MBTA: Electrification Is Worth It

Commentary by Christopher Parker

The MBTA Fiscal Management & Control Board unanimously voted November 4th to support commuter rail electrification, beginning with Providence, Stoughton and Fairmont that connect to the already electrified northeast corridor as well as to Lynn. The plan as voted is sensible as a cost-efficient pilot operation. Beginning with the route to Providence makes sense. Wires are already on the mainline used by Amtrak trains. The T would need only electric rolling stock and wires over some sidings and tracks in South Station to achieve electrification for its own purpose.

Electrification presents a good business case in the big picture of improving commuter rail. Electrification represents just a fraction of the $10 billion in improvements being contemplated for T commuter rail. The vast bulk of the funds are earmarked for the renewal of the fleet and new high-level station platforms.

Lower Operating Costs

Without the costs of fuel and maintaining diesel engines, electrification has traditionally saved money over the long run. In Europe, where government shouldered the risk and paid the cost of capital for state run railroads, electrification spread to cover virtually all significant commuter and mainlines. American railroads, held to an investment timeline of Wall Street, have not been able to justify the higher up front costs.

Since electrification is a significant fixed asset, a high volume of trains is needed before it pays off – 20 trains a day in each direction, according to Japan Railways.

Faster Trains

Electric motors generate power much more quickly and efficiently than an internal combustion diesel engine, which means that the train gets to road speed more quickly. On a service with many stops such as commuter rail, this can save several to tens of minutes along a route, resulting in significantly shorter total trips.

Faster trains are more attractive trains. More people will ride commuter rail. Ticket revenue will increase. Faster trains can be turned around for the next run more quickly, meaning less trains are needed in total. This is a big savings: trains you don’t need to buy, depreciation not accrued, and less maintenance costs (even through train miles don’t decline, having fewer pieces of equipment lowers maintenance costs significantly, as it turns out.)

Lower Emissions

Much of the impulse to electrify comes from the environmental benefits of electrification. But doesn’t electrification just mean moving emissions to a different place? No, because conversion of supplied electricity to motive power at the wheel (95%) is more than three times as efficient as a diesel engine’s power conversion (30%; most of an IC engine’s power is converted to wasted heat and lost to internal friction). Additionally, an electric system includes the battery capacity to recapture the energy created during braking.

In terms of sourcing, while a diesel engine can only produce power by burning a carbon-based fuel (including biodiesel), electricity can be generated by renewables (solar/wind/tidal), as is increasingly being achieved in Massachusetts, where all coal power plants have been retired. Lower emissions don’t just make us feel good. They translate to measurable public health benefits that save the state significant money. As a society we are also paying the price from climate change. All of these benefits must be incorporated in the financial calculation.

While the financial case for electrification is reasonable, it is the financial results of lower emissions that really make it a no-brainer investment for Massachusetts.

Support the T’s Long-Term Goals

Electrification supports the vision of frequent service fully exploiting our existing commuter rail infrastructure. Improved regional rail has an economic benefit. Employers get a larger pool of potential employees. Workers get access to more jobs. Better train service sparks development, a tangible measure of economic value. Being 15 minutes closer to Boston is of real significance for gateway cities like Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, Fitchburg, Worcester, Brockton.

Electrification is a key attribute of subway-like service. Lower costs make it easier to increase the number of trains, which spreads the cost further, making it less per train and per rider. Only electrification lowers emissions from more frequent service.

There are solid reasons to support electrification, but significantly, they make financial sense. The state will benefit. Electrification is worth it.

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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work. Christopher is Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains to elected and government officials, community leaders and the public. Christopher is a consultant for freight and passenger planning and development projects including operating planning, federal grant applications, marketing, and public outreach.