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Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I noted near the beginning of the Appalachian Hub series about the special advantages offered by rail electrification for this project.

Now that I have sketched out a process by which a national Steel Interstate network of corridors can, in fact, be built in this coming decade, this is probably a good time to come back and take a look at the challenges that are faced when putting the Steel Interstates through hilly and mountainous terrain.

Of course, if rail electrification was a particular benefit in mountainous terrain, one would expect to see it in places like, say, Switzerland.
Picture of a Swiss electric freight west of the Albula tunnel

Trans-Alpine Freight and Swiss Rail

When tuning in to news from Switzerland, the big story are so-called "base tunnels". These are tunnels that cut through "the base of a mountain". The Lotschberg Base Tunnel, featured in World's Most Spectacular Tunnels, cuts through the mountain a 1,312 feet lower than the tunnel that it replaces ... that is about a quarter of a mile lower.

Just as the original investments in Japan and France in capital-intensive HSR passenger lines, what is driving this investment in base tunnels is the capacity limits of the present rail routes. As AlpTransit's description (pdf) of the Gothard Base Tunnel Project puts it:

Construction of base tunnels under the Gotthard and Ceneri creates an ultramodern flat rail link whose highest point at 550 metres above sea level is no higher than the city of Berne. This is much lower than the highest point of the existing route through the mountains at 1150 metres. Gradients will be no steeper than where the railway crosses the Jura mountains through the Hauenstein tunnel (Basel – Olten) or the Bözberg tunnel (Basel – Brugg). The route through Switzerland becomes flatter and 40 km shorter. Italy and Germany come much closer together.

Freight trains travelling on the flat route can be longer and pull up to twice today's weight – 4000 tonnes instead of 2000 tonnes. They will be up to twice as fast, too: the fastest freight trains will have a top speed of 160 km/h. Trains like this cannot be used on existing Alpine routes because of the steep gradients and tight curves. When the flat route is complete, it will be possible to transport an equal volume of freight with fewer locomotives and personnel, and less energy.

Just as with the Japanese and French investment in Passenger HSR, it is important to put this investment in context. This is not a result of the failures of the existing Swiss electric freight rail system - it is a result of its success. That is, the growth in interstate freight transport is pushing up against the capacity limits of the Swiss system because the Swiss rail system was effective in capturing a substantial share of freight.

This figure from sheet 5 of the Gothard Tunnel pdf makes the point in no uncertain terms. The original Swiss electric freight system has carried a majority of the Trans-alpine freight that passes through Switzerland, while in France and Austria, the majority of freight has been passing by road.

And when digging further into the description of the Base Tunnel makes it clear the benefit that the Swiss have obtained from electric rail.


Why Electrification in Mountain Rail Corridors?

Bear in mind that a normal maximum gradient in many US mainline rail corridors is 1%, or "10 per thousand", when considering the following description of the route being replaced:

The ramps of the present-day railways through the Gotthard and Ceneri have gradients of up to 26 per thousand. The flatness and straightness of the base route – maximum gradient 12.5 per thousand overground and 8.0 per thousand in the base tunnels – allow productive deployment of long, heavy trains through elimination of time-consuming shunting operations. Today, a heavy freight train travelling north-south over the Gotthard and Ceneri mountain routes requires a pushing locomotive because of the steep gradients. The goal of freight trains hauling more than 2000 tonnes travelling through Switzerland without stopping at Erstfeld or Bellinzona, and without midtrain or pushing locomotives, can only be accomplished when both the Gotthard and Ceneri base tunnels are completed.

Consider that: a gradient of 2.5% and "only" being able to move 2,200tons of freight at 50mph.

As the Wikipedia machine notes, the secret to this success in the mountains lies in the higher power-weight ratio of electric locomotives:

The high power of electric locomotives gives them the ability to pull freight at higher speed over gradients, in mixed traffic conditions this increases capacity when the time between trains can be decreased. The higher power of electric locomotives and a electrification can also be a cheaper alternative to a new and less steep railway if trains weights are to be increased on a system.


Putting the Advantages to Work

Of course, one way to cope with mountainous terrain is to avoid it. In the proposed Steel Interstate system, line one, the Liberty Line from New England to California, runs along the Shenandoah River Valley, the original "highway to the west", mostly avoiding the type of terrain that the Swiss would consider to be Mountains. To the west, it runs through the lower land of southern New Mexico and Arizona, a similarly easy route through the western cordillera, and then runs up the Central Valley to bring most of California within its catchment.

The roughest terrain that this corridor needs to tackle is the alignment west and north of Chattanooga, where the existing STRACNET corridor does a sweeping S-curve to avoid the rougher terrain where the Interstate has simply been blasted through. This is a key point where the Line Development Bank will have to carefully analyze the alternative alignments, and could well opt for taking the Rapid Freight Rail corridor out of the conventional freight rail corridor, where the Rapid Freight Rail path gains time by operating at a steeper gradient than the conventional rail corridor. That is, operating at 60mph over half the distance may well be a faster path than operating at 100mph along the heavy freight alignment.

Unlike the Swiss freight system, the electrified heavy freight paths will not have to contend with constantly shuttling aside to make way for passenger trains, since the passenger trains will be on the Rapid Rail Paths, whether those are provided by dividing up the time of day that different trains run on a track, by providing separated track in the same right of way, or by providing a Rapid Freight bypass on its own Right of Way.

Once the Chattanooga to Nashville, alignment is determined, that also solves the only stretch of rough terrain that the Heartland Alignment faces, while the Gulf and Atlantic Line only ever runs to, but never through, rough terrain.

In other words, other than the Chattanooga/Nashville alignment, all of the challenging terrain has been focused on the National Line:

  • Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, within the territory tof the Appalachian Hub;
  • east of Salt Lake City and east of Sacramento, on the line to Oakland;
  • the northeastern and northwestern Oregon corridors on the line to Portland; and
  • the Southern Oregon / Northern Californian corridor between the Pacific Northwest and the California Central Valley

Indeed, it has been suggested to me that this is a line that should not exist at all. So in a couple of weeks, in King of the Mountain Part II, I'll take up the focus on the need for a genuinely national network, and the flexibility that the institution of the Line Development Bank gives us in pursuing a genuinely national network, focusing on the proposed Steel Interstate system both with and without the National Line.


The Headliners: Midnight Oil / King of the Mountain

Walking through the high dry grass,
   pushing my way through slow
Yellow belly black snake,
   sleeping on a red rock
Waiting for the stranger to go
Sugar train stops at the crossing,
   cane cockies cursing below
Bad storm coming, better run
   to the top of the mountain
Mountain in the shadow of light,
   rain in the valley below

Originally posted to BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 03:53 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  YOur map shows something different (0+ / 0-)

    The map you posted shows somethig different than the text states. The map shows the line going through Denver with a hook north to catch the UP route, dividing at Green River to go either to Oakland or Portland.
    This would NOT go through Southern Cal. It also doesn't show it going through Nashville or Chatanooga either by about a state and a half.
    Like yr diary, tho.

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 04:27:28 PM PDT

  •  Mountain railroads (7+ / 0-)

    Some American mountain railroads were once partially electrified.

    RailroadLocationMilesStart-End
    N&WIaeger - Bluefield, WV; branches561915-1924 to 1950
    Milwaukee RoadHarlowton, MT- Avery, ID4381915-1916 to 1974
    Milwaukee RoadOthello-Tacoma and Seattle, WA2251919-1927 to 1972
    VirginianRoanoke, VA - Mullens, WV1351925 to 1962
    Great NorthernSkykomish-Wenatchee, WA731927-1929 to 1956

    Source: Trains, November 2009

    American railroads electrified their mountain lines before, it can happen again. The biggest obstacle is cost of electrification and building up the fleet of electrics, or in case of partial-electrification, dual-mode locomotives.

    Oil prices are going to get higher again. It be a good idea if the U.S. took your and others' advice to begin a national electrification project now. Recessions, with their high unemployment, would have cheaper construction and labor costs, I'd expect, than when the economy is hot.

    Maybe Congress could see this to part of a jobs and national infrastructure program?

    •  Hey! The Milwaukee Rd ... you're giving a ... (5+ / 0-)

      ... sneak preview on King of the Mountain Part 2!

      With the Line Development Banks covering the financial cost, and the users paying just for the capacity that they use, the capital cost of building up the fleet of locomotives themselves is comfortable within the financial reach of the private railroads.

      Start 2010 with Lesbian Creative Works, 100% Yuri from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 04:35:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Milwaukee Road's experience with electrification (6+ / 0-)

        What ultimately killed the Milwaukee Road's electrification was the electric sections were not connected. There was a 215-mile gap between the two sections. So they needed two fleets of locomotives: electrics and diesel-electrics. They didn't have dual-mode locos. When the electrics needed upgraded, the Milwaukee Road, always strapped for cash, decided to standardize on diesel-electrics, partially to make themselves more attractive for any merger/buy-out.

        If you've not already read it, Trains (November 2009) has a feature on electrification (around the world) past, and present, and its possible future in the U.S.

        It seems like in order to maximize the cost efficiencies of electrification is to have a transcon line in place that is totally electrified so it eliminates the need for two locomotive fleets. The second best option would be to have dual-mode locomotives, so the diesel-electrics could raise up the pantographs when under wire and not burn diesel.

        •  Cheap oil killed the Milwaukee's electrical (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Magnifico

          The reason for the gap goes back to the steam engines that were contemporary with the electrification. The Milwaukee electrified pre WWI when diesel locomotives hadn't been invented yet. They electrified because it was difficult to suppply steam locomotives with water when the temp dropped to as much as 40-
          The part that wasn't electrified between the two electrified parts was the upper Columbia Valley, a flatter place where water for steam engines was easier to manage. It was a good deal cheaper running steam than keeping up electrical catenary.

          Cheap oil is what killed the  Milwaukees electrification. When they could run diesels non stop, without switching head end power, it was a  lot more economically sound than keeeping up the expensive catenary.

          Now there's no more cheap oil? Time to rethink

          Happy just to be alive

          by exlrrp on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 04:56:55 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Note that there are two transcon ... (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RunawayRose, Magnifico, Judge Moonbox

          ... corridors in the proposed system of Four Line Development Banks, and two crosscut networks.

          With their dedicated income for subsidizing interest costs, the Line Development Banks are better placed to ensure the rapid development of national electric freight rail than the private railroads would be under some tax regime subsidy.

          Dual-mode is already being developed in Europe for passenger rail for the combination of the higher capacity when operating using the overhead electric lines combined with no transfer penalty when running out from under the wires. But while the resulting vehicles are likely to appropriate for a FreightSprinter type rail service, there is still a substantial benefit to being able to marshal containers onto a train at an origin railhead and carry them all the way to a destination railhead with    

          Start 2010 with Lesbian Creative Works, 100% Yuri from ALC Publishing

          by BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 05:04:06 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  What does the electric train run on? (0+ / 0-)

        Before you get too enamored of electric trains, it might be good to consider what the fuel for the power plants that produce the power is going to be.
        Oil? same problem as now. Coal? Same problems as in the past. Hydro electric? Its sure not easy to build a dam as it used to be, especially considering environmental impacts. We're taking dams out in the PNW to try and bring back the salmon. Nuclear? Maybe, but you won't see a nuclear plant for 10 years if you started planning for it now.
        Its important to remember why the private raiilroads took out their electric lines---it was cheaper to run on oil. Electric catenary takes a lot of maintenance, especially in mountain areas. The MIlwaukee road went bankrupt and completely abandoned their mainline west of N Dakota, which was the newest, best built of the 3 mainlines cr0ssing the northern tier, because it was too expensive and not enough traffic

        I didn't understand that HSR is about freight rails, other than where they cross or in conjunction with passenger HSR. Why wouldn't the freight rails just continue on as usual? They already have the infrastructure in place (which they OWN)

        Happy just to be alive

        by exlrrp on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 04:46:27 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Have you read the Steel Interstate ... (4+ / 0-)

          ... diary that I linked to above the fold?

          As far as powering the electric trains, do bear in mind that when you save 95% of the power used by diesel road, even if the power source has twice the CO2 emissions per BTU, you still are reducing CO2 emissions by 90%.

          For energy independence, the Steel Interstate is where its at ... shifting half of the current long haul diesel semi freight to rail can save 7% of our oil consumption and so 10% of our oil imports. The importance of the 100mph Rapid Freight Rail (the Swiss describe this as 160kph, of course) is the way it allows freight rail to be quicker loading dock to loading dock than long haul truck freight, breaking freight rail out of the market niches where cost per ton-mile dominates into the market niches where schedule reliability and door to door delivery times dominate.

          Also, don't forget the way that the Steel Interstate is proposed to ensure electrical rights of way for the Electricity Superhighway ... which is a key part of both unstranding the wind resource of the Great Plains and of avoiding the need to provide massive energy storage facilities for each "use it or lose it" type of renewable energy resource.

          Start 2010 with Lesbian Creative Works, 100% Yuri from ALC Publishing

          by BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 04:53:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I guess I'm not clear on..... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RunawayRose

            yes I did check the diary
            Will the new HSR Freight rails run on the rights of way of existing railroads? Or is it a whole new or mostly new right of way.
            It seems to me that for the most part the freight system will have to remain the same except for the new HS corridors

            Happy just to be alive

            by exlrrp on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 05:30:49 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Whether or not there are new freight rails ... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              RunawayRose

              ... and if so how much new freight rail is required to provide the Rapid Freight Rail paths is one of the things that the Line Development Bank works out.

              Where there is a long stretch of bi-directional single track, you can get substantial capacity upgrade with 10:50 passing track, and where there is a long stretch of double track, you can get substantial capacity upgrade with 10:50 centerline passing track ... all the way up to a system of two Heavy Freight Rail tracks and two Rapid Freight Rail tracks.

              And of course, electrification itself provides better acceleration and deceleration to conventional speed electric freight trains, so electrification on its own increases total track capacity.

              Except for special cases, the Rapid Freight Rail will be in existing right of way, but detailed operational design of how the Rapid Freight Rail paths are made available is subject to negotiation between the Line Development Bank and the owner of the right of way.

              Of course, in order to receive the electrification infrastructure on the existing STRACNET heavy rail track, the right of way owner would have to negotiate with the Line Development Bank how the Rapid Freight Paths are to be provided ... otherwise the STRACNET designation can be shifted to another corridor owned by another company that is more interested in seeing their corridor electrified.

              Start 2010 with Lesbian Creative Works, 100% Yuri from ALC Publishing

              by BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 05:43:59 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Who runs this? (0+ / 0-)

                So the government pays for the electrification and track improvements.... and gets paid back? or is it a freebie for the freight railroads?

                Who actuallly owns the  new Rapid Freight paths? the public? and the railroads pay them  for use of it? Are the private railroads going to continue as private companies? Who directs traffic when freight rairoads are in competition for capacity on the new consilidated lines.

                Happy just to be alive

                by exlrrp on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 06:14:00 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  That's the notion of the Line Development Bank .. (3+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  RunawayRose, Judge Moonbox, MCinNH

                  ... from the first Sunday Train in March, Sunday Train: A Nationwide Freight and Passenger Regional HSR System:

                  First, we learn the lessons of Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor and set the "Line Builder" authority up as a form of public regional development bank from the outset. We charter it with a specific responsibility to get a Rapid Electric Rail corridor established, and specify the cities that it must serve when construction is finished.

                  How to fund the thing? (Note: I am being "cute" here, using "fund" in its 1930's classical technical sense, and will discuss "finance" in another stage.) If we want an integrated, national network, it has to be publicly owned infrastructure. If we want the network integrated with the existing rail system, it has to be primarily on freight railroad right of way.

                  Once a rail path in a rail corridor has been electrified, it is very capital efficient to electrify all tracks in that corridor. So the basis of the regional steel interstate development bank making itself welcome is to provide the infrastructure for all existing track in the corridor, as desired by the right of way owner, in return for cooperation in providing for a Rapid Electric Rail freight path in the corridor.

                  And then the original capital cost project is funded by charging access fees to the tracks owned by the public authority, and user fees for the electricity consumed by all electric trains, on either the Rapid Rail or Heavy Rail paths.

                  Indeed, since having the capacity is in the national interest, while its using the capacity that is in the interest of the private railways, its possible to ensure that the terms are attractive by mandating that the user and access fees will be set at the level that provides for full recovery of the original capital cost in four years of 100% capacity utilization.

                  So the more heavily railroads use the stuff (and therefore the more useful it is to them), the faster the infrastructure is paid back. If capacity utilization is 20%, it will take 20 years to refund the cost ... if capacity utilization is 50%, it will take eight years to refund the cost.

                  Start 2010 with Lesbian Creative Works, 100% Yuri from ALC Publishing

                  by BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 06:24:22 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

  •  Nice job, Bruce. (nt) (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, BruceMcF

    Political liberal / Bible believing Christian / Lousy at litmus tests

    by VirginiaJeff on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 06:31:38 PM PDT

  •  Perfect timing, Bruce (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, BruceMcF, Judge Moonbox

    I just arrived in Johnson City, TN.  Sure would have been great to come by train instead of riding the dog.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 06:56:35 PM PDT

  •  Two other base tunnels of note. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, BruceMcF

    The EU is supporting the construction of two other base tunnels through the Alps: the Lyons-Torino Ferrovia (France-Italy) and the Brenner Base Tunnel (Austria-Italy). Oddly, the World Almanac says that the Gotthard Base Tunnel, with the bore 90% complete, is projected to be finished in 2016; while the two half-Italian projects, which were really just started, are given completion dates in 2015.

    I also have a question about the tunnel east of Sacramento (and probably others called for): have they assessed the risk of volcanoes? I suspect that you're close enough to some active volcanoes that this is a hazard to be avoided.

    Greg McKendry, Linda Kraeger, Dr. George Tiller, Steven Johns. Victims of Wingnut violence

    by Judge Moonbox on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 08:13:26 PM PDT

    •  Don't assume a new tunnel east of ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RunawayRose

      ... Sacramento, and certainly do not assume a base tunnel east of Sacramento ... the point of the Line Development Bank system is that it does not impose a one-size-fits-all design pattern on all systems.

      Indeed, one alternative to include in the options assessment is taking advantage of the greater power-weight ratio of the Rapid Rail trains to run a steeper and more direct alignment, rather than running faster along the corridor. And of course, given the lower axle loadings for the Rapid Freight Rail, higher and longer viaducts can also partially substitute for lower and deeper tunnels.

      A geological risk assessment is a part of both the feasibility study stage and the selection of the preferred design option in a project like that.

      Start 2010 with Lesbian Creative Works, 100% Yuri from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 08:33:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Another good one Bruce! eom (0+ / 0-)

    It's Electric - http://www.theoverheadwire.com

    by The Overhead Wire on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 08:30:30 PM PDT

  •  Brilliant stuff! (0+ / 0-)

    I'm glad I'm not the only person who's interested in this stuff, I find it fascinating. And I know the S curve near Chattanooga that you speak of, certainly not high speed freight!

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