Last year, Railway Age reported that BNSF Railway was exploring the possibility of electrifying large portions of its network and hauling freight trains with electric locomotives. BNSF would allow electric transmission line companies to use rights-of-way like its Transcon, for example, to send electricity from massive wind farms to major population centers in exchange for drawing low-cost power for electric locomotives. The concept has taken on additional importance with the Obama Administration’s emphasis on developing high speed passenger rail corridors and cleaner forms of energy like wind, hydro-electric, and solar.
Many rail industry experts feel that high speed rail requires electrification, and that most new services will be initiated in existing freight rail corridors. It’s a sensitive subject for the freight railroads, especially with regard to maximum allowable speeds and the type of track infrastructure that will be required to host passenger trains, but knowing that it’s something they eventually must deal with, they’ve begun looking at electrification—or in the case of some railroads, like the successors to the Pennsylvania, Virginian, Milwaukee Road, Great Northern, and other fully or partially electrified operations, revisiting it. (Pictured is a Chicago, South Shore & South Bend "Little Joe.")
Union Pacific, the nation’s largest Class I, says it has been approached by transmission line companies about providing its rights-of-way, but (at least publicly) says it’s not seriously considering electrifying corridors that currently host passenger services. Norfolk Southern, on the other hand, has joined BNSF in exploring electrification. Both railroads say they have been conducting what they term “investigative reviews” and not equipment development talks with EMD and GE Transportation about straight-electric or dual-power (a.c. catenary/diesel-electric) locomotives. A version of the latter, the ALP-45DP, is currently being built for New Jersey Transit and Montreal’s AMT by Bombardier. Such a locomotive would give a Class I the flexibility of operating trains in electrified and non-electrified territory without changing power. BNSF is considering the merits of operating long-haul electric trains and electrifying yards in which the railroad would serve customers with physical plants that have high electric power needs. BNSF could feed such customers power through the transmission lines located on its rights-of-way. UP is open to electrifying yards, but says it is not considering electrification for line haul services.
Ultimately, environmental regulations may prompt the railroads to move quickly on electrification. Congress is considering legislation that would cap carbon emissions but allow companies to engage in “cap and trade”practices: buy and sell carbon permits based on how much carbon they generate or whether they help offset carbon emissions.
The economics of cap and trade could tilt in the railroads’ favor. As well, future carbon restrictions affecting railroads could justify the high cost of electrification and locomotive acquisitions.
Locomotive builders will be the linchpin of electrification. EMD and GE haven’t built an electric locomotive in more than 30 years; Bombardier, Siemens, and Alstom build them for the European market, and the Asian market has its own suppliers. If electrification takes off domestically there could be a market for all five, plus other suppliers like the MotivePower division of Wabtec.