Sunday Train: Future of Rail Technical Symposium, Washington DC. 3 Feb, 2015

Last week in Washington DC, your Sunday Train correspondent was able to attend the "Future of Rail Symposium" held in Washington DC. The presenters discussed various aspects of building a Steel Interstate corridor, including the Steel Interstate concept, a discussion of electrified rail around the world, why rely on electricity rather than LNG for major backbone corridors, the engineering and economics of electrification in North America, an approach to financing an initial Steel Interstate corridor without requiring new legislation to be passed through our gridlocked Federal government, vehicle and track considerations of the "Rapid Freight" rail component of the Steel Interstate, the labor dimension and the need for a new social contract with Rail Labor, and a final presentation on the "Solutionary Rail" proposal by the Backbone Campaign to establish a Steel Interstate on the BNSF Northern Transcon corridor.

Wait a Minute ... Sunday Train? Wasn't the Sunday Train column abandoned?

Before I talk about the Seminar, I probably ought to say "hi" to long time readers of the Sunday Train that may have been wondering what has been going on.

What has been going on is that I was offered a two semester full time teaching job, including support and opportunities for research, in China, starting in the Fall 2014/2015 Semester, which I accepted. And that meant that I was teaching sixteen hours a week, in eight two hour sessions for four sections in two brand new "course preps", teaching in English to students taking their first two years of coursework in China before going overseas to finish their degree(s).

And doing that while settling into a country where its widely expected that pretty much everybody speaks the language and reads the writing. That on its own is kind of familiar to someone from Ohio ... but in Ohio, I do speak the language and read the writing, while in China I do not, which is the harder side of the "we are a big country, we expect everyone else to adjust to us" dynamic.

And at the same time I had some additional work involving advocacy for sustainable transport, including giving testimony on the planning process in Newcastle, NSW, where they are planning to replace service on a dedicated heavy rail corridor with an on-street light rail corridor ... instead of with a light rail service in the already existing dedicated corridor ... at the cost of some $200m+ extra Australian dollars over the more effective option of using the existing corridor.

And then I got an additional course development project from the school tossed onto my plate midway through the semester.

So while the time zones often lined up quite well for continuing the Sunday Train from China ... my workload did not. When it wasn't a weekend with a make-up class on Saturday or Sunday, I tended to use my Saturdays for complete non-academic activity, and Sunday afternoon to catch ahead for the coming week.

I will still have the same teaching load, but its possible that I will not have the same workload in extra projects and activities, and if I do not, I will be making an effort to continue Sunday Train on a fortnightly basis.

However, this is February, today is Lunar New Year's, and so we are in the middle of the semester break, and I am back in the US for about three weeks ... which is what allowed your intrepid correspondent the opportunity to attend the seminar that I discuss this Sunday.

A "Steel Interstate" Seminar

The seminar began with a presentation from David Foster, executive director of RAIL Solution, a Virginia based organization that was organized in 2003 to promote the upgrade of rail infrastructure as a more efficient alternative to a then-extant proposal to turn I-81 into a truck tollway with four exclusive truck lanes.

Readers of the Sunday Train will be familiar with the Steel Interstate concept, which RAIL Solution has been working on developing both the technical foundation for and broadening the support base for since it won its initial victory against the truck mega-tollway project in 2007. The Steel Interstate envisions a combination of rail electrification and establishment of higher speed rail corridors for both freight and passenger transport. These are not the 160mph and 220mph maximum speed corridors that is typically referred to as "High Speed Rail" in much of the work, but rather the 110mph and 125mph maximum speed corridors which would be considered "Express" rail in much of the world, which I have taken to calling "Rapid Freight Rail" and "Rapid Passenger Rail".

An important part of David Foster's discussion was consideration of why they started looking at rail freight as an alternative. As a group of people who came together in opposition to the I-81 truck mega-tollway proposal, they had to decide whether they were just NIMBY's, declaring "not in my backyard" but willing to go along with some other area suffering the negative impacts of the tollway ... or were looking for a superior solution to the freight transport task that the truck mega-tollway was being proposed to meet.

They decided that they could not adopt a NIMBY position, and after exploring the alternatives, were convinced that upgrading the capacity of one or both of the two freight rail corridors that run along the general I-81 corridor was both an economically and environmentally superior solution.

Gerry Callison, P.E., of Commonwealth Associates, Inc., picked up the torch on the economic benefits of the rail electrification side of the proposal. Even at today's prices for diesel, using electricity for rail traction provides a substantial operating cost saving to a rail operator. If one looks at the cost of a kWh of electricity and the cost of an amount of diesel that contains an equivalent amount of energy, the cost advantage of electrical power looks rather modest. However, there is much greater efficiency in using electrical power from the grid than in using diesel power. There are relatively small proportional transmission and transformer losses when using AC power to power electric motors, compared to the loss of the majority of the energy content of diesel fuel when powering either diesel or diesel-electric locomotives.

Gerry Callison went into some detail on the electrical details of rail electrification for long-haul freight transport, for which he recommended 25kV AC power delivered from an overhead catenary supply, with possibly some 50kV systems further west. He discussed the type of substations best suited for this system, co-location of transmission with the rail corridor, the process of establishing the ground return path along the corridor, and the process of adapting signal and detector equipment along the rail corridor to avoid electrical interference.

One important point was stressed in Gerry Callison's talk when he pointed out that he was using the price of electricity in Nebraska as his price point for electrical power. The average price of electricity in the US is heavily weighted by the populations of large population centers. However, only a relatively small share of a long-hail freight rail corridor will be traveling through the largest metropolitan areas with relatively high electricity prices. Most of the corridor will pass through the more lightly populated areas in between.

Alan Drake, an Independent Consulting Engineer, picked up with a look at electrification going on around the world, and we learned that outside of North America, a large number of rail systems are taking advantage of these operating cost benefits by electrifying substantial portions of their rail corridor. This includes countries that we might normally think of, including the extension of the electrification of the Siberian Railway, and the continued electrification of Chinese railways to bring electrification to over half of the Chinese rail network.

However, it also includes countries that might not normally spring to mind. This includes the Ethiopian project to connect its capital to the port in the neighboring country of Eritrea. This project, already underway, is part of a larger vision of establishing a network of electric rail corridors connecting to the major regions of the country. When the first stage is completed, Ethiopia will have more kilometers of electrified freight rail corridor than the US. Alan Drake seemed to suggest that if Ethiopia was capable of electrifying rail corridors for freight rail, the United States ought to be capable of doing so.

Alan Drake also discussed the LNG alternative to diesel power. Given the Sunday Train's focus on sustainable transport solutions, and the fact that LNG does not qualify as a low or zero carbon power source, I will not repeat a number of his points. However, one of his points that I can not pass by is his assessment that the energy required to refrigerate and compress natural gas for the LNG required to move freight would provide 80% of the power required to move the freight by electric freight rail. Given that we have a fixed budget of carbon-emitting energy sources that we can use, the energy inefficiency of the process of liquefying Natural Gas suggests that it is preferable to use that natural gas with the greater efficiency that is possible when it is used directly from the gas pipeline network.

After lunch, Bruce McFarling, Visiting Professor in Economics at the International College Beijing, China Agricultural University, talked about some possible financing mechanisms for a first Steel Interstate corridor. Given the benefits of rail electrification discussed before lunch, one might wonder why freight rail electrification projects are not being pursued today. However, the US has a particular system in transport of heavily subsidizing the publicly owned infrastructure for road freight transport, while the privately owned infrastructure for rail freight transport is subject to property tax. Similarly, while capital funding for road infrastructure is sometimes provided interest free from a trust fund, and sometimes borrowed at the rates available to tax-free government bonds, capital funding for rail infrastructure must pay the commercial interest rates, with a cost of capital for BNSF recently estimated by a government regulator as 11.75%.

Given the public benefits of a Steel Interstate, especially a Steel Interstate that commits to operate entirely on sustainable, renewable energy, Dr. McFarling proposed an "Infrastructure Bank" approach. In this approach, states along the corridor would establish a not-for-profit public interest corporation to plan, finance, oversee the construction of, and manage publicly owned infrastructure hosted, by agreement, on the ROW owned by a private railway. Initial finance from a TIFIA transport infrastructure loan would, on approval by the Secretary of Transportation, qualify the Infrastructure Bank to issue up to $8b in Qualified Private Activity Bonds, on the same tax free basis as state issued revenue bonds.

The savings on fuel costs of operating electrified freight rail would be more than sufficient to cover the capital charges required to cover the interest cost and original capital cost of the borrowing for a first stage of electrifying the rail corridor. Once the electrification was completed and the funding for the electrification project was being repaid, it would be possible to move on to stage two, establishing the paths for electric 90mph freight / 110mph passenger rail service on the rail corridor.

Dr. Steve Chrismer, PhD, P.E., of LTK, formerly Amtrak's Principle Track Geometry Engineer, followed to discuss the Vehicle and Track Considerations for establishing a 90mph "Rapid Freight Rail" service. Speeding up the freight vehicle implies, all other things equal, an increase in dynamic forces leading to track wear and loss of alignment. For rail locomotives, the "other things" that can be adjusted to compensate are axle loading and unsprung mass. Axle loadings of locomotives on Rapid Freight Rail corridors can be usefully reduced, but only up to a point, since too low an axle loading reduces the adhesion of the wheel to the rail. However, unsprung mass -- the weight of the vehicle that is carried directly on the wheel without buffering by suspension -- can be substantially reduced with locomotive designs that suspend as much of the drive train components as possible from the car body. He gave an example of an electrical locomotive developed for passenger rail use which relied upon this design principle, allowing the locomotive to run at higher speed on a rail corridor without an excessive increase in maintenance costs ... and, also important in terms of the transport capacity of the corridor, without excessive periods of downtime for maintenance.

Steve Chrismer then discussed a range of techniques on the track side for reducing maintenance costs and maintenance downtime for the higher class of track required for Rapid Freight Rail. This included techniques for identifying underground sources of maintenance problems so that they can be corrected for in the design of the corridor. It also included improved approaches to maintaining the desired track elevation through improved ballast maintenance procedures.

After an afternoon coffee break, the seminar continued with Jeff Kurtz and two of his colleagues from Railroad Workers United discussing the need for a new social contract with Rail Labor. Jeff spoke of the transition from the days when railroad engineers and conductors were able to have adequate downtime to the current situation when there is little predictability of when an engineer or conductor will be called in to work, with as little as 12 hours between then end of one run and the beginning of the next. The impact on railway engineers and conductors is similar to the more widely publicized problems of fatigue with airline pilots and truck drivers.

At a birds-eye-view, it seems likely that a Steel Interstate system, would result in an accompanying need for a substantial increase in rail engineers and conductors as it succeeds in shifting more valuable time sensitive and delivery reliability sensitive freight from trucks to rail. So it would seem likely to increase the leverage of experienced engineers and conductors in demanding safer working conditions.

It seems to me that if the Rapid Freight Rail infrastructure is publicly owned, that provides an additional opening for insisting on more safe operating conditions for the engineers and conductors of the freight trains using that infrastructure. However, I must admit that the political path to take advantage of this opening is not clear to me. This is a topic where I need to learn substantially more from those who have waged successful campaigns for improved worker safety.

Finally, Bill Moyer from the Backbone Campaign, sponsors of this seminar and advocates for establishing a Steel Interstate corridor on the BNSF Northern Transcon that runs between Seattle and Chicago, concluded the seminar by discussing some elements of the advocacy efforts to attempt to get this project taken up by key decision makers. He identified Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway is owner of the BNSF railway. He also discussed how the Backbone Campaign got involved in the Solutionary Rail approach. The Backbone Campaign has been heavily involved in fighting against the use of Washington as a transport hub for shipping fossil fuels from North America to Asia.

This echoed David Foster's description of how opposition to a converting I-81 truck mega-tollway evolved into support for establishment of a Steel Interstate: when it seems like one is always saying "no" to something, it is good for the soul to be able to say "yes" to something.

Getting To and From the Seminar

I had the good fortune that my wife was interested in going to the seminar, so I booked a couple of days at a hotel within walking distance of the Red Line in DC and two trips on the Amtrak Capital Ltd ... in a roomette on the way down, and coach on the way back.

You might suspect I had to talk my wife into taking the Amtrak train to DC, but when she flew into Akron-Canton airport, her little puddle jumper jet from Charlotte took three tries at landing, each of which had to be aborted because some indicator did not come on, until it finally was able to land on the fourth attempt. So it turned out that she was happy to take the train. We took the last Greyhound from Akron up to Cleveland, which crawled up the Interstate because it was a big snowstorm day ... and heard before we left that the eastbound Greyhound service was cancelled ... and after finally getting into the station when it opened at 11pm, and then waiting in the station for the train which was delayed by an hour and a half (and, I believe, not because of the snowstorm, but rather "because CSX"), there was a steady trickle of people coming in from Cleveland airport to try to make their way given cancelled flights.

Indeed, one of the seminar presenters who flew in, Alan Drake, was delayed getting out of NOLA by weather related delays, and another one of the planned seminar presenters had his flight cancelled and he was unable to make it (he would have been describing the Rapid Rail freight trucks that his group had been developing). So it could well be that the reason that I was able to attend the seminar was because I had set up my schedule to take the Capital Ltd. for the trip. Of course, it helped that I am on my semester break from my Chinese university, so that stretching a one day seminar into a three day trip to DC did not present any particular problem ... indeed, while it was not a focus on the seminar, one side-effect of a Steel Interstate corridor would be an ability of a Rapid Freight Rail corridor to host a long distance passenger train service at more effective transit speeds and with the kind of on-time reliability that could compete effectively against bus and (for routes not well served by the hub-and-spoke system), air travel.

Conversations and Considerations

So, what do y'all think about the Steel Interstate proposal? Would you be interested in a system that would take long haul heavy diesel trucks off the nation's interstates and major state roads and put that freight on the rail corridor? Would you be interested in being able to move freight powered entirely by sustainable, renewable electric power? Or ... well, the comment thread is yours as much as mine, so go ahead ... waddya think?





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