Richard Risemberg wrote in the Aug. 4 edition ("Railing Against Air Pollution") that freight rail electrification has been "little discussed, but merits attentive consideration" in Southern California. In fact, electrification has been considered several times by freight railroads and California planning agencies. What really matters in California is reducing emissions, quickly and cost effectively. Electrification is neither quick nor cost effective.

The railroads have a strategic environmental program in California that is already yielding emissions benefits. The railroads have two enforceable voluntary agreements with the California Air Resources Board. The fleet average agreement commits the railroads to reduce, on average, all Southern California locomotive emissions of reactive gases containing nitrogen and oxides (NOx), by 67% percent from uncontrolled levels by 2010. The statewide rail yard agreement calls for cutting rail yard emissions across the state 20 percent from 2005 levels by the end of this year. The railroads are also pioneering and investing in technology for the next generation of clean locomotives.

For example, Union Pacific partnered with manufacturers to develop a new, ultralow-emitting "genset" locomotive that surpasses current federal locomotive standards and reduces NOx and particulate matter by 80 percent to 90 percent from uncontrolled levels, while using 20 percent to 30 percent less fuel than traditional switch locomotives. There are currently 80 to 90 of these new gensets serving California. There are also about a dozen battery hybrid switch locomotives that achieve similar emission reductions. BNSF Railway has four LNG locomotives in Los Angeles, and it is experimenting with fuel cell technology in a co-funded project with the military.

Through these programs, the railroads have invested more than $300 million to reduce their fair share of emissions in California.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted new locomotive standards that, when fully implemented in 2015 (sooner than when any comprehensive electrification system could be operable), will reduce NOx and particulate matter by 90 percent from uncontrolled levels.

Europe is not an exemplary electrified rail system because it is not one system, it's many. Europe has a disjointed array of government-owned or -financed railways using incompatible technologies and standards. Consequently, rail's share of E.U. intercity freight traffic has halved from about 20 percent to 9 percent over the past several decades. Meanwhile, in the United States, it has increased from 30 percent to over 40 percent, as measured on a ton-mile basis. The last thing California needs is more congestion and pollution from diversion to long-haul trucks, which use three times more fuel than a train to pull 1 ton of freight.

Pricey plan

In North America, freight rail electrification has been extensively studied over the past 40-plus years, but the high costs and operational challenges have proved insurmountable. Any significant amount of electrification would cost billions.

For example, as Risemberg points out, electrification requires major investment in overhead catenary wiring. Unlike Europe, the thousands of tunnels and bridges all
over North America were built to one standard to ensure
system efficiency. Most bridges and tunnels do not have the clearance needed for electrification. On top of infrastructure costs is the expense of Risemberg's so-called "hybrid"

Risemberg believes he has found the solution to disruptive power switching between diesel-fueled and electric-fueled locomotives. He suggests "it would be easy to convert" existing diesel locomotives to "hybrids," or what are more accurately called "dual mode," by "simply" installing the right equipment inside the locomotive. This is an oversimplification of the facts.

There is no space inside contemporary freight locomotives to install the necessary transformer capable of "stepping down" roughly 4,400 horsepower worth of electricity. It would likely occupy about 480 cubic feet (6 feet wide by 8 feet tall by 10 feet long) and this "unused" space simply does not exist. The only option would be to shrink fuel storage capacity, which would require a reconfiguration of national fueling operations to accommodate for the reduced range when running on diesel.

Furthermore, while duel mode locomotives exist for passenger rail, they cost $12.5 million each; 530 percent more than comparable diesel freight locomotives.

The railroads are constantly looking for additional ways to reduce their emissions, but we need to be careful not to bet the farm on massive, expensive solutions when better ones are available. New capital expenditures need to yield real emissions reductions as soon as possible.

Kirk Marckwald is director of the California Locomotive
Emissions Reduction Project for the Association of American Railroads.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.