“Solutionary Rail”

Bill Moyer & Patrick Mazza

Right off the bat, let me say: the name is not great. Having just read the whole book, which mentions its own name quite often, I feel as if I’ve been somewhat inoculated against how bad a name it is, but even with that, it’s still very clearly not a great name.

That said, the actual concept is, in my opinion, rock-solid. In short, the book is arguing that we should convert from diesel to electric power for our rail networks, and use the existing rail right-of-ways to build the transmission lines that we desperately need in order to make the green energy transition.

In slightly longer:

  • Rail freight is, inherently, way more efficient than truck freight, and hilariously more so than air freight. Rolling resistance is a hell of a thing; the least efficient train is still twice as energy-efficient as the most efficient truck.
  • Making a train run on electricity is a lot easier than making a truck run on electricity. Turns out it’s way easier to run power lines over a train track than it is to run them over every road ever. (And, bonus, electric trains have the exact same benefit electric cars do: way less maintenance.)
  • Truck freight is massively taxpayer-subsidized: by gallon of fuel purchased, a heavy truck pays, very roughly, 1.75x the gas tax of a sedan. But, for every mile driven, that heavy truck does around 5,000x as much damage to the road it’s driving on that the sedan does. tl;dr: the reason our roads need so much work is because of trucks; every time we use taxpayer money to rebuild a road, the trucking industry is getting a big ol’ present.
  • Railway right-of-ways are a Whole Thing, but for historical reasons, are basically a perfectly-interconnected network that ties together every city in the entire country, as well as whole lot o’ non-city land. This description also applies to the sort of long-distance power transmission infrastructure we need. Is it a coincidence I’m putting these two facts in the same bullet point? Not even remotely!

By these facts combined, we arrive at the argument that a) we should be using a whole lot more rail freight, b) we should be electrifying as much of our rail network as possible, and c) we shouldn’t be afraid to have government step in, because the competition literally could not exist without the massive government intervention that is the creation and maintenance of the interstate highway system.

The bit about using rail routes to also do power transmission is just a really clever way to combine two big projects and get them to pay for each other. Electrified rail means power companies have a brand-new, large-scale customer; siting power transmission literally on top of that large-scale customer not only provides guaranteed demand, it also significantly reduces the amount of time the power companies have to spend shoveling through the horrific mess that is the approvals process for power transmission.1

There’s some weird parts to the argument, namely the way that the book bends over backwards to never yell at the Class I rail carriers for their horrible business practices. Sure, there’s an appendix about it, courtesy of the rail unions, but within the actual text, they’re very careful not to say “and hey, maybe if Wall Street spent less time turning rail freight into the highest-profit-margin industry in the country and instead focused on making it actually good at its job, these problems wouldn’t be as bad!” But then, given that the target demographic of this book is Warren Buffet (owner of Berkshire Hathaway, owner of BNSF, monopolist of the Seattle-Chicago rail route that the authors have identified as the best starting point for electrifying the rail network), it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that he’s kinda the villain of the story.2

Overall, I found this a fascinating read, and I heartily recommend checking out their website, if not the whole book. (There’s a video summary, but you can also get a free download of the book if you, like me, saw the concept and went “oh I have got to know more about this.”)

And then, as a secondary call to action, write to your representatives (state and federal!), your governor, and whoever you know that owns some shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Point out that, hey. Trains. They’re pretty cool. We should do more with them.

  1. As a side note, we desperately need to fix that. Hey, Congress, get on that!
  2. And, frankly, he really should be listening to the idea of using the rail right-of-ways to connect all the wind farms he owns to, y’know, places people actually want to buy that electricity. If you’re gonna be a capitalist on that scale, at least actually get the benefits of vertical integration!

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