Electric Freight Railroads in the US

An electric freight train in Russia

Any traveler to Europe or Asia is bound to notice that the majority of trains, passenger and freight alike, are electric. While there are many benefits to running electric trains, primarily in fuel and maintenance savings, there are also some severe costs: you must have expensive-to-install-and-maintain electric catenary wires along every foot of track along with the infrastructure to maintain electric current along those wires.

Electric trains are rare in the United States (the exception being Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor) and electric FREIGHT trains are almost unheard of. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t go into extreme detail on. Restrictions on locomotive construction during WWII, cheap fuel, and increasing government railroad regulations all contributed to the decline of what electric railroads did exist.

There are a few holdouts here and there, and a couple of honorable mentions no longer with us, which I will try to document for the interested reader. This is by no means a complete list, so feel free to send me any electric trains I may have missed.

1. Iowa Traction Railroad

One of Iowa Traction’s little steeplecabs switching a customer

At the turn of the century, short electric railroads connecting a city with outlying towns known as “interurbans” became all the rage in the United States.  Most of these went out of business in the 1930s with the rise of the automobile, but not the Iowa Traction Railroad. Known to fans as the “Last of the Interurbans”, it traces its origins back to 1896.  Iowa Traction has been trudging along between Mason City and Clear Lake, Iowa for over 100 years and since it quit carrying passengers in 1936, has survived entirely off freight revenue from local industries. Its four antique steeple-cab electric locomotives are all close to 100 years old, the newest one rolling out of the factory in 1923 and are dwarfed by modern freight cars. In fact, they are only powerful enough to carry a handful of loaded freight cars at a time! Iowa Traction was purchased in 2012 by a shortline railroad company who plans to extend its track and, of course, continue to use the classic electric locomotives.

2. Deseret Power Railway

The Deseret Power Railroad is a private electric railroad that was built in 1983 to haul coal from a mine in Colorado 30 miles to a power plant in Utah. This setup, as you can imagine, makes for an extremely cost-effective method of supplying fuel for the plant. It is an isolated railroad, meaning it solely exists on its own and has no connection to other railroads. Any new locomotives or equipment have to be brought in by truck, and in fact it almost lost one of its first two locomotives when the truck transporting it hit the guardrail on a bridge. The railroad carries no commodities other than coal and its one and only customer is the power plant. Next to the Iowa Traction, Deseret Power is probably the second most well-known electric freight railroad in the United States.

3. Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad

Much like the Deseret Power, the Black Mesa & Lake Powell is an isolated electric railroad that hauls coal to a power plant. It was constructed in the early 1970s and runs 78 miles from a mine near Kayenta, Arizona to a power plant at Page, Arizona, completely within the Navajo Nation.  The railroad operates 24 hours, running 3 roundtrip trains between the mine and power plant.

4. Najavo Mine Railroad

A rare photo of a Navajo Mine electric train

The Navajo Mine Railroad is another coal mine-powerplant electric railroad. It was built in the 1970s and operates across 14 miles of track within the Navajo Nation carrying coal from a mine to the Four Corners Generating Station. Due to its remote location and it not being very well known, information and photos of it are hard to come by.

5. Texas Utilities – Martin Lake [UPDATE]

One of TXU’s rare E25B locomotives hauling a loaded coal train

[It was brought to my attention that TXU Martin Lake has ended electric train operations. Sometime in the early 2000s, both mines were closed and now all coal comes in by BNSF diesel trains from outside sources.]

Another obscure coal-powerplant electric railroad can be found just a few hours away from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in Martin Lake, Texas. This railroad operated by the Texas Utilities Company branches out east and west from the Martin Lake power plant. The Western section runs from the power plant to a lignite coal loader at Oak Hill. The Eastern section runs to a lignite mine and a connection with BNSF railway. Unlike the other powerplant railroads, this one carries commodities other than coal – mainly ash from the powerplant, and rocks to mix with the lignite coal. It also receives coal trains from BNSF carrying high-quality Powder Basin coal from Wyoming. This small railroad is virtually unknown, nearly entirely located on Texas Utilities property, and away from any major city, with few public places to photograph it from.

Another random fact about the TXU is that operates the extremely rare General Electric E-25B locomotive, the last electric freight locomotives built in the United States. Only 7 were built, all of them for Texas Utilities.

[TXU runs another smaller electric railroad operation much similar to this one at Mt. Pleasant, Texas. I didn’t include it to save space and to not be so repetitive.]

—Honorable Mentions—

The Milwaukee Road

MILW’s famous “Little Joe” electric locomotives gave 24 years of service

The Milwaukee Road was a Midwestern railroad famous for running electric freight trains across some of the most unforgiving terrain in the United States. In the early 1900s, faced with several competitors who had transcontinental railroads, the MILW decided to pursue its own route to the West and, to gain an edge over its fellow roads, it was going to build the shortest route from Chicago to Seattle. The catch was the route would cross some of the most rugged parts of the Rockies. Then, in 1912, the financially weak Milwaukee made another bold move: it decided to spend a huge sum of money to completely electrify this Pacific Extension, as it was known.

The idea wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. The steep, curvy mountain grades were too difficult for large powerful steam locomotives to navigate, so trains had to use smaller, weaker engines. This required extra steam locomotives, called helper units, to be standing by to help push these under-powered trains over the mountains. The expense of keeping these extra locomotives, crews and maintenance facilities at every mountain pass was extremely expensive. On the other hand, electric locomotives were more powerful than steam, were more effective at peak power, didn’t require as much maintenance, didn’t require coal or water, and were unaffected by the cold.  Another benefit was the regenerative braking technology that allowed electric locomotives to reverse their generators, using its downhill momentum to generate power, which not only helped slow the train without using brakes but also returned electricity to overhead lines, reducing energy costs.

The ambitious project was extremely expensive for the company (about $300,000,000 in today’s dollars), but in the end over 500 miles of the Pacific Extension was electrified. The savings were astounding – costs went down 54% per mile for passenger trains and 74% per mile for freight trains and traffic capacity increased 100%. The regenerative braking reduced energy costs by 12% and saved thousands of dollars on brake pads. These advantages helped the MILW ship freight cheaper than any of its competitors.

Abandoned MILW Electric Substation

Unfortunately, this story has a sad ending. Despite the remarkable benefits and accomplishments of their electrified system, in the early 1970s management decided to shut down electric operations and scrap the copper overhead wires, claiming that the cost of making repairs and necessary upgrades to the now 50 year old system was too high. Between 1972 and 1974, the electric infrastructure was dismantled, but as fate would have it, traffic started increasing and then the 1973 Oil Crisis struck. Hit with the double whammy costs of buying brand new diesel locomotives to replaced the scrapped electric ones and the skyrocketing cost of fuel, the Milwaukee Road had to declare bankruptcy in 1977 and by 1986 it was no more, all its lines being abandoned or sold off to new owners.

The tragic irony here is that their electric route connecting the Midwest with the West Coast would have been an indescribable competitive advantage over its diesel-burning rivals during the oil crisis and with the coming traffic increases could have helped the company prosper. Ending their bold electrification scheme was the worst possible decision at the worst possible time.

Muskingum Electric Railroad

Only two of these E50 locomotives were ever made, both for Muskingum Electric

The Muskingum Electric was a coal-powerplant electric railroad operating in Ohio. It began operations in the late 1960s and is unique for using fully automatic, driverless trains. Its two “robot trains” trains shuttled back and forth 30 miles between a strip mine and a large powerplant at Beverly, Ohio. Sensors placed in the track controlled the train’s movements and horns at crossings and slowed it down at the coal loading and unloading points. The railroad had specially built hopper cars to put on the back of the train with headlights and horns built into them so that the trains could legally run backwards without needing an engine on the front.

The MERR remained in operation until 2002, when the coal mine ran out of economically recoverable coal. Its two rare General Electric E-50 locomotives, the only two ever built, were both scrapped, unfortunately. To this day, there has never been another fully automatically “robot” freight train in the United States, so for that reason alone the MERR should get cool points.

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4 Comments

Filed under Freight Trains, Railroads, Transportation

4 responses to “Electric Freight Railroads in the US

  1. TXU Martin Lake doesn’t run electric anymore. Their train comes behind my house – all diesel now.

  2. Harvey hatfield

    We have here in Indiana the south bend and south shore railroad. Runs from South Bend Indiana to downtown Chicago. Carries freight and commuters. Last I knew they used at least one “little joe” engines. The rail road was bought by Sam insole to deliver coal to michigan city electric generating plant, the commuter line is now funded by the state through a board of directors. Might be worth checking out.

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