6
$\begingroup$

Why is railway electrification in North America far less common than in Europe? I suspect that the answer has something to do with the economics of electrification. In Europe, railway electrification varies a lot between countries, ranging from 3% in Ireland to 95% in Luxembourg (not shown: 100% in Switzerland):

Electrification Source: European Commission: Mobility and Transport.

In the USA, less than 1000 km is electrified, or less than 0.5% of the network length.

One might expect the answer to be related to population density, but electrification rate is 76% in Sweden, 55% in Finland, and nearly 50% in Russia, three countries with lower or much lower population densities than the USA. The US network is primarily freight whereas the European network is dual-use, but many freight-heavy railway lines in Europe (and Asian Russia) are electrified as well. The Trans-Siberian railway electrification completed in the 21st century. Why is it, then, that railway electrification is apparently economical in Europe, but not in the USA?

$\endgroup$

3 Answers 3

6
$\begingroup$

Essentially, the question of electrification is a trade-off: electrified railways are more energy efficient, the engines often supply more power and they are quieter and without local emissions while at the same time requiring a large up-front cost and additional maintenance. The benefits of electric railways are best played out when running many trains on the same line, especially if they have many stops and accelerate often.

On the other hand, while diesel is less energy efficient, has slightly higher running costs and a different complexity of moving parts, there is no additional up-front cost other than laying the rails, acquiring and distributing the fuel is easy and there are no problems with different standards if the network has multiple owners.

Electrification of (sub)urban and underground railways as well as electric tramways date back to the 19th century. At the time, the principal technology was steam; the main reasons for experimenting with electric systems was probably noise complaints and air quality (the latter is of particular concern in tunnels such as the London Underground). The advantages of electric traction over coal-powered steam engines were, however, quickly noticed and attempts to extend the technology of urban railways to main lines were made early. The first electrified full railway in Germany (and possibly the world) was opened in 1905 (it had run on steam for the previous five years due to lack of operating permission and the initially developed system being insufficient) between Murnau and Oberammergau. This line did not touch any major population centres but the landscape is rather hilly so the power advantages of electric traction could be exploited.

By the way, this is a pattern in Europe: most early electrifications were in hilly or mountainous areas, where large amounts of power were needed to climb, a situation that steam engines struggled with. On the other hand, these areas often provide ample opportunites for hydroelectricity which became the primary power source of many railways – especially in Switzerland which wanted to be more independent of coal (and later: oil) imports. In areas where electrification provided less of a benefit because less power was needed, it often progressed far slower or stalled altogether as coal was cheap overall.

After the Second World War, diesel traction started becoming a thing that would eventually displace steam traction on all non-electrified lines typically by the 1970’s. Diesel provided immense benefits over steam (no reliance on water, greater power output, only one person required in the cab all the while at a similarly cheap price as coal) while being able to use the same infrastructure – most notably, it also does not require any power lines to be built or catenary to supply the power to the engine. Now, the trade-off outlined above began to really matter: while coal was more obviously inferior in everything except price of the raw material and ease of construction, diesel could actually challenge electric traction on equal grounds, each having a use case where they are superior.


After all this backdrop, the actual answer follows here.
The mostly freight-only railways in the United States use most of the advantages diesel provides to the fullest. They typically run very long trains with lots of cargo (maximising profit per train while minimising driver cost). They tend to use more of the airspace above (e.g. double-stacking of containers, larger cars) as they have essentially unlimited clearance in most places. They tend to run fewer trains per line and the trains tend to run very long distances. There are many different lines that criss-cross the US (more than one might expect when looking at the Midwest’s population density), typically each belonging to a different company that will run trains along its own line. As the lines are mostly freight-only, the frequency of service doesn’t matter as long as there is sufficient capacity.

If these were electrified, that would mean they could either not use as much vertical space (or would need far taller pantographs). Each company would have to electrify its own lines at a high cost but the return in fuel savings would be far lower as there are not as many trains that can benefit. The power needs to be generated somewhere and distributed to the line; this is a significant problem in the sparsely populated Midwest. Finally, they would likely have to agree on some kind of standard as interoperability across companies exists in the current diesel-based system.

Contrast this with Europe: Most railways are or were nationalised allowing for a single national standard. A nationalised company has an easier time investing large sums for a slow return as electrification would provide. Most lines are primary passenger-oriented; the benefits of electrification for passengers are much higher than for freight (acceleration, noise and pollution are all more important). Thus, freight tends to be handled a little bit as an afterthought and has to follow passenger rail requirements rather than vice-versa. In addition, most freight runs along a smaller number of key trunk routes that are used by all freight companies; meaning that the single investment generates a return at a much faster rate. Finally, due to the more densely populated nature of most of Europe (Germany has almost 20 times the average population density Kansas has; even Lower Saxony still has 10 times the density of Kansas) pollution is more of a concern and electric infrastructure is more widespread.

A similar line of reasoning applies to Russia: the Transsiberian is the one single trunk railway that connects European Russia to Siberia and the Far East. The electrification of this one single line benefits so many trains including probably 50 % of long-distance and freight trains. The benefits are enormous and train density is large. Furthermore, the Transsiberian not only connects the major cities of Asian Russia but also actively developed the areas it was built through, leading to a string of higher population density all through the country which not only means more accessible infrastructure but also a greater ease of electrification.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, detailed and well explained. Thanks, and welcome to Economics Stack Exchange. Makes me wonder about Canada, where much of this applies, except it has has just two trunk lines connecting the Prairies with Ontario, which when I was there was quite busy with grain trains, and hydro power is abundant in Ontario. Probably not busy enough and not as busy as the Trans-Siberian (which, if I'm not mistaken, is entirely double track), and there are less major cities along the lines. (BTW: there are for most of the way parallel alternatives to the Trans-Siberian Railway as well.) $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Oct 7, 2020 at 12:13
2
$\begingroup$

It is a legal issue, originally. The US did have a giant electrified trolly system built around the coal and diesel-electric train system. This was a primary method to sell electricity before the Great Depression. When Congress decided to do mass electrification they guaranteed generation and sales monopolies but required firms to sell off all non-generation related businesses. The primary buyers of the trolly systems were the automotive makers, who immediately shut them down.

While there was some electrification early in the 20th century, mostly in response to legal issues with smoke generation, the change in technologies eliminated this need.

Also, by the time the US finally electrified its grid, it has a well established diesel-electric train network. There is an economic issue, however.

The US hasn't had its housing or industrial base destroyed since the Civil War and there, only in the south. Rail lines were set to be optimal for the construction and land use of the 19th century, well before electrification or mass transit. Europe, on the other hand, has suffered multiple catastrophic eliminations of its physical plant. This has allowed for the laying of rail in ways not possible in the US without mass condemnation of land, hence the US lacks any type of bullet train. The same is true for electrification of trains. It would require a massive reverse engineering of the existing system. Rail, in the US, often travels places that people do not live.

The Hi-Line is a good example of a train route that has very few people on the entire route. Trains can travel at relatively high speeds because there are no people in the middle to slow it down to allow for automotive traffic. Because there are no people, there is also no power system to support it, except incidentally where it hits settled areas.

It would be possible to create a long electrical system for this one customer, but why?

Another likely issue is that there are multiple competing railroads that use each others' tracks. They rent them. If one electrified, but the others did not, then no one would be able to use the electrified tracks without serious modification. Even if all electrified, they would have to do so to the same standards. There are several small roads too in the US. Look at http://www.wlerwy.com/

The persisting existence of small lines implies that the economies of scale are such that they can thrive. Electrification requires a large capital investment compared to a diesel-electric train. There would have to be some national impetus to move these small companies down that path when they do not have to take the risk that they will not recover their investments down the road.

$\endgroup$
5
  • $\begingroup$ The point about Europe suffering catastrophic eliminations is interesting food for thought, but then shouldn't one see a difference in those European countries that did not suffer this (like Switzerland and Sweden)? $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Nov 27, 2017 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ If you have the resources, check to see when Sweden and Switzerland built their systems. It would be interesting to know what neighboring systems were doing. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2017 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ "some national impetus" — green new deal? $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Oct 5, 2020 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry: have to point out that you’re incredibly wrong about a correlation between high-speed railways and wartime destruction of Europe. Most of the European truck railways were built before the First World War when there was no catastrophic destruction to capitalise on. Modern high-speed railways (with dedicated high-speed lines) did not become a thing until decades after World War II when the economies had rebounded. Work on the TGV did not start until the late 1960’s. Even the Shinkansen plan wasn’t approved until 1958. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Oct 7, 2020 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ Many of the improvements to the rail systems after WWI were simple track upgrades and gentle realignments. Occasionally, completely new lines were built – but usually in times of economic boom between the wars, not because there was destroyed land available. Where railways were built, land was acquired as it usually is (mostly regular purchases, rarely evictions of missing links if negotiations failed). $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Oct 7, 2020 at 10:55
1
$\begingroup$

The real reason Europe have a gigant lead of rail network development of (electrical systems, concrete sleepers and automative technology) is because we had to form a national operator owned by the state. This was was of paramount importance for heavy investment plans, effecive operations and intercountry standards.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Can you reference this answer with some sources? $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Oct 5, 2020 at 14:14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Which state? Is Europe a state? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Oct 5, 2020 at 14:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Giskard Most countries inside Europe nationalised the railways at some point; at least the network and usually also the operator. In the past 30 years many countries privatised the operators, but the network is still or again publicly owned in most if not all European countries (on a national level; AFAIK no infrastructure is owned by the EU). $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Oct 6, 2020 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @gerrit I do not dispute any of this. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Oct 6, 2020 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ This is literally impossible; the conservatives told me that nothing good ever happens from nationalizing an industry. $\endgroup$ Oct 6, 2020 at 10:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.