Something cool happened this week. Backbone's Solutionary Rail technical team delivered a quiet victory with potentially huge consequences. We got a bogus "study" removed from the Federal Railway Administration website. It was undefendable with bad math, false assumptions, and common-knowledge facts omitted resulting in unbelievable conclusions with potentially disastrous widespread consequences. As one of my team poetically characterized it as an example of "garbage in produces garbage out" process.
I felt as if I'd walked into an episode of Madame Secretary. Actually this week I did, by chance, walk in while my family was watching the episode where an fictitious Secy. of State calls in the fictitious EPA employee to quiz them about a doubly fictitious "study" to justify a fictitious but familiar pipeline. Turns out they were just following orders and the commissioned "study" was crafted to remain unread, with information lifted from other sources all to justify a predetermined agenda for the proposed project. Now I know, the writers don't have to strain their imaginations to make this stuff up - it likely happens way more often than any of us want to believe.
Here's the real life story:
For the past three years, Backbone Campaign has been building a "Yes" campaign called Solutionary Rail. When protestors are locking down to the tracks, petitioning their government or occupying the offices of BNSF saying "No!" to oil trains or coal trains or other fossil fuel infrastructure, we believe it is important for them to also have something to which they can proclaim an enthusiastic "Yes!" Our critique is strongest when coupled with a proposal. This is particularly true when it comes to rail. Railroads and trains are a potentially powerful piece of a sustainable transport, energy and economic infrastructure.
Our Solutionary Rail project provides that "Yes!" by proposing a pilot project for US rail electrification. It proposes starting with what is referred to as the "Northern Transcon," i.e. the stretch from Seattle to Chicago of approximately 2400 miles.
- 2014 entailed a lot of meetings and compiling data and analysis and finally launching a website.
2015 was a big year for bringing Solutionary Rail to allies and bridging an imaginary divide between labor and environmental causes.
- We held a technical symposium in DC last February with our Solutionary Rail Technical Team, co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies
- Backbone and our railroad labor allies Railroad Workers United (RWU) co-produced two conferences. The theme of these events was The Future of Rail - Safety, Workers, Communities and the Environment. Over one hundred activists working across a variety of movements attended each event, one in Richmond, CA and a second in Olympia, WA. Refinery workers provided the keynote at each event, speaking to our common cause and the need for a people-powered just transition off of fossil fuels.
- In 2016, we will be publishing a book outlining the proposal. That book will be a principle tool as we send delegations to communities along the route, educate elected officials, civil servants, and corporate decision makers. (Stay tuned for an opportunity to reserve an advance copy!)
So, you can imagine the concern we felt this Fall when we learned that a small study with a grand title, was making broad claims against the feasibility of rail electrification. The study was commissioned by the Federal Railroad Administration and carried out in part by Booz Allen Hamilton.
- Its grand title:
"Cost-Benefit Analysis of Rail Electrification for Next Generation Freight and Passenger Rail Transportation."
- Its limited scope: A small stretch of rail (75 miles) in Pennsylvania called the Keystone East line.
- The final sentence in the executive summary and abstract reads:
"As a result of this analysis, the study finds that the costs for electrification infrastructure remain significant, while the benefits are only modest, or in some cases nonexistent." Ouch!
I shared the study with our able volunteer technical team. At first we thought that perhaps the scale was the problem. Our team economist Bruce McFarling said:
"...the Keystone itself is too short to take full advantage of the benefits ... given the relatively low cost of electrifying between Chicago and the Keystone, an electrified Chicago to Harrisburg freight corridor looks a lot more interesting than simply extending the current Keystone East electrification over into Pittsburgh."
Then, while on a train ride - our electrical engineer and transmission specialist uncovered a nearly unfathomable flaw in the core assumptions of the study:
"I discovered that the report assumed that a given amount of energy contained in diesel, when subjected to a 50% efficient combustion engine, would carry a train 2.5 times further than the same amount of energy contained in power grid electricity, which is subjected to a 95% efficient transformer. Such an assumption is unable to support the report’s conclusion that freight electrification is uneconomical."
The Booz Allen Hamilton authors failed to factor in the dramatic difference between the efficiency of straight electricity vs diesel electric locomotion. In fact, they inverted the benefits of electrification to somehow conclude that a 1kWh via diesel to electric could push a train 2.5 times further than a pure electric kW more efficiently delivered.
The Booz study actually justified its conclusion in large part due to energy cost calculations that put the cost of at diesel at $1.27 per mile and electricity $3.57 per mile for electricity, approximately 260% more for electricity. REALLY? BUNK! What Gerry determined quickly is that using Booz' own numbers for cost of energy SHOULD produce (do produce when in the hands of someone who cares about the truth) an inverted result, i.e. $.70 per mile for electrified rail vs $1.27 per mile cost for diesel. He uncovered further incompetence that you can read for your self below, but the result was this.
Out team appealed to the Federal Railway Administration and were heard. Last Monday, the report was removed from the FRA website. Sadly, the abstract with the same conclusion remained. I called to thank the FRA official and request that the abstract also be removed. By Tuesday, it was gone.
This victory is a result of teamwork and vigilance. We won this skirmish thanks to a number of people. Thanks guys! And, THANK YOU FRA for respecting that facts matter.
[Here is where it all used to be. Below is an little animation of it disappearing from the FRA site - just for fun.]
If you want to say YES to the Backbone Campaign's Solutionary work PLEASE join the Lumbar Club by pitching in HERE.
If you'd like to reserve a copy of the upcoming book and propel this project forward PLEASE contribute HERE
Lead-convener for Solutionary Rail
PS - "Studies" used to justify agendas to develop predetermined results get us into the kinds of messes we are in today. The corporate influence and special interest domination of our policies happens in ways that are often invisible to the common citizen. The Federal consulting industry is one method I had never considered. Not sexy - but extremely powerful. It makes sense, if you want to bury fraud or corruption, cloak it bureaucracy and boring spreadsheets, calculations and studies no one will read - except for the conclusion that suits your predetermined selfish interests.
The question remains: How could or why would a study of cost benefit analysis of rail electrification exclude one of the foundational justifications for and benefits of electrification? We'll leave that for someone else to investigate, but we should not assume that Booz Allen Hamilton is an unbiased party. And while they are at it, maybe look into why Booz has been given $34 BILLION dollars in Federal consulting contracts since 2000, making up 99% of their business. Again, we'll leave that to an investigative journalist. For now, Backbone Campaign and our Solutionary Rail team are back to work making the US Safe for rail electrification producing a reality-based proposal to which you can full heartedly say "YES!"
SR Team Analysis:
While there was very good work put into estimated the costs of electrification infrastructure per mile, the section on energy costs presents some numbers that were different from what I expected. When I ran some simple calculations, I discovered that the report assumed that a given amount of energy contained in diesel, when subjected to a 50% efficient combustion engine, would carry a train 2.5 times further than the same amount of energy contained in power grid electricity, which is subjected to a 95% efficient transformer. Such an assumption is unable to support the report’s conclusion that freight electrification is uneconomical.
Looking at the first paragraph of section 4.2.2 Energy Costs on page 20, we see the following sentences: “For diesel-powered locomotives, it was assumed that the rate of consumption was 1 gallon of diesel per 3 miles traveled. For electric powered trains, the assumed rate of electricity consumption was 0.03 miles per kilowatt hour.”
The key to evaluating this assumption is to convert these numbers into identical units. We know that they assumed that 1 kwh of electricity = 0.03 miles traveled. Knowing that a gallon of diesel contains 38 kwh, we can see that they assumed that 38 kwh of diesel takes the train 3 miles. When we convert that to identical units, we can see that they assumed that 1 kwh of diesel = 0.07895 miles traveled.
Now, let’s look at what happens to this energy as we deliver it to and use it on the locomotive. That kwh of electricity from the power grid must go through an overhead catenary system and transformer, which together we will conservatively assume are 95% efficient, before it is used by the traction motors on the locomotive. That kwh of diesel must go through a combustion engine which is generously 50% (more likely 30-40%) efficient, before it is converted to electricity for the traction motors. Yet this report assumes that a gallon of diesel moves a train over 2.5 times further than the same of amount of energy provided directly from the grid.
In section 4.3, they used these invalid assumptions to conclude that the energy costs for a diesel train were $1.27 per mile, while an electric train’s costs were $3.57 per mile. If we assume that their number for diesel is correct (more data exists in the US for diesel rather than electric freight) and we keep their cost assumptions for unit costs of a kwh of diesel and electricity, and we assume that the catenary/transformer system is twice as efficient as a combustion engine (which is very generous), we can see that the energy cost of electric traction is actually $0.7/mile.
Now, if we adjust for today’s lower diesel prices, say $2.6/gallon, we see that the cost of the diesel train goes down to $0.867/mile. However, we would also have to account for the fact that the $0.11/kwh of electricity is heavily skewed toward coastal population centers, which is not where most of the freight train’s energy consumption would occur. A more reasonable assumption, of $0.075/kwh of electricity, would mean a cost of $0.475/mile. This does not take into account the further, substantial reduction in average electricity pricing that would occur from purchasing discounted, off-peak electricity for night operations.
I would further note that, based on the references sited, the estimates for energy consumption per mile of train travel appear to originate from Amtrak’s reported fuel usage. The amount of energy consumed by a passenger train will most likely be substantially less than that consumed by a mainline freight train. More energy consumed in operations means that it is more likely that the upfront costs of electrification infrastructure will be justified by the reductions in energy costs.
As we can see, the report’s conclusion that electrification of freight railroads is uneconomical at this time, was based on a few key unrealistic assumptions. To suggest that a given amount of energy in diesel, when subjected to a 50% efficient combustion engine, will carry a train further than the same amount of energy in electricity, which is subjected to a 95% efficient transformer, is factually incorrect. Such an assumption incorrectly inverts the primary economic justification for rail electrification.