Electric Trains Everywhere: A Solution to Crumbling Roads and Climate Crisis

Transportation accounts for nearly a third of the country’s carbon emissions.
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“The biggest climate impact we can have is getting the trucks off the roads, and eventually getting people back to the tracks.”

Photo by Sjoerd van der Wal / iStock.

Over the phone, it’s clear that Bill Moyer is frustrated. “We’re not talking about some kind of Elon Musk-vacuum-tube-Jetsons-freaking-cartoon fantasy,” the Northwest resident says. “We’re talking about something that has a proven history.”

Moyer has been begging Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to invest in a renewable energy-powered freight rail line from Seattle to Chicago. But the governor has shown little interest, although he recently asked the state Legislature to approve $1 million to study an ultra-high-speed passenger train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. “We’d love for him to show some leadership for the entire state on something that’s not so pie-in-the-sky,” Moyer laments.

Futuristic commuter trains are one thing, but Moyer has his sights set on an idea that is at once larger in scope and more firmly grounded in existing technology.

Moyer is a good-natured musician and progressive activist who has lived on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, since 1989. He has a mop of curly dark hair and speaks in the laid-back tone you’ve heard at your local bike shop. These days, he often sports a black T-shirt that proclaims the name of his progressive advocacy organization, the Backbone Campaign.

It was that group that researched and authored the recently released Solutionary Rail, a 126-page book filled with charts, maps, graphs, and tables to support the feasibility of a bold electrified rail proposal.

The idea seeks to address two significant problems facing the country. On the one hand, the overwhelming scientific consensus warns of an impending climate catastrophe for which we are woefully unprepared. On the other, the country’s bridges and roads are, in fact, crumbling. The American Society of Engineers awarded the country a D+ in 2016, as it has consistently since 1998. During his first address to Congress in February, President Donald Trump ignored climate change but called for $1 trillion to fill cracks in the nation’s infrastructure, which largely accommodates fossil fuel-hungry automobiles.

Transportation accounts for nearly a third of the country’s carbon emissions, of which 84 percent is attributed to cars and commercial trucks, the EPA reports. So, as Moyer sees it, it’s obvious that climate change and infrastructure should be tackled in tandem.

“The biggest climate impact we can have is getting the trucks off the roads, and eventually getting people back to the tracks, as well,” he says. To do this, the Backbone Campaign proposes revitalizing and electrifying America’s rail system, powering it entirely with community-owned renewable energy.

Electric rail is not such a long shot.

The plan would update existing freight railways by adding overhead wires to carry high-voltage electricity generated in towns along the lines and smoothing out turns too tight for high-speed travel. It would swap diesel locomotives for electric engines that are 35 percent cheaper to operate and that haul freight five times more efficiently than trucks.

In many places, it would add additional track to free up passenger rail that would otherwise get stuck behind delayed freight. And it would do all of this with a focus on justice—for the people who live alongside dirty and noisy diesel train lines, for current and future rail workers and the underemployed millions who would benefit from a large-scale infrastructure undertaking, for communities that could find economic security in renewable energy generation, and for those around the world whose lives are already threatened by global warming.

It’s a grandiose idea, perhaps even improbable, but Moyer is known in progressive circles for being someone who gets things done. His track record includes the “kayaktivist” blockade that confronted Shell Oil in Puget Sound and the 150-foot replica of the Constitution, signed by thousands, which tumbled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United.

In truth, electric rail is not such a long shot. China and Russia have already invested heavily in electrifying more than 40 percent of their railways. The Trans-Siberian Railway—the world’s longest at 5,772 miles—went fully electric in 2002, and Russia now moves about 70 percent of its freight over electrified lines. France, Italy, and Germany have also electrified as much or more than half of their rails, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

The United States operated more than 3,000 miles of electrified rail up until the 1960s.

As Solutionary Rail recalls, the United States operated more than 3,000 miles of electrified rail up until the 1960s—granted, none of it powered renewably—when the influential auto industry and the subsidized interstate highway system pushed rail to the back burner.

“If Eisenhower had signed the high-speed rail bill instead of the interstate bill, the country would be connected by rail,” says former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

A congressman who sat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, LaHood had a bipartisan approach that helped him become the only Republican appointed to Obama’s cabinet who had been elected to public office.

In 2009, he was given the unenviable task of rallying votes for Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which appropriated about $830 billion to kick-start the flagging economy.

The act leveraged $48 billion for transportation, of which about $10 billion was earmarked to establish intercity high-speed rail, including a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles that’s now under construction. This investment was projected to create tens of thousands of jobs and stimulate U.S. manufacturing while directly addressing global climate change.

“Obama wanted to send a message to the country that we need to start investing in high-speed rail,” says LaHood, who was not aware of Solutionary Rail but has been a staunch proponent of high-speed trains. “If you look at cities all over America, they’re investing in their metro systems, in their bus systems, because a lot of these young people who are moving to D.C. or Chicago or L.A., frankly, they don’t want a car.”

The idea to focus on rail emerged from ongoing grassroots efforts to resist coal trains.

But Republican governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker rejected the money outright, and legislators resisted further budgeting for rail projects.

“Because it was a part of the economic stimulus, Republicans didn’t like it. Because it was Obama’s idea to invest in rail, people didn’t like it,” LaHood says. “Our Achille’s heel in America is that our national government hasn’t invested in rail.” Tired of the bitter political divisions between Congress and the White House, LaHood resigned after one term.

Moyer understands the frustration of waiting on politicians. The Backbone Campaign seeks instead to effect change from the ground up through what Moyer calls a non-ideological coalition of unconventional allies—farmers, environmental activists, renewable energy developers, and labor experts. The idea to focus on rail emerged from ongoing grassroots efforts to resist coal trains and the development of the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel corridor to Asia.

Moyer knew next to nothing about railroads or the people who work on them, but he assembled a team of experts that includes a senior Amtrak engineer and a whistleblowing union member who, in 2013, sent Moyer a copy of a paper on railway modernization with a note: “Let’s see if you and your people can green this.”

The team spent three years considering the global context (the U.S. is way behind), studying the efficiency of electric locomotion (even with today’s low fuel prices, the per-mile cost of diesel energy is nearly twice that of an electric train), mapping renewable source availability (every state has something), examining the impact of long-haul trucking (60 percent of highway maintenance costs are due to heavy trucks), and meeting with economists to address the Herculean task of funding.

They see electric trains zipping passengers between metropolises, picking up grain in rural towns, and delivering to coastal ports.

“Greening” trains was only the start.

Moyer, whose father was a Jesuit who worked for several northwest tribes, was born near the Yakama reservation and lived on Swinomish land through grade school. He was exposed to racism and cultural genocide early on and recognized that, in America, railroads carry a two-faced cultural memory. The trains that connected the East Coast to the West and ushered in an age of industrialization for many also brought a wave of terror and misery for millions, as pioneers continued to colonize, decimating buffalo herds and altering the landscape forever.

Solutionary Rail could not move forward without acknowledging this, and at the proposal’s moral center is a commitment to a just transition—a shift to a sustainable economy that addresses the inequities and injustices currently borne by laborers and marginalized people. The rights of workers and Native people had to be part of the equation, Moyer says.

The team’s ultimate vision is national. They see electric trains zipping passengers between metropolises, picking up grain in rural towns, and delivering to coastal ports. The railways that already crisscross the country offer rights of way that, outfitted with power lines, would allow electricity generated by Iowa windmills not only to propel the trains, but also to power cities many miles away.

Of course, all of this will require major upfront investment.

Single-track electrification costs an average of $2 million a mile. To demonstrate the feasibility of his national plan, Moyer proposes electrifying the Northern Corridor from Seattle to Chicago—4,400 miles in all—at a base cost of $11 billion.

A separate analysis from the Great Northern Corridor Coalition in 2012 indicates that, by 2035, rail service could make up the cost in public benefits, but that still doesn’t resolve the conundrum of initial investment. Backbone’s solution is to couple private investment with a public entity that would issue tax-free bonds at low interest rates and oversee funding and construction.

“[Trump has] talked a good game about infrastructure. If he follows through, Congress will follow his lead.”

Given the rail’s potential for American employment, manufacturing, and energy independence, it would seem that a case could be made to set aside a portion of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure request to break ground on solutionary rail.

But in March, the administration released a budget proposal that called for significant cuts to long-distance Amtrak service. If the idea seemed like a long shot before, the odds under the new administration appear to have worsened.

LaHood, pointing to the president’s New York connections, expects Trump’s infrastructure vision to go beyond roads and bridges, but he notes that the clock is ticking.

“A president in their first year has an opportunity to get two or three big things done and then their window of opportunity closes,” he says. “He’s talked a good game about infrastructure. If he follows through, Congress will follow his lead.”

Moyer is surprisingly unshaken by the election’s result. “The emphasis was already on the states, not the federal government,” he says, and whether Trump can be influenced is somewhat immaterial to the need for bottom-up organizing.

“The credibility of change agents largely depends on not just their capacity to articulate an oppositional stance on something that is wrong or evil or destructive; their moral authority and capacity to move society requires that they have a viable alternative, a proposition,” Moyer says confidently.

Solutionary Rail is his proposition.

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Editor's note: This article originally misreported Bill Moyer's place of birth. The post has been updated to correct the error.