Quick Note: California Gets Electrification Wrong

Caltrans has a new plan to make its intercity rail fleet zero-emission. The snag: it rejects electrification as infeasible and is instead looking for hydrogen fuel cell trains. I do not think any of the people who were involved in this study is competent enough to keep working in this field, and it’s important to explain why.

I refer readers to the electrification report we at TransitMatters put out a few months ago. It talks about the costs and benefits of overhead wire, and goes over some case studies of some electrification projects, some good (Trondheim), some okay (Israel, Denmark), and some examples of what not to do (Caltrain, Toronto). Since then I’ve seen additional data of electrification costs out of Italy, where they’re near the bottom of our range.

Our report also goes into alternatives to wire and why they’re infeasible. Hydrogen is not even remotely close. The largest order as of 2019 was 27 trains for the Rhine-Main region, each 54 meters long, for 500M€, or around 343,000€ per linear meter; single-level EMUs typically cost around 80,000€/m in Europe. It’s infant technology with wanting performance and its cost is not worth it compared with the cost of wiring the trains.

Instead, Caltrans thinks that overhead wires are infeasible. It does not publish cost estimates; those estimates would be based on the failure of Caltrain and not on successes in non-English-speaking countries (or even in Britain, with high but not fire-everyone costs), because nobody at Caltrans who has any authority knows or cares.

To make it worse, Caltrans says electrification “has right-of-way implications.” In other words, it requires space for poles and this is supposed to be difficult. In reality, it isn’t. A short distance from the tracks is needed for poles, but the rights-of-way in the state are not especially constrained; Caltrain, in a fairly dense suburban area, did not have that problem, but rather had problems with the execution of the design and with unusual standards for pole placement.

It’s a perennial problem in the United States that rail managers and agency heads are allergic to electrification. It’s a foreign concept, literally. They don’t travel – when they do they think of it as a vacation, not as work to see how countries with an order of magnitude more rail ridership per capita do it. None of the people they know knows, either. Nor are they technically apt or curious – they come from a managerial culture in which speaking of technical details is low-prestige, and making excuses and talking about politics are high-prestige. Fresh master’s graduates in Europe know more than they ever will. They are useless, and they know it.

So they avoid that technology using whatever excuses that they can find. Hydrogen feels to them like they’re innovative; they’re not, US mainline passenger rail is a joke, but they think they are because the notion that the US is a technological laggard doesn’t come naturally to them, since in many fields, none of which is public-sector, the US really is at the technological frontier. Nor are they qualified to tell the difference between mature and experimental tech, which is why they think electrification is not affordable and hydrogen trains at four times the upfront acquisition cost and an unproven maintenance cost are.

The only long-term solution to this recurrent problem is removing the people involved. I don’t have direct experience with California the way I do with the Northeast, but between what I know of the Northeast and what Richard Mlynarik and others have said of California, what’s likely is that the top people do not know what an EMU is, the traditional railroaders think electric wires are for toy trains, and the analysts have never once written an alternatives analysis in which the outcome was not politically pre-decided.


  1. BindingExport

    For the Rhine Main Region – the argument why these were purchased by the RMV was that the hydrogen needed is being produced as a byproduct from producing chlorine gas in the chemical park Höchst. It’s still incredible stupid pet project of some higher ups at the RMV but it’s not the only stupid project – Frankensteins tram-train Regionaltangente West, 25 years of planning, coming up with stuff like tram-tracks using 15 kVz 16,7 Hz takes the prize.

  2. Phake Nick

    For electrification in the US, on mainline rail, I guess it would also cost a bit more due to having to take into account the height of double-stacked freight trains, and some legacy tunnels might not have enough space for overhead wire after taking into account the necessity of double stacked freight train having to pass through them?

    By the way, for all the hydrogen fuel cell discussions on train, bus, cars, and such, a question is would they easily end up in explosion in case of accident, like the hydrogen airship a century ago?

      • TS

        I think the bigger issue would be bridge or underpass clearances, of which there are many more in California than tunnels.

    • CharlesO

      That’s a problem in a lot of places; it’s the reason why the East-West Passenger Rail project between Boston and Springfield (and maybe Pittsfield) in Massachusetts will not be electrified. CSX and MassDOT already spent a lot of money making the corridor accessible for double-stack intermodal trains; the additional clearances required for electrification are cost-prohibitive.

      • Henry

        We’ve had the technology to be partially off wire for a while now. I wonder, at this point, if it’s ready for heavy duty rail service, where you could wire up to the tunnels and then go off-wire on batteries for the remainder.

        This isn’t going to work for crossing the Alps, but most rail tunnels are not that long.

        • adirondacker12800

          New Haven Line trains have been operating off wire since 1907. Without batteries. For short distances but longer than a bridge underpass.

          • Steve

            I could be wrong, but since New Haven Line trains are EMU isn’t it only at most 2 cars of a train that are off wire at any time? Wouldn’t the rest of the train provide sufficient power for that short distance? I don’t think that we’re talking EMU for the Caltrans trains.

          • Henry

            Not super familiar with the New Haven Line; where are we talking about?

            But i’m more speaking about like distances measured in km or miles.

          • adirondacker12800

            Yards/Meters. It can be arranged so that the trains doesn’t even have to lower the pantographs. There’s a big gap where the trains transition to or from third rail to overhead and a movable bridge or two. Gaps are quite common on overhead systems. Third rail systems have them wherever there is a switch/points.
            Going under a four lane highway bridge, unpowered, shouldn’t be much of a problem. Something to be avoided but not an insurmountable problem either.

    • Korakys

      I’m heavily sceptical of hydrogen as a transport fuel but to the best of my knowledge explosion risk is even somewhat lower than petrol because it is so light it dissipates from a ruptured cylinder very quickly, which means it doesn’t have the concentration to burn (Hindenburg burnt it didn’t explode, but it was also huge). There doesn’t seem to be appear to be much of a problem from keeping it high pressure either (explosive decompression), but I’m less sure on this.

      Instead it’s the economics that kills it.

      • Phake Nick

        Hydrogen fuel cell train seems to need to store more fuel too. JR East’s upcoming hydrogen fuel cell train trial seems to be able to run just barely over a hundred kilometer even with double the usual pressure.

        • Matthew Hutton

          The main problem with hydrogen trains is that they are unlikely to become commodities as trains in most of the world will be 100% electric.

          Even in Scotland when you’ve got the green and yellow lines electrified (as per the map on https://www.railfuturescotland.org.uk/) does it not make sense to do the other lines or close them completely for the logistical benefits? And the handful of trains you might run on them probably doesn’t justify a custom technology any more than electrification does.

          • Max Wyss

            The newer developments with and around BEMUs make hydrogen even less attractive. Because a BEMU has the charging equipment on board, it considerably simplifies the lineside equipment. An example is in Germany, where a small transportable substation feeds a few meter of contact rail. That substation is very simply built; it does have a transformer for galvanic separation from the middle voltage grid as a main component. Charging capacity is limited by the on-board equipment, but 10 minutes provide about 50 km unrestricted to a FLIRTAkku set.

            So, strategically located charging stations (where a 10 minute stop can be justified, for example), would even work for the Far North line.

          • Phake Nick

            @Matthew Amid the pandemic, some Japanese rail companies are looking to remove overhead cables from their rail lines in order to save cost, despite them continue pushing for carbon neutral, and electrification, in order to save on operation cost.

            The first identified section of such, Aizu Wakayama to Kitakata, transported 1790 people-km/km/day in 2019, then dropped to 1509 people-km/km/day in 2020 amid the pandemic. The line currently offer 14 trains in each direction every days, but only two rapid trains are run by electric trains. As such, the company have decided it is more efficient to remove the electric trains and also the overhead cables.

            It would be logistically impossible to abandon the line despite less than 2000 people riding the line across this entire section each days on average, as that would mean hundred of additional bus frequency being needed and there are no way to find such bus drivers driving these buses as all sort of drivers are in shortage in Japan even before the pandemic hit, especially as the line’s demand peak away commuting hours, and such driver shortage that have actually caused bus service cut back across Japan.



            BEMU currently cost roughly double the regular DMU cost, according to my understanding. Hence it can hardly be said as THE solution to work toward yet.

          • Phake Nick

            Ah also, @Max Wyss , I think per the JR Kyushu application, it would also be possible to setup a line with only a small section being constructed with overhead cable, and the train can charge while running in that section, thus removing the need for stopping to charge.

          • Max Wyss

            @Phake Nick: OTOH, the technical and economical life span of a BEMU is considerably longer than a DMU. And maintenance is also considerably less expensive. With the premise to decarbonise and the total lifecycle cost, a BEMU will be the best deal (and offer most flexibility, as electrification can be extended if needed).

            It is to determine whether installing 20 km of overhead wiring and no considerable stops, or have a charging station with 10 minutes waiting time is most suitable for a specific application.

            IMHO, removing infrastructure (aka electrification) is foolhardy (to say it nicely…). The main maintenance cost of a line is not electrification; it is tracks etc. and that does not change.

          • Max Wyss

            @Alon Levy: …showing that they are total idiots, and are on the best way to become finalist in the World’s Laughing Stock Award… together with the Caltrans dudes…

          • Phake Nick

            @Max Wyss
            > And maintenance is also considerably less expensive.
            Is this true even for diesel-electric multiple units? And I don’t think lifespan matter that much in Japan, as pre-1989 JNR trains are already on the verge of extinction across the entire Japan.

            > The main maintenance cost of a line is not electrification; it is tracks etc. and that does not change.
            Those Japanese train companies are also looking to single tracking some currently double tracked lines.

          • Matthew Hutton

            A drop of 10% of passenger numbers in 2020 doesn’t feel like a step that causes the sky to fall. I’m sure the numbers will increase again once international tourism is back.

          • Sascha Claus

            Is this true even for diesel-electric multiple units?

            Depends on whether (B)EMUs live longer because of the magic pixie dust inherent in electricity, or if D(E)MUs live shorter because of the vibrations inherent in the diesel engine. Common wisdom points to the latter.

          • Phake Nick

            @Matthew Hutton The thing is these rural lines are all seeing ridership decline over the years, amid aging and reducing population, and those places being quite car-centric. As the train company say, They simply see the coronavirus-indeced traffic drop as an early outlook to what the operation environment *will be like* in 10 more years later. Hence they see the traffic drop as merely a preview of what will eventually come.

            Also in Japan but is separated from JR East, is Hokkaido. Hakodate, the city near Shinkansen system’s northern end, is now connected to the station through feeder train, because the city is geographically out of way from the line’s further extension. The city now have 1.2 million people, but they expect the population count to drop to 400k, and thus couldn’t financially sustain the line linking the city to that high speed rail station, which also double as a commuter line for the city, and so it is looking likely that this currently 1.2 million people populated city will close down its railway in time the Shinkansen extend onward to Sapporo.

          • astro

            @Phake Nick
            Your last paragraph seems quite off to me.

            Hakodate’s population is only 250k. Its peak was only 350k. Hokkaido does not have a city with around 1.2m people – the only larger cities are Sapporo at 1.96m and then Asahikawa at 330k. (If Hakodate had 1m+ people the Hokkaido Shinkansen would have been built a long, long time ago.)

            I don’t think the connection from the Shinkansen station to the city center is under any threat either. Projections predict that when the Sapporo extension opens the transportation density will in fact increase to more than 5000 passenger-km/km/day. Furthermore there’s documentation from the last two years of the prefectural government discussing specifically the projected increase in *railway* demand on this section (quote: “函館・新函館北斗間の鉄道の需要増加について”) and a potential expansion of capacity in response. This suggests that scrapping the link is definitely not under consideration. Not sure if you’re confusing the Hakodate section with the rest of the 423km-long Hakodate Main Line, which does have endangered sections, some critically so.

        • Sascha Claus

          JR East’s upcoming hydrogen fuel cell train trial seems to be able to run just barely over a hundred kilometer even with double the usual pressure.

          Well, steam locomotives could barely run over a hundred kilometres whithout topping up their hydro. ^_^

          • Max Wyss

            With condensation tenders, they could get pretty far. Also throughs were used in the UK for long non-stop runs.

  3. Tatil

    Could you elaborate a bit more on why Caltrain electrification got messed up? Which aspects of the pole placement or design was so different?

    • Alon Levy

      The poles are closer together than is standard, I believe? But also, the placement was rigid, and not coordinated with signaling, so at many places signal infrastructure conflicted with where the poles are going, and instead of moving the poles 5 meters they tried to dig pole foundations directly on top of signal cables and such.

      • Max Wyss

        Can we say “overspecification” by so-called “consultants” who have no clue.

      • xh

        Also, Caltrain wasted a lot of resources developing its indigenous train control system that would be a “communication-based overlay” onto its legacy signalling system (CBOSS), while ended up with the low-capacity freight solution – I-ETMS. They should’ve try the commercial off-the-shelf solution ETCS-2, which serves exactly as a “communication-based overlay” over existing signalling.

        • Max Wyss

          One thing to keep in mind is that with electrification, it may be needed to upgrade the signalling system, because there are interferences (which can be overcome with according measures). So, it would be best (and more honest) to package the whole thing into a “line upgrade” project. Electrification is a part of it. Currently, all the additional stuff is packaged into “Electrification”, which makes look electrification very expensive.

          And in the case of Caltrain, suppliers call them “customers from hell”…

  4. Benjamin Turon

    The freight railroads that own much of the track used by state-supported Amtrak service in California are dead set against electrification, the AAR had released several white papers and press releases against it. Looking at the zero-emission locomotive preseantions by Caltrans they seem to be going for dual-mode power that can run off catenary on publicly owned tracks and fuel cells on freight owned track. I’ve been very interested in this because I think this is the way New York State should go with the Empire Service; electrify NYC to Hoffmans on the Metro-North and Amtrak owned Hudson Line, then fuel cells west and north of Schenectady on CSX and CP tracks.

    Overall I would prefer electrification, and as the Dedicated Freight Corridors in India show, you can do double-stack under the wires, in fact that is done in the US on tracks used by SEPTA and CSX. But BOTH the freight railroads and public sector (well… just really California and North Carolina) are looking seriously at hydrogen fuel cells and batteries, there are several demonstration projects underway, Canadain Pacific just rolled out their first hydrogen locomotive a few days ago.

    I wonder if Mx. Levy means to be as cuastic and dismissive as he writes — yes a lot is done wrong in Anerica and the ignorance of passenger rail history and practicle is incredible — but compare to increbily low bar that is NYSDOT, the management of Amtrak state-supported services by Caltrans and the joint-power authorities are pretty impressive from a North American standpoint. The person at Caltrans who has sheperd their zero-emmieion rail work is a Asian-American women who has worked up the ranks at Caltrans, including the head of the motive power part of the rail division. Perhaps more respectful and polite engagement would do more to change things for the better then calling them stupid and calling for their removal from the sidelines.

    • Benjamin Turon

      I have heard good things about electrification in Scotland, what are they getting right that Network Rail failed to do down south?

      • Matthew Hutton

        Scotland has spent more generally on infrastructure such as the A9 dual carriageway.

        I think for electrification Scotland had a fair few low hanging fruit in the central belt that connects up to the east coast and west coast mainlines that were already electrified.

      • Borners

        Electrification in the Scottish central belt happened under the Thatcher government. It was part of a package to try head off Conservative unpopularity along with a bunch of other policies (Silicon Glen, the Barnett Formula). The British establishment pays well to keep England imprisoned in Britain a deal Scots continue to honour.

        That said England at the same time finished in the ECML, the DLR and the East Anglian mainlines. Question of extent rather than commitment. Pointedly the worst period for postwar electrification was 1995-2010 when Britain was dominated by Scottish politicians to the extent they consolidated a constitutional settlement that explicitly discriminates against England.

        The SNP is very Anglosphere in its transport policy, focusing on dud trams, motorway expansion, new car suburbs and reopening low ridership DMU lines. Electrification is sporadic and incoherent much like in England. And since capital expenditure is paid out of English taxpayers they can afford to be generous and incompetent.

        • fjod

          I assume the comment is referring to the last decade or so, which has seen comparatively loads electrified in Scotland, with almost a third of the previously unelectrified lines wired since 2010. This includes all these projects plus the Paisley Canal line apparently totalling 500 single track kilometres (so about 250-300 route km I’d guess): https://www.transport.gov.scot/projects/electrification-programme/electrification-programme/

          Article here suggests that more certainty in forward planning (hence lower supplier costs), better collaboration, and a rolling programme with manageable chunks seem to be the contributing factors: https://www.railengineer.co.uk/decarbonising-scotlands-railway/

          • Matthew Hutton

            I think Scotland has been trying to make its rural areas more liveable in. That’s always going to be expensive and focus on road transport more.

          • Sascha Claus

            Do they spend their money for rural road upgrades to raise quality of life or on (sub-)urban expressway extensions to raise quantity of traffic jams? And once you reach a certain level, road upgrades don’t contribute to quality of live anomore.

    • Joseph

      Not entirely on topic, but one thing Alon gets right but Americans can’t accept is that people should demand the government do things for them, not politely negotiate with recalcitrant officials, or request they maybe do a bit better. The goal here shouldn’t be “convince the people in power to change,” it should be “convince voters (and maybe politicians) that they should demand much more than they’re getting.”
      The contrast to what happens in Taiwan is stark.

      • Luke

        Not to further derail things, but that’s one thing I’ve really come to appreciate in conversation with my fellow Americans. The expectations–insofar as they are net-positive at all–are so low that government can get away with incompetence as a matter of tradition, and no one thinks anything of it; not, of course, that this appears to revoke any right to complain about governmental incompetence. Cultural change is always very hard, but that’s what we need, at least as much as anything else.

      • df1982

        Americans seem to already be very good at that when it comes to getting the government NOT to build things near them.

    • adirondacker12800

      New York to Albany is one of the few places, if not the only place, outside of the Northeast Corridor, where the trains run than they did in the heyday. NYSDOT got that right. Nobody wants to spend the money to make it better. There’s more demand to Saratoga Springs than there is to Hoffmans. Electrify to there. The Vermonters can use something like ALP-45s until there is high speed service.
      There is lot of demand that would go through upstate New York. Enough of it to build full blown high speed rail. Places like Utica would get a station because you will be able to spit at the high speed tracks from their historic station. Syracuse and Rochester, the airport may make more sense.

    • Brett

      The freight railroads just don’t want to have to pay for it, because they don’t want to invest anymore than they absolutely have to into the rail infrastructure anyways (they’ve been heavily cutting back on spending on it for years to pull bigger profits out of the railroads). Hydrogen just means they need hydrogen storage/supply and locomotives, not electric lines and electric locomotives.

      It’s still a good idea, though, and Caltrain should adopt electrification.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Association of American Railroads (AAR) “Freight Railroads & Climate Change”

        Click to access AAR-Climate-Change-Report.pdf

        “As policymakers examine potential solutions, they should invite stakeholders to the table to provide needed insight and prevent the wasting of resources. While AAR encourages federal investment in the development of technologies that reduce GHG emissions, policymakers should avoid prescriptive means for reducing emissions by certain industries and allow innovation to guide GHG emissions reduction decisions. For example, studies over the years have consistently shown that the catenary electrification of the freight rail network would be unworkable. Initiatives, such as catenary electrification, that are clearly not viable should be set aside to focus on and invest in policies and programs that will work to reduce GHG emissions and combat climate change, such as those noted above.”

        • Benjamin Turon

          India’s Dedicated Freight Corridor’s double-stack train under the wires…

          Worlds largest and India’s Fastest goods train run cum inauguration by PM Modi.

          • Benjamin Turon


          • Max Wyss

            And note that the Indian trains double stack the containers on flat cars, whereas the USAn double stacking uses pocket cars, leading to a lower overall height.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, because of the gauge – Chinese double-stacks look like American ones, because standard gauge doesn’t have enough crosswind stability for double-stacks on flat cars whereas broad gauge does.

          • Sascha Claus

            When comparing to the locos, it seems like these flatcars have smaller wheels and lower floos than usual. And they added some high-cube containers into the mix.

          • Phake Nick

            I am wondering, if with 3000mm rail gauge, maybe with 3 wheels, would it be possible to triple stack the containers while having two containers side by side in each layers, aka 3×2 stacking. It will obviously cost a lot more to build, with dedicated vehicles and all that, but capacity will also be more than two train lines.

          • Eric2

            Or you could just run longer trains, or run them more frequently. And build extra lines when you hit capacity.

          • Phake Nick

            Most American freight trains length are already measured in term of kilometer. And I think the network have been slimmed down to as capacity require.
            And what I am proposing is indeed building a new line, but it use 2x the space to provide 3x the capacity

          • Sascha Claus

            3000 mm reminds me of the Breitspurbahn, and its unsolved problems of getting into existing stations and city centres. (Problems that showed up again with the Transrapid.)
            That would not apply to goods trains, but you’d still be completely incompatible with the existing network and has other problems, like the need to transfer all containers at the interchange points until your broad gauge line is complete at least from hub to hub.
            If you run double-length trains, you can simply split them in the middle and run the second half as its own train, possibly via another line. If you run doublestack trains, you can unload the upper layer and load it onto its own train.
            Running more trains … if you have the drivers to do so and the money to pay them. But automated goods trains should already be possible with current technology (German LZB), if everybody involved wanted to.

        • Max Wyss

          It shows that the dudes at AAR are obviously stupid and incompetent. Well, they simply can not think anything else but their once a day super-obese, horrendously underpowered unmanageable behemoth freight trains. They are obviously not aware that one of the most heavy trains operations is electrified (in South Africa, and that even on narrow gauge). They are obviously not aware that freight lines through real no-mans land are fully electrified (Transsib and BAM, for example).

      • Henry

        I mean, it’s a rational economic response to the current economic incentives.

        What I mean by that is (depending on what state you’re in) railroads pay property taxes on their rail lines. In that sense, reducing tracks and electrification is desirable, because it lowers the assessed value of land since there’s less stuff on it. Airports and highways by virtue of their public ownership tend not to pay these kinds of taxes.

        Obviously it’s penny wise and pound foolish from our perspective, but if you want to solve the problem first fix the misaligned incentive in the system.

    • Alon Levy

      First, the combo of Mx. and a he pronoun is kind of weird…

      Second, LOSSAN is a publicly-owned passenger-primary corridor, with the exception of the Redondo-Fullerton segment. The segment was a big obstacle to California HSR plans in the late 2000s, but not because of freight obstruction – it was expected that traffic would be so high HSR would need two dedicated tracks, and BNSF did not make the demands UP made regarding track separation or unelectrified track.

      Third, half of incompetent Americans are women, and around 38% are POC (both numbers are generally lower in mainline rail, but still). The shared feature is the global incuriosity that leads the state to sign off on experimental tech just because overhead wires look too scary.

    • Nilo

      The beautiful thing about American transportation is it proves consistently that regardless of ethnic background or gender you too can rise to the top with bad ideas and incompetent plans.

    • Phake Nick

      One thing I recently learned about Asian American in America is that they do not necessarily have a good understanding of Asian things they are talking about…. Like certain Asian American with Japanese origin who is a congress member claim to be copying Japan’s successful example when trying to introduce a bill for 4 days 32 hours work week…

      • Sarapen

        Japan hasn’t had a high enough birth rate to be a great source of immigrants for quite a long time now, so Japanese Americans are probably 2nd generation at least, and probably more than that. Few will speak the language by that point and will not have very strong links to relatives there (how close are you to your 2nd cousin?) so their understanding of Japan will be very limited, and thus their understanding of Japanese issues will be quite distorted since they have an outsider perspective. They’ll likely know more than non-Japanese but they’ll have a lot of odd ideas.

        Anyway, this situation is normal for diaspora communities. As for other Asian Americans, it depends on the specific group – a lot of older Chinese communities downplayed their links to China during the Cold War, for example, while the majority of Vietnamese Americans probably came from South Vietnam and thus have rather complicated views on the current country.

      • Borners

        Yeah Japanese-Americans are a bit of outlier since the flow from Japan has declined rather than increased given Japan’s growth, connections to the old-country are quite weak compared to Koreans/Chinese etc.

        Asian-Americans, African-Americans, White-Americans the thing that unifies them is their Americanness, which includes a belief that their caste identities explain everything and they have magically inherited XYZ from that caste identity’s “original” continent. They don’t need to learn because they already know.

    • Nathanael

      CSX has been sabotaging the Schenectady-Buffalo line in far more ways than just preventing electrification. They’ve been removing tracks, they’ve been dispatching incompetently, etc. There really is no way around “buy the tracks”. I think the model on which Virginia bought half of the right-of-way for the Richmond to DC corridor is the correct model for the Albany-Buffalo corridor. CSX may throw hissy fits, but they WILL SELL.

      • Nathanael

        And of course once the state has its own right-of-way, CSX has nothing to say about whether it gets electrified.

        The same applies in California. Offer the right price, UP will sell the tracks. These are private, for-profit businesses. They are focused on quarterly numbers, improving the operating ratio, and reducing capital expenditure. Selling the tracks to the state is an offer they cannot resist, and it’s just a matter of negotiating on price.

        CSX also sold tracks in Massachusetts, as well as Virginia. CN sold most of the tracks in Toronto to Metrolinx/GO Transit. NS sold tracks in Michigan. BNSF *wanted* to sell tracks in New Mexico. *They will all sell*.

        Electrification is entirely technically feasible. If the obstacle is “you gotta buy the tracks”, a report writer should just say that. Because buying the tracks is also quite feasible. It’s not like we’re trying to buy tracks from a foreign power which considers them a national security issue — these are companies with a short-term profit motive who WILL sell the tracks and take the cash, if the price is right.

  5. Paul Dyson

    Alon I think I have a page in Steel Wheels, May I reprint? PD

    All the best Paul Dyson 818 371 9516


    • Alon Levy

      Sure, but you may want to also talk about your angle with Electrolink, because you understand the actual constraints in California better than I do.

  6. SB

    The report is from October 2020 and I can’t find recent news about this.
    The report advocates moving to renewable diesel and completing hydrail pilot by 2025 which I don’t think is happening.

    • Benjamin Turon

      I thought that they at Caltrans had issued something new too when I read the blog, but the link is to something I have had and even posted online on my rail group’s website for months. Caltrans seems to be working closely with Siemens, DB Engineering & Consulting, and Ballard Power Systems, Ballard being the same company that is providing fuel cells to the Sierra Northern and Canadian Pacific hydrogen demonstration-locomotives. There is quite a bit that can be found online involving DB and hydrogen trains in California, so while Mx. Levy attacks Americans at Caltrans, Siemens and DB seem very much involve to in the thinking and planning for zero-emission rail transport in California. This Andreas Hoffrichter, PhD Manager, Lead Sustainable Motive Power & Zero-Emission Technologies for DB Engineering & Consulting USA seems a key fellow.


      Click to access 20210519-CHBC-Briefing-Slides_Final-3.pdf

      Innovations in Hydrogen Rail – Project Showcase (Video of the Above)

      DB: Overview of Hydrogen-Powered Railway Motive Power Vehicles (Hydrail)

      Click to access Hoffrichter-12-03-20-Inter-Trans-Res-Symposium.pdf

      DB: Overview of Zero-Emission Motive/Power Options/Electrification, Batteries, Hydrogen

      Click to access Day%201%20Ext%201%20DB%20ENG%2020201021.pdf

      • Alon Levy

        Yes, and in Germany there’s an experimental example, it just has very high costs, while Italy is wiring a four-figure number of kilometers and India and China are both going 100% electric this decade.

  7. Phake Nick

    Speak of which, would third rail electrification be a realistic option on conventional heavy rail line if it is really undesired or not capable of putting up electricity poles and overhead wires?

        • Sascha Claus

          I only know about Bordeaux and their wireless city centre, and they use sophisticated electronic magickery to power only a short section that’s fully under the tram when the tram is passing over it. (Alstom Alimentation par (le) Sol)
          That doesn’t sound like it scales to railway speeds, hundreds of kilometres or snow.

          • Eric2

            It might be dangerous to passers-by with pacemakers to spew out that much EM radiation, if not contained by a vehicle directly overhead.

          • Phake Nick

            I think maglev have been proven safe to pacemaker-equipped passengers, including when boarding and deboarding?…

          • Sassy

            I think the power coils for maglev are also only powered when the train is on top of them. Even if they were used for melting snow on top of the tracks and powered without a train on top, the tracks are in a viaduct so random people wouldn’t be walking over them.

          • Sascha Claus

            Melting snow by permanently heating the conductor rail … talk about global warming. |-D You also need some place for the water to go which isn’t blocked by snow and ice (refrozen water from 10min ago). For tramways, if snow’s a possible problem, I’d rather tour some french tramway systems and look for the least intrusive kind of overhead wires, they have plenty of that to show.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s absolutely realistic, but I think in mainline applications it costs more than catenary because more substations are needed. Its use case is constrained legacy tunnels.

      • Phake Nick

        But then it doesn’t sound cost-efficient to fit every train through a tunnel with both pantograph for overhead wire and ground power collection equipment just to use inside the tunnel section.

        • Sascha Claus

          And make sure to exhaust all tricks before resorting to third rail: low-profile power rail at the ceiling instead of space-needing catenary; steel Y-shaped sleepers instead of concrete ones, or digging away the floor.

          • Nathanael

            And, nowadays, you can just have a battery and run through the tunnel on battery. Works for all short tunnels. Put up the catenary in most places, use the battery across the pinch points.

      • wiesmann

        Is there not a power issue? There seems to be a maximum around 1500 volts. I think locomotives have to run on reduced power on 3 kV lines in France, and being able to get some additional power on 3 kV lines from the diesel engine is one of the selling points of the Euro-Dual locomotives.

        • Max Wyss

          There are no 3000 VDC electrified lines in France; it is 1500 VDC. The transferable power is more limited than with 25 kV AC, because the currents get very high quickly. Another issue is that in many cases, particularly freight-only lines, not enough power is available from the substations. In this case, the diesel booster mentioned in the EuroDual can indeed help to provide more acceleration power.

          I believe to remember reading about a fan trip with a CC6500 on one of the lines in the Massif Central. They had to do a very detailled study on how they could operate the locomotive to not overload the substations, despite some serious scepticism by the officials from SNCF. They were apparently pushing the line to the limit…

          • wiesmann

            Thanks for the correction, that makes sense. I was mostly wondering if the same power limitations exist for third rail operation, if you have a 1.5KV voltage and a 7 MW locomotive, you need to get 4600 Amps through your rail contact.

          • Max Wyss

            @wiesman: The CC 6500, which was the most powerful 1500 VDC locomotive SNCF ever had, is rated at 6000 kW. It is able to draw the mentioned current through the overhead lines, which is considerably more reliable than third rail, especially when switchwork is involved. And have an interruption at maximum power output is something the motors don’t like at all 🙂 . They did run very heavy trains with this locomotive, in both, express and freight gear setting.

            The actual current drawn is higher than just the traction power, because there are all the auxiliary devices, and in passenger service also the hotel power.

      • Sam de Groot

        I’ve long wondered about third rail electrification for the North American freight network because overhead electrification seems to require so much maintenance. The apparent problem is that third rail tops out around 3 kv and overhead has no problem with 25 kv. The lower voltage means higher currents, heavier conductors and more substations.

        However, I don’t see why third rail cannot have much higher voltages. The electric arc distance through air is around 1mm per kv, so 25 kv requires around 25mm of clearance. The creepage distance is a bit longer, but could be handled in an articulated inverted U shape shroud. I would imagine a shroud open at the bottom made of xlpe and pe with a conductor at the top. It could be attached to the sleepers which would mean simpler installation than an overhead catenary.

        Such an installation would be less vulnerable to snow and ice, but more vulnerable to snow. But one big advantage of full electrification is the possibility of a fully automated freight network with shorter more frequent trains, which could also include frequent automated plow trains. Otherwise, something that could be installed and maintained entirely from vehicles on the rails sounds a lot simpler and cheaper than overhead electrification. Even if 25kv is ambitious, what about 15kv?

        • Sam de Groot

          Such an installation would be less vulnerable to WIND and ice, but more vulnerable to snow.

        • Henry

          The particular problem with freight is that double-stack well cars sit low and are wide, and would sideswipe a third rail. Which is why they’re not allowed on the LIRR’s trackage. So you’d be wiping out half of freight revenue in a fell swoop.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          The highest-voltage third rail system in the world uses 1.5 kV, not 3 kV. And there’s only about a half-dozen systems worldwide that even hit/top 1000V. Generally speaking the world standard voltage for third rail is 750V, and standardized parts become difficult to find for any system that deviates too significantly from the pack.

          Compared to 25 kV overhead, 750V is the difference between having a substation every 2-5 km vs. having one every 50-80 km. The scalability is dreadful for anything longer than a metro system, and too much costlier than modifying the overhead clearances for standardized high voltage overhead. That’s why it’s not considered as any practical alternative to simply modding the clearances for freight-under-wires.

          • adirondacker12800

            The civil and electrical engineers have been poking at this since the B&O electrified Baltimore. Almost everything imaginable has been tried. 25kV is the “best” compromise for most cases. If there has to be voltage compromise nominal 12.5 is easy to do.

    • Max Wyss

      Third rail electrification is not suitable for high performance and speed. Forget about it!!

      No wonder that SNCF dumped the third rail electrification of the Maurienne (western access to the Mont Cenis tunnel) some 50 years ago.

      • Phake Nick

        50 years ago can hardly represent a tech’s status now. Just like how battery electric cars was being phased out around 1910s but they’re now making comeback.

        • Max Wyss

          Third rail technology has not changed. It has been unsuitable for main lines 50 years ago, and it is even more so nowadays. That the Maurienne got third rail had more to do with the cheapassness of the management of the PLM at that time.

        • Henry

          No, third rail has major issues due to physics.

          The small clearance to the ground means you can’t run very high voltages, which requires more substations to supply higher current.

    • Henry

      My understanding is that double-stack well cars don’t really work with third rails, or at least not any current installations of them in the US.

  8. adirondacker12800

    Hydrogen is not even remotely close.

    You focused on the cost of the rolling stock. Physics is a cruel cruel mistress. All of what I’ve seen, comparing the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell cars to plain battery electric is that they are less than half as efficient. Converting electricity to hydrogen, compressing the hydrogen and then turning it back into electricity is grossly inefficient compared to using a battery. Fuel cell cars have a lot of waste heat in the winter, there is that.

    It looked like it made sense back in the glory days of the Space Age when the fusion reactors were just a few years away. When solar cells were literally worth their weight in gold and battery technology was lead-acid. Or maybe iron-nickel. Back fusion advocates into a corner and they admit that roughly half of the output of the fusion plant will be to run the deuterium extraction plant to supply it with deuterium. It’s unlikely it will ever make sense. Or running stuff on hydrogen except for some few niche cases. ….using twice as many megawatts to run hydrogen fuel cell trains costs a lot of money over the decades long amortization of hanging wires over the tracks. But if your goal is to torpedo electrification that’s not part of your analysis.

    …. I noticed that the Caltrans study pointed out that using methane, whether it’s natural gas, biogas or maybe even syngas needs new fueling infrastructure. But was silent on the infrastructure needed for hydrogen. In the charts anyway.

    • Henry

      Physics is a cruel mistress indeed.

      For long-distance trains, planes, and sizeable ships, the problem is that electric batteries offer so much less energy density that they can’t reasonably power a long-haul flight or boat and have the vehicle still flying or floating. I imagine trains are in a similar boat, particularly the ones that are gonna need the oomph to cross mountains.

      I think the Navy is looking into synthesizing hydrocarbons using carbon from the sky instead of carbon that was sequestered millions of years ago, though, which shows you how much faith they have in hydrogen itself.

      • Nathanael

        You’d be wrong. Battery trains are 100% suitable for all applications, though overhead wire is more cost-effective in the long run for many applications.

        For planes, the issue is that you have to hoist the plane in the air, and batteries are HEAVY. That’s why batteries are not yet capable for most airplane uses. This does not apply to trains.

        Weight matters to some extent for ships too; don’t want the ship to sink! But for ships, it’s just a matter of time: Battery-electric ships are being deployed.

        Weight doesn’t matter hardly at all for trains; they’re exceptionally good at moving very heavy weights. If you need more range on a battery-electric train, just hook on another car full of more batteries. (For obvious reasons, this does not work for an airplane or a ship.)

        At some point it becomes cheaper to just put up overhead wire rather than buying all those batteries. But it’s always more expensive to use hydrogen than to just add a few more cars filled with batteries. Because, as adirondacker says, physics is a harsh mistress.

      • Nathanael

        OK, my last comment got eaten, so let’s try this again:

        If planes are too heavy, they fall to the ground.
        If ships are too heavy, they sink.

        There is NO comparable problem with trains. You can add a dozen battery-electric lomotives to a train if you like, or two dozen. So you may imagine that trains are in a similar situation to planes and ships, but you’re wrong.

  9. xh

    What makes the situation extremely ironic is that “electrification” is actually not a “foreign” idea. US is the first (no one of) country to have high-voltage, single-phase AC electrified rail lines. The idea of using autotransformers to compensate for voltage drop also has its root in the US, which NYNH&H deployed on its electrified New Haven Line in early 1910s.

  10. Max Wyss

    In the graphic floating around where they compare the various options, they show their incompetence even more so.

    Aside from the lousy use of primary energy (which is about comparable to the one of a diesel engine), hydrogen is only kind of environmentally friendly if it is produced using electrolysis with energy from wind or solar. All other processes to create hydrogen are NOT environmentally friendly. Most often, hydrogen is the result of a petrochemical process, involving methane (a worse greenhouse gas than CO₂). No wonder, hydrogen is pushed so hard by the petrochemical industry.

  11. Adrian Brandt

    Union Pacific Railroad to Assemble World’s Largest Carrier-Owned Battery-Electric Locomotive Fleet

    OMAHA, NEB., JANUARY 28, 2022

    Union Pacific Railroad (NYSE: UNP) today announced plans to purchase 20 battery-electric locomotives for testing in yard operations. The combined purchases and upgrades to yard infrastructure are expected to exceed $100 million, representing the largest investment in battery-electric technology by a U.S. Class I railroad. The locomotives will be acquired from Progress Rail, a Caterpillar company, and Wabtec Corporation (NYSE:WAB), two companies at the forefront of locomotive innovation, and will be the world’s largest carrier-owned battery-electric locomotive fleet in freight service.

    • Eric2

      If the locomotives are going to stay in yards, that actually sounds like a great idea. They will travel very short distances in the yard, so a battery will provide enough power. They will always be close to a charging station if they need it. And yards are presumably complicated to electrify due to all the crossing and diverging tracks.

  12. Peter Furth

    Ignorance is only half the problem. The other half is that the Amercans in positions of power in this industry lack the “wanna.” That is, they are happy to continue the status quo. They don’t have a passion for making passenger transportation more sustainable by attracting people to rail; they don’t have a passion for averting climate disaster. As long as “keep doing things the way we always have” is an acceptable alternative, it will always be the superior alternative. This talk about hydrogen is just a delay tactic that enables the railroads to continue the status quo.
    I’ll add a third lack, along with knowledge and passion, and that’s a vision for a different future. Electrifying a line is a large fixed cost which becomes “affordable” only if there is a lot of traffic on those rails. If you have a vision for a different, sustainable future (and it’s easy to get that vision if, as Alon says, you just open your eyes to what’s going on in Europe and elsewhere), you can see those high train frequencies; if not, all you see is a large fixed cost. That’s why hydrogen seems attractive to those without a vision – you only have pay per train, and if your vision of the future has few trains, you like solutions in which the cost is per train.

    • Phake Nick

      American rail are mostly freight rail. And replacing trucks with freight rail is as important as replacing passenger traffic with train in term of reducing emission. Hence, improvement on American rail service with fight against climate change as goal shouldn’t unwork the existing freight rail network in the US.

      • Nathanael

        Most American Class I (large) “freight rail” companies have shown no interest in expanding freight rail service, and have been driving freight to trucks in order to improve the “ratios” in their quarterly reports. (They only want “high-margin” business and are rejecting “low-margin” but still profitable business, sending it to trucks. BNSF is the exception, since Warren Buffett explicitly rejects that philosophy of business. But CSX, NS, CN, KCS, and UP have all been caught doing that repeatedly.)

        I agree that we need to improve freight rail in the US; the existing Class Is are an obstacle to that, too.

  13. Coridon Henshaw

    California politics being what they are, the “right-of-way implications” of overhead electrification are that Caltrans would have to fight lawsuit-happy NIMBYs along the entire length of the route instead of just where they plan to build hydrogen infrastructure.

    Sad to say it, but politics trumps engineering. America can’t do technically sound infrastructure as long as most political veto points are controlled by NIMBYs, rentiers, or both.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Electric trains are quieter so as long as you point that out the nimby’s should be accepting of them.

        Or you just do it because you can do it entirely on railway land so don’t need permission.

    • Benjamin Turon

      Both the ‘Capitol Corridor’ and ‘San Joaquins’ mostly travel over track that is owned by Union Pacific and BNSF and therefore electrification is not so much a matter of cost but of legal ownership of the right-of-way, unlike with the LOSSAN Surf Line between San Diego and LA Union Station or the tracks now owned by Caltrains and Metrolink. Note that the Zero-Emissions power point from Caltrans states that electrification is “not feasible system-wide” and that the recommendation for future motive-power is “Hydrogen-Hybrid with Batteries and Dual-Mode Capability Using Electrification Where Available” — so “wayside” electrification is not discounted.

      This is from the 2018 State Rail Plan: “The Rail Plan advances the state’s commitment to reduce GHG and other pollutants by providing a competitive alternative to private vehicle travel and diesel-truck transport. California HSR will be fully electrified, and powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Many intercity, regional, and urban transit passenger services will benefit from electrification or other zero-emission technology, often through sharing infrastructure with the growing HSR network. By 2040, more than half of passenger trips and the majority of passenger miles of travel will take place on electrified trains in California. Diesel-electric and other alternative clean technology passenger and freight locomotives will reduce GHG emissions, making rail a greener mode of transportation.”

      The planners at Caltrans are not being “ignorant and stupid” but instead are pragmatically working within the reality of American passenger rail, that the private freight railroads control much of the track used by intercity passenger trains and that the state governments are not about to seize these rail lines from the private sector. Also that legal action by wealthy NIMBYs can delay a project for year, if not decades. Also electrification even competently done would about two-decades to complete. We can cry that this is wrong, that the states should seize the railroads, that they should be 100% electrify, that NIMBYs should be legally crushed, that this is the logical solution, that we are right and they are wrong, and feel smug in our moral superiority… but the people at Caltrans have to work within the existing constraints, without constraints the planners at Caltrans would mostly likely opt for full electrification.

      I’m not saying that California’s rail plans are not without some major oversights and flaws, that they could not be greatly improved, but Caltrans still is doing a far better job than NYSDOT which hasn’t updated the state rail plan (as federally required) since 2009 and is close to entering year 13 of the Empire Corridor HSR EIS, which was derailed in part due to a fight between NYSDOT and CSX over 90 vs 110-mph operation. I rather see some progress and improvement then none at all.

      California State Rail Plan

      • adirondacker12800

        State rail plans are discretionary, not required.

        110 MPH operation needs Class 6 track and who is going to pay for that? And it’s not high speed.

        …. you do understand the NYSDOT, like all state DOTs and the Federal, spit out reports that never get acted on. The last Empire Corridor report was expected to get filed away with all the other Empire Corridor reports gathering dust somewhere.

        It’s 1986 again. Immigration needs to be reformed So they fixed that. The tax system needed to be overhauled. So they overhauled that. And infrastructure is failing apart so they funded that. Vaguely like the Johnson administrations actions. Read this comment again in 2044 and see if it’s deja vu all over again. Gateway might be a few years away from opening, a mere 60 years after they started talking about increasing capacity across the Hudson and in Penn Station.

      • Tiercelet

        > the people at Caltrans have to work within the existing constraints

        No. This is exactly why American infrastructure is terrible: public servants see their job as “working within the existing constraints.” This is why their lunches are absolutely devoured by self-centered sociopaths who refuse to acknowledge any rules, like Elon Musk, or Travis Kalanik, or the late Steve Jobs.

        If the existing constraints don’t let you do the right thing, your job is to *change the existing constraints*. Don’t go publishing reports that downplay the advantages of the Right Thing. Make detailed, clear, unequivocal arguments for the right thing. Give politicians the ammunition to demand that freight owners get out of the way. Give the public ammunition to demand better of their politicians. Make sure nobody can even think about the problem without the immediate thought “Oh but this constraint is stupid, why do we even have it?”

        Outside of technical physics, feasibility is a matter of political will and consensus, which is a matter for the politicians to worry about. Expert bodies’ recommendations should be based on their technical expertise, not on doing the politicians’ job for them. (This is exactly why the CDC has been in so much trouble for this whole pandemic–it keeps issuing guidance based on political judgments of public will or “the economy” or its own reputation, rather than focusing on presenting factual information.)

        Any report that says “electrification is not feasible system-wide” instead of “electrification would be far superior to the alternatives listed here but requires state regulation of private monopolists” is demonstrating either ignorance or careerist cowardice. The former should be a firing offense; and the latter can be corrected for by making it also a firing offense: Courage is simply being more afraid of running away than of facing the threat.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          > the people at Caltrans have to work within the existing constraints

          No. This is exactly why American infrastructure is terrible: public servants see their job as “working within the existing constraints.” This is why their lunches are absolutely devoured by self-centered sociopaths who refuse to acknowledge any rules …

          Expert bodies’ recommendations should be based on their technical expertise, not on doing the politicians’ job for them …


      • Nathanael

        There’s a reason I say “buy the tracks”. It’s proven that every track held by a Class I private for-profit railroad in this country is for sale — it’s just a matter of finding the right price.

        State governments are very, very good at buying tracks. Massachusetts has bought a lot of track. North Carolina has bought a lot of track. Michigan has bought a lot of track. New York has bought quite a bit, though only a little recently.

        If the obstacle to electrification is track ownership, a responsible report-writer will say that and start discussing how to buy the tracks. Given the right price, UP WILL sell.

        • Nathanael

          Ben: If you think that the state won’t seize the tracks, you’re just engaging in irrational defeatism.

          Whether to buy the tracks is a choice up to the state government. Massachusetts seized the tracks (even got US Senators involved to force CSX to accept a reasonable price). Virginia bought the tracks. Michigan did. Toronto did. North Carolina, in a funny way, did (they already owned them but they *noticed* that they owned them and reclaimed their control rights).

          The private Class Is are frankly eager to sell. They don’t want high-capital-expense, high-maintenance expense assets cluttering up their books — their financial ratios look better to Wall Street if all their tracks are operating rights, leases, etc. and they don’t own ANY tracks. They just want to be paid off so that the track sales boost this quarter’s profits. (As CN was paid off by Metrolinx.)

          I do investments for a living. I don’t agree with the way Wall Street evaluates the books of these companies, but I do know this is how the typical Wall Street investor *does* analyze them.

    • Alon Levy

      Lawsuit-happy NIMBYs on the Peninsula lost their fight to move California HSR from Pacheco Pass to Altamont Pass. When the state wants something, it gets it.

      • Benjamin Turon

        @Alon Levy Any opinion on the US transition from steam to diesel? Despite electric trains being a older and at the time widely used (all those interurbans) technology more efficient then diesel locomotives the US railroads went with diesel, and de-electrified the mainline under the wire that they had. Today the North American railroads seem to be making the same calculations, hydrogen and battery locomotives don’t have to be as economical as catenary electric trains, just as economical to run and maintain as their current diesel-electric, a fleet which they want to convert to fuel cells and batteries.

        P.S. Electrify the Surf Line is one of the lowest hanging fruit of modernizing passenger rail in the USA, not doing so because of concerns of scenic views as stated by LOSSAN is ridiculous. I hear the same arguement about the Hudson Line north of Croton-Harmon even from rail supporters.

        • adirondacker12800

          Yes, it would be awful the way it’s going to obstruct the view of the petroleum storage tanks across the bay…


          Perhaps it’s that it will compete with the poles along the highway?

          Amtrak managed to electrify between New Haven and Boston. There are places where the tracks are along the water.

          On the third hand there have been loud noisy meetings in Connecticut about how putting high speed rail tracks along the Turnpike would ruin it’s bucolic charms.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I doubt even at 1am you’d hear a high speed train over the traffic.

          • adirondacker12800

            And a lot quieter than the diesel trains that go through the middle of town. The crossings aren’t particularly quiet either.

        • Nathanael

          “@Alon Levy Any opinion on the US transition from steam to diesel? Despite electric trains being a older and at the time widely used (all those interurbans) technology more efficient then diesel locomotives the US railroads went with diesel, and de-electrified the mainline under the wire that they had. ”

          I can answer this one. Avoidance of capex. It would usually have been more profitable long term to spend the money upfront on the overhead wire — but it means spending money *now*, and companies focused on quarterly cash flow reports made short-term decisions to go with whatever had the lowest upfront cost now. In particular, the US railroad industry was short on cash from at least WWII onward, so they made a lot of decisions which used less cash in the short run but were less profitable in the long run.

          It’s a special case of the short-term thinking problem — the problem which has rotted out corporate America for the last 40 years. You can see it everywhere if you start looking for it.

          That accounts for why they didn’t build any new overhead.

          The Milwaukee Road, the largest one which de-electrified its electrified line, was a special case: the management was looking at incorrect (falsely entered) accounting numbers, and making decisions based on the incorrect accounting they saw, not based on reality. Infamously, they had the expenses booked wrong; they thought the unprofitable lines were profitable and vice versa. You can also see this level of self-deluding accounting in modern corporate America occasionally (sigh) though it’s become less common, thankfully.

          Iowa Traction Railroad still runs freight under wire.

  14. Eric2

    What if you electrify only 1/3 of your track – say 1 mile electrified followed by 2 not, then repeat – and rely on batteries for the 2 intermediate miles? Presumably the construction costs are a bit over 1/3 of full electrification, the range is unlimited just like with full electrification, and the batteries required are not big enough to affect EMU costs too much?

    • Krist

      I would not be surprised that electrification follows the usual 80/20 rule of most projects: You can get 80% at 20% of the cost, and the last 20% eat up the remaining 80% of the budget. So with BEMUs you could just electrify those sections where it can be done cheap, and skip the expensive, fiddly parts.

    • adirondacker12800

      How does the electricity get from the substation to the second, or third or fourth …. section?

      • Eric2

        An elevated wire. Much cheaper than the all the precise arrangement of poles for catenary.

        • adirondacker12800

          And cheaper than replacing the batteries every few years because they go through dozens of fast charging and deep discharge cycles a day?

          • adirondacker12800

            From the article you cite:
            ….Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, chose CAF’s “on-wire” supercapacitor trains, because the wireless-charging system “was higher priced and determined to have limited applicability, given the topography of Cincinnati’s first streetcar route.”

          • Eric2

            What I am suggesting is just like Cincinnati. Cincinnati put catenary (or some other form of touching metal) at the stops and relied on supercapacitors in between. That option was affordable. The “wireless-charging” option, aka inductive charging, was less affordable so Cincinnati rejected it. As do I, I spoke of catenary for the parts of the route that have charging.

          • adirondacker12800

            I suppose, it would be awful to have trolley wires ruining the historic charm of trolley suburbs. It doesn’t say whether or not it was cheaper.

        • adirondacker12800

          The convenient place to connect to the grid is a few gaps back along the line

  15. Nathanael

    To give Toronto SOME credit, the dumbasses who were proposing hydrogen in Toronto seem to have been shot down and they’re putting the wires up. This makes Caltrans stupider than Toronto.

  16. utisoc

    Alon, I think you are missing something important here. I don’t think there is a competence problem in US public sector. I think there is a “no resources problem” in the broader US economy that is valid for public and private sector and that has a lot to do with the way how the US economy works in comparison with Europe and Asia. In the US more resources are used for development of frontier technology and top science than elsewhere. There is no other country in this world that can compete with Silicon Valley and NASA. I named both, because it shows that you are wrong on innovation. NASA is public sector and it was on the moon. No China and especially no Europe can beat Silicon Valley and NASA. Please note that I am using both more as a symbol for the insane innovativeness of the US economy when it comes to these frontier technologies you mentioned in your article.

    However this has a downside. It drains resources from the broader economy like “normal” engineering, which is king elsewhere. Germany alone has 50% of the global market leaders in the SME sector (most of them are engineering firms). Germany and some other developed countries have insane expertise in how to build things and run them efficiently. It’s not just the public sector in the US that lags this competence, it’s the private sector as well. The resources of investment and development are distributed differently in the US and Germany/Europe/Asia. These leaders are not incompetent, they just don’t have any competence available.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem is that Silicon Valley as a mass industry is too recent. In 2000, Japan was still on top of the world and so was Nokia – but somehow Japanese construction costs were pretty middle of the road and Finnish costs were (and still are) low. In contrast, high US costs are a problem going back to the 1930s in New York, then exploding after WW2.

      • utisoc

        Investing in building Silicon Valley dates well back to the post-WWII era. Look at how Americans spend on universities and the health care system. Add to that huge military spending that I forgot to mention. It’s true, the Japanese and Finns were unrivaled back then and the US was never particularly good at building quality products at competitive prices. Even before World War II, Americans saw the danger of Japanese products, which were cheaper but of equal quality to their own products. But in the end, the Americans built the atomic bomb and not Japan. While Japan was inventing the Walkman, the US was researching microchips. The Japanese and the Finns almost completely missed this development. IBM, Fairchild, Apple and Intel didn’t just exist since yesterday. IBM had already sold to Nazi Germany. The first digital computer was invented in Germany, but Konrad Zuse never received the resources to make Germany the leading tech center of the world. In fact many developments regarding computer technology go back to the Bell Laboratories which was founded in the 1920s.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          This is simply free-association nuttery. Having a robust private industrial sector and robust public and private R&D does not preclude being able to undertake public works without 5x cost multipliers. You’ve one example, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

          It’s a transit-industrial mafia that is the problem, along with a political environment in which public sector failure is *encouraged* and *expected* by “both sides”.

          A country can run a national takt or run lots of high speed trains AND make cool machine tools AND write software you know. There are, uh, several examples out there.

          • utisoc

            Wow very aggressive critique.

            “Having a robust private industrial sector and robust public and private R&D does not preclude being able to undertake public works without 5x cost multipliers.”


            “You’ve one example, post hoc ergo propter hoc.”

            There are many more. I am just too lazy to name them all, but I can give you numbers of the trade balance of both countries, which demonstrate which country is economically competitive in goods production and which isn’t and I can give you data about Nobel Prizes, tech sector revenue, scientific discoveries and innovations. It would just further confirm my “free-association nuttery”: The US is the leader in frontier technology and Germany is the leader in traditional engineering.

            “It’s a transit-industrial mafia that is the problem, along with a political environment in which public sector failure is *encouraged* and *expected* by „both sides“.”

            These are nothing but abstract and wild accusations.

            “A country can run a national takt or run lots of high speed trains AND make cool machine tools AND write software you know. There are, uh, several examples out there.”

            Sure, the question is how good are they compared to other countries. Resources including labor resources are not unlimited. They are scarce and some countries have more and other have less resources. The US has decided to put a lot of resources into frontier technology. Other countries have made different decisions. In economics this is called specialization. The only way the US can benefit from the railways expertise and technology elsewhere is trade and/or knowledge transfer and the latter one is especially important when building infrastructure.

          • Alon Levy

            The top two countries in patents per capita are by far Japan and South Korea, FYI.

            But your comment gets into one of the sources of the problem, which is that Americans will constantly look for excuses that make them feel good about themselves – if bad infrastructure is merely the cost to be paid for the existence of the tech industry then there’s no need to learn, no need for the railroad industry to self-abnegate, no need for regulators to make sure foreign contractors can work in the US on the same terms as in their lower-cost home countries. But that’s not about technology – it’s about money. Germany for the same reason will not learn from Southern Europe, which it stereotypes as spendthrift, and for that matter places with money and no skills whatsoever, like the Gulf states, have some truly laughable infrastructure programs (Qatar might have the highest costs of any non-Anglo country).

          • utisoc

            (1) Your responses are rude. It all starts with your article in which you accuse management of inability. This is kind of arrogant.

            (2) I am not American.

            (3) Patents are an engineering things. It actually supports my talking point.

          • Nilo

            Richard can be sharp, but your thesis frankly reeks of ex-post facto justification for the way things are now. Every developed country (and several middle income countries!) with the notable exception of Canada has a far better mainline railroad system than the United States. And if labor issues are the problem why has US passenger rail seen 1. so little improvement despite collapsing workforce needs in the industry 2. still insist on incredibly laborious fare collection practices that have disappeared from countries with “fewer resource constraints,” per your hypothesis? If your hypothesis were true I”d suspect we’d see the opposite as train resource rich Japan kept one employee per car, while train poor America slashed ticket takers.

          • utisoc

            (1) Every country except the US has no world leading tech sector.
            (2) Canada has bad railways because Canada is a small country by population size, that is economically depend on the bigger neighbor. Canada gets the same economic difficulties.
            (3) You assume that fewer resources lead to higher productivity. The opposite is the case. Remember we are not talking about natural resource productivity, which does often force productivity increases elsewhere, but labor and capital productivity. If you do not invest in labor and capital, your productivity gets worse.

          • Nilo

            I just don’t see at all what having a world leading tech sector has to do with having bad railways. The technology industry simply doesn’t employ that many people and draws its capital from private not public dollars. This seems not so different than saying the US has a world leading american football and basketball leagues and thus can’t have a good technology sector. The Japanese were eating everyone’s lunch in consumer electronics in the 80s, but still had great trains.

          • utisoc

            Because railways is engineering and Germany and Japan are focussed on engineering, while the US is focussed on frontier technology and services. There is a major difference in specialization here. Most of the newer railways technology needs to be imported from other countries. The US simply lacks the knowhow regarding railways.

          • Phake Nick

            US have bad *passenger* rail, not bad rail. It’s just the business decision in the US that use most of the rail it have for freight as the market structure at the time decided freight is more profitable for rail to transport than passengers, hence they gave up passenger transportation. Freight are no less significant than passengers, when it come to issues surrounding transportation like noise, road space, induced demand, pollution, and urban form.

          • utisoc

            The technology used by freight rail in the US is outdated. The capacity is high, but so are derailments, bad tracks and outdated safety systems.

          • adirondacker12800

            That’s cute, but America rules with Silicon Valley.
            Move the goalposts. Silicon Valley is good selling your information perhaps. There’s more to life than swiping right.
            Roughly half a billion x86 processors ship in a year and 12 billion ARM processors. Android is the world’s most popular operating system. Which is Linux-y. Very likely to be on a Samsung processor. Last time I checked South Korea is on the far far edges of Silicon Valley. iOS and MacOS are BSD-ish. Apple has abandoned x86.
            …. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10_nm_process

          • utisoc

            Sorry but wind turbines are traditional engineering for where countries like Germany excel in. Germany has 50% of the world market leaders in SME, most of them do some kind of engineering. That’s not the frontier technology I am talking about. Silicon Valley is the definition of frontier technology and I didn’t say other countries don’t contribute to it as well, but the US dominates the sector, especially software.

          • adirondacker12800

            If you are going to limit your definition of technology to one narrow field there can only be one.

          • Phake Nick

            > The technology used by freight rail in the US is outdated. The capacity is high, but so are derailments, bad tracks and outdated safety systems.

            Not just capacity but also efficiency. There sure are derailment and bad track, but they also mean lower operating cost for those freight rail and hence make them more competitive. The reduced safety is deemed acceptable tradeoff.

          • Alon Levy

            More competitive for hauling coal at continental distances – which is why the industry privately lobbied against climate legislation, despite publicly bragging about its fuel efficiency.

          • Phake Nick

            Coal and all sort of commodities.
            Being part of coal supply chain, they will also need to adapt their business toward a future with vanishing coal use, and the cost as well as uncertainty in adaption is probably pushing them against these changes?

          • Alon Levy

            Coal is pretty important to them and they’ve been financially struggling with the decline of US coal. Their entire business model is based on hauling very low-value goods; the modal split for ton-km in the US is around 40%, but as a proportion of the value of goods carried, it’s 3%, same as in the EU. And retooling for higher-value goods is difficult with how much capacity cutting they’ve been doing.

          • neutrino78x

            adirondacker12800 wrote,
            “Android is the world’s most popular operating system. Which is Linux-y.”
            Well, Linux itself comes from Finland not Silicon Valley, but Android is from Silicon Valley. Google created Android. Google is based here, along with most of the dominant companies in the computer technology industry, hence “Silicon Valley”.

            Plus Linux wouldn’t exist without UNIX, which was created by AT&T in the USA. UNIX was invented in the 70s, long before Linux. BSD stands for Berkeley Software Distribution, as in UC Berkeley, a world renowned university here in the Bay Area. BSD is Berkeley’s version of AT&T UNIX. Start FreeBSD and it says “Copyright the Regents of the University of California”. UC Berkeley is not in Silicon Valley but it is in the USA, it’s in another part of the Bay Area (the “East Bay”).

            ” Apple has abandoned x86″
            Uh…Apple is a quintessential Silicon Valley company…and they are moving to their OWN processor designed here in Silicon Valley by Apple. Probably manufactured in Taiwan, but the engineering design of the processor was done in the USA by Americans. The intellectual property is from the USA, not Taiwan.

            “Very likely to be on a Samsung processor.”

            If it is a Samsung smartphone, yes. Although a lot of Samsung’s phones are also based on a Qualcomm Snapdragon.

            To my knowledge in Android processors you basically have Samsung Epnyx, MediaTek and Qualcomm (Snapdragon family). MediaTek is from Taiwan and Qualcomm is from the USA. Not Silicon Valley but the USA; they are based in San Diego IIRC.

            So basically your whole post just confirms USA dominance in the computer industry. And that’s not going away any time soon. I love Silicon Valley, I grew up here and it’s my home.

            Alon Levy — not sure what you’re talking about, Union Pacific is very profitable and they celebrated their most profitable year ever in 2021.


            Don’t confuse the fact that we use jet aircraft instead of HSR as our high speed vehicle with the idea that somehow US rail is struggling. We are the world leader in FREIGHT RAILROADS. We move more freight every day in certain states within our country than other countries do in their entire country. Plenty of freight goes at 100+ mph. Generally not passengers because even 200 mph is a very slow speed for intercity travel in a geographically large country like the USA. We use jet aircraft for high speed passenger travel. Can’t really replace it…I know the Europeans are ok with a four hour trip and consider it to be unbelievably fast, even when a two hour flight is available, but I guess that’s just a cultural difference. I’m sure you like Canada and Australia. Neither of them uses HSR either, at least not as nationwide public transit like you have in Europe. The distances out here are just too great. I do think it’s probably good to have as long as private companies do it with their own money. I don’t support public funds being wasted on per “high speed” rail. “Higher speed”, sure, that’s a lot cheaper. But for per se high speed, the private sector has that covered with jet aircraft.

        • Matthew Hutton

          I think there’s maybe an argument for New York or San Francisco’s costs being ~50% higher than say Denmark’s due to extremely high wages due to high productivity in sectors like tech and finance. But not the 5x multiplier. And that doesn’t apply to other parts of the US that have lower wages,

          • utisoc

            Germany has the world market leader in boring tunnel machines. The US has to import it or from Italy. The US completely lacks traditional engineering practice.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Ok so get people from Europe to run the project – this doesn’t feel like something that costs tens of millions of dollars a kilometre.

          • Eric2

            “due to extremely high wages due to high productivity in sectors like tech and finance”

            That’s not why. Just because a banker earns millions doesn’t mean a construction worker automatically earns more to keep up.

            The actual reason is that cost of living is super high in NY/SF, so salaries for all jobs have to be higher than elsewhere to be competitive. And why of cost of living high? Mostly because restrictive zoning makes housing extremely expensive. If you live in NY you have to pay through the nose for your housing. Not just that, whenever you pay for a service you have to pay extra, because the employees providing the service have to pay through the nose for THEIR housing.

          • Reedman Bassoon

            A small North American tunnelling benchmark:
            The Line 5 oil pipeline in Michigan is 50 years old and needs replacement. It crosses the Straits of Mackinac (between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Penninsula). The company doing the engineering and permits estimates $500 million to put in 4 miles of 30 inch pipeline underground and underwater.

          • adirondacker12800

            30 inch pipeline in a tunnel that is much bigger. It will make a good place to put the HVDC line(s) from the wind farms on the Upper Peninsula to Detroit and Ohio.

        • Tiercelet

          It’s funny you mention microchips, because the US used to be the far-and-away world leader in semiconductor manufacture until the 1980s when Japan took over. And they took over because of better industrial policy, i.e. more government support for the initial capital expenditure required to set up factories (which in the US would’ve needed to be updated anyway). This source (https://employamerica.medium.com/a-brief-history-of-semiconductors-how-the-us-cut-costs-and-lost-the-leading-edge-c21b96707cd2) talks about that history a lot.

          The upshot conclusion wasn’t that the US doesn’t have money to invest in both leading-edge and established-market technologies; it’s that it made conscious choices to stop funding non-bleeding-edge stuff, since companies were having trouble competing in commodity businesses and there wasn’t political will for the government to continue supporting industry. Without the DoD insisting on a competitive market (through contract structures designed to make sure no firm could be a single point of failure) & being a buyer of last resort (to put a ceiling on the risks firms faced in investing in plant), firms chose to do a bunch of eat-your-seed-corn short-term false-economy stuff–like using their money to consolidate instead of building new plant, and laying off expert staff.

          But this isn’t a matter of over-prioritizing leading-edge R&D; the new policy goal was to *minimize* R&D budgets as well. Instead of creating a robust ecosystem of American firms, policy encouraged consolidation into behemoths, and relegated R&D more to the academic world & to design-only firms. But this isn’t for overall want of resources. To the extent that there’s resource competition, it isn’t between leading-edge and lagging-edge technologies; it’s between lagging-edge sectors and spending that money to buy out competitors and do stock buy-backs (to increase profits for the C-suite).

          And this is shortsighted not just because it makes the ecosystem more brittle and less able to respond to wider market demands, but also because process improvements come from people who are *actually on the shop floor doing things*. Design is design, but it’s only when you actually implement the design to produce things that you start to realize ways you can improve your process and make a better, cheaper product.

          My story is parallel to the one you’re telling, but with a key difference: your story is about inadequate resources; mine is about voluntary under-investment. For another example, you mentioned engineering specifically: it’s true that Big Tech has a vast appetite for engineering talent. But that embeds the assumption that engineering talent is an inelastic resource. In 2017-2018, the US graduated something like 150,000 undergraduates with engineering majors (not counting CS students not in engineering departments). By contrast, India produces a million engineering graduates a year as of 2021. The Indian population is only 4x the US population; but they’re producing 6.7x the engineers. Why? Because their government is investing in education, both at the primary and secondary level (to make students ready) and at the university level, where the engineering degrees themselves are vastly cheaper than in the US. If we actually chose to invest our money in increasing productive capacity, we could have a lot more engineering talent available–not to mention a lot better railroads!–but that would require government policy that rewards investment over short-term dividend-taking.

          In short–It’s not that the resources aren’t there. We just give them to Elon Musk instead of doing something useful with them.

          • utisoc

            Fair enough, but I think I was talking about this. Keep in mind, labor is an economic resource and that resource is limited. Apparently many here think every country has enough resources to be good in everything and this is just against everything economics does know.

          • neutrino78x

            Tiercelet, do you live under a rock?? Silicon Valley is the undisputed leader of the computer technology industry, and that shows no signs of changing any time soon. Ever heard of Google? Intel? AMD? They’re all based here in Silicon Valley.

            And Elon Musk is doing a lot of good in the world. Largely as a result of his actions, in about 20 years, all new model year cars will be zero emission.

          • Krist

            Don’t forget that about everyone is moving to ARM processors now, and those are British…

    • Phake Nick

      Even those smaller engineering works done for technology immediately reachable by consumer, are unlikely to be done by SMEs. Look at European or Asian things in your house, they most likely come from recognized brand in those regions.

        • Phake Nick

          Simply speaking, consolidated resource are more effectively used, and can spare more extra resources on R&D. Like a small bakery is unlikely to come up with innovative product and spread it around the world unlike a large food manufacturer.

  17. neutrino78x

    Guys, look.

    We don’t have to do everything the same as other countries.

    We’re a geographically large country with large distances between cities. Britain has TEN TIMES the population density that we do. Whereas a typical intercity distance in Europe might be 200 miles (300 km), here it’s more like 500 miles (804 km). Chicago and New York for example are 790 miles (1271 km) apart, far too long a distance for HSR.

    Oh I know what you’re going to say, “aviation takes five times longer than the published times due to going to the airport, needing to invent computers and develop appropriate software, the time needed to invent the airplane…” please. I tire of reading that.

    Train 4 hours, Plane 2 hours.
    Train slow.

    (At this distance anyway. It makes sense at short distances as long as a private company is spending its own money on it, such as how Brightline is doing it. I endorse them.)

    But more the point for this particular issue, you have to remember that the tracks that Amtrak California uses are owned, for the most part, by railroads. And their needs actually SHOULD take priority because freight railroads in the USA are highly advanced and many processes depend on them. The railroad where the public transit trains go in the LOSSAN area is mostly owned by the government but freight does have to moved on it from time to time, and in time of war, the Navy and Marine Corps need that track, and they wouldn’t need wires to be in the way. A fuel cell powered train would be zero emission on any track.

    Hydrogen actually IS being used on trains in Europe — in “revenue service”


    — and fuel cells are not a cutting edge technology. We’ve been using fuel cells since the Apollo program.


    It makes a lot of sense to use hydrogen instead of overhead wires going forward. There are thousands of miles of railroad in the USA, over 161,000 miles (259104.384 km) of track. Multiply that by four million per mile to electrify it. You tell me, what makes more sense, internal electrical power in the locomotive (hydrogen or batteries) or trying to hang a wire over all that track??

    Look here.


    So yeah….I’m SO impressed by all of France’s electrified track! All 29,000 km of it! Less than 1/10th of how much we have in the USA.

    And Russia and China are not free countries, ok. If the government wants to spend money on something they just do it, even if it makes no practical sense. They don’t have elections, the people have no say. So no, that doesn’t impress me either. Nor should you guys praise them. Tell me, is China’s HSR as impressive as their human rights record? Are you guys impressed by what happens to Falun Gong practitioners in China? There’s no freedom of religion under communism; Marx said “religion is the opiate of the people”, meaning he didn’t like the idea that people would have the freedom to practice religion, and China abides by his ideas. This isn’t a good look, people. If you want to praise a country for their HSR, use a free country such as Japan or France or Spain. There are plenty of free countries that use it. China and Russia are not in that group.

    • adirondacker12800

      and fuel cells are not a cutting edge technology. We’ve been using fuel cells since the Apollo program.
      And we’ve been using photovoltaic panels since then too. PV panels got reallllly cheap. Fuel cells haven’t.
      Making the hydrogen, compressing it and transporting it uses a lot more energy than just transmitting the electricity and using the electricity directly.

      • neutrino78x

        Yes but you have to build the poles, hang the wires etc. Do the math, I stated how many miles of railroad we have, multiply that by four million per mile to hang a wire. OBVIOUSLY it is better to have internal electric power for the nation’s freight railroads and that’s the way we’re going to make ours zero emission in the next 10-15 years.

        Fuel cells are very cheap. What’s not cheap is a good way to store and move hydrogen. But the fact remains, a hydrogen train very much exists and it’s operating as we speak. The fuel cells were made in USA by Cummins (as in engines).

        Most likely the hydrogen would be made locally from wastewater. Of course this is yet another reason why people need to abandon their irrational fear of nuclear power. I used to spend months — 87 days is my longest time according to my DD-214 — underwater living less than 600 feet (200 m) from an operating nuclear reactor. It’s safe and awesome when done right. Sadly, people’s irrational fear is causing our last nuclear plant to be shut down here.

        But yeah the wires and poles restrict what you can run on the track and especially with the LOSSAN track which is considered important for national security, you don’t want to play around with that. So most likely they will run the Seimans Chargers which are very low emission, until they switch to hydrogen for complete zero emission. It’s ok that we don’t do everything exactly like the rest of the world. We’re not the rest of the world, and that’s ok.

        Rail is very low usage, even in Europe (Europe is 80% car just like the USA), and that’s just yet another reason why I want to be fiscally conservative. Sorry but you can’t burn other people’s money without good reason, this isn’t China or Russia where the government is not subject to “the consent of the governed”.

        Just go with low emission diesel for right now, and when H2 and/or battery power is ready and reasonably cheap, swap it out.

      • neutrino78x

        Can’t edit. DD-214 says 365 days total underwater 🙂 But yeah my longest stretch was 87 days during one patrol…nuclear isn’t scary as long as it’s done right, and the one in California AFAIK has never had any problems and could continue another 20 years, and SHOULD. It’s clean power, no CO2 emissions at all.

      • Matthew Hutton

        I’ve never flown anywhere and it’s taken 2 hours door to door.

        5 hours is a generally typical minimum.

      • adirondacker12800

        Do the math
        I did. I’m just a lowly bookkeeper. Who knows the hydrogen would be booked as an expense and the elaborate wiring would be booked as an asset. What kind of schedule are you using to amortize things and by what method?

        The wires have a substation that sits there an amortizes most of the time without any labor. Without much more capital expense. The electrolysis plant would have a substation three times as large using three times the electricity. To do the electrolysis and then compress the hydrogen. Using very very sturdy tanks to store it.

        The substations are going to cost three times as much. The compressor plant and the tanks probably have well known costs – from the industrial gases industry. How much does an electrolysis plant cost? The industrial gas industry doesn’t use electrolysis to make hydrogen. How much maintenance does it need? How ’bout the fuel cells? Either kind of locomotive are going to have sophisticated electronic power supply to convert the DC to polyphase variable frequency and voltage for the motors, so that’s going to be roughly the same. The electric train can dump the braking energy back into the wire. The fuel cell train has to have batteries. Or just waste it as heat. Hmm.

        The fanboys point out that the railroads have thousands and thousands of miles of ROW. That could have solar panels on top of the catenary. Sending power back to the much smaller substation when the trains themselves aren’t using it. Where there can be really cheap batteries storing it. Other fanboys point out that the long contiguous ROW of the railroad would be a good place to put the lines from the wind farms. They only need a third of all that if the trains are straight electric. I’m just a lowly bookkeeper. This reeks of needing accountants. Quite a few of them.

    • Alon Levy

      Hydrogen is used in revenue service, yes – at around four times the cost of a normal train.

      And miss me with the sneering at smaller countries that somehow manage to have, in absolute numbers, a lot more rail ridership than the US does.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Also the Russians use the trans Siberian for transporting military equipment and it is 100% electrified.

  18. Justin Levitt

    Just a quick question – as a California resident, I can attest one thing that happens with some frequency are high winds that lead to power shutoffs, particularly in rural areas (especially since poorly maintained electrical wiring has sparked several wildfires in the last few years). Would overhead power lines be vulnerable to the same power shutoffs residents experience during Santa Ana and high wind events?

    • Alon Levy

      Japan has cyclones and to a limited extent so does the Northeast Corridor. Blizzards are also common. Overhead wire can be built sturdier in such places; I don’t have enough data points to tell you if it raises costs significantly, but I believe the answer is negative, it only makes the structures more visually obtrusive.

  19. Ernest Tufft

    The opposition to electrification is part of Americana, where big oil combined with GM and Firestone, to eliminate electric cars and tear down overhead wires and junk whole urban railway systems in favor of cars and an inferior system of busses.

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