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Solutionary Rail: Electric Rail For Freight & People

Vision for a Renewable Energy Based Solutionary Rail

Using Rail to Transport People and Freight, Not Coal and Oil


Dear Mr. Buffett,

Please, stop “hedging your bets” with investments in further use of fossil fuels that are guaranteed to harm the climate and the well being of future generations.  Your railroad, BNSF’s reliance on shipping coal and oil is not sustainable for your company, your workers, or the planet.  These fuels are causing climate disruption, ocean acidification, damage public health, and they endanger the environments and cultural inheritance of the communities they move through. 

As the owner, you have the capacity to break the BNSF’s railroad industry’s addiction to the consumption and transport of fossil fuels.  You alone have the power to transform the role and impact of railroads from being part of the problem to being a pivotal component of the solution. . . .



Solutionary Rail envisions a national effort to electrify U.S. rail lines beginning with a successful demonstration on the BNSF Northern Transcon from Seattle to Chicago. The backbone of a sustainable system for national freight transport will be a system of electrified rail corridors. The approximate target for rail electrification in the U.S. is reflected in the Department of Defense’s designation of 32,421 miles of major rail corridors as the Strategic Rail Corridor Network. Other rail lines generally do not have enough traffic to economically support electrification. Assuming a single electrification team can complete 50 miles of corridor electrification annually, and that four teams are working, 2,400 miles can be completed in five years. That would electrify the entire length of the Northern Transcon, including multiple routes in some regions.


Solutionary Rail envisions electrified locomotives employing renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels, sources that are now becoming economically competitive with fossil-generated electricity. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates potential electricity generation from wind in just the Dakotas and Texas is three times greater than electricity currently consumed annually in the United States. (National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2010-02-04, State wind energy potential 2010) Barriers to accessing these and other remote renewable sources are lack of local power demand and challenges transmitting power to distant urban centers. Electrified rail would create local demand. Railroad corridors offer an opportunity to rapidly expand transmission.

Transcontinental rail lines occupy lands that are owned by a single entity, and have served as industrialized corridors for more than a century. Many of the ownership and environmental impediments that slow approval of new transmission lines can be avoided in these corridors. In addition, important cost saving opportunities can be realized through coordinated efforts to deploy the wires for powering electric locomotives, transmission lines for the inter-regional sharing of renewable energy, and new renewable generation facilities


Solutionary Rail envisions railroad electrification and roadbed improvements which will support both rapid freight transport at 90-125mph and heavy freight transport at 60-80mph. Although increasing freight speeds would normally produce an increase in track damage and required maintenance, recent developments in vehicle engineering allow an increase in speed but with much reduced track forces and damage. Newer, more advanced electric locomotives can attain speeds of 125 mph and greater, while keeping wheel/rail dynamic forces very low. Current technology and engineering also allows the manufacture of freight rail vehicles that can be stable for priority freight service speeds of 90 mph and above, and do so with a minimum of track deterioration.


The Solutionary Rail vision for freight rail involves a strategic reinvestment in rail, in particular through electrification and service improvements designed to recapture the market for rapid delivery of high-value mixed freight. The greatest potential to move truck freight to rail is in on “long haul” shipments over 500 miles. Needed to make the shift happen are investments to make rail shipping faster and delivery time more reliable. Specific measures that are necessary parts of this vision are improving track to support higher speeds, beginning the restoration of track to areas that have lost service, and the elimination of system bottlenecks such as single track on major trunk lines.


Early in the 20th Century, many cities and towns were served by interurbans, electric trolleys running between towns Over the past half century, intercity passenger rail has fallen victim to cheap oil and the cost advantages afforded cars, trucks, and planes from their use of public infrastructure. Solutionary Rail envisions turning this trend around. Rail-based electric trams and other light rail vehicles have advantages over buses in that they generally offer faster, more comfortable service, can operate using low-carbon grid electricity, and, due to their relatively permanent infrastructure, are more effective in spurring transit-oriented development. There are many positive synergies between revitalizing freight and passenger rail that are capable of lowering costs.


Transportation services are the foundation for modern economic activities. Sustainable rail networks will provide a resilient foundation for locally-based economic activities that create wealth, stable employment, and prosperous communities. In contrast, the economies of communities that are without rail and hence are totally dependent on fossil fuels will grow increasingly brittle in the emerging post-carbon world. For rural and smaller communities rail access is key. These communities can offer significant cost advantages and quality of life amenities, but are disadvantaged in economic competition by higher transportation costs. A 21st century rail agenda will focus development of rail access to improve the ability of rural and smaller communities to competitively ship products to market.


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