By Steve Griffith, PMP Executive Director, Transportation Systems and Cybersecurity
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has over $300 billion slated for rail improvements, presenting an opportunity for improvement and modernization unlike any in the history of American railways. This is a policy area that the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) has been leading with our Rail Electrification Council (REC). The REC’s mission is to promote the electrification of domestic railroad (freight and/or passengers) transportation and as an enabler of electric grid integration and innovation.
Earlier this month, the Sierra Club released recommendations calling for improving both passenger and freight rail, as well as accelerating rail electrification. These welcome recommendations are shared by the REC, which represents a forum for collaboration and discussions at the intersection of energy and transportation operations, policy, and regulation. Specifically, the Sierra Club calls on the federal government to “establish a program with the nation’s electric utilities and railroads to implement rail electrification nationwide.” They go on to say that “Electrified rail in heavily polluted ‘non-attainment’ areas where trackside communities have been most heavily affected by diesel locomotives, should be a priority for a national rail electrification program.”
The REC recognizes the huge cost of this transformation and the cost savings potential that electrified rail could deliver in terms of reduced maintenance, speed and flexibility, fuel efficiency, and environmental benefits. The upfront costs of electrification may be offset by a revenue-enhancing opportunity. The need for new and upgraded transmission facilities, especially those that portend an integrated and decarbonized national grid, represents an opportunity to supply railroad rights-of-way as sites for high-voltage transmission that can get location constrained renewables such as wind and solar to where they are needed in major power markets. The REC’s 2022 white paper Rail Electrification in North America: Benefits and Barriers, describes all this in more detail.
America is transitioning to a transportation future that is increasingly electrified. While highway vehicle electrification is at the forefront of this trend, an electrified rail Infrastructure also has the potential to transport freight and passengers efficiently and reliably while also benefitting the overall environment.
The REC and NEMA member companies are working to move this process down the tracks with haste. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let’s not be left on the platform as it passes us by.