Rail-worthy, eco-approved – Part 3: America’s electric trains


Electricity is as old as the world itself: 4.5 billion years. Regarding our capture of and our deriving benefit from, in relative terms and where that’s concerned, it registers as barely a blip on the geologic-timescale radar screen. In putting this invaluable – and invisible – resource to work as we’ve done, it just goes to show what our preoccupation has been on preserving good life quality and healthy lifestyles.

And, wouldn’t you know it, it would be just a matter of time before electricity found itself a home and proved useful in the environment we call railroading as well, just as it has with how it’s been adopted and applied in aspects having to do with other areas of everyday life. A game-changer, electricity is.

But, there are times when the situation gets sticky.

Take, for instance, the many different ways electricity is generated. How it’s derived can make all the difference. Does it involve the extraction of buried fossil fuels and the consequent burning thereof? Though their supplies may be limitless, the fact remains the sun doesn’t always shine (for solar), nor do the breezes always blow (for wind power), nor does the water always flow (for hydro), so finding the perfect solution to meeting our demands for electricity can be tricky. Then you have the less relied-upon supply sources of wave or tide, geothermal and nuclear-based energy-generating options. How do those fit into the mix? Plus, in the case of nuclear energy, there’s the waste that must be dealt with. And, add to this resource availability and cost issues, and all of a sudden one will find there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to how electricity gets produced and distributed. There obviously is more here than meets the eye.

All of which can and do influence end-user decision-making.

But, any one, a combination of two, several or many, or all of these factors and more, could be influencing factors as to when and where a railway concern spends its money. And, the reality is that some of them might not have resources or the wherewithal enough to convert to electric operation even if they wanted to.

But, to those who plan, are in the process of or will convert to electric energy or for those who have already gone that route, more power to you.

In case you missed them, “Trains: The American electric” can be accessed here, while: “American trains – Part 2: Electrics all the rage,” can be accessed here.

The lineup

On tap for today are two East-Coast-based rail operations: The Baltimore, Maryland Metro Subway Link subway and Amtrak’s 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail-bridging Boston, Mass. and Washington, D.C.

Metro Subway Link

The Baltimore Metro Subway Link opened for service in Nov. 1983 and, from end-to-end is 15 miles in length. Average weekday boardings, meanwhile, according to Wikipedia data is 4,200.

Since much of the line rests on elevated infrastructure or sits inside subsurface portals, such construction features added considerably to the construction costs. All told, the line’s price weighed in at $1.392 billion. Top speed of the third-rail-fed trains is 70 mph as also pointed out on Wikipedia.

Add to the above and subsurface sections those situated at grade.

High hopes for NEC high speed

The Amtrak name has endured. That the company is still in business 51-plus-years after first coming into existence in May 1971, speaks volumes!

Based on my recollection from what I remember reading, the expectation among detractors then was that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak’s formal title – initially it was to be termed “Railpax”) would not last long enough to celebrate birthday number one, let alone survive past that. And, yet more than a half-century later, here we are.

The 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor, incidentally, is Amtrak-owned. Operations on the line today approach high speed. The railroad’s latest offering, the Avelia Liberty trains, with tilting capability in curves, max out at 160 mph. These speeders are just now coming online in 2023. And will replace the 20 150-mph-capable Acela’s which made their debut in 2000. (See photo at bottom).

These modern marvels (they look like how a high-speed train is supposed to look – this author’s opinion, of course) were preceded on the corridor by the likes of the General Motors Corporation’s AEM7, General Electric Company’s E60C and Metroliner-series electric locomotive classes.

Footnote: The AEM7s were capable of attaining speeds in the 125-mph range. The E60C model, meanwhile, produced 6,000 horsepower and rode on six axles, a 1,000-hp per-driving-axle average. Unlike other locos, the E60Cs ran on AC (alternating current). It had a top speed of 120 mph. It should be noted, the ranks of AEM7s, E60Cs and Metroliners have all been reduced to zero, their classes having since been retired.


Some will swear that systems like light rail and subway don’t do much to reduce motor vehicle congestion in the areas where these systems go in. And, to an extent, I would agree.

But, you have to look at percentages of people riding trains, what means of transportation they used before switching to the train, and things of this nature. Were they previously bus riders? I think a great example to learn from here is Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It in one particular application supplemented its bus rapid transit system with light rail and the BRT of which I’m referring was enormously popular. So much so that the buses alone could no longer handle the crushes of riders that it was trying to accommodate. Now imagine if all those buses were gas burners and put X amount of pollution into the air, how much that would build up over time.

Using light rail in its place, on the other hand, would not only result in fewer trains needed to move comparable amounts of passengers, but far fewer or no emissions, depending, would be released into the air as a result.

It’s a win-win, most definitely.


Right in my own backyard

Baltimore, which happens to be my place of my birth and where I spent the first 20 years or so of my life, is, quite coincidentally, the birthplace of common-carrier railroading in the U.S. It began with passage of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad charter in 1827. So, it’s certainly no surprise then that Baltimore would be a locale where both a light rail network and a subway system would be going in. Needless to say I missed both those installations with my having gone away to college in California and, for all intents and purposes, remaining in the Golden State to seek employment opportunities.

So it was the mid-1970s that Baltimore’s interest in building such systems began to build. And, I’m glad.

I remember from 1971 to 1973 when I attended junior college there, how nice it would have been to have a light rail line installed to get me from my parents home in Northwest Baltimore to Catonsville and back where the community college was located. I can imagine driving to the light rail station, parking my car, buying a ticket, boarding the train and it taking me to on, or, at least, close to the college destination. Though that’s still, as far as I know, not a reality, one day I hope it will be.

You see, the distance between my folks’ former home and the school campus was 14 miles one way by side street and highway. Had the light-rail reality existed, I think about all of the congestion on the Baltimore Beltway then that I encountered, and the air pollution created as a result of my driving, could have been avoided.


Obviously, the advantages of powering trains with electricity are many.

For one, electric power distribution and collection creates no harmful emissions in the process. Secondly, realized are greater efficiencies and the relatively low cost of electrical consumption makes operation of electric trains practical. Not only can greater speeds of trains be achieved, but, as a renewable resource, electricity is in limitless supply.

With that, this ends this three-part series. Happy travels!

Photo finishes

Image above: Amtrak Acela electric train crossing the Susquehanna River bridge at Havre de Grace, Maryland. © by James G. Howes, 2008.

⁃ Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

Last updated on Mar. 27, 2023 at 6:50 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.