How Electrifying Railroads Could Help Us Transition from Fossil Fuels and Power Rural Economies

Bill Moyer August 2, 2016

Solutionary Rail rendering depicting electrified passenger and freight trains running on renewable energy. High-voltage transmission lines (above) would harness rural sources of wind and solar energy for metropolitan markets.

On June 3, a train car­ry­ing crude from the Bakken oil fields derailed out­side Moi­s­er, Ore., and caught fire. Under the head­line Mosier Real­ly Dodged a Bul­let,” the Ore­gon­ian report­ed the fol­low­ing day, A half-mile east, and the infer­no would’ve burned a few feet beneath a block of mod­u­lar homes… . Anoth­er mile-and-a-half, and leak­ing tank cars would’ve land­ed on the bank of the Colum­bia Riv­er dur­ing peak spring Chi­nook salmon migra­tion.” The list of trag­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties was endless.

Only the Fates get cred­it for avert­ing human tragedy, but the Mosier derail­ment has ener­gized the already robust extrac­tion resis­tance and cli­mate jus­tice move­ment in the Pacif­ic North­west — ampli­fy­ing the call to stop fos­sil fuel indus­try plans from using the region as a trans­port cor­ri­dor for fos­sil fuel com­modi­ties des­tined for Asia.

In the weeks since the acci­dent, reg­u­lar peo­ple in small Wash­ing­ton towns like Hoquiam, Aberdeen and Mount Ver­non have put aside polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences to express mutu­al out­rage. Many, like their urban coun­ter­parts, are now insist­ing that elect­ed offi­cials say No” to Bakken oil trains and oth­er trans­port infra­struc­ture that threat­en their com­mu­ni­ties and the environment.

Mean­while, activists in the Pacif­ic North­west — known as Blocka­dia — are already well trained and bat­tle test­ed fol­low­ing years of action camps, pub­lic engage­ment cam­paigns, protests and com­plex mobi­liza­tions like sHell­No! and Break Free PNW. They’ve been fight­ing (and increas­ing­ly suc­ceed­ing) against coal ports, oil ter­mi­nals, refiner­ies and pipelines — even tip­ping the bal­ance on mas­sive projects like Arc­tic drilling.

May 16, 2015: Kayak­tivists gath­er in Elliot Bay to demon­strate against Shel­l’s arc­tic drilling plans. The rig known as the Polar Pio­neer” docked in Seat­tle before head­ing north. Despite a $7 bil­lion invest­ment, cit­ing a lack of prof­itabil­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, the com­pa­ny lat­er decid­ed it would not drill in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alas­ka. (Pho­to: Flickr)

Activist or not, many ratio­nal peo­ple real­ize that soci­ety’s addic­tion to fos­sil fuel is killing us — pol­lut­ing our land, water, and air while cook­ing our cli­mate. But when it comes to the mod­ern” rail­road indus­try, few under­stand the scope of the alliance between rail com­pa­nies, and big coal and big oil. The trans­porta­tion of soon-to-be out­dat­ed ener­gy has been built into their busi­ness mod­els — essen­tial­ly cre­at­ing a sys­temic depen­dence upon the con­tin­u­ous ship­ment of fos­sil fuel com­modi­ties. In oth­er words, rail­roads are now tied to the boom and bust nature of the extrac­tive economy.

But this wasn’t always (and doesn’t need to be) the case. Already the most effi­cient form of ground trans­porta­tion, rail has an unpar­al­leled capac­i­ty to pro­vide clean freight and pas­sen­ger mobil­i­ty. Unlike oth­er forms of heavy, long-haul trans­porta­tion such as ships, planes and semi-trail­er trucks, rail can be elec­tri­fied, and elec­tric­i­ty is increas­ing­ly com­ing from clean sources such as sun and wind.

A brief history

Rail­road com­pa­nies began get­ting draft­ed into the fos­sil fuel econ­o­my when, under Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­how­er, the U.S. gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed the Inter­state high­way sys­tem. The cre­ation of a pub­licly sub­si­dized high­way infra­struc­ture was a major cause of high-val­ue freight and pas­sen­gers aban­don­ing pri­vate­ly owned trains for trucks and cars. Coal, which need­ed to be shipped on trains year round, was the cus­tomer that saved the rail­roads. The industry’s depen­dence on coal grew.

In 1970, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment bailed out strug­gling rail­road com­pa­nies by tak­ing over and sub­si­diz­ing the trans­port of peo­ple, cre­at­ing Amtrak. Oth­er rail­road com­pa­nies fur­ther scut­tled ser­vice to com­mu­ni­ties, elim­i­nat­ing time­ly deliv­ery of dis­cre­tionary freight and strand­ing rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Despite their com­mon car­ri­er oblig­a­tions, the rail­road busi­ness mod­el in the Unit­ed States became increas­ing­ly con­tin­gent on trans­port­ing heavy com­modi­ties, fur­ther favor­ing only the largest customers.

This depen­den­cy on heavy com­modi­ties soon did away with reg­u­lar sched­ules — today, freight trains depart when deemed full. As a result, rail employ­ees, known as rails,” are on call 247. This not only cre­ates an uncer­tain work envi­ron­ment, it’s dan­ger­ous and unsus­tain­able. The absence of reg­u­lar work sched­ules fos­ters a fatigue-plagued, unsafe work envi­ron­ment that endan­gers work­ers, our com­mu­ni­ties and the envi­ron­ment. But being that the prob­lem is sys­temic — inher­ent to the way rail­roads do busi­ness — it is not some­thing that can be eas­i­ly nego­ti­at­ed or regulated.

Accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, the risk of a human fac­tors acci­dent” on rail­ways is ele­vat­ed from 11 to 65 per­cent above chance by expo­sure to fatigue. (Image: Cer­ti­fied Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty Spe­cial­ist Train­ing, Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa)

Look­ing toward the future and the post-binge withdrawl”

Until recent­ly, rail­roads were an indus­try in denial of their pre­car­i­ous and fos­sil fuel depen­dent busi­ness mod­el. They were rid­ing high on the bulk ship­ments of coal and oil that many econ­o­mists pre­dict­ed would keep growing.

That was not to be. Fos­sil fuel inter­ests both here and abroad are increas­ing­ly on their heels, fac­ing an uncer­tain future. The largest U.S. coal com­pa­nies have declared bank­rupt­cy while a glob­al oil sup­ply glut has caused many high-cost oil shale and tar sands oper­a­tions to halt production.

Over the first quar­ter of 2016, BNSF Rail­way (owned by War­ren Buffett’s Berk­shire Hath­away and, after the Depart­ment of Defense, the sec­ond largest con­sumer of diesel in the Unit­ed States) laid off about 10 per­cent of its work­force due to declin­ing coal and oil ship­ments. Many rail work­ers are now sit­ting at home on indef­i­nite fur­lough while loco­mo­tive fleets sit idle in remote yards. These cur­rent trou­bles under­score how the boom-and-bust cycles of the fos­sil fuel econ­o­my bat­ter the indus­try, work­ers and communities.

The post-binge with­drawals have begun and the code­pen­dent rail­road indus­try is also in a moment of crisis.

What the above should make clear is that rail­roads and trains are not the prob­lem. Rather, their depen­dence on an unsus­tain­able, destruc­tive busi­ness mod­el is. Rail itself has unpar­al­leled poten­tial to play a piv­otal role in mak­ing a just tran­si­tion away from society’s depen­dence on fos­sil fuels. But it is time for the U.S. rail industry’s fail­ing and tox­ic busi­ness mod­el to cast aside its own fos­sil fuel habit and part­ner with pub­lic author­i­ties to cre­ate the infra­struc­ture our soci­ety needs and deserves.

The Back­bone Campaign

In 2003, I co-found­ed the Back­bone Cam­paign—an orga­ni­za­tion striv­ing to pro­vide cre­ative orga­niz­ing strate­gies and art­ful tac­ti­cal tools to bol­ster a pro­gres­sive pop­ulism in the Unit­ed States — and have been direct­ing it ever since. Based in the Pacif­ic North­west, we remain con­front­ed with the dilem­ma of both fight­ing fos­sil fuel trans­port by rail but want­i­ng a vibrant rail­road infra­struc­ture. So, in 2013 we con­vened a nation­al team of rail experts, econ­o­mists, and pub­lic inter­est and rail labor advo­cates. The con­cerns and pas­sions of those assem­bled ranged from cli­mate dis­rup­tion to the pub­lic health and safe­ty threats caused by rail­road freight, but all were moti­vat­ed by a com­mon belief that 21st cen­tu­ry rail had great unful­filled potential.

The mul­ti-pronged chal­lenge was to devel­op a pro­pos­al that would both reduce reliance on fos­sil fuel trans­porta­tion and make rail itself an engine to build an econ­o­my based on clean, renew­able ener­gy while at the same time pro­vid­ing new eco­nom­ic options for rail and fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture depen­dent workers.

We call the result of these meet­ings Solu­tion­ary Rail.

The pro­pos­al

Solu­tion­ary Rail pro­pos­es over­head rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, pow­ered by renew­able ener­gy accom­plished in con­junc­tion with track mod­ern­iza­tion. This infra­struc­tur­al invest­ment will bring to the Unit­ed States the reli­able, elec­tri­fied, high­er-speed ser­vice now com­mon on pub­lic rail­roads in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Such ser­vice can draw sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of freight and pas­sen­ger ser­vice lost to high­ways and avi­a­tion back to the tracks. Increased speeds and effi­cien­cy will allow the restora­tion of rail ser­vice that will revi­tal­ize rur­al com­mu­ni­ties along the tracks: Farm­ers will be able to ship their crops to mar­ket in a time­ly man­ner, pub­lic health prob­lems caused by diesel exhaust will be great­ly reduced and (even­tu­al­ly) coal dust will be elim­i­nat­ed in rur­al and urban com­mu­ni­ties alike. Mean­while free­ways, less bur­dened by the toll of long-haul truck­ing, will become safer.

High­er speed freight and pas­sen­ger rail capac­i­ty, with top speeds of 80mph/​120mph respec­tive­ly, will draw high­er val­ue, more prof­itable freight off of trucks and planes and back onto the rails. Over time, this new busi­ness mod­el serv­ing new cus­tomers will dis­place slow mov­ing, low val­ue coal or dan­ger­ous crude oil. Pas­sen­gers and freight will not be chron­i­cal­ly delayed behind bulk coal and oil trains. Clog­ging the tracks with will become less prof­itable and even­tu­al­ly a lia­bil­i­ty rather than the foun­da­tion of rail­roads’ cur­rent busi­ness mod­el. The nar­row­ly avert­ed human and envi­ron­men­tal tragedy in Mosier, the cost­ly tragedy in Lac-Mégan­tic, and the con­stant endan­ger­ment of com­mu­ni­ties along the tracks will no longer be con­sid­er an accept­able risk and cost of doing business.

Elec­tri­fied rail can be an engine for mov­ing the econ­o­my as a whole beyond reliance on fos­sil fuels. The elec­tri­fi­ca­tion infra­struc­ture above the tracks will pass through diverse weath­er sys­tems and count­less rur­al pow­er coop­er­a­tive, munic­i­pal and trib­al util­i­ty ser­vice areas. Cur­rent­ly, util­i­ties like Yaka­ma Pow­er are sti­fled in their abil­i­ty to build addi­tion­al gen­er­a­tion capac­i­ty, because access to finance requires a cus­tomer for sur­plus elec­trons gen­er­at­ed dur­ing peak pro­duc­tion. The rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion infra­struc­ture would serve as that cus­tomer and in so doing unlock strand­ed renew­able ener­gy resources all along rail corridors.

Owned by the cus­tomers they serve, there are two kinds of elec­tric coop­er­a­tives in the Unit­ed States — dis­tri­b­u­tion and gen­er­a­tion and trans­mis­sion (G&T). Cur­rent­ly, 840 Dis­tri­b­u­tion and 65 G&T ener­gy coop­er­a­tives serve an esti­mat­ed 42 mil­lion peo­ple in 47 states. (Image: NRECA)

Stack­ing effi­cient high-volt­age trans­mis­sion lines above the cate­nary lines for the trains will serve as super­high­ways for elec­trons, mov­ing ener­gy from remote wind and solar sources to met­ro­pol­i­tan mar­kets. Com­bined, these will unleash the mas­sive untapped gen­er­a­tion poten­tial of dis­trib­uted renew­able energy.

Access­ing renew­able ener­gy gen­er­a­tion across diverse geo­gra­phies makes over­all sup­ply more pre­dictable and reli­able. This will in large part pro­vide a solu­tion to the vari­abil­i­ty of solar and wind sources, the most per­sis­tent imped­i­ment to tran­si­tion­ing off of fos­sil fuels.

Elec­tri­fy­ing the North­ern Transcon

The Solu­tion­ary Rail team pro­pos­es jump-start­ing U.S. rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion with a demon­stra­tion from the Great Lakes to the Sal­ish Sea, prin­ci­pal­ly on BNSF’s North­ern Transcon. The North­ern Transcon and 
con­nect­ing branch­es, often referred to as the north­ern cor­ri­dor, total around 4,400 track miles. Our pri­or­i­ty would be to elec­tri­fy the major 2,200-mile inter­modal por­tion of this cor­ri­dor, car­ry­ing con­tain­ers between the North­west and Mid­west. This nation­al­ly impor­tant freight trans­port route, cross­es diverse weath­er pat­terns and region­al economies, offer­ing the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to suc­cess­ful­ly demon­strate rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion’s poten­tial to deliv­er renewed vital­i­ty for U.S. rail­roads and the econ­o­my they serve.

The North­ern Transcon route, extend­ing from the Illi­nois to Wash­ing­ton state, is the most norther­ly rail­road route in the west­ern Unit­ed States. (Illus­tra­tion: J. Craig Thorpe)

Indeed, this is a major infra­struc­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion pro­pos­al that will require a larg­er invest­ment than any rail­road com­pa­ny would do on its own. We there­fore pro­pose that states along the lines joint­ly cre­ate what we are call­ing a Steel Inter­state Devel­op­ment Author­i­ty (SIDA). The SIDA would be a not-for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tion oper­at­ing under a board appoint­ed by par­tic­i­pat­ing states. It would be char­tered with the author­i­ty to raise funds for infra­struc­ture invest­ment on both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly owned rights-of-way. The SIDA would lever­age the abil­i­ty of pub­lic agen­cies to issue bonds and pro­vide low-inter­est cap­i­tal to invest in rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion in part­ner­ship with rail­roads and over­see fund­ing and con­struc­tion of elec­tri­fi­ca­tion infrastructure.

The elec­tri­fi­ca­tion infra­struc­ture and poten­tial­ly some tracks would remain pub­licly owned. This would begin to restore our nation­al infra­struc­ture, our econ­o­my and soci­ety. It would mark a rever­sal in the trend of pri­va­ti­za­tion that has robbed the pub­lic of the shared pros­per­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty over recent decades.

A Solu­tion­ary Rail demon­stra­tion along the North­ern Transcon will require a broad alliance, includ­ing BNSF and its own­er, War­ren Buf­fett. Gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tors of states along the route will need to be pressed into lead­er­ship by a coali­tion of stake­hold­ers rang­ing from rail­road work­ers to munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments, agri­cul­tur­al, tribes, ports and major indus­tries along the route. Rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion will pro­vide phe­nom­e­nal ben­e­fits to BNSF and oth­er rail­road com­pa­nies. In return, some key pub­lic ben­e­fits will must be part of the bar­gain. One of those is a fair deal for rail labor. This is an inte­gral ele­ment of the Solu­tion­ary Rail vision.

Now is the time to advance projects and poli­cies for a just tran­si­tion for both rail and fos­sil fuel indus­try work­ers away from depen­dence on jobs in extreme extrac­tion and trans­port and toward a sus­tain­able, clean ener­gy econ­o­my. As the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers recent­ly stat­ed in their just tran­si­tion res­o­lu­tion: A clean ener­gy job is any job that helps our nation achieve our goals of reduc­ing green­house gas emis­sions and pro­tect­ing our envi­ron­ment.” Per­haps no oth­er indus­try is bet­ter posi­tioned to play a more piv­otal role in the just tran­si­tion to clean, renew­able ener­gy as the railroads.

All rail jobs can be clean ener­gy jobs.

Rail enthu­si­asts and rails recall the time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry when thriv­ing rail­roads served as the cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tem for vibrant com­mu­ni­ties with strong local economies. Solu­tion­ary Rail cel­e­brates the tra­di­tion from which these work­ers hail, iden­ti­fies a pub­lic inter­est in their well-being and the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of their vocation.

Cities and towns on and near rail lines used to rely on rail ser­vice to access the world, to trans­port peo­ple and prod­ucts to and from their regions. Much of the Unit­ed States, in fact, grew on and around rail lines. Com­mu­ni­ties com­pet­ed with one anoth­er to draw rail ser­vice, know­ing their liveli­hoods depend­ed on it. With Solu­tion­ary Rail, these days can return.

Solu­tion­ary Rail charts a path for­ward to revi­tal­ize this infra­struc­tur­al trea­sure. For farm­ers, util­i­ties, tribes and rail com­mu­ni­ties large and small, elec­tri­fied and mod­ern­ized rail­roads can be a source of renew­al and vitality.

Togeth­er, we can build an unstop­pable coali­tion to force dys­func­tion­al elect­ed lead­er­ship take uni­fied action for a rail­road infra­struc­ture and trans­porta­tion mod­el that serves us all. Solu­tion­ary Rail helps the rail indus­try piv­ot from being part of the prob­lem to become a fun­da­men­tal source of eco­nom­ic, social and cli­mate solu­tions in com­mu­ni­ties and a world that urgent­ly need them.

For more infor­ma­tion about the Back­bone Cam­paign, and to join the Wash­ing­ton State Labor Coun­cil in sup­port of Solu­tion­ary Rail click here.

To find out how to make a con­tri­bu­tion to the peo­ple-pow­ered grass­roots Solu­tion­ary Rail cam­paign click here.

A plume of smoke ris­es on June 3, 2016 in Mosier, Ore. fol­low­ing oil train derail­ment. (Pho­to: DOT111​.info)

Bill Moy­er co-found­ed the Back­bone Cam­paign in 2003 with artist friends on Vashon Island, WA. Respond­ing to Bush admin­is­tra­tion poli­cies, they applied lessons of the per­form­ing arts and their cre­ativ­i­ty to help invig­o­rate a pro­gres­sive move­ment for non­vi­o­lent social change. Bill has served as Backbone’s exec­u­tive direc­tor since 2004. Through Back­bone he and his team have designed and co-pro­duced hun­dreds of cre­ative actions; trained over a thou­sand art­ful activists in every­thing from grand strat­e­gy to cre­ative tac­tics such as the giant fly­ing ban­ners, the use of stage lights to project mes­sages, and Backbone’s recent hall­mark inno­va­tion: kayak­tivism. Bill humbly coor­di­nates the tal­ent­ed Solu­tion­ary Rail team and is extreme­ly proud of their upcom­ing book on the future of U.S. Rail­roads. He lives in the woods of Vashon with his wife and teenage daughter.
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