Thoughts on Electification

Cold Spring Shops has recently mentioned a brief history of the Milwaukee Road Electrification, and a 1923 National Geographic article predicting electification as the furture of American railroading.

Interesting question as to why European railways electified their main lines on a large scale, but this didn’t happen in America. Virtually every European main line in mountainous territory is electrified, and many of them have been electrified since the early years of the 20th century. American electrification seems limited to just the Northwest Corridor and some commuter lines. For long distance freight haulage, the diesel reigns supreme. The Milwaukee is dead and gone, and the Great Northern abandoned their electrification even earlier.

Why is this? Is it because of fundamentally differing traffic patterns on opposite sides of the Atlantic? Europe’s higher population density means cities are closer together, and inter-city passenger traffic is still important. It’s worth noting that the one important American intercity route is electrified. Or is it because America had abundant domestic supplies of oil, while most European nations have plenty of coal? How much is the fact that European railways are largely state-run, while American railroads remain privately-owned?

Sad to note that the first freight railway through mountainous terrain in Britain to be electrified, the Woodhead line across the Pennines, outlived the Milwaukee by less than a decade, closing in 1981.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Electification

  1. Mike Weyhrich says:

    One main reason is cost. Electrifying is enormously expensive. The U.S. government has not been in any position to offer funding to freight railroads for electrifying. The private capital market has not been receptive at all to this because of their rather short sighted focus on quarterly returns, even on a obviously long term investment.If I recall correctly, the Santa Fe looked into electrifying their Chicago-LA main in the 1970′s and found out that the cost was greater than the book value of the entire railroad.

  2. Amir says:

    I’m sorry but I do not understand the big ‘in’ thing with electrification. Diesels can easily go 100mph and are probably just as effcient. In Britain the electified the WCML and ECML. All the HST are diesels n e way. Because they use AC poer over top it blows down in the wind and you get all sorts of problems with it. Electric is only good for short distance tram systems or commuter services. Anything longer than 50 miles should be diesel. Also diesels can go anywhere. Electric trains cannot.