On the theory that many people who encounter Alan Drake’s own words on greening freight end up overwhelmed by the details, I have presented a very simplified version of Drake’s proposal with my own opinions. This is a deliberate attempt to focus on the most important points, and then steer people to read the whole thing. [Update: The Washington Monthly has a long article on this as well.] Obviously the disagreement with Drake, as well as the political analysis at the end, is my own judgment. In addition Drake does not know me, though we’ve corresponded briefly, and he has no responsibility for anything I wrote.

Grist has discussed Alan Drake’s proposal for greening freight before, but somehow it’s always mentioned in passing and without real recognition that it’s such a game changer. By switching 85 percent of long-haul trucking to rail, we could reduce U.S. oil use by about 12 percent and total U.S. emissions by about 4 percent.

In addition, it would add long-distance power transmission across the lines of regional grids, creating a true U.S. national grid to share power from coast to coast and from north to south, and it would add-high speed passenger travel. Since it would depend almost entirely on existing rail rights-of-way, the environmental impact is small compared to transmission projects and transit projects that use new rights-of-way.

Drake starts with the fact that long-distance freight trucking consumes about half as much oil as passenger transport, and that unlike passenger transport, we have an existing heavy rail system that can move goods with about eight times the energy efficiency of trucking. That system already reaches most destinations where we want to move goods. If we switched to rail, we would still need to use trucks to move goods to and from freight yards, but containerization makes that simple.

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That is the good news. The bad news is that our existing rail system won’t let us make this switch on a large scale. Today’s freight rail operates near capacity now, and existing rail freight is slow and unreliable as compared to trucking.

Drake proposes that we upgrade our system, add various new controls and infrastructure, build second tracks besides existing rail runs, and electrify the most heavily trafficked routes, which allows trains to run at higher speeds, giving a capacity boost over and above that provided by additional tracks. These modifications provide vastly improved capacity, speed, and reliability, and they reduce energy requirements per freight-ton. Moreover, this transformation requires only standard technology in use today throughout the world.

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Since Drake’s proposal requires running new electric wires — many of the routes he proposes to electrify run through areas with no or low-capacity grids — why not run high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines along the upgraded line, with occasional electric bridges that would both increase reliability and allow the rail system and grids to connect to those lines? For various reasons, it adds much less to the cost of a rail upgrade than building those lines separately.

As a side effect, upgrading rail freight could easily provide a more reliable Amtrak. The extra capacity and speed would allow us to provide many more Amtrak routes, enhance service along existing routes, and offer faster services with about 80 percent less conflict between passenger and rail transport. These are not 200-mph bullet trains, but they could run a heck of a lot faster than the trains we have now, and they could cover many more routes than bullet trains. We would go from having awful freight and long-distance passanger rail systems to the world’s best freight rail system and mediocre rail passenger transport.

Where a really extensive set of 200-mph trains would cost about $2 trillion, Drake estimates that the cost of combined freight, passenger, and grid upgrades to be about $450 billion total! That is one heck of a bargain.

One last step Drake takes about which I’m not too enthusiastic — though if it can be made to work, I would be very enthusiastic: Many rail rights-of-way pass through really good wind sites. Drake suggests that we take advantage of advanced freight rail to ship 5 meg turbines (which are normally used only offshore because they are too big to ship over U.S. roads) and to install them right along the rail rights-of-way, essentially building long, skinny wind farms.

Now there are major advantages to this proposal: It minimizes the environmental consequences of large wind farms, and train access makes maintenance easy.

My concern is that putting giant spinning blades next to critical power lines and critical transport lines puts too many points of failure too close together. Drake argues that the risk is small because blade accidents mainly happen with small blades. But you have to consider consequences of failure, not just probability of failure, and very small probabilities become larger when multiplied by hundreds of thousands of turbines.

I’m not saying absolutely that this should be ruled out. But I would be much more cautious than Drake. Running HVDC power lines near electric railroads is something that other nations have already tried; the addition of wind turbines to that mix is new. I would want a lot of input from both the utility and wind industry before considering it. At any rate this is not as big a difference as it seems. Drake supports an extensive planning process before implementing it. So really the only disagreement is not a policy disagreement, but differing judgment about what a process we both support is likely to conclude. I would add that these long-distance transmission lines, even without wind generators along the rights-of-way are likely to free a lot of “stranded wind” and make it easier still to “unstrand.”

Lastly there is a large potential coalition for this. The $450 billion subsidy should appeal to the rail industry, the construction industry, and the manufacturing industry who help implement this as well as their unions. The new transmission lines would appeal to both the renewable industries and to existing utilities.

The main benefit to existing utilities would not be the potential for extremely long-distance transmission, but for the accessibility to multiple paths for wheeling electricity a few hundred miles with decreased losses. But the possibility of buying or selling power across longer distances would be welcome security to them, even if they did not use it much. And unlike AC lines, or even DC lines without many bridges, HVDC lines with a large number of bridges increase decrease grid stability.

In addition to Drake’s description, I also recommend Bruce McFadden’s take on this: Bruce part 1, part 2 (calling for 200 mph trains, which I think should be delayed in favor of completing Drake’s proposal), and part 3. Warning: Bruce’s writing style makes both Drake and myself look concise by comparison.