Preprint / Version 4

The Case for Electrifying Freight Railroads by Half-Measures

Exeunt Diesels, Cue Battery-Electrics


  • Alex Lu P.O. Box 684
  • John G. Allen Independent Transportation Consultant



Rail freight, battery-electric locomotive, electrification, overhead catenary system, charge-in-motion


Changing attitudes, regulations, public policy, and international treaties regarding fossil fuels are likely to lead freight railroads towards carbon-neutral technologies, yet only electric traction matches the performance of diesel-electric locomotives.  The tremendous power requirements of freight trains make efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions challenging, but the prospect of 7.2 megawatt-hour (MWh) battery-electric locomotives (BELs) offers promise, and intermittent electrification can facilitate battery charging.

Train performance calculations under simulated real-world conditions show two 14.5 MWh combination BELs can power 8,000-ton trains up to 230 mainline miles unassisted, with average energy consumption of 12.5 watt-hours/ton-mile.  This permits discontinuous electrification of major freight lines, leaving “gaps” of up to 200 miles to reduce capital costs, especially in rugged terrain or where the power grid is sparse.  Massive onboard battery arrays and intermittent access to the electrical grid for traction power and recharging provide great energy savings through recycling energy now lost when traveling downhill or braking.  A case study of a hypothetical Class I railroad found intermittent electrification with BELs more than 60% more cost-effective than contiguous electric districts, and dramatically reduced engine changes.

To reduce railroad GHG emissions, governments must support technical development, show that electrification works in various North American settings, and develop institutional-financial frameworks to incentivize intermittent electrification with BELs, all in the context of massive environmental and capacity upgrades to electrical networks.  Given proper assistance and incentives, early 21st century railroads may find discontinuous overhead-wire electrification offers great promise in operating terms.


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Author Biographies

Alex Lu, P.O. Box 684

Alex Lu had been a management analyst in the rail and transit industries for more than twenty years. He joined the railway industry in 1999 with Railtrack PLC (the former British Rail’s Infrastructure Division) in Capital and Strategic planning, and later got his first Operations job as a scheduling clerk at ScotRail Railways Limited, responsible for the short-term timetabling of the Glasgow “Blue Train” electric suburban network. Since then, he has worked with many railroads from Maine Central to Florida East Coast to Central Japan Railway to the New York City subway system, in a variety of roles including planning, management, infrastructure, big data analytics, international benchmarking, technology, and industrial engineering. Alex is a Member of the Chartered Institution of Railway Operators (MCIRO).

John G. Allen, Independent Transportation Consultant

John G. Allen is an independent research scholar and transportation consultant with fifteen years’ experience as a planner at Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority. He holds a Masters of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written extensively about commuter rail and rail transit issues, including the history of electrification.



2022-11-10 — Updated on 2023-03-09