CSX Cautious on Electrification

CSX Cautious on Electrification

In counting up railroads that are spending time on the possibilities of electrified freight train operations, don't include CSX Transportation.

Michael Ward, chairman, president and CEO of the large eastern-U.S. carrier, told Journal of Commerce "at this point we have no plans to pursue electrification. Times are a little tough right now, and we think our resources are better attuned to looking at how we handle this current recession than spending time looking at something."

At least two other major railroads, however, are looking at ways they might begin to tap electricity for some freight trains. That could also mean they would need to acquire locomotives that could operate on electric power in some areas and then revert to their normal diesel engines when traveling outside electrified-track zones.

In the West, BNSF Railway has said it is exploring whether leasing some rights of way along its tracks to cross-country electric transmission line builders might open the door to electric freight trains. In the east, CSX rival Norfolk Southern Railway thinks the drive to build high-speed rail corridors could put electrified passenger trains in parts of its route system and lead to some electric freight operations.

They also say any electric freight rail lines are years away, but they also see potential advantages in using cleaner-burning fuel, and relying on train power that is not subject to roiling world oil prices or foreign supplies.

Other benefits could include smoother train moves with electric trains, and the ability for railroads to offer new industrial parks that would combine various shippers that are heavy users of electricity. (See "Special Report: Electrifying Freight Rail".)

Ward, though, said replacing current diesel locomotive fleets with new-era units that can tap into overhead electric wires would present hefty costs. He cautions that a freight train coming off the tracks could pull down those wire centenary structures to add more cleanup expense than now. Those and other issues mean it could be a problem recovering the large investments needed to electrify major freight rail areas, he suggested.

"Certainly there are challenges for electrification," Ward said. "You have any kind of derailment, you take out your centenary system. Recovery is very difficult, and we basically have a huge diesel (locomotive) fleet, too, so there would a lot of conversion costs.

"So at this point we'll see what the others develop, but we're not spending a lot of time and energy on it," he said.

That puts CSX in a similar position as Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF's western rival. It has also said electrification is not on its radar screen.

But with the push to add more power lines to beef up the national power grid, to jumpstart high-speed passenger systems that would run electric trains, and with any climate change legislation perhaps adding a new cost to burn fossil fuels like diesel, the potential benefits of freight rail electrification are getting more attention.

See also:
"NS Mulls Electrification; UP Looks Away"
"Former FRA Chief Urges High-Speed Push for Rail Plan"
"GE Plans Freight-Use Battery Facility"

Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.