Monday, November 9, 2009

Will Buffet electrify the BNSF: Part II—a short history of electrified freight rail

(part 2 in a series)

Electrifying a railroad—at $5m a track mile or more—may seem like a bit of folly. Sure, there are light rail lines, and subways, and something over in Europe. But it is at all feasible? Has it ever been done? Who's ever electrified a freight rail line? Quite a few organizations, it turns out.

Many of Europe's freight lines are electrified, but rail market share there is quite low (in the 8-10% range), so it's not a great comparison (there are several reasons for this, including short distances between industrial centers, steep mountain passes which are only now being crossed with straight, flat rail tunnels. In addition, less power in Europe comes from coal (France, for instance, is mostly nuclear) so there is less need to transport that commodity. Finally, much of the investment in Europe has been in fast, efficient passenger rail, which accounts for most of the traffic. So Europe is electrified, but it doesn't have several long lines which have 75 100-car long freight trains per day under the wire. (In the United States, freight rail mode share is 36.2% overall, and 56% of the rail-truck breakdown.)

Let's move east. Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railroad. Built before the first World War, it has recently been fully-electrified (full double-tracking is a work in progress). It's nearly 10,000 kilometers long—the distance across the United States … and back. It is heavily used for freight, but not as heavily as it could be, as gauge breaks at the Chinese and European borders necessitate two time-consuming break-in-bulk-type points in a journey from the far east to Asia. According to press from the time of full electrification (2002) the goal was a more efficient system: one that could compete with shipping around Africa or through the Suez, with longer and more efficient trains. It's also worth noting that the Trans-Siberia goes through, well, Siberia, so it pretty much experiences anything mother nature can throw at it.

Finally, it's worth examining electric railroads in the United States. There are three main categories: electrification in the east, short lines and interurbans, and the Milwaukee Road. The first two are relatively small potatoes. Several east coast railroads operated electrics, but these were mainly for commuter services or where steam engines were disallowed (underground terminals). The Penn Central and others had some electric freight, but it was mainly to take advantage of the electrified mainline from New York to Washington. Many interurbans hauled freight along with passengers, but switched to diesel when passenger service ended (most were abandoned outright). The Iowa Traction railroad, a short line in Iowa, operates regular electric freight, albeit over a short distance. And several coal mine operations have operated electric railroads, probably due to the large loads and readily available power supply.

There was one electric operation, however, which was not built mainly for passengers. The Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul & Pacific, better known as The Milwaukee Road operated several hundred miles of freight railroad through the mountains in the western United States. The original line went from Chicago to Minneapolis and then west in to the corn fields, but in the early 1900s, the railroad planned and built a transcontinental link in order to remain competitive with other lines. The line was shorter than other transcon routes, and had decent grades, but, since it was built last, it bypassed most of the population centers along the route (not that it is densely populated) and was suited mainly to long-distance shipping. And without land grants, the road took on quite a bit of debt in order to build the line west.

Perhaps the reason that the land was sparsely populated was the cold. While the Hill Lines (the Northern Pacific and Great Northern) operated in similar conditions, the Milwaukee found the operation of steam locomotives to be difficult in winter conditions. In addition, they saw small-scale successes with electrification, including the mainline Cascade Tunnel and the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific railroad, which carried mainly ore. With ample hydro power in the mountains and available copper, the road decided to electrify the portion in the Rockies. The Cascades came next. By 1920, 656 miles of line was under the wire. It wasn't constructed to the high speed lines of the Pennsylvania, but provided ample power for freight operations, and passenger speeds of up to 70 mph. (In a publicity stunt, the railroad staged a tug-of-war between an electric motor and two steam engines at full throttle. The Electric motor won.)

The Milwaukee had some iconic electric motors; some of the most powerful electric motors built to that time, clocking in at or above 5000 hp in some cases. There were the Boxcabs, which looked like box cars with windows, pantographs and a bunch of wheels. There were the distinctive bi-polars, which were designed for passenger service and served in that capacity for nearly four decades without significant maintenance. The best-named were the "Little Joes." These engines were built in the late 1940s for Russian Railroads, but after the start of the cold war, were surplus as the US would not allow them to be sold. The Milwaukee wound up with a dozen of them, and they were referred to as "Little Joe Stalin's locomotives," shortened to "Little Joes."

The cost of electrification and the extension to the Pacific threw the company in to bankruptcy, and the depression didn't help. The showpiece of the line in the 1930s was the 100 mph-plus Hiawatha from Chicago to Minneapolis, one of three lines competing on the route. The line tried to merge with the Chicago and Northwestern in the 1960s but was denied, and the merger of the Hill Lines and the Burlington Route created a behemoth competitor in its territory in 1970. But the end of the Milwaukee came mostly from mismanagement, and removing electrification was a contributing factor.

The first issue was operational. World War One and the ensuing economic downturn after it put the kibosh on the plans to electrify the gap between the two electric divisions, and the company never really had the money to do so. Thus, the railroad had two separate divisions with coal, and then diesel, power, and two separate divisions with electric power, decreasing inefficiency. Diesels came in the 1950s and were significantly more efficient than steam (especially with diesel fuel easier to haul from the east for power), but with the capital investment in place and new motors, the line kept the electric divisions going. However, the railroad wanted to merge in the 1960s, and in order to appear profitable, deferred maintenance considerably.

After the Burlington Northern was formed, the Milwaukee found itself unable to merge with the C&NW, the whose stock had declined considerably. The merger plan, which had taken most of the last decade, had failed, and the board inexplicably rejected an offer to buy the railroad outright (wanting to merge with a larger line) despite the operational efficiencies which would ensue.

However, due to the size of the BN, it was required to open more markets to competition, and traffic on the Milwaukee grew rather handsomely. The problem was that the railroad didn't really have the capacity for the growth. The track bed was, in many cases, beginning to fail, and car shortages brought on by financing schemes scared off some of the new business. The line wanted to improve its books and looked at some of the assets it had, including a copper wire running for 656 miles. It was worth about $10m. The railroad could finance diesel engines, sell off the copper, and come away, in the short term, with their balance sheets in good shape. Oil was cheap in 1971, so the operational efficiencies of electrics were not dramatic, especially since the old parts for the motors were becoming harder to find. Of course, for the same $39m it cost to finance these diesels, the remaining gap could have been electrified and the diesels there transferred east. This would have been far better in the long run, but less so in the very short term.

This decision was justified by saying that the infrastructure had passed the end of its useful lifespan, although this was, generally, not the case. The supporting poles were wearing out. The caternary wasn't, and the engines had plenty of life left (electric motors tend to last a very long time). The power sources needed some updating, but with mostly-free hydroelectricity, they could provide power for time to come. The track was in worsening shape, but that had nothing to do with the energy source for the trains operating. The Milwaukee was a bit desperate but more shortsighted and narrow-minded, and chose to abandon the electrification.

The timing could not have been worse. Copper prices dropped, and the railroad only received $5m from the scrap. At the same time, oil prices quadrupled, and suddenly electricity would have been significantly cheaper. The track condition hobbled the line more, and travel times slowed considerably. By 1977, the line filed for bankruptcy, and asked the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line. They did so in 1980.

Had the chips fallen slightly differently (had there been slightly more foresight in the management) the Milwaukee could have linked its electrification in to a nearly 900-mile long system from Seattle to Montana. With slightly better maintenance, the line could have thrived during the oil crises, with dramatic operational advantages based on electricity, and may have considered spreading the wire east. But they didn't and instead the railroad is now abandoned, the only transcontinental line to be completely abandoned in the history of American railroads. Since then, oil prices decreased significantly, and no one has built a significant electric freight line (the only major electrification has been the Northeast Corridor from New Haven to Boston, built almost exclusively for passenger use).

Of course, diesel hit $5 a gallon last year, and may only go higher. In the 1970s, electrification would have had a four-to-ten year payback time for the Milwaukee Road. It's a long-range investment—one which might be doable with some foresight and an ownership which looks far down the road. Or track, as it may be.

A few pages about the history of the Milwaukee:
A report from 1973; the company was bankrupt four years later
More about electrification
Some information about the end of the electrification

This series:

I. We've discussed how being part of a larger organization like Berkshire Hathaway may allow the BNSF to spend more freely on capital improvements in this section.
II. We'll then look at a history of freight rail electrification, including the sad tale of the Milwaukee Road (who de-electrified with about the worst timing possible, ever) and some freight rail electrification abroad.
III. We'll look at some of the operational advantages of electric power, and
IV. Some of the economic advantages, in the long run, of electric power generation, and how the whole system would be built.
V. From an environmental standpoint, we'll look in to how electricity can be generated on-route, and whether there are options beyond coal (such as wind and solar), and
VI. How this may mesh with the construction of a smart grid.
VII. Finally, we'll see if freight rail electrification may have any benefits for passenger rail, on the BNSF routes and other main lines.


  1. The electrification costs I've seen for the Northeast Corridor are $3 million per route-mile. Track mileage is less important, since most of the expenses come from the substations, which are independent of whether there are two tracks or four.

  2. I'll get to this, but recent electrification estimates in Britain were £3m/km, or $5m per mile. A Chicago-Pacific electrification would thus cost ~$10b. The BNSF buys 1.25 BILLION gallons of fuel a year. At summer 2008 prices, that's $5b. (Actually, at the peak retail prices, over $6b.) So the payback, if Buffet thinks fuel is primed to go up, might not be too long. Much more to say here.

  3. The Great Northern also had electrification in the same part of the US as the Milwaukee Road.