Blue Ridge Journal
BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment

Transportation in the Energy Crisis

America's precarious position

July 2006

The American dependence on individually powered automobiles, trucks, and even train locomotives for transport of people and goods will aggravate the effects of the coming oil crisis in the U.S.  Massive public investment in a modern electrified rail system is decades overdue.
A couple of weeks ago I had again the pleasure of riding the French rail system.  It's been a while since I've taken a train back home in the U.S., and after the experience of a friend who last summer attempted to take a train from Savannah, GA to Washington DC it will be a while yet.  His rattle-trap of a train was four hours late to begin with (at which the few waiting passengers in the dilapidated station registered no surprise) and got later as it jostled along the wobbly track.  The miserable passengers seemed to match, both in mood and in appearance, the filth and disrepair of the stuffy rail car.  It was clear that no one who could avoid it took that train.  The French trains, on the other hand, are fast  – some very fast –, on time, comfortable and clean, and are a pleasant (and often quicker) alternative to taking the car.

Not to say that the French have solved their transportation problems.  In France the car rules, just as in the U.S.  Their traffic jams are equally massive, and in their smaller towns may actually be worse than in America.  But whereas the U.S.  –  where personal and goods transport depends almost wholly on individually powered, oil-driven vehicles  –  will face a monumental crisis as the supply of oil dries up in a couple of decades, the French have built, maintained, and upgraded a flexible rail transport system for people and goods that is centrally powered by electricity, and so can readily be switched to other energy sources when necessary.  In fact, the French rail system hardly depends on oil, since the electric power generating stations are largely nuclear.

The benefit that France will get from their rail system as the oil crisis deepens will not come just from the fact that their electric power is nearly 80% nuclear, though this will give them a cushion.  (In fact, the supply of uranium to fuel nuclear power plants is dwindling, and with a large number of nuclear power plants on the drawing boards or under construction, particularly in Asia, the economic availability of uranium may not last much longer than that of oil.)  No, the real benefit comes from the capacity to power vital transport through large centralized power plants feeding an electric grid, rather than through individual power in each vehicle, and from the fact that such centralized plants may be converted to alternate fuels much more readily than a fleet of millions of individual vehicles.

The shameful failure to modernize the U.S. rail system goes back at least 50 years, to the beginning of the massive investment in the Interstate highway system in the mid-1950s.  Strong economic interests benefiting from expanded oil use, road construction, automobile and truck manufacture, and suburban building development, among others, have consistently aligned themselves against expenditure of public funds for modernization of U.S. railways, which have traditionally been private concerns.  The result of this is that the U.S. lags far behind most other industrialized countries in railway development and modernization, and finds itself in a far more precarious position when it comes to replacing oil with other fuels for transportation during the next couple of decades.  The American locomotive fleet is, in fact, 99% diesel-electric hybrid, meaning that each engine carries diesel fuel to generate its own electricity for power.  The fleet burns nearly 4 million million (3.8 trillion) gallons of oil per year.  Since wholly electric trains are far more efficient at getting BTUs out of a given fuel mass, electrifying the fleet will save massive amounts of fuel, whatever the fuel source.

It now appears that the power source of choice that will first replace oil in transport applications may be the hydrogen fuel cell.  At its present level of development this power source is already economically competitive with oil-based sources, especially in stationary applications, where facilities are of sufficient size to permit storage and use of hydrogen directly.  In mobile applications, such as cars and trucks, the direct use of hydrogen, which must be stored as a liquid in heavy tanks under great pressure, is impractical.  For such applications, the choice will be to carry a more manageable source fuel, such as methanol, from which hydrogen is produced aboard the vehicle by use of a "reformer".  But this process of reformation reduces the efficiency of the hydrogen fuel cell by a third or more.  A great deal of energy would also be expended in the production of methanol, and it is not certain that sufficient methanol or other source fuel can be produced to sustain our current vehicle use practices.  Thus great savings in fuel can be effected if power is produced directly from hydrogen at centralized power stations, and if the bulk of transportation uses this power, distributed through electric networks.

In the long run we may be looking at electrified main roads, where electric autos hook into the power grid by, for example, lowering a transmission shoe into a groove in the road that carries a "third rail", perhaps at the same time charging up the car's batteries that will permit driving the shorter distances to home, office, or shops.  Onboard fuel would then be a thing of the past.  But obviously such massive changes are far off.  In the meantime, one of the most useful things we can do to prepare ourselves for the coming oil crisis is to build out, modernize, and electrify the nation's railroads.  A well-funded public emergency project will be necessary to achieve this transformation in time.  And where should the funds come from?  First of all from cancellation of unnecessary big-ticket adventures like space flight and foreign military involvements, and general reduction of the military budget.  This is also a project that can justify issuing special government bonds.  It's that vital for our survival.  If we fail to mobilize and prepare for the crisis that we know is coming and that we have caused, our children may have a difficult time forgiving us when they have to live through it.

A relevant note added December 10, 2009:

Today China celebrated the opening of the world's fastest train, serving the stretch from Wuhan to the port of Guangzhou (both cities larger than New York).  China is moving full-speed-ahead to build out 42 rail lines with about 7,800 miles (13,000 km) of super-fast trains.  The initial investment appears to be about 300 billion dollars, which make the U.S.'s puny efforts at exploring high-speed rail appear downright lilliputian.  I'm not one of those who see a threat in China's rapid move into leadership in so many fields.  I rejoice in their progress; it's good for the world.  I hope that American leaders will be inspired by this event to recognize the importance of a first-class rail system.


P.S.  The article "Why Electrified Rail is Superior" by Richard Freeman and Hal Cooper in the summer 2005 issue of the publication "21st Century Science & Technology" summarizes the problem of electrification of U.S. railroads, and was the source of some material in this note.
(The article is by staff of the LaRouche organization, which usually means read with care, but they seem to have it right on this point.)
It may be found on the web at  (link is directly to the PDF file).

© 2006 H. Paul Lillebo

BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment