Electrified rail is the future. Is Virginia all aboard?

January 9, 2023 12:04 am

Amtrak’s new dual power Airo locomotives from Siemens could prove a game changer for America’s relatively antiquated national rail service. (Amtrak)

Experienced passengers traveling from Virginia to D.C. know not to panic when the engine shuts off and the lights go out upon arrival in Washington. A chorus of questions can be heard from those not in the know during the 45-minute wait at Union Station while the train’s diesel locomotive is swapped out for an electric one able to operate on the Northeast Corridor’s overhead catenaries.

In a few years’ time this absurd and unseemly ritual in the capital of the world’s wealthiest country could come to an end thanks to advanced technology trainsets, but will Virginia’s rail service ever go all electric?

America the outlier

In the 14 years since China launched its first high-speed rail line, the country has built 25,000 miles of electrified tracks to support its bullet trains. Europe, long a leader on rail electrification, has over 69,000 miles of zero-emissions rail infrastructure, including war-torn Ukraine, which still electrified more of its rail corridor last year than America did. Even a less affluent country like Egypt announced plans for a 1,242-mile electrified national high-speed rail network in 2022.

The United States, on the other hand, boasts only 806 miles of electrified rail lines — all of it confined to the Northeast Corridor and Pennsylvania’s Keystone Corridor. Even in deep blue California, plans to ditch diesel on the state’s coming high-speed rail line proved controversial.

Facing eight decades of disinvestment, the Biden administration has opted to invest in eliminating Amtrak’s $65.9 billion maintenance backlog and making modest service improvements over electrifying. However, that doesn’t mean that America’s rail electrification efforts are at a standstill.

Airo dynamic

With panoramic windows, modernized café cars and a top speed of 125 mph, Amtrak’s new dual power Airo locomotives from Siemens could prove a game changer for America’s relatively antiquated national rail service. Able to toggle between overhead electric catenaries, a diesel engine and battery power, the new locomotives will also enable seamless service between the electrified Northeast Corridor and the diesel-dependent Southeast.

A rendering of new Amtrak dual power locomotives coming in 2026. (Amtrak)

Since Washington is a major hub for Amtrak, trains traveling between the Northeast and Southeast Corridors will still need dwell time at Union Station to let passengers on and off, restock the café car and do a crew change, but that wait will be sharply reduced to just 15 to 20 minutes, according to Michael McLaughlin, the chief operating officer of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA). 

Whereas every other country in the world is building out more efficient overhead catenary systems to power their rail networks, in America battery-enabled engines may be the best that Amtrak can do.

“The problem that we continuously run into in the United States is the reliance upon the right-of-way of freight railroads,” explained Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute. “The only exceptions to that are the places where the passenger railroad has bought up the corridor and is able to invest in the line directly. In most of the country, the freight railroads have a monopoly on the use of their tracks, so passenger service always plays second fiddle to freight.”

More like can’t-enaries

This dynamic also holds true in Virginia, where the VPRA had to agree to the design standards of CSX and Norfolk Southern in order to seal the deal on state ownership of 350 miles of rail right-of-way.

“Double-stacked freight traffic does not work well with catenaries, and part of our agreement with CSX includes that the tracks have to be interoperable, so they can run on our tracks for maintenance purposes,” McLaughlin said in a phone interview.

Constructing a catenary system between Richmond and D.C. would require the state to seize property along the entire corridor of north-south train tracks in order to expand the existing right-of-way wide enough to accommodate both freight and fully electrified passenger rail.

Just because the locomotives will be diesel-enabled does not mean that trains passing through Virginia will necessarily need that option either, according to Danny Plaugher, the executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail.

“Future trains in Virginia could be charged and powered on the Northeast Corridor and then switch to battery for the 100 miles until Petersburg, or they could have below-train charging at stations, so trains could top off the power as they go along,” he said. “There are a lot of innovative possibilities to decarbonize our train travel.”

Electrified rail to Raleigh

Where the commonwealth will one day see catenaries is on the recently purchased right-of-way from Petersburg to Raleigh. CSX has no plans to run freight service on the 75 miles of abandoned track the VPRA bought from the corporation this past November, clearing the way for fully electrified rail infrastructure. 

State officials in North Carolina have taken the lead on the project. Virginia’s southern neighbor is eager to construct catenaries along the corridor as the lighter train sets and faster speeds they enable would allow passengers from Raleigh to Richmond to shave an hour and a half off of the journey, making the trip competitive with car travel.

Currently, the corridor is only in the low-level design stage, but the project received $58 million last year from the Biden administration for deployment engineering.

Whether Virginia’s rail network operates on catenaries, batteries or diesel, Plaugher believes the commonwealth can do more to think beyond trainsets and leverage its ancillary assets towards decarbonization.

“We have stations like Staples Mill, which is owned by the rail authority and has a huge parking lot that could be covered in solar panels,” Plaugher said. “That would help ensure that any electricity going into our trains is 100% clean energy. Staples Mill could be a testbed of how to modernize and decarbonize a suburban station, regardless of what the trains run on.”


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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.