Transportation steel interstate

Published on August 15th, 2016 | by Bruce McF

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Sunday Train – Let’s build the Steel Interstate!

By Bruce McF

Sunday Train has long supported the Steel Interstate concept … but Sunday Train is “merely” an online activity composed of my online blogging in various forums and your discussion in various forums.

However, since 2013, I have also been involved in the advocacy of the Steel Interstate concept in a more direct collaboration organized by the Backbone Campaign, under the heading of “Solutionary Rail.

And the Backbone Campaign and Solutionary Rail team were successful in gaining the support of the Washington Labor Council for a feasibility study.

The Washington Labor Council Resolution

After a series of “whereas’s” which focus on concerns about safety of oil trains, both to the communities that they pass through and to the rail crews that operate the trains, and a variety of other issues, the resolution gets down to the specific Solutionary Rail proposal:

WHEREAS, a strategy for rail line electrification provides an opportunity to create an even more sustainable transportation mode and a pathway for providing economic options beyond diesel power. The Solutionary Rail concept provides a transition strategy that leverages rail’s unique capacity among long-haul transportation modes to operate on electricity, unlike many other modalities. Solutionary Rail centers on electrification of major rail lines using renewable energy.

WHEREAS, in conjunction with a program of track modernization, Solutionary Rail enables increased speeds, capacity and reliability. It is not a proposal for high-speed passenger rail that must run on its own line. Rather, Solutionary Rail is for practical increases in speeds, attracting back freight cargo and passenger services previously lost, and would modernized existing rail line to carry both.

WHEREAS, by providing a low-carbon transportation option, Solutionary Rail provides significant climate benefits. Rail electrification could also be leveraged to create transmission corridors for renewable resources now stranded by lack of capacity, providing even greater carbon reductions.

WHEREAS, the Solutionary Rail team developed a concept to overcome these hurdles, a Steel Interstate Development Authority (SIDA) created by an alliance of state governments. The SIDA raises funds in public capital markets and joins in public-private partnerships with railroad companies to erect electrification infrastructure and potentially fund track upgrades.

WHEREAS, Solutionary Rail proposes a demonstration on one major line to jumpstart rail electrification in the U.S. The team has identified the BNSF “Hi-Line” corridor for initial rollout of the concept. It is the intermodal line from Seattle to Chicago on which higher speed is critical and it also runs through some of the most wind-rich regions in the world.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, to further the concept, the Washington State Labor Council calls on Governor Inslee to direct the Washington State Department of Transportation and other appropriate state agencies to evaluate Solutionary Rail feasibility and to bring the general concept of rail corridor electrification, powered by renewable energy, into the broader “green” industrial transportation system.

Ah, so Bruce, was this why Sunday Train was on hiatus?

Man, I would so love to be able to report that the reason that the Sunday Train has been on hiatus for most of the past year was because I was in over my head with the work required behind the scenes at Solutionary Rail.

But, no, that is not the case. Rather, I was simply in over my head with four straight semesters with two new preps in my teaching job in Beijing. In my first year in a “2+2” transfer program with an American University, I had two courses per semester, with two sections per course, teaching freshmen and sophomores. Then as the program evolved with a part of the first sophomore class remaining in Beijing for a junior year, teaching one repeat two section course and two new one section courses each semester in my second year.

Fortunately, in my third year teaching with that program, while I have again have one two-section course and two one-section courses, as I had last year, each of them will be a course I have already taught at that program. So my four semester run of two new preps each semester will come to a halt with no new preps in the coming year.

Rather than just having a short “summer session” of Sunday Train blogs, before putting it back on hiatus when September rolls around, I hope to be able to actually carry through what had been my hope last year of being able to keeping the Sunday Train ticking over on a fortnightly basis.

But Enough About You, what About Solutionary Rail?

The promise of the Steel Interstate concept is the same as it has always been.

We can shift from addiction to petroleum for long distance freight transport to electric rail traction. This is a well-established, mature technology, already being relied on in a number of countries around the world … including in my winter home of China, where over the past few decades electrification has spread from 5% to over 40% of the nation’s rail corridors, with plans in place to extend it to over 50% of rail corridor in the coming decade. And since the focus of rail electrification tends to be on the busiest trunk corridors, the share of freight carried on electrified rail corridors is even higher that that.

And if we do it right, we can use the rail electrification project to help accelerate the roll out of sustainable, renewable electric energy. This involves providing a customer for renewable energy … and we do propose that the Steel Interstate be powered entirely by renewable energy. It also involves providing a corridor for long haul transmission of renewable energy, which can be used to provide the improved electrical cross-haul capability that allows strong generation of variable renewable energy in one place to offset low generation of variable renewable energy at the same time in some other place.

Indeed, as far as I understand, this second side of the Solutionary Rail concept is why the Backbone Campaign got involved in this project. The Backbone campaign was involved in fights against coal and oil trains and fossil fuel terminals in the greater Seattle area. And in the middle of saying “No!” to a large number of rail activities, they were challenged on whether they were just naysayers, or whether there was something that they could say “Yes!” to. They encountered the arguments of the Steel Interstate, and started to explore who else was advocating for a sustainably powered Steel Interstate, and whether they would be interested in exploring the opportunities for a Steel Interstate serving the Pacific Northwest …

… which is how I got a call from one of their lead organizers, a number of years ago now.

And The Work Continues … as does the Conversation …

One advantage of having a collaborative team is that when work commitments pull one person away, others can step in to keep the project moving along. So while the Sunday Train may have been in hiatus for most of the past two years, the Solutionary Rail project has continued to make progress … as evidenced by the Washington State Labor Council resolution.

The current project for Solutionary Rail is the publication of a book that advocates our proposal, including the history of electrified rail and the benefits of our proposal from environmental, commercial, worker safety and a number of other perspectives. Those interested in getting involved can explore the t he Solutionary Rail site to find out what opportunities there are.

However, if there are any here that remember the days when the Sunday Train was a more regular blog, you will recall that the Sunday Train does not end it’s journey with the blog posting. That is merely the beginning of the journey. The journey itself consists of the conversations that it sparks.

So, what are your reactions? How encouraging a piece of news is it that the Washington State Labor Council has passed a resolution in support of advancing this project? What do you think would be a good next step to move things along?

And, of course, the floor is always open to any issue in sustainable transport and energy. No issue on sustainable transport or energy is actually “off topic” for the Sunday Train. So, rather than “OT:” to flag that you are raising an issue that is not directly linked with this week’s Sunday Train posting, it might be more accurate to flag departures from this week’s posting with “Energy:” or “Transport:”.

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About the Author

... is an obscure development economist living and teaching in Northeast Ohio. He writes about the rails and public transit.



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