Monday, March 13, 2006

Green Passenger Rail

Former Amtrak head David Gunn has been widely quoted as critical of the unwise course that the U. S. is taking in its heavily petroleum-dependent transportation policy. He has wisely criticized all modes in this way. To criticize only rail transportation would be like blaming a high birth rate in Rhode Island for a worldwide population explosion. (There isn't and I'm not.)

The heaviest user of petroleum per ton-mile is air transport, followed by highway and then rail. Here are the statistics: Air transport=60 to 65 gross ton-miles per gallon. Truck=120 to 200 gross ton miles per gallon. Train=750 gross ton-miles per gallon.

It seems natural, if not politically correct (see: State of the Union, Jan. 2006), to shift as much freight as possible to rail.

We were curious about passenger rail, as Mr. Gunn was recently the ill-fated head of Amtrak. A check of similar postings of statistics suggests that passsenger rail is, indeed, greener than either of airlines, buses, or personal automobiles, either cars or SUVs. Commuter passenger rail is better than long distance (read Amtrak), but Amtrak is still better than the airlines. Imagine that!

Bush Administration Monologue

Breath No. 1: "No money for Amtrak in its present configuration."

Breath No. 2: "We must end our addiction to oil."

What would a greener Amtrak look like? Apparently David Gunn didn't know, because there is nothing we can find to indicate that Amtrak was anywhere close to ending its use of petroleum products. Amtrak already uses electrified right of way where it is already installed, which allows it to buy power produced from fuels other than oil and from solar or wind power when available. Commuter rail in many parts of the country does the same.

While the current issue of Trains highlights Union Pacific's purchase of green diesel switchers, use of such switchers by Amtrak would be limited to areas where Amtrak actually does its own switching with its own engines. We know of no effort to produce a green or hybrid Amtrak locomotive. (The dual power engines on the New York corridor don't count, because when they are in diesel mode they run like a diesel locomotive.)

For those of you under 25, we might note that it has not been long since Amtrak and many commuter passenger rail operations switched over to head-end power. The power situation for passenger cars before that was more of a hybrid situation. Into the Amtrak era, some trains carried gensets, or diesel power plants, to light and heat the cars. Going back to the heavyweights of the early 1900s, the cars were powered by steam from the engines and by generators or alternators belt-driven from the axles and feeding banks of batteries, effectively making the locomotive and power system a genset charging batteries that powered things much like today's hybrids. The big difference is that we now have computers to control the process. ("Genset" is a relatively new term defining an internal combustion engine and electric generator on one platform that can be moved, changed out, or added to in a hurry.)

So if we are serious about ending dependence on petroleum for transport, here are our suggestions:
1. Start moving freight and passenger transport to rail and invest heavily in rail infrastructure and electrification in areas where non-petroleum power generation is most feasible.
2. Start developing more high-speed rail. The ton-miles per gallon go up as the speed goes up.
3. Start developing hybrid road locomotives.
4. Start converting away from head-end power.
5. Now that computer control has advanced into reliable, practical and cheap applications, consider coal as a fuel again. Another era of steam locomotives? Perhaps another ACE 3000?

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

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