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US Railroads Lag Behind the World in Railroad Electrification, and the Reason is Private Ownership

Image via Flickr/Kecko CC BY 2.0

Railroads in the United States have avoided electrification, lagging behind much of the rest of the world. Consequently, American railroads are some of the largest consumers of diesel. In 2018, they used 4.2 billion gallons of diesel, second only to the US military. This diesel becomes quite expensive when prices spike during fuel crises. While railroads often claim to be improving fuel efficiency, they have failed to invest in the obvious solution: electrification. Railroad electrification would massively reduce pollution, improve operating efficiency, lower costs, and clear the way for faster rail service. With all these benefits, why have American railroads failed to electrify? The answer has to do with monopolization, a short-sighted focus on profit, and lack of national planning. However, it is not too late to correct our failures now. The US can still create a world-class, electrified rail network by nationalizing railroad infrastructure and recognizing it as a public good.

The US rail network is privately owned, largely by two sets of regional duopolies: CSX and Norfolk Southern in the east, and BNSF and Union Pacific in the west. These companies are fastidiously opposed to deploying capital that would improve infrastructure. As a result, they are unwilling to fund electrification and focus on cutting costs and services in order to reap higher profits. 

This refusal to invest in better rail infrastructure in pursuit of short-term profits is short-sighted at best and downright counterproductive at worst. The operating cost of electrified railways is markedly lower than that of those that run on diesel. A study from the 1980s found that electrification had an “economic advantage” over diesel, with a 19 percent pre-tax rate of return on electrifying 29,000 miles of US mainlines. Additionally, it is more than 50 percent cheaper to power a train on electricity than on diesel, especially considering current price hikes. Plus, with regenerative braking and catenaries, when trains are going downhill or slowing, they can sell power back to the grid.

The cost of electric locomotives is also 20 percent cheaper than diesel-electrics, and maintenance is 25-35 percent cheaper. In addition to lower maintenance costs, the equipment has much greater longevity. For example, the Iowa Traction Railway is still hauling freight with electric Steeple Cab locomotives made 100 years ago in 1923. Electric locomotives are also more reliable, making them ideal for increasing the frequency service on regional and intercity passenger lines. This increased reliability and frequency is key to convincing people to choose public transportation over cars.

Opponents of electrification in the United States often argue that the country is simply too vast, making electrification unfeasible; however, this argument is easily disproved. Indian Railways has electrified more than 30,000 miles of tracks, with the goal of complete electrification by 2023-24. This goal is within reach for India, with less than 20 percent of the nation’s rails left to be electrified. The Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world, is completely electrified across rough, hostile terrain spanning 5,722 miles. Yet, it is not only foreign countries that boast proud electrification programs. In the early 20th century, the US was a world leader in railroad electrification. The Milwaukee Road electrified hundreds of miles of its mainline in 1917, over a century ago, across inhospitable terrain in the Western United States. In less than nine years, the project had recouped the initial cost, plus an extra 50 percent from the savings that electrified service brought. Furthermore, the Milwaukee Road’s annual reports showed that the maintenance cost of its electric locomotives was 40 percent of that for its diesel locomotives. Unfortunately, this section of electrified track was lost due to the same short-sighted profit focus we see in railroad companies today. The company scrapped all of its electric lines at the height of the 1973 oil crisis to “save money” and sold the copper wire for a one-time profit.

Instead of electric locomotives, US railroads are currently using antiquated diesel-electric locomotives. These vehicles emit significant carbon emissions and particulate matter, not meeting even the current emissions standards laid out by the EPA. These standards were set in 2008, requiring new locomotives to meet Tier 4 emissions standards beginning in 2015, but very few do. Rather than building new locomotives to replenish their fleets, railroad companies continue to refurbish older locomotives to circumvent higher emissions standards. The EPA recognizes that railroads’ failures to comply with Tier 4 standards continues to have negative health impacts on neighborhoods near freight depots. As a result, it is considering stricter locomotive emissions rules. For these new rules, electrification should be strongly championed—or even mandated. At the very least, fleet replacement should be required for lower-tier trains. Requiring fleets to be replaced might finally help rail companies think hard about the cost of reinvesting in all-new diesel traction and possibly spur them to consider electrifying.

However, railroads are unlikely to take timely action to invest in the necessary infrastructure. Instead, we will likely continue to see money wasted on battery and hydrogen locomotives. Battery locomotives have over a hundred years of history and have never proven viable over long-haul routes. Recent testing on the Long Island Railroad proved batteries were heavy, non-viable, and expensive. If you are going to have to replace your fleet and build hundreds of massive, expensive charging stations, you would be better off just building catenary wires for infinite range and better power. These recent battery locomotive fiascos are nothing more than greenwashing in all but the most niche use cases. 

The drive to find cheap plug-and-play fixes always comes back to bite in the long run. The United States finally needs to step up and invest in infrastructure that will pay long-term dividends for our economy, supply chains, and non-car-based mobility. Private rail companies seem more interested in paying tens of billions in dividends to their shareholders than serving their customers, treating their workers with respect, or supporting passenger rail that would serve the American public. Thus, to finally achieve electrification, the US should nationalize its rail infrastructure. We could develop an electrified, high-quality rail network and fund the investment by charging private rail companies to operate on it. Electrification helps the climate, improves the efficiency of the rail network, and improves our air quality. The United States is well behind the times on electrification; for our future’s sake, that needs to change.