The Business Journal's recent article ("Activist Groups Challenge Rail Yard's Expansion," July 14) on community resistance to the expansion of the port's Union Pacific yards brought to mind an idea I have seen little discussed, but which merits attentive consideration: that of beginning the necessary electrification of the U.S. rail system by modifying current locomotives to work either from overhead wires or from their own onboard engines.

Besides greatly reducing pollution in the port areas of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the job of retrofitting our local rail infrastructure would provide work for L.A. business and residents.

All current diesel-electric locomotives use the diesel engine to power an electric generator, which drives the electric traction motors that actually move the train. In other words, the actual work is already done by an electric motor.

The question then becomes: Why don't we have an electric rail system such as is the norm in Europe and Japan? Is America too poor to afford it? Are American railroads too penurious to invest in it themselves? Is our population less deserving of clean air, good personal health and a life-sustaining environment?

The usual answer is that transport distances here are too great and the costs too high for electrification. But the distance across Europe is only slightly less than the distance across the United States. Yet they have done it, and so they are far better placed to weather the inevitable and largely irreversible rise in oil prices with far less damage to their economies.

It comes down largely to money. No one wants to invest in a huge project with a distant payoff. Yet it must be done, if the United States is to remain a viable economy. Transportation must be insulated from oil price rises as much as possible to maintain both our culture and income, and the way to do this is to shift as much as possible to electric modes, since electricity can be produced hundreds of ways, many of which are infinitely sustainable: hydro, wind, solar, biomass, etc., etc. (In fact, even electricity produced by fossil fuels is cleaner than electricity generated in a locomotive, where the diesel does not always operate at peak efficiency, surplus electricity cannot be shared with other locomotives and there is little room for pollution control devices.) Only rail can be effectively powered by electricity for long-haul, high-volume applications.

There are two less-painful ways to begin this project.

First, convert all current locomotives to hybrid power. Since all locomotives use electricity from their traction motors already, there is no need to replace them wholesale; it will be easy to convert them, with pantographs and the necessary control components, to be able to run either from an overhead wire or from their own diesel engines.

Second, require that all locomotives operated within populated areas use external electricity. Urban areas have plenty of electricity available in all districts, and, of course, urban areas suffer most from pollution; also, trains concentrate their activities and hence pollution in urban areas. All this makes the payoff more immediate, and the necessary infrastructure easier and cheaper to build. Interurban areas can be then electrified piecemeal, as financially feasible, since trains could switch at need between diesel and external power.

Footing bill

Still, it's a lot of money; where should it come from?

Well, since it would benefit everybody, then everybody should pay: Yes, I am suggesting a government subsidy.

Do you think that's evil? No, you don't: In fact, you love it. Here's why: Every one of you who holds a steering wheel in hand, ever, is receiving a subsidy.

Here are some interesting facts from a study conduced by the Texas Department of Transport (yes, from a conservative oil-patch state):

"No road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to U.S. 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. This is just one example, but there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less."

And railroads already pay a fuel tax, yet have to build and maintain their own roads at their own expense. Let's give them back a little, especially since that investment will return to us in better economic, social, environmental and financial health.

And let's start here in Los Angeles, at our own port. California and Los Angeles have long been bellwethers for the rest of the country, and that has been to our benefit.

Our port rail yards should spearhead this process, which will necessarily spread across the country in the next few years. Los Angeles companies could be the locomotives pulling that train.

Richard Risemberg is co-editor of the urban sustainability Webzine the New Colonist, publisher and editor of bike commuter Webzine Bicycle Fixation, and owner of a small business that designs and manufactures clothing for bicycle commuters. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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