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Backbone Campaign’s people-powered plan to electrify America’s railroads

By Sydney Parker - Real Change, May 3, 2017

In our fractured political climate, it’s hard to envision a cause that could unite a rural farmer with a big-city tech worker, a union laborer with a grassroots environmentalist, or a tribal leader with a government official, but Bill Moyer thinks he’s found just the cause: Solutionary Rail.

Solutionary Rail proposes that the public electrify America’s railroads, run them on renewable energy and transform railroad corridors into electricity superhighways transmitting wind and solar energy from remote rural areas to urban centers. If enacted, Moyer said the proposal would recenter the role of rail in U.S. transportation and provide the public with a new sustainable source of economic vitality.

In other words, with Solutionary Rail, everybody wins.  

“It provides almost a psychic relief from the burden of being defined by what we oppose,” said Moyer, who serves as executive director of the Washington state-based Backbone Campaign, a nonporift that creates “artful activism.” “This offers an opportunity to be for something great, to be in dialogue with communities that we may not have anything else otherwise in common about some shared interest.”

It all began with Mike Elliott, a rail labor leader affiliated with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. In 2013, Elliott challenged Moyer to devise a “green” concept for modernization of the northern corridor railroad. Elliott is best known in Washington state for blowing the whistle on safety violations by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. His call for change was echoed by hundreds of BNSF employees fed up with the status quo.

Since 2010, lower energy prices and sluggish consumer demand have contributed to a decline in freight volumes for railroads. To compensate for the loss, BNSF, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, has been shedding workers and requiring employees to work long shifts with short breaks, a dangerous recipe for exhaustion.

Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United said it’s difficult “never knowing when you’ll be called, when you’ll finish, how many hours you can rest, or when you’ll return home. If you work twelve hours and get ten off, day after day, it’s easy to get exhausted.

Moyer recognized that incorporating feedback from rail laborers and engineers was essential to developing an effective proposal. He assembled a team of rail experts, climate advocates and public interest groups to advise Backbone Campaign on a new vision for rail that included fair wages and safe working conditions for laborers.

“Backbone Campaign believes that change comes from the bottom up,” Moyer said. “This isn’t about begging our elected officials or Warren Buffet to do us a favor. Our strategy is to create a coalition of stakeholders that can make the case both to elected officials and the private railroads that this is a way to move forward together.”

Rail has needed an upgrade for decades. In the 20th century, the construction of the highway system took a huge bite out of the rail economy. Long-haul trucking became a major competitor for trains carrying freight, forcing rail to become dependent on bulk shipments of coal and oil to retain relevancy.

Transporting fossil fuels via train poses a serious threat to human life, says the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC). After a Union Pacific train was derailed in a fiery crash last year, releasing 42,000 gallons of crude oil and sparking a massive fire that burned for 14 hours near the Columbia Gorge, the WSLC passed a resolution in favor of Solutionary Rail.

WSLC noted that more than 25 trains have derailed in North America over the past 10 years, resulting in destructive oil spills and fires. One particularly devastating oil train crash in Lac Megantic, Canada, incinerated 47 people. By drawing attention to the “the pitfalls of dangerous commodity transportation,” the WSLC hopes “other opportunities can be progressed, demonstrating the vital importance of modern infrastructure to improve upon the overall plight of all workers.”

Moyer argues that modernized, high-speed trains running on renewable energy would attract previously lost freight cargo and passenger clientele back to the railroad. The proposal hinges on the assumption that within a few decades, economic development will no longer be powered by fossil fuels, but by alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric. In Moyer’s eyes, rail electrification is inevitable.  

Rail electrification is already working in regions across the world. In Western Europe, 53 percent of rail lines are electrified compared to North America’s 1 percent, according to SCI Verkehr. Why so far behind? The Solutionary Rail team notes that rail infrastructure is publically owned in other nations. In the U.S., high upfront capitalization costs present a significant barrier to electrifying railroads. Installing electrification infrastructure is expensive. An average estimate is $2 million per mile for single-track lines and $2.5 million per mile for double track. Thus, electrifying a 500-mile double-track line would cost $1.25 billion.

To pay for all this, the Solutionary Rail team devised the concept of Steel Interstate Development Authorities (sida), public agencies that would raise capital from financial markets and utilize federal transportation dollars. sidas for different rail corridors would work in public-private partnerships with railroads. The electrification projects would remain under public ownership, managed by the sida to alleviate the burden of property taxes.

“We have to work with private owners to open their minds to the opportunity,” Moyer said. “If [Solutionary Rail] happens here, we want it to happen with the maximum public benefit so that nobody gets thrown under the bus in the process.”

Backbone Campaign proposes beginning with the BNSF-owned Chicago-Seattle/Tacoma northern rail corridor. Proponents of Solutionary Rail are advocating for funding of a five-part feasibility study to determine whether the public-private partnership for higher-speed electrified freight and passenger rail would deliver the public and private benefits they believe are possible. If funded, the study would be conducted by transportation economists at Washington State University.

Moyer asserts that with Solutionary Rail, there’s something for everyone. Farmers get a cheaper mode of transporting goods to market. Environmentalists and communities that live near the railroads get a cleaner, more sustainable future. Tribes are empowered to prevent third parties from using tribal lands for rail without tribal consent. Private rail owners would enjoy a big return on investment. Governors and legislators would benefit from employment gains and reduced maintenance on highway systems. Railway workers get secure employment.

“There’s not one solution for economic injustice or racism or the many ills that face us in this country,” Moyer said. “But creating an infrastructure that benefits multiple sectors in our society seems to me to be one part of the solution.”

Sydney Parker is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Seattle Met and Splitsider.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s

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