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Hydrail Economics: Consider the Alternative

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

When asked “How’s your wife?” Henny Youngman famously quipped, “Compared to what?”

Lately I’ve been conflicted by the flurry of interest in High Speed Rail and the several states whose governors have “just said ‘no thank you.'”  My hunch is that they may have made the right call for the wrong reason. If so, their error may buy the US time to rethink High Speed Rail. The question to ponder is not “whether” so much as “when,” and especially “how.”

A while back I wrote a blog piece here called Hydrail: a Tale of Two Metals.  A cautionary tale, it pointed to the steep rise in the price of copper, a significant component in the cost of overhead track electrification.

I have no doubt that, on the streetcar scale, hydrogen hybrid fuel cell technology is both feasible (they run buses, don’t they?) and very long overdue.

But, at the High Speed Rail scale, my expert friends assure me—and I accept—that hydrail is not ready for prime time, just as it’s not ready to pull coal trains from Montana to Atlanta or mixed freight from Pittsburg to Charlotte. What’s different is the power requirements, which are dramatically higher.

But here’s where Henny’s quip comes in.

The cost of scaling hydrail up to high speed passenger power levels is more than daunting. But then, so is the cost of electrifying intercity tracks which—based on the cost of light rail electrification—might run to well over $10 million per mile.

There are a lot of miles out there to electrify and 120-year-old catenary technology feels rather like a traffic light that’s been yellow for ten seconds.

The cost of electrifying enough miles to make a dent in the need to de-load airports might run up to the Carl Sagan scale: “Billions and billions.”

As daunting as powering hefty intercity passenger trains with hydrogen might be, massive track electrification might be much more so. And capital spent on old technology ceases to be available for the development of replacing “new tech” and the jobs it could have created.

If non-fuel-cell technologies, such as H2ICE (hydrogen internal combustion engines with battery hybrid re-acceleration capabilities) could be developed and funded with a relatively few hundred million bucks, the result would probably amount to a much more attractive and longer-term solution. And a cheaper one. Compared to what? …to “billions and billions.”

The Savannah River National Hydrogen Laboratory’s (and the University of Ontario’s) water-splitting systems show promise of domestic hydrogen priced far lower than even last year’s petroleum energy equivalent. If even a modest part of the billions and billions contemplated for track electrification were redirected to water-splitting and H2ICE hybrid traction power, the US might be much better served over the long haul.

Sadly, there is little evidence in the news that “new tech” alternatives are being considered in the US.

China, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Turkey are on the march toward hydrail. The US, too, needs to consider that alternative.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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