Some illustrative links from the world of rail transportation:
From Reason and Rail: Why the freight railroads will never electrify.
This is the problem which freight electrification faces. While electrification would represent a lessening in fuel expenses, especially as the price of oil is expected to rise another 20-30% over the long-term, this is a fairly minor savings for the railroads.
Some discussion in the comments asking if government subsidies would change the calculus. It might, but perhaps the better question is about ensuring common usage of key track segments between commuter and freight traffic, between double-stacked containers and electric multiple unit passenger trains.
Firstly, operational costs have a far greater prominence than do capital costs owing to the nature of government agencies as opposed to private agencies. An investment that is hard to justify for a freight operator becomes much easier for a public agency that is receiving “free” funding from another agency and in the process is able to reduce its operational costs to those to whom it is immediately responsible. In such a way does spending hundreds of millions of dollars to save a few million per year become an attractive financial option.
More importantly, however, is the fact that electric trains accelerate much faster, and electric multiple units, compared to a diesel locomotive hauling several rail cars, accelerate like a bat out of hell.
The upshot of this is that more time is spent at higher speeds, reducing the time penalty for any individual train stop and greatly increasing the average speed, making it more attractive to travelers and increasing its patronage, and political support, as a result.
Alon Levy notes in the comments that commuter lines are talking about electrifying only a fraction of the track that would be required for a transcontinental freight route. Greater payoff and a smaller up-front investment makes sense.
Some confounding factors: speed and weight. Alon Levy takes note of three challenges in meshing fast passenger trains with heavy but slow freight – a conflict inherent in mixing passenger and freight traffic. They are 1) schedule conflicts, including the challenges of meshing disparate speeds together; 2) different track geometries required, particularly superelevation (e.g banking) of the tracks; 3) damage to tracks inflicted by heavy trains.
Another confounding factor: US regulations. Systemic Failure takes note of a recent US railcar procurement.
The FRA is soliciting bids for a $551 million contract for 130 bi-level railcars. As a condition for the contract, the railcars must be manufactured entirely with American steel and components. If you do the math, that comes to 4.2 million dollars each – double the global market price for a bi-level car.
In other words, the FRA is pissing away a quarter billion dollars. Imagine all the projects that might have been done with $250 million. Imagine all the jobs that might have been created with that money. I’m talking real jobs — not bureaucrats enforcing Made-in-America rules. Jobs like installing new PTC signaling, repairing bridges, or expanding the transit network. You know, things that have tangible benefit to riders.
The really crazy thing is that there is a glut in the passenger railcar market. The last thing needed is yet another product (a hopelessly primitive one at that). And since few operators besides Amtrak will be interested in this railcar, a lot of design and development will just go to waste.
Our regulations prohibit purchasing rolling stock off the shelf from other nations, while our history of divestment in passenger rail has largely dried up rail car manufacturing in this country. These regulations also make the adoption of the faster electric traction commuter trains mentioned above more expensive and more difficult. They also mandate inferior performance:
Now compare that to the example of the FRA compliant Colorado Railcar as given in theFairmount DMU study. With two single level multiple units and two trailers, Colorado takes 123 seconds to accelerate to a speed of 60 miles per hour. The Talent, however, has blazed past Colorado, reaching 95 km/h (~60mph) in 40 seconds. Indeed, by the time that Colorado has reached 60 miles per hour, the Bombardier Talent has reached the FRA’s normal speed limit of 130 km/h and been cruising at top speed for 50 seconds.
The implication here isn’t just about speed for speed’s sake – the better acceleration makes it easier for the trains to keep on schedule, improving reliability and cutting travel time.