From Russia With Electric Rail

I was reading an article in the New Yorker by Ian Frazier about the Trans-Siberian railroad, the world's longest, when I ran across his statement that the rail line ran under electric power for both passengers and freight.  This was a surprise to me because I've been hearing nothing but excuses from California's two major railroads about why they can't electrify their freight operations. 

It turns out that it took Russia 71 years to fully electrify the 5,750 mile long rail line.  The electrification project started in 1929, not a happy time in Russian history, and was completed in 2002.  Now, most freight in Russia is carried on electrified lines.  

Russia is not the only country with electrified rail for carrying freight.  England and France have the "Chunnel" train that travels under the English Channel.  Netherlands and Germany share an electrified freight line that ends at the port of Rotterdam.  The Swiss rail system is almost all electric.  

Why should we care about this?  Big railyards in the U.S. are notorious polluters and railroad companies are famously resistant to local environmental laws.  Railyards also tend to be located in or near low-income, minority communities that suffer heavy burdens from air pollution.  There is one huge intermodal railyard (where containers that have been offloaded from ships and trucked to the railyard are put onto trains) near the Los Angeles ports; its owner proposes to double it in size, and another behemoth intermodal yard has been proposed for the same area.  

The pollutant of concern from the railyards is diesel particulate matter, found in diesel exhaust.  The simplest way to get rid of it would be to switch from diesel to electric locomotives - so long, of course, as we don't just trade locomotive emissions for emissions at a powerplant that generates electricity.  In fact, the publicly-funded Alameda Corridor, a dedicated transportation corridor for trains from the ports to access the railyards near downtown Los Angeles, was built with electrification in mind.  

Yes, it will be expensive to electrify rail lines.  But think what a great "green" stimulus project this would be:  lots of good jobs for many years, with potentially huge benefits in reduced air pollution.  It doesn't have to take us 71 years like it took Russia.  Let's get started now.