require broad alliances to accumulate the needed political will.  

Initiating Solutionary Rail in Washington State will require leadership by Governor Jay Inslee to forward investment incentives in the Legislature.

Railroad unions and other labor interests have a clear interest in joining a Solutionary Rail initiative, to create stable, well-paid jobs.

Businesses, farmers and ports will gain quicker freight delivery and more predictable fuel costs. 

Smaller and rural communities will gain access to markets, increasing the potential for job creation. City and county officials as well as economic development agencies have every reason to get behind Solutionary Rail.

Public interest advocacy groups for climate, environment and public health will see their agendas for cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions forwarded by Solutionary Rail.

The Buffett Legacy Project is intent on drawing all these interests together in a Solutionary Rail initiative, along with one other crucial ally: Warren Buffett himself.  We call on Warren Buffett to bring his huge prestige and power to the effort, to help us pass the policies that will level the playing field for investment in Solutionary Rail. 

Success will bring many public benefits that will provide a legacy to Buffett.  But we also ask the Oracle of Omaha to join us because it makes good business sense.   Electrification with renewable energy will provide BNSF with predictable fuel costs not subject to the vagaries of global oil markets.  Moving freight to rail will increase revenues.  Making sure rail lines are not overloaded with coal and oil bulk trains will create capacity for higher-value container and other freight traffic. BNSF runs through some of the windiest regions on the continent, where Berkshire Hathway is also a shareholder in two major utilities, Pacificorp and Mid-American.   Improving transmission for renewable energy will benefit Buffett’s utility investments as well.

We ask Warren Buffett and BNSF to take one more step toward sustainability in the form of good working as well as natural environments, by blazing a new trail in labor-management relations.  Our vision for sustainable 21st century rail embraces good wages and benefits, safety programs focused on hazard elimination rather than worker behavior, preservation of a minimum two-person crew on all trains, implementation of sick time and termination of draconian attendance policies, an end to scheduling policies that lead to excessive crew fatigue, an end to the use of invasive and intimidating technologies, and an end to disproportionate discipline and unwarranted firings. 

We believe that by implementing and following these policies, BNSF can achieve higher employee morale, lower accident and injury rates, and higher productivity and efficiency.  We urge Warren Buffett and the BNSF to seriously consider our proposals and become the industry leader in positive productive labor-management relations.

Good transportation provides the foundation for a modern economy, enabling efficient production and competitive advantage. 

Revitalizing our passenger and freight rail systems to better serve the entire state using carbon-free electricity is a strategic investment in Washington’s economic future.  Upgrading track, electrifying rail lines, restoring passenger service, and building out needed renewable energy capacity will create family wage jobs performing critical work necessary to combat the looming threats posed by climate change and energy supply volatility.

The ramifications of shifting freight and passenger transportation to electrified rail are overwhelmingly positive for Washington and the nation:  transportation safety and accessibility, reduced highway congestion, a well-maintained transportation infrastructure, national security, balance of trade, civil defense, emergency preparedness, and environmental health.

The alternative -- allowing vital transportation assets necessary for a prosperous and environmentally healthy future to devolve to the service of fossil fuel industries in decline -- is not only short-sighted but morally repugnant to many Washingtonians.  Coal and oil port proponents argue that we need jobs.  Although the jobs they offer provide a paycheck, those jobs lack long-term stability and the psychological benefits of work that contributes to a positive future. Solutionary Rail would provide many more jobs, and work that is not only meaningful but vital to our collective futures.

Solutionary Rail can be the engine that propels an economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable future.  Bringing the vision to reality will require creative public policies to spur needed investments.  With the visionary leadership of Governor Jay Inslee, Washington State is the place to launch Solutionary Rail.  With an alliance of labor, business, communities, public interest groups and Warren Buffett himself, we can put the policies in place at state and national levels to make Solutionary Rail a reality.

Our nation was woven together by the railroad and grew on its tracks. Modernized 21st century rail lines are the routes to a sustainable future. We must reach out and seize the opportunity for the nation, beginning here in Washington State.

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