Small, dense developed countries should electrify their entire national rail networks. Usually, railroads think in terms of electrifying lines, but this hides the systemwide benefits of transitioning the entire network to run under electricity. I have previously written about this in the context of regionally funded commuter rail systems, as have Paul Druce and Clem Tillier. But some countries are so small and dense that the analysis for a single large metro area holds nationwide as well.
In this post I am going to focus on Israel, which is completely unelectrified, but also foray into mostly-electrified Belgium and the Netherlands, and currently-electrifying Denmark. Switzerland has already completed electrification; it is less dense than all of those countries except Denmark, but has cheap hydro power, which makes it cheaper to run trains under electricity, and key mainlines through mountainous terrain, where electrification is a major performance booster.
First, let us recall the performance benefits of electrification in flat terrain. The major rolling stock manufacturers sell DMUs with top speeds of 120-140 km/h, and EMUs with top speeds of 140-200 km/h; faster trains are generally more expensive, and with a few exceptions not of much use outside dedicated high-speed rail lines. The difference in acceleration performance is large: when the top speed is 100 km/h, an EMU such as the FLIRT takes less than 30 seconds to accelerate from standstill to top speed, corresponding to an acceleration time penalty of about 14 seconds, whereas the Stadler GTW DMU has a penalty of about 28 seconds (see data on PDF-p. 43); the GTW EMU version, a less powerful train than the FLIRT, loses 19 seconds. DMUs are also less comfortable than EMUs, because the diesel engines are right under passengers’ feet; longer-distance lines almost never use them, and instead use diesel locomotives, which accelerate even more slowly.
Because of this large difference in acceleration performance, electrification delivers the greatest performance benefits on lines with closely-spaced stops and high traffic. These are usually commuter rail lines rather than intercity lines. For example, suppose the top speed is 130 km/h, the stop spacing is 3 km, station dwell times are 30 seconds, and schedules are padded 7%. The FLIRT’s acceleration penalty is about 19 seconds, that of the diesel GTW (to 125 km/h) is 43 seconds; the deceleration penalties are both a bit lower than the acceleration penalties, but not too much lower, to avoid overheating. An EMU will average 68 km/h, a DMU 52 km/h. Independently of comparative energy and maintenance costs, this represents a 23% cut in the rolling stock requirement and in the on-board labor cost, and a larger cut in the required subsidy thanks to higher ridership. In contrast, if the stop spacing is 50 km, the difference in speed shrinks to 116 km/h vs. 113 km/h. Even if the EMU can do 160 km/h, its average speed is 140 km/h, still a smaller percentage difference than in the case of commuter rail, while the cost of providing this higher average speed is larger because tracks need to be upgraded to a higher top speed.
In small countries, short stop spacing is the normal state of affairs. In Israel, few segments of track have stops spaced more than 10 km apart, and those are mostly on the under-construction high-speed line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is planned to host 200 km/h electric trains. In the Tel Aviv and Haifa metro areas, stop spacing in the 3-4 km range is normal. Even intercity trains make all stops within Tel Aviv and Haifa proper, skipping the stations between those two cities. There are no major cities north of Haifa, only suburbs and small cities, and thus making many stops in and north of Haifa is justified for intercity trains – there aren’t many through-passengers who are being inconvenienced. South of Tel Aviv there are some moderate-size cities (as well as Jerusalem, but the legacy rail line to it is so curvy that the train from Tel Aviv takes twice as long as the bus), but because of high traffic, all trains make all four Tel Aviv stops.
With the exception of Belgium, all four countries under discussion also have dominant primate city regions, with about 40% of their respective national population; those city regions have dense rail networks, which are electrified in all countries except Israel. Denmark runs the Copenhagen commuter lines as a separate S-tog from the rest of the network, but in the Netherlands, Israel, and Belgium, there is no sharp difference. The result is that a large fraction of the overall rail network is urban commuter rail, which should be electrified, while additional chunks are regional rail with enough frequency to justify electrification even without a large city in the center.
Moreover, the service pattern makes it hard to electrify just a few lines in isolation, even if they’re the busiest. Regional rail networks frequently employ through-running. In small countries, this is common for the entire rail network, for different reasons: in Israel, the route through Tel Aviv is a new line from 20 years ago, without many platform tracks for terminating trains, whereas in the Netherlands and Belgium it’s the result of a highly nonlinear population distribution, which favors a mesh of lines, such that busy routes share tracks extensively with less busy ones. Compare these population distributions with that of the Northeastern US, where there is clear division into a trunk from Washington to Boston and branches heading inland.
Finally, these are all small countries. This is why I am not including South Korea in this proposal, even though it is denser, more mountainous, and more primate city-centric than all countries under discussion: South Korea is large enough that it’s plausible to run the Seoul-area commuter rail as an isolated electrified system, keeping the remainder of the legacy network unelectrified, with several maintenance shops for diesel trains around the country. In contrast, the unelectrified portion of the Dutch rail network consists of isolated branch lines, making it less economic to keep operating diesel trains. Israel has no electrification at all, but if it electrifies the Tel Aviv and Haifa commuter trains, the remainder of the network will be disjointed, requiring inefficient solutions such as considerable deadheading, or regular runs of diesel trains under long stretches of catenary.
One example I keep harping on, which I got from The LIRR Today before its blackout, is the LIRR’s diesel runs. The LIRR is almost completely electrified, and its diesel branches see little service, especially at the easternmost end of Long Island. Between this and work rules that separate diesel and electric train crew, the crew on one of the diesel trains work 2.5 hours per workday, running a train once in one direction and deadheading the way back; this and the bespoke nature of diesel trains on the LIRR lead to high operating costs.
The situations in the countries in question are not as comical as on the LIRR, but there are bound to be inefficiencies in Belgium and the Netherlands, and soon to be Denmark, which is electrifying its main lines, which together with the S-tog are a majority of its network. In Israel, the situation is the worst, since its rail network is even smaller: 1,100 km, compared with 2,600 km in Denmark, 3,600 in Belgium, and 2,900 in the Netherlands; this means that a partially electrified situation involves even smaller train orders and higher operating costs, while an entirely unelectrified network involves poor service in the urban areas.
Israel also has no rail links with any of its neighbors, nor any plans to construct any. This means that its branch lines are truly isolated, unlike those of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark, which sometimes connect to other unelectrified lines in neighboring countries.
The way out of high diesel operating costs is to spend the money on completing electrification. As the example of Denmark shows, the costs are not outrageous: about $1.1 million per kilometer (I do not know whether track- or route-km, but I believe this is track-km). In the case of Israel, whose rail network is almost entirely single-track, this is not much more than $1 billion either way; to put things in perspective, the projected cost of the first Tel Aviv subway line is now up to $4.2 billion, while the Ministry of Transportation’s overall budget is $3 billion per year (PDF-p. 10), mostly spent on roads, in a country with only 300 cars per 1,000 people.
All-diesel railroads resist electrifying their busiest lines because they prefer to be able to let every train substitute for any train, and, for smaller operations, maintain all trains in one yard. For the same reason, small railroads with high traffic, such as the national railroads of dense countries, should instead go all-electric, in order to retain the benefits of interchangeable trains and maintenance facilities while also capturing the benefits of electrification. It’s not terribly relevant to the countries I’ve recently lived in, but for the same reason Switzerland fully electrified, similar small, dense countries should do the same.