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Sunday Train: King of the Mountain, Part 1

by BruceMcF Sun Apr 4th, 2010 at 08:24:55 PM EST

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I noted near the beginning of the Appalachian Hub series about the special advantages offered by rail electrification for this project.

Now that I have sketched out a process by which a national Steel Interstate network of corridors can, in fact, be built in this coming decade, this is probably a good time to come back and take a look at the challenges that are faced when putting the Steel Interstates through hilly and mountainous terrain.

Of course, if rail electrification was a particular benefit in mountainous terrain, one would expect to see it in places like, say, Switzerland.
Picture of a Swiss electric freight west of the Albula tunnel


Trans-Alpine Freight and Swiss Rail

When tuning in to news from Switzerland, the big story are so-called "base tunnels". These are tunnels that cut through "the base of a mountain". The Lotschberg Base Tunnel, featured in World's Most Spectacular Tunnels, cuts through the mountain a 1,312 feet lower than the tunnel that it replaces ... that is about a quarter of a mile lower.

Just as the original investments in Japan and France in capital-intensive HSR passenger lines, what is driving this investment in base tunnels is the capacity limits of the present rail routes. As AlpTransit's description (pdf) of the Gothard Base Tunnel Project puts it:

Construction of base tunnels under the Gotthard and Ceneri creates an ultramodern flat rail link whose highest point at 550 metres above sea level is no higher than the city of Berne. This is much lower than the highest point of the existing route through the mountains at 1150 metres. Gradients will be no steeper than where the railway crosses the Jura mountains through the Hauenstein tunnel (Basel - Olten) or the Bözberg tunnel (Basel - Brugg). The route through Switzerland becomes flatter and 40 km shorter. Italy and Germany come much closer together.

Freight trains travelling on the flat route can be longer and pull up to twice today's weight - 4000 tonnes instead of 2000 tonnes. They will be up to twice as fast, too: the fastest freight trains will have a top speed of 160 km/h. Trains like this cannot be used on existing Alpine routes because of the steep gradients and tight curves. When the flat route is complete, it will be possible to transport an equal volume of freight with fewer locomotives and personnel, and less energy.

Just as with the Japanese and French investment in Passenger HSR, it is important to put this investment in context. This is not a result of the failures of the existing Swiss electric freight rail system - it is a result of its success. That is, the growth in interstate freight transport is pushing up against the capacity limits of the Swiss system because the Swiss rail system was effective in capturing a substantial share of freight.

This figure from sheet 5 of the Gothard Tunnel pdf makes the point in no uncertain terms. The original Swiss electric freight system has carried a majority of the Trans-alpine freight that passes through Switzerland, while in France and Austria, the majority of freight has been passing by road.

And when digging further into the description of the Base Tunnel makes it clear the benefit that the Swiss have obtained from electric rail.


Why Electrification in Mountain Rail Corridors?

Bear in mind that a normal maximum gradient in many US mainline rail corridors is 1%, or "10 per thousand", when considering the following description of the route being replaced:

The ramps of the present-day railways through the Gotthard and Ceneri have gradients of up to 26 per thousand. The flatness and straightness of the base route - maximum gradient 12.5 per thousand overground and 8.0 per thousand in the base tunnels - allow productive deployment of long, heavy trains through elimination of time-consuming shunting operations. Today, a heavy freight train travelling north-south over the Gotthard and Ceneri mountain routes requires a pushing locomotive because of the steep gradients. The goal of freight trains hauling more than 2000 tonnes travelling through Switzerland without stopping at Erstfeld or Bellinzona, and without midtrain or pushing locomotives, can only be accomplished when both the Gotthard and Ceneri base tunnels are completed.

Consider that: a gradient of 2.5% and "only" being able to move 2,200tons of freight at 50mph.

As the Wikipedia machine notes, the secret to this success in the mountains lies in the higher power-weight ratio of electric locomotives:

The high power of electric locomotives gives them the ability to pull freight at higher speed over gradients, in mixed traffic conditions this increases capacity when the time between trains can be decreased. The higher power of electric locomotives and a electrification can also be a cheaper alternative to a new and less steep railway if trains weights are to be increased on a system.


Putting the Advantages to Work

Of course, one way to cope with mountainous terrain is to avoid it. In the proposed Steel Interstate system, line one, the Liberty Line from New England to California, runs along the Shenandoah River Valley, the original "highway to the west", mostly avoiding the type of terrain that the Swiss would consider to be Mountains. To the west, it runs through the lower land of southern New Mexico and Arizona, a similarly easy route through the western cordillera, and then runs up the Central Valley to bring most of California within its catchment.

The roughest terrain that this corridor needs to tackle is the alignment west and north of Chattanooga, where the existing STRACNET corridor does a sweeping S-curve to avoid the rougher terrain where the Interstate has simply been blasted through. This is a key point where the Line Development Bank will have to carefully analyze the alternative alignments, and could well opt for taking the Rapid Freight Rail corridor out of the conventional freight rail corridor, where the Rapid Freight Rail path gains time by operating at a steeper gradient than the conventional rail corridor. That is, operating at 60mph over half the distance may well be a faster path than operating at 100mph along the heavy freight alignment.

Unlike the Swiss freight system, the electrified heavy freight paths will not have to contend with constantly shuttling aside to make way for passenger trains, since the passenger trains will be on the Rapid Rail Paths, whether those are provided by dividing up the time of day that different trains run on a track, by providing separated track in the same right of way, or by providing a Rapid Freight bypass on its own Right of Way.

Once the Chattanooga to Nashville, alignment is determined, that also solves the only stretch of rough terrain that the Heartland Alignment faces, while the Gulf and Atlantic Line only ever runs to, but never through, rough terrain.

In other words, other than the Chattanooga/Nashville alignment, all of the challenging terrain has been focused on the National Line:

  • Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, within the territory tof the Appalachian Hub;
  • east of Salt Lake City and east of Sacramento, on the line to Oakland;
  • the northeastern and northwestern Oregon corridors on the line to Portland; and
  • the Southern Oregon / Northern Californian corridor between the Pacific Northwest and the California Central Valley

Indeed, it has been suggested to me that this is a line that should not exist at all. So in a couple of weeks, in King of the Mountain Part II, I'll take up the focus on the need for a genuinely national network, and the flexibility that the institution of the Line Development Bank gives us in pursuing a genuinely national network, focusing on the proposed Steel Interstate system both with and without the National Line.


The Headliners: Midnight Oil / King of the Mountain


Walking through the high dry grass,
   pushing my way through slow
Yellow belly black snake,
   sleeping on a red rock
Waiting for the stranger to go
Sugar train stops at the crossing,
   cane cockies cursing below
Bad storm coming, better run
   to the top of the mountain
Mountain in the shadow of light,
   rain in the valley below

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h/t Hillbilly

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 4th, 2010 at 08:25:59 PM EST
Coal trains on the front range of Colorado are in the neighborhood of 12,000 tons. They climb the 1.5% grade near Larkspur at about 20 km/h. Four locomotives, usually...

by asdf on Sun Apr 4th, 2010 at 11:51:48 PM EST
That's south of Denver ... but a 1.5% grade at about 12mph is on example of why electrifying the existing mainline corridors results in more capacity, independent of trackwork.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Apr 8th, 2010 at 11:04:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've got strong suspicion that total drag is lowest at 20 km/h and the bottleneck of Moffat Route is Moffat tunnel itself, so UPRR would run time-insensitive trains at that speed regardless of available power. BTW if they really needed the capacity there, they could use the Tennessee Pass route as eastboud route (it has 1.4 % ruling gradient on eastern slope and 3.0 % on western)

Speaking about UPRR, this is video of one real surviving king of Wyoming grades:

by dejv on Tue Apr 13th, 2010 at 01:45:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
link fix
by dejv on Tue Apr 13th, 2010 at 02:48:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If one were of a meaner spirit, one would note that what the Swiss have achieved is moving truck-based transit from their country to Austria since the 90's..

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Apr 5th, 2010 at 12:11:08 AM EST
I was going to guess and say that it seemed more likely that the EU acheived that ... but Xavier beat me to it.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 5th, 2010 at 09:06:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's one important difference between Switzerland and Austria: the first one is not part of Europe, while the other one entered the European Union en the late 1990's.

The UE laws do not allow for pro-rail discrimination, which, combined with the usual hidden externalities for road transportation, results in a lack of competitiveness for rail.

You can detect on your curves a change in trend in Austria in the 1990's (adhesion to UE in 1995), the same in the 70's in France, and the pro-rail trends in Switzerland.

by Xavier in Paris on Mon Apr 5th, 2010 at 04:18:21 AM EST
How does higher power to weight help an adhesion railway in the mountains?  The limiting factor is usually locomotive weight (to the extent that electric locomotives are usually weighted up to the maximum axle loading).  If we had individually motored wagons (emu style) this would be a benefit.

Has anyone seriously proposed/designed emu freight btw?  combined with automatic coupling and fully separated right of ways and you could build a completely autonomous freight system...

by njh on Mon Apr 5th, 2010 at 06:28:37 PM EST
A diesel locomotive costs about $2 million. A container car costs about $50,000. That means that a 100 car freight train pulled by 4 locomotives costs about $13 million. With a power unit in each car, the cars could cost $130,000 each. There would be more units to maintain, though...
by asdf on Mon Apr 5th, 2010 at 07:14:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sort of like trucks then?
by njh on Tue Apr 6th, 2010 at 04:18:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... to build longer sets than an individual double headed pair is designed to handle, and a dual mode electric / diesel electric cargo sprinter would combine the lower operating cost of an electric cargo sprinter while retaining the flexibility to run into branch lines.

As far as the first question, are you talking about heavy freight or rapid freight?

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Apr 6th, 2010 at 05:57:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As far as the first question, are you talking about heavy freight or rapid freight?

I only think about containers these days.

by njh on Tue Apr 6th, 2010 at 06:28:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Double stacked containers can easily qualify as heavy freight.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Apr 8th, 2010 at 11:01:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
really?  I guess so...  This heavy/light dichotomy seems a significant railblock to greater rail adoption.  Do roads have a similar segregation?  I see truck loads of dirt going back and forth regularly which suggests not.
by njh on Fri Apr 9th, 2010 at 06:14:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is pretty dumb distinction IMO. For example, BNSF recently boosted their heavy intermodal trains to 120 km/h (75 mph), while practical limit of conventional intermodal trains is around 140-160 km/h (85-100 mph), then the value of time isn't generally worth increased energy consumption by aerodynamic drag (it increases with third power of speed). The only cargo for faster speeds is generally mail and other stuff that are worth taking by plane for long distances. The only chance to for rail to capture this market is to run converted high-speed trains on regular HS lines.
by dejv on Tue Apr 13th, 2010 at 11:03:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Has anyone seriously proposed/designed emu freight btw?

Yes, DB Schenker. It was a failure and they subsequently sold the units to ÖBB Infrastruktur for MOW work.
by dejv on Tue Apr 13th, 2010 at 05:35:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To the west, it runs through the lower land of southern New Mexico and Arizona, a similarly easy route through the western cordillera, and then runs up the Central Valley to bring most of California within its catchment.

The route is easy as long as you stay within SoCal. LA basin is accessible by low San Gorgonio Pass, but to get to north, you have to either take slow detour along the coast, or go through not-exactly-low Tehachapi Pass).

This is a key point where the Line Development Bank will have to carefully analyze the alternative alignments, and could well opt for taking the Rapid Freight Rail corridor out of the conventional freight rail corridor, where the Rapid Freight Rail path gains time by operating at a steeper gradient than the conventional rail corridor. That is, operating at 60mph over half the distance may well be a faster path than operating at 100mph along the heavy freight alignment.

There is question of actual time savings. When train approaches such section, helper locos must be available. After they're attached, the train brakes must be checked. When it gets to the other side, then the train must be stopped again to remove helpers. Typical european freight for 80 km/h and 1.0 - 1.5 % grades loses at least ten minutes for just a stop at the signal, without other stuff, so taking longer route doesn't necessarily mean it will be slower if train can go non-stop at decent speed. In addition, running conventional (up to 200 km/h) freight through steep grades that can be avoided means sacrificing part of energy efficiency - one of main incentives to move freight to rail - even when you take regenerative braking into account. All of this also translates to money by not-so-big gain of attractivenes for time-sensitive customers and costs of both energy and helper logistics.

by dejv on Tue Apr 13th, 2010 at 01:20:23 PM EST


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