Trains in the automotive age: Why shrinking the rail physical plant since 1916 peak, was wrong

A family friend who dropped by for a visit the other day asked what I thought of the electric-car craze. Truth be told, this was totally unexpected. That I was queried, and that I was prompted to give a response, I made sure I spoke candidly stating exactly how I felt about it, giving what I was about to say nary a second thought as to how my answer might be received.

My response went something like this:

I don’t believe the long-term solution to addressing the climate crisis is electric cars. (Not as things stand as they are currently). There are battery issues that need to be resolved. You have the problem of mining for raw materials (and how that is being conducted and who is being enticed to perform the labor, particularly in developing countries that are engaged in the extraction of minerals like lithium and cobalt, and the environmentally irresponsible manner in which this is being carried out in many cases) and battery disposal once the batteries reach the ends of their useful lives and are incapable of holding a charge.

(But it goes beyond this). You have the problem of the grid electricity supply being able to feed a growing electric-vehicle-motor electron appetite and what potential impact that could have on that supply. Is that going to cause an increase in recurring blackouts and, if there are more blackouts, how is that issue going to be addressed? Will more households be in the market for more electric generators? Those will invariably be fossil-fuel driven, whether fueled with diesel, gasoline or natural gas.

Then there’s the matter of the numbers of these cars on the road. Just because motorists switch from internal combustion to electric motor does nothing to address urban traffic congestion if there are still the same or higher numbers of motor vehicles taking up limited roadway lane and parking space. (And, though I did not bring this up at the time, it should be noted that just because a car happens to be a ZEV [zero-emissions vehicle] it doesn’t all-of-a-sudden make or mean that vehicle is immune from crashes. That point wasn’t brought up, but automobile crashes are a very real and serious issue. So, we certainly mustn’t forget about that).

Then the conversation direction segued into talk about trains and how many more people could be transported, not only as it has to do with the amount of space required to move a given number of riders, but at what speeds will be dictated to ensure this is done as efficiently, reliably, safely and as economically practically as is warranted.

From there, I pointed out how much better trains are at conserving energy and moving cargo and passengers than are trucks and cars, respectively, in carrying out those same tasks and, furthermore noted that train efficiency and train capability is far superior to that of trucks, especially, fuel-consumption-wise and where tonnage pulling or hauling (in the case where internal combustion is employed) is concerned. Trains beat trucks in these regards, hands-down!

And, that’s pretty much where the discussion was left.

I was indeed grateful that, in this regard and on this subject, there was mutual agreement. Honestly, it doesn’t get any better than that!

If it happens to be that you’re inclined to think otherwise, consider for a moment the impact on the environment, society and economy of trains had there been no such thing. Now think of this in the context of a nationwide rail strike and what the consequences of that might look like, an all-too-real possibility that would very likely have unfolded not so many months ago, that is, had the fed not stepped in when and how it did.

Corresponding, connected home-page-entry image: Publisher: Lyman Cox-Photograph: Western Pacific Railroad

⁃ Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

2 thoughts on “Trains in the automotive age: Why shrinking the rail physical plant since 1916 peak, was wrong”

  1. Fortunately, the impacts are mostly static and the systems are durable but trains have their own legacy of ecological impact. Low grade and level tracks allow materials to be moved with lower accelerations–equivalent to the egg under the accelerator concept my parents tried to teach me while learning to drive. Creating those level tracks required gap-and-fill, boring tunnels, adjusting watersheds as well as mineral mining, not to mention the impact of coal mining.

  2. In an emissions-savings sense, the diesel engine was an improvement over steam power and electric trains superior to both those pulled (or pushed) by diesel or steam power. It is confounding to think that the majority of Europe’s trains are powered by electricity and outside of those trains in the urban transit setting, a mere fraction of trains in the United States are electric power – less than one percent, in fact, according to one source.

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