Most of the railroads in the United States are not electrified. I can't find figures right now, but I don't think it's much. In the past decade, fuel prices have risen, Amtrak ridership has increased significantly, and there are many proposals to extend the railroad network. Most non-electrical trains burn diesel, so CO₂ emissions could be reduced.

Currently, Denmark is planning to electrify many of its unelectrified railways. Are there any active plans for a significant electrification of railroad infrastructure in the United States?

See also: Why is railway electrification in North America far less common than in Europe? on Economics Stack Exchange.

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    Is this really politics? Jan 25, 2013 at 0:31
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    "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country" - V.I.Lenin :)
    – user4012
    Jan 25, 2013 at 2:03
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    @DJClayworth infrastructure tends to be a governmental function. Agreeing on the specifics of a policy is on topic here. If we were arguing a single road, I'd probably call it too localized, but as it stands, I think this is on topic. Just barely, perhaps, but on topic nonetheless. Jan 25, 2013 at 3:08
  • Wow. It never ever occurred to me that there could have been countries (third world ones aside) whose railroads were not electrified O_o
    – motoDrizzt
    Jul 5, 2019 at 12:27
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    @motoDrizzt is there any country whose railroads are completely electrified? I checked Italy as an example, and it appears to be 65% electrified. The low density of the US makes electrification impractical on most routes.
    – phoog
    Jan 14, 2020 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


Are there any proposals for a significant electrification of US railroads?

There seem to be few electrification projects; but a group that hopes to promote more.

This article, Electrifying freight trains in the U.S. is a really bad idea, December 13, 2016, mentions one freight project; but, of course is negative on electrification.

The only freight electrification project being considered in the United States is a $28 billion dollar project in the Los Angeles area. It would combine electrified passenger trains with trains specifically designed to handle cargo containers on a fully elevated guideway system from Los Angeles area ports to distribution centers about 30 miles away (SCAG 2008, SCAG 2012).

[SCAG - Southern California Association of Governments.]

For passenger train projects, there is the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP).

The Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP) involves the electrification of approximately 82km of track between the Fourth and King Street Station in San Francisco and the Tamien Caltrain Station in San Jose.

The ground-breaking ceremony of the electrification project was held in July 2017, with construction scheduled for completion in 2022.

This article, Electrification of U.S. Railways: Pie in the Sky, or Realistic Goal?, May 30, 2018, mentions the group Solutionary Rail.

A group of progressive-minded activists and industry experts have proposed that the federal and state governments, together with the railroad industry, invest in a long-term project to electrify U.S. railroads. In a book published in October 2016, Solutionary Rail, a people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads to a clean energy future, they detail a plan that would update freight and passenger railways with overhead wires to carry high-voltage electricity generated in towns along the lines, and replace diesel locomotives with electric engines. These wires would also provide a new, nationwide electricity transmission system that would help deliver the electricity generated by distributed renewable energy sources. The book points to several advantages of an electrified railway over the existing U.S. system, but industry and government analysts are skeptical as to whether the plan could be implemented.

Is Rail Electrification a Feasible Undertaking in the United States?

Making the transition from the current U.S. railway infrastructure to a nationally electrified rail system is not a trivial issue, and the Solutionary Rail proposal doesn’t provide a cost estimate for such an undertaking. It does, however, point out that many other nations (Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, China, India, Japan…) have made significant moves to electrify their railway systems, and many other countries are now engaged in efforts to do so. However, it is easier for those countries to secure financing for major infrastructure investments like this than it is for their U.S. counterparts because their railway services are government-owned and operated, whereas U.S. railroads are privately owned (except for Amtrak, which is partially government-funded).

The U.S. government could require that all railways be electrified by a certain date, if there were ever such political motivation. The large investment necessary is an obvious obstacle, and the interest in reducing the nation's carbon footprint by switching to electric rail is not strong in Congress. Such an effort would be more difficult in this country than in Europe or Asia, which have more dense urban populations. While several other technologically-advanced nations (e.g., Japan, Germany, France, Mexico and Australia) have marked a steady decrease in their consumption of petroleum (from which diesel is derived) over the past several years, the U.S. consumption of petroleum has been increasing, due in large part to demand from the transportation sector. There is no national dialog about reducing the use of combustion engines, even though the transportation sector produces 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.

There is also a proposal, Green New Deal, which mentions high-speed rail. Though I could find no specific reference to electrification of railroads, it might be implicit in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, especially in light of the previous reference to Solutionary Rail that electrification of railroads is technologically feasible.

H. RES. 109, page 9.

... overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in--(i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transit; and (iii) high-speed rail; ...

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    zero-emission vehicle infrastructure is a rather indirect way to say electric train
    – gerrit
    Oct 5, 2020 at 16:25
  • @gerrit To me that sounds more like electric car infrastructure (ie. charging stations), especially since it's listed separately from public transit and high-speed rail
    – divibisan
    Oct 5, 2020 at 17:30
  • @divibisan Freight trains are neither public transit nor high speed rail, yet seem to be an elephant in the room compared to battery driven lorries. It would make sense to at least calculate the cost per unit of CO₂ saved, I'd be surprised if electrifying railroads would cost more than building a national network of speed charging stations. I wonder if there's a reason they don't mention it (doesn't sound "futuristic" enough?) or if they simply overlooked it.
    – gerrit
    Oct 5, 2020 at 18:45
  • @gerrit If I had to speculate, its probably related to the sheer size and remoteness of much of the US rail network which would make full electrification incredibly expensive, particularly since trains are already much more efficient than trucks. Sure, once most trucks are electric then freight train emissions will stand out, but who knows how long (if ever) that will be
    – divibisan
    Oct 5, 2020 at 20:05
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    @divibisan Not more remote than the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was fully electrified recently, and probably not more expensive than developing practicable electric trucks that can travel long distances, but I'd be interested in seeing a realistic calculation. I wonder at what carbon tax rate it would start to be economical to electrify the tracks in North America like it has been done in Europe and Asia.
    – gerrit
    Oct 5, 2020 at 21:43

As fair as i can say a number of freight hauling businesses used electrification :

  • Pennsylvania Railroad
  • New Haven
  • Virginian
  • Northern Pacific
  • Milwaukee

Shortlines or due to ordinance by law:

  • New York Central (the prohibition against fumes in New York)
  • Mesa
  • Deseret

Milwaukee removed its electrification because it was to expensiv, the railroad weren't neither profitable but the electrification can be claimed to be the reason why the railway survived as long as it did. This due to lower operating costs.

Pennsylvania electrified to Pittsburgh (wrong it was Harrisburg...) and Washington which allowed them to run A LOT OF TRAINS.

New Haven, partly the same as NYC but the coast is densely populated.

The situation is heavily influenced by the low price of diesel oil in the US which lower the commercial potential of electrification.

For most countries in Europe, electrification meant a big rationalization of railways with a large increase in ability to meet a large demand.

The US railways has rationalized by closing down branches, far less personnel and far heavier/longer trains, but this also means that Amtrack for instance when running as a guest over foreign rails have to adapt its schedule (and its passengers) to how the track owning railroad wants to run its trains (and not how the humans on the varnish would like it to be.)

The Milwaukee case was an example of climatic reasons to use electricity and easy access to it. It is a real hassle to run steam trains in snowy and cold conditions. Partly the same reason why SJ chose to first electrify Malmbanan here in Sweden (the other three is economy, businessrelated and the fact that it was an isolated operation.)

Pennsylvania electrified because they had to - their traffic in the NEC area was to heavy for the motive power department to handle in an effective way.

One main reason for the disappearance of the electric train in the US was the private car (which hit the Reading railroad's passenger traffic but even more the interurban and trams.) I took the Reading as one example of a large city commuter train operator.

With regards to Great Britain, the over-abundance of railway lines and branches was partly due to the railway mania in the 1840's which was a classical bubble. The US railway panic of 1873 was the same thing.

  • All true. And, what percentage of freight moves by rail in Europe compared to the US? And for how far? Canada also doesn't use electric freight rails. Each of those US railroads only electrified relatively short distances and still all had special circumstances - New York City laws (only electrics), dense, relatively short-haul passenger traffic (Pennsylvania RR, New Haven), loooong tunnels (Northern Pacific, Milwaukee - also Great Northern). The Virginian RR was a relatively short coal-hauling railroad with cheap access to coal to power electric powerplants. Transmission losses hurt.
    – Just Me
    Jan 14, 2020 at 14:05
  • With regards to Penn: compared with distances in the US, the electrification between New York-Philadelphia-(Washington/Harrisburg) was short but they hade a huge amount of traffic to take care of including long distance freight so it was a rather large rationalization/or increase in potential. Jan 14, 2020 at 14:17
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    The railway's share of freight in Europe is lower than the US one. This i think is partly due to the flow of import/export ie long distances between ports and shippers/receivers. Jan 14, 2020 at 14:19
  • Canadian and US railroads is deeply integrated. Jan 14, 2020 at 14:20
  • Here in Sweden, two of the important reason for using wires on (from 1912) Malmbanan was: amount of traffic, more locomotives and staff and more track ? or using electric traction instead and thru that being able to run heavier trains. One other reason was climatic - it is a hazzle running steam trains in winter. Jan 14, 2020 at 14:24

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