Here’s why electric trains are a smarter solution for Virginia | Opinions


There are some people who will shout from the rooftops that electric cars are the solution to climate change. These people are half-right. The future is electric, but it doesn’t come on roads. It comes on rails.

Previously, I submitted an article on how electric cars are not the solution to climate change. That article begs the question; if not electric cars, then what do we turn to? Electric trains present a much more viable solution.

While there is currently limited electrified rail infrastructure in Virginia, in the form of Metro extensions to Fairfax County, this is of little benefit to the rest of the state. If Virginia’s passenger rail infrastructure was improved, expanded, and electrified, not only would the climate benefit, but so would travelers and commuters.

The progress that Virginia is making toward electrified rail service so far cannot be denied. WMATA’s Orange, Silver, Blue and Yellow lines all have stations in Virginia. All currently terminate in Fairfax County, with a Silver Line extension into Loudoun County opening (hopefully) in late Fall 2022. However, while these are beneficial to the DC metro area, they do little for the rest of the state.

Most of Virginia still relies on highways to travel from one location to the next, and the few cities fortunate enough to have access to passenger rail services use diesel locomotives, which, while admirable for getting cars off the road, still put more fumes in the air. But, what difference might electric locomotives make? What would need to happen to make this change?

Fortunately, someone has already started to figure that out. As part of an initiative started by former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the first steps are being taken to link Richmond to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The deal formed by Northam and CSX will cost a total of $3.7 billion, part of which will be paid by Amtrak – a sharp contrast to Virginia’s alternative plan to widen I-95 by only a single lane, which would cost a staggering $12 billion.

Other benefits of the electrification plan concern the quality of service along the track between Washington, DC, and Richmond. Because the high-speed trains on the Northeast Corridor require a certain quality of track, rides along this route would be not only faster, but smoother, for all trains running along it. And naturally, a better, faster service from Washington to Richmond means less travelers making that trip by car.

There is also the fact that electric locomotives powered by an overhead line are much more efficient than a diesel locomotive. Not only will these locomotives waste less energy, they will use it in a more environmentally friendly way – rather than burning fuel and spraying fumes in the air, they simply use electricity to turn their motors. Electric locomotives powered by overhead wires have also proven overall more reliable than diesel engines.

The final question, then, is time. How long is this project expected to take? An estimate on the project website currently estimates 36 months, but others speculate it could be five years or more. Certainly, recent failings with Phase Two of the WMATA Silver Line suggest that what can go wrong will go wrong. This project is currently years behind the schedule and millions of dollars over budget, and it likely wouldn’t surprise many people if it were delayed again because more defects were found in concrete structures along the route.

But, consider this. While the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority recently granted $250 million for Phase Two of the Silver Line, Fairfax County awarded $335 million for various transport projects centered on roadways — including a $108 million widening of the Fairfax County Parkway. How would you like to see your money spent? Would you like to spend more money patching a problem that can’t be solved? Or invest less in something sustainable?

Northam was onto something when he said, “We cannot pave our way out of congestion.” But, in my opinion, he should have added, “We can’t pave our way out of climate change, either.”

Richard H. Hronik III is a freelance journalist in his final year at George Mason University.

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