Why dual-mode train may be the best one going

Information I read recently regarding plane versus train travel asserted that Acela trains on the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor (NEC) running between Washington, D.C. and New York City enjoy a 75 percent market share of air/rail-based commuter traffic in that service lane. Wow! Seventy-five percent!

So, there are any number of reasons for the 75/25 train/plane split. Comfort. Fewer hassles and disruptions. More legroom. Greater safety. Directly served city-centered stations. A greater variety of onboard services offered. And, due to the employment of electric motors for train propulsion, this results in an overall quieter ride experience provided.

So, this being the case, one has to wonder why there aren’t more such electric railway pikes.

Much of it could be attributed to the time, energy and expense involved in installing; call it installation-time-, energy- and expense-consideration hesitation.

But that hesitation or reservation could, for the considering railroad, mean missing out on a tremendous money-savings opportunity.

In the United States there is railway concern after railway concern that could capitalize on – and benefit from – such an opportunity. I was amazed to learn (in of all sources the RAIL INNOVATION IN CANADA: Top 10 Technology Areas for Passenger and Freight Rail, Jun. 2020 report, p. 19) that the amount of electrified trackage in the U.S. currently totals less than one percent.

The kicker here is there is certainly more to be gained than just saving money. There are also associated environmental benefits – as in fewer environmentally destructive greenhouse gas and health-harming pollutant emissions being released into the air – that could be had in making the transition.

If there was a tradeoff between performance and profit I could understand the reluctance. But, the way I see it, going all-in on electric is like one having his or her cake and eating it too, that is, once the typically sizable capital investment – that’s often required up front just to get the equipment (rolling stock) and infrastructure tested and put into service – is made. And, of course, the moment that time arrives, folks, speaking figuratively, that’s payday!

But, if that seems like the proverbial biting-off-more-than-can-be-comfortably-chewed case, there could be another approach that may be much more palatable: doing electric incrementally.

What I’m thinking of specifically is the piecemeal procurement of dual-mode locomotives (electric and diesel-electric capability all under one hood), used to take over cargo train-hauling- and/or passenger-train-handling obligations, this done in preparation for and anticipation of an eventual across-the-board electrification.

In the interim, meanwhile, when funds are there to electrify portions of a line, those then can be wired and energized, so train operations in those sections could run on electricity, while in non-electrified territory, diesel-electric propulsion could fill in. There are applications where just this type of arrangement is in effect.

This is the kind of approach that could be just the ticket for a railroad thinking about transitioning to a more sustainable way of conducting operations, to do just that, where other methods might not be.

It should be noted dual-mode locomotives, historically, have an excellent track record. There is every reason to believe that that excellent track record will be sustained.

⁃ Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

Corresponding, connected home-page-entry image: Roger Puta

3 thoughts on “Why dual-mode train may be the best one going”

  1. Ha! I was wondering about dual-mode locamotives, and throught I ought to look them up and see how well they work., and here you are writing about it. Kewl. (And thanks!)

    When I was young, I remember the trackless trolleys in Cambridge, MA. They got replaced with diesel busses, and the stench was horrific*. At the time (early 1970s) one of the blokes in my regular lunch group at MIT looked really unhappy. Hey, guy, what’s wrong, we asked. “I’ve been researching the carcinogenicity of diesel exhaust. If my results were published, they’d have to retire every truck in the US. So the work isn’t getting published.”

    *The thought crosses my mind that dual-mode may be even better than you think: you only need to electrify the parts of the lines that go through populated areas to gain much of the (noticeable/likely to be noticed) air quality improvements. (It was the underground station at Harvard that was the most horrible, my memory has it.)

    • I’ve been reading the “trackless trolley” entry on Wikipedia. Indications are that on Boston’s Silver Line, dual-mode buses, used since 2004, are due to be replaced with hybrid buses this year. Interesting development.

  2. So, I dug a little deeper and discovered the switch to hybrid buses is only temporary. That is, until street-renewal projects are completed at which point battery-electric buses (BEBs) will replace the hybrids.

    Here’s more.

    “In support of the MBTA’s [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] goal to electrify its entire 1,150-bus fleet by 2040, the project will expand the North Cambridge facility’s capacity from 28 electric trolley buses to 35 BEBs. The project also includes the installation of overhead charging equipment, electrical infrastructure, an above-ground diesel storage tank for auxiliary heaters, and the removal of overhead catenary wires and poles in Cambridge and Watertown. When complete, this project will provide increased reliability for bus riders through BEBs’ more flexible technology, provide more equitable service and cost efficiencies through a standardized BEB fleet, and reduce vehicle emissions an estimated 72% as compared to the current operations,” the MBTA stated in its Jan. 27, 2022 “Beginning March 2022, MBTA Routes 71 and 73 Trolley Buses To Be Replaced with Diesel-Hybrid Buses due to Roadway Projects on Mt. Auburn Street, Belmont Street, and Huron Avenue in Cambridge and Watertown” press release.

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