Electrified Transit

by Bob Fleming

I Would Like to See an Expansion of Electrified Transit in the Seattle Area

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My name is Bob Fleming, and I am very interested in seeing a greatly improved transportation system for Seattle and the surrounding region.

One idea I like is to utilize electricity more as the motive power for mass transit in this area. This would result in less pollution, reduced petroleum usage, reduced greenhouse gases, and quieter operation.

One important factor in our area is that electricity is mostly non-polluting. In most other areas, coal-burning power plants generate most of the electricity, so use of electricity for transit vehicles only shifts the pollution to the increased use of coal at the power plants. However in the Pacific Northwest (the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and northern California, along with the Canadian province of British Columbia), most electricity is generated by hydroeloelectric plants, where water stored behind a dam drops through big pipes to turn water turbines that turn the electric generators. We have the advantage of relatively high rainfall and many rivers, descending thousands of feet from the mountains to the ocean. The rivers are a renewable and non-polluting resource for generating electricity.

There are five electrically-powered systems I can think of: streetcars, electric trolley coaches (trolley buses), light rail, monorail, and heavy rail.

STREETCARS: One small railway car, or two or three together, that typically run on tracks in the streets, although they can also run any place that people build the tracks. They obtain electric power from a single overhead wire and the tracks are used for the return circuit.

LIGHT RAIL TRAINS: Very similar to streetcars, but usually have more cars, and are intended for further distance between stops in order to improve travel time. Like streetcars, light rail trains pick up electric power from an overhead wire, called a catenary, and use the rails to complete the electrical circuit. There is also more likelihood that light rail lines will run less in streets and more on grade-separated routes.

TROLLEY COACHES: The transit people call them coaches, but the rest of us call them buses. So trolley coaches are trolley buses. They are like regular diesel-powered buses, except that instead of diesel engines they have electric motors, like a streetcar. Since they have rubber tires and don’t run on metal rails, in order to provide a complete electrical circuit there are two overhead wires and on top of the bus there are two trolley poles that pick up the electricity from the overhead wires.

I am in favor of gradually expanding Seattle’s trolley coach system, by electrifying heavily-used routes that connect to existing routes and don’t extend too far from the existing system.

MONORAIL: Monorail trains also run on electric power. The capacity and speed are similar to light rail trains, but are usually elevated so are independent of traffic problems below. They are also quieter because they usually run on rubber tires, and safer because they are elevated above vehicles and pedestrians.

HEAVY RAIL: Heavy rail refers to the larger size rails and heavier trains of a regular railroad. It includes most commuter trains. From an ecological standpoint it would be a big advantage if the railroads in the area were electrified, but probably not practical. It would not make sense to use electric locomotives only in the Seattle area when trains run long distances into Canada, to Chicago, to California, etc. The cost of electrifying the entire length of the railroad would be prohibitive, so diesel locomotives would still have to be used outside of the Seattle area. It would not be logical to switch locomotives after a few miles out of Seattle.

Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter trains could potentially be converted to electric power. It would involve replacing diesel locomotives with electric locomotives, and installing the electric catenary (overhead wires) from Tacoma to Everett. However the trains share the tracks with freight trains and I don’t know if the higher freight cars such as are used for carrying new cars and stacked shipping containers would hit the catenary. Also, the cost at this time is probably prohibitive.

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©2009 Robert M. Fleming Jr.

This page was last updated 8 May 2016.

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