Meet the group trying to electrify America’s railroads

The Backbone Campaign hopes it will reduce emissions and jump-start depressed communities.

(File Photo).

(File Photo).

A Vashon-based organization that provides assistance to progressive activists is working to get both politicians in the nation’s capital and the country’s largest freight companies to support a plan to electrify railways throughout America.

That plan, said islander Bill Moyer, could cut down significantly on greenhouse emissions — in other words, fight climate change — by taking long-haul freight that is being transported on truck and instead do it by train.

The idea becomes all the more significant when set against the backdrop of a study from The Atlantic, which found that over the last three decades, Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and CSX have spent tens of millions trying to discredit climate science and opposing federal policy. About 70 percent of U.S. coal is shipped by rail, the article said, accounting for 14 percent of their total revenue.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of time for rail to make the electrified transition, according to Moyer. He is hoping for what he calls a 2030 moonshot mode shift in the way the U.S. approaches rail transportation.

“We’ve got a 10-year goal as a society that we need to meet, and it’s time, maybe it’s time to stop worrying about what can we do for the railroad companies, and what needs to make the railroad infrastructure work for the American people instead of some anonymous profiteers,” Moyer said.

And he believes residents of Vashon-Maury Island should make note of the sweeping plan, even if a railroad does not run through the island only accessible by ferry.

“First of all, we’re a Vashon-based group and we’re having an impact on a national conversation about railroads — that, in and of itself, is significant, I would say,” he said. “To get to your broader question — why should anyone, Vashon, especially — care about railroads? People care about climate change and the railroads are kind of a forgotten resource for providing the tools for addressing climate change in a way that no other infrastructure does. I sometimes think of them as a gift from the past and a key to the future.”

Mary Paterson, a Seattle-area environmental activist, agrees with Moyer that a key for environmental health and justice, creating green jobs and lowering emissions might be found in one of America’s oldest monopolies.

“This would be a role for trains that would make them part of the solution to the current problem, which is our reliance on fossil fuels, instead of their current purpose, which is to transport fossil fuels,” she said. “It would give the trains a new role.”

The vision of the program is simple: move more freight, and especially long-haul freight, out of trucks and onto existing rail tracks and corridors. Ideally, these would be electrified. The plan could also help rebuild passenger rail as a legitimate competitor to other forms of transportation.

On top of this, the plan could create more stops in small communities, giving local farmers and manufacturers along the line a more affordable shipping option. But the blueprint for getting there is a little more complicated. The book, titled “Solutionary Rail: A people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future,” released in 2017 by the Backbone Campaign, outlines the plan.

It originally proposed modernizing and electrifying the U.S. rail system through a new public-private partnership and corresponding federal oversight.

The book said it would cost about $2.5 million per mile of double track, or one track heading each direction. A 500-mile stretch would represent a $1.25 billion investment. And when considering there are 4,400 miles of railroad track along the northern route that adds up quickly.

The U.S is behind the curve on electrifying its rail network when compared to Italy and France, countries that have more than half of their rail miles electrified. Germany, Russia and China are all close behind. The U.S., in contrast, has around 1 percent of its rail miles electrified.

There are seven large, or Class 1, railroad companies in the U.S. Of those companies, BNSF is the largest freight carrier in the country. Its rail network transports goods across the West Coast and Midwest, including the Northern Transcon route, which runs from Washington state to Chicago.

While BNSF is privately-owned by Berkshire Hathaway, other railroads are publicly-traded. Moyer said the major U.S. railroads in recent decades have been moving toward a business model that prioritizes heavy freight, long trains and unpredictable schedules. They specialize in shipping bulk products — like oil, gas and grain — for shippers and buyers that don’t require a regular schedule.

This practice is called precision-scheduled railroading. It lets trains sit in yards until enough cars can be added for it to roll out. However, for smaller producers or companies that require reliability, this can push them out of the market, and their goods onto trucks.

Getting more freight onto trains would mean more trains — and more system reliability, Moyer said.

One of the goals of solutionary rail is to get those shipments off trucks and back onto rail. A Washington State Department of Transportation study from 2019 found that trains create 14 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer traveled.

If the rails are upgraded to accommodate electric trains running on renewable energy, solutionary rail has the potential to reduce emissions even more. Because railroads already own the right-of-way along their tracks, additional transmission lines could be built to link green energy producers and customers across the country.

Thomas White is an analyst who has been in the railroad business for 50 years, with more than half of those in actual railroads as a traffic manager and other jobs. He thinks that since existing conventional trains emit less CO2 than trucks, the push should be to get freight onto railroads now, and then electrify them later.

“No matter what we do there’s going to be lead time to move freight from highways to railroads, it’s going to involve increasing the capacity and changing the configuration of railroads,” White said. “Electrification is going to be another monumental project, but it doesn’t really do us any good until after we have the capacity to run all those trains.”

Focusing on running heavy, bulk products have meant that smaller branch rail lines across the country have been abandoned. These would likely have to be restarted to facilitate a robust freight network. Upgrades like widening out curves would also be needed.

A sweeping reworking of the nation’s rail system would take corresponding political willpower. This could come in the form of a state-by-state approach, or from the federal government, depending on who you ask. But for White, the only way to make it work would be a federal push.

“For any of this to work, we have to have very, very big political shifts. And it’s also going to have to be a very, very big political fight against folks who build highways and sell automobiles,” he said.

Moyer said when they approached the major railroad companies with the plan, there was a lack of interest.

Of the several contacted for this story, only Union Pacific responded with an email statement.

“Union Pacific offers its customers the most efficient, environmentally responsible transportation solutions available today. We are constantly working to develop new technology; however, at this time, there is not an electric solution that generates the necessary power to move the heavy tonnage our customers need,” the statement said.

The solutionary rail campaign submitted its idea to the U.S. House Select Committee on Climate Crisis. Representatives of the committee had not returned a request for comment by deadline. A Green New Deal could include something similar to solutionary rail.

Beachcomber editor Kevin Opsahl contributed to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect properly reflect in the second paragraph the intent of Bill Moyer’s plan.

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