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ALC Rail Writer

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I have been working on a little piece of speculative fiction about the future in which a national HSR system has been built. I was trying to imagine what would happen if at some point in the future (say twenty years) there was a massive movement towards HSR as part of a new FDR-style "New New Deal". If there was a massive multi-trillion dollar movement behind HSR that had support from major capitol interests and government interests beginning in the 2030's how soon could we have a national HSR network? What would it look like? How long would it be up and running? Cost? I want this to be reasonably feasible (ie doable if you had all the money and power you needed to execute the strategy) however feel free to speculate as you need to to fill in the blanks.

I am specifically interested (for storytelling purposes) of linking the NEC to Chicago, Denver, and California. I read Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam" which speculated that sometime during this century there would be Japanese-style "sealed bullet trains" that made it from the across the country in four days (barely faster than Amtrak is currently), I was hoping I could be a bit more accurate than that.
 
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railbuck

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You might use the HSR network in Spain as a point of comparison for what's possible in a reasonably short time given a significant level of investment. They've built 1900 miles of high speed track in the last 20 years, most of it in the last 10, with more under construction. Scale as needed for the distances involved.
 

ALC Rail Writer

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So what would a reasonable schedule cross-country look like? Are there proposals currently (no matter how unlikely) that are in the works?
 

Anderson

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So what would a reasonable schedule cross-country look like? Are there proposals currently (no matter how unlikely) that are in the works?
It depends if you're running a "24/7" system, like Japan initially envisioned, or a "daytime only" system that mostly shuts down from about 0000 to 0500. Then assume that, since you're going to have slow curves and operational limits in places (and some transfers), a maximum average speed of 100-120 MPH is the best you can hope for for the whole trip (the fastest Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen averages about 130 MPH).

This would probably get you NYP-CHI in 8-9 hours, maybe a bit less. CHI-DEN would be another 8-12 hours, again possibly a little less. DEN-EMY or DEN-LAX is likely to be the hangup, since you've got mountains to deal with, and at some point the cost is going to bite and you'll have to go around at least some of those mountains...think Overland Route or ATSF instead of the Rio Grande line. It's also quite possible that you don't get a good direct line Denver-Oakland and instead get stuck with a "San Francisco Chief" style routing (since while I can see a system connecting to Salt Lake City, I can't quite envision the SLC-RNO portion of the line happening with any speed). Roughly speaking, you'd have the following with a system that's about as straight as geography allows (and vaguely mimicing the current interstates)

DEN-LAX via ABQ: 1230 miles, 10-12 hours

DEN-LAX via SLC/LVN: 1180 miles, 9.5-11.5 hours (this is likely the fastest available run since I-15 goes right down a nice, open valley...your only truly bad spot is east of SLC)

DEN-OAK via SLC/RNO: 1200 miles, 11-14 hours (I anticipate some extra lost time because of the mountains somewhere; you might even bleed more time since this line might not get fully upgraded even if it gets all the catenary and whatnot to take the trains)

DEN-OAK via SLC/LVN/Barstow/BFD: 1466 miles, 12-16 hours

DEN-OAK via SLC/LAX: 1550 miles, 13-17 hours, possible additional transfer at LA

Under a "daytime only" system, you're probably looking at three days (one NYP-CHI, one CHI-DEN, and one DEN-California) due to layover needs. Without that, you're probably looking at somewhere between 30 and 36 hours plus transfers, so either a night and two days or two nights with an intervening day. I'm assuming that if you get into the forced DEN-LAX-OAK/SFO scenario, the CA trains would be running frequently enough that you'd have the sorts of off-hour frequencies that the larger system wouldn't necessarily support.
 
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ALC Rail Writer

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Denver was a setting I had in mind but nothing is set in stone. This is the kind of information I was looking for. I'm curious where would you put a NYC-CHI route? My first instinct is for it to hug Lake Erie like the LSL or come up through PGH and Columbus.

We are after all just toying with background details for a work of fiction, so I do feel I can take some liberties. I had originally throught a DEN-west coast train would go through a massive tunnel under the Rockies. I mean we are speculating about a tunnel built decades from now and with major backing and in a time with very little opposition to large rail projects, would that be physically possible? I mean if they can go under the English Channel...
 

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Another question--what about electrified freight service? If something akin to carbon quotas were put into place and the railroads couldn't run diesels anymore how much would eletrifying their lines cost? Since the freights don't need 220mph track could you just eletrify existing lines and change out the power?
 

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The only issue I would see with that is perhaps not having sufficient vertical clearance for wires over the train through tunnels and under bridges. You could also address where all the electricity would come from.
 

John Bredin

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You could also address where all the electricity would come from.
I've had the notion of a "Grand Bargain" of serious improvements to passenger rail in exchange for a serious nuclear power program (streamlined approval of a standardized nuclear power plant design).

There's more than a bit of a "don't throw me into the briar patch" in my idea:

*Probably a lot of moderate Republicans, especially local businessmen who know their towns benefit (or will benefit) from rail service (local chambers of commerce vs. the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), actually support improved passenger rail service, while "you're getting more nukes" quiets the Tea Party types who'll figure they've "got one over" on the anti-nuke greens. :p

*Meanwhile, a lot of moderate Democrats, including many environmentalists who focus on global climate change, probably support more nuclear power if done right, while "you're getting more trains" quiets the anti-nuke types who'll figure they "got one over" on the Tea Partiers. :p

Feel free to use my idea in fiction, or real life if you can get someone in elected office to listen. :giggle:
 

ALC Rail Writer

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The only issue I would see with that is perhaps not having sufficient vertical clearance for wires over the train through tunnels and under bridges. You could also address where all the electricity would come from.
I've been over this in my head and the best I came up with was that freights just got exempted from the rules in exchange for their support/passive-tolerance of HSR. I am trying to imagine much more effcient diesel engines, at which case it becomes a question if eletrified lines become pointless because the power you need to generate them would likely come from dirtier forms of energy, like coal plants.

My idea was along the lines of John's, that fission power would be used. This "New New Deal" would be a way of staving unemployment and channeling unrest during a period in the future, provoking massive infrastructure investment which includes HSR, nuclear power, "green" technologies and power sources, as well as a new space program with a dedicated goal of asteroid mining. There would also be climate engineering programs, very expensive, to help stave off effects of global warming.... but that's further down the line.

I am starting to think this is better off set in the latter half of this century rather than mid-century. I need to go over the last IPCC report again.
 
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Anderson

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Another question--what about electrified freight service? If something akin to carbon quotas were put into place and the railroads couldn't run diesels anymore how much would eletrifying their lines cost? Since the freights don't need 220mph track could you just eletrify existing lines and change out the power?
"The California High Speed Rail Authority estimates approximately 5.5 million dollars per route-mile for electric traction, a 30% premium over European examples of electrification, but this is normal for American infrastructure projects."

-From Reason and Rail

I figure you could pack that down a bit with a major scale boost, but it's still a lot of money (i.e. $1bn or more per western LD train), and I'm not sure if that's route-mile or track-mile (i.e. that a double-tracked line would cost far more).
 

cirdan

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We are after all just toying with background details for a work of fiction, so I do feel I can take some liberties. I had originally throught a DEN-west coast train would go through a massive tunnel under the Rockies. I mean we are speculating about a tunnel built decades from now and with major backing and in a time with very little opposition to large rail projects, would that be physically possible? I mean if they can go under the English Channel...
The Japanese have also built some pretty long tunnels, most notably the tunnel connecting Hokaido to Honshu passing under the sea. Remember they have earthquakes there to deal with too. The Swiss are presently completing the Gotthard base tunnel. So these very long tunnels are doable from an engineering point of view but immensely expensive. Note that all of these tunnels (including the Channel Tunnel) are not pure HSR but combined HSR and freight. It probably isn't economically feasible to build something like that purely for HSR. If somebody like UPRR could route their freights through a long tunnel, that might in the long term even be cheaper than maintaing somthing like Donner Pass with all its exposure to snow, ice and mudslides. So they might be convinced to contribute some percentage of the costs in return for being allowed to use the tunnel.

Of course if you want to spin this speculative fiction further, you could imagine that diesel locomotives are banned from this base tunnel for emissions/ventilation reasons and that this would thus become a germinal for freight electrification. Initially locomotives would change over at yards at either end of the tunnel, but electrification could gradually be extended.
 
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cirdan

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Another question--what about electrified freight service? If something akin to carbon quotas were put into place and the railroads couldn't run diesels anymore how much would eletrifying their lines cost? Since the freights don't need 220mph track could you just eletrify existing lines and change out the power?
Most lines in Europe and Japan were not built or designed with electrification in mind, nevertheless, electrification was done. There are ways around such obstacles and often it must be taken on a case by case basis. Smaller bridges can easily be lifted or replaced. Where this is not possible, the track bed can be lowered slightly, or concrete slab track used which is not as high. Failing that, there are designs of rigid catenary. This is more costly than regular catenary but if you can save having to rebuild an expensive tunnel or other structure, it may still be the cheaper alternative.
 

George Harris

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Consider the Taiwan HSR with a speed limit of 300 km/hr = 186 mph takes 1h35m to go 210 miles, equals about 135 mph end to end with two intermediate stops for the limited trains and 2h00m for the "locals" that have 6 (I think) intermediate stops, you can think in terms of 100 to 135 mph averages with stops as being easily do-able. Those systems using a 350 km/h = 220 mph speed will do it in less.

For the more or less 900 miles between New York and Chicago that gives you 6h45m to 7 hours as reasonable. While that may seem a little long, do not forget that you will have Buffalo and Cleveland in between.. Likewise for a Chicago to Denver run you will have Omaha in between, and probably Des Moines as well. When thinking Denver to Salt Lake City, think through Cheyenne and Ogden as being easier and probably about as fast as direct. SLC to San Fran, you can't get around the Sierra, but remember the Japanese go through some very rugged terrain with multiple tunnels.

Let's think Chicago to Los Angeles, 2220 miles or thereabouts via the Southwest Chief route, which is not the practical shortest route via rail when you stitch together some of the other lines. Say 2000 miles at 140 mph average, about 16 hours. That gives you under 24 hours coast to coast.

Forget sharing with freight on the same tracks. Some sharing of corridors, yes, but there are some significant differences. For the passenger trains powered for the speed, grades can be much steeper, up to say 3 to 4 percent. For freight, you still want to stay around 1 to 2 percent. Also, aerodynamics make running freight, particularly such boxy things as containers much above the 70 mph currently used very expensive in fuel.

Electrification of freight? Unless your power generation moves away from oil and gas powered your savings are probably zero in CO2 or other emissions. You have simply moved the electric generator from being carried with the train to a fixed plant. The line losses getting the power from plant to train likely exceed any efficiency gained by using a large central plant to generate the power.

Long tunnels? No big deal for the electrified passenger trains. For the freight? Hmmm. We have 7 mile freight tunnels now. With tunnels and high speed, it is not just clearing the equipment, it is the aerodynamics as well. You have to give that plug of air you are displacing somewhere to go. Without a lot of space around it the train is effectively a piston in a cylinder moving a huge volume of air. Therefore, for high speed you need a large tunnel.
 

cirdan

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Electrification of freight? Unless your power generation moves away from oil and gas powered your savings are probably zero in CO2 or other emissions. You have simply moved the electric generator from being carried with the train to a fixed plant. The line losses getting the power from plant to train likely exceed any efficiency gained by using a large central plant to generate the power.
Right now with all the new shale gas and oil tars being exploited, it may seem that plenty of new oil and gas sources have been tapped and the scenarios of oil running out, or at least getting crazily expensive, are yesterday's speculation. But not so. They say the stone age didn't end because they ran out of stones. Likewise, we don't need to run out of oil for the oil age to end. Emissions are becoming less and less acceptable. Alternative energy sources are getting cheaper and more efficient. I am also expecting there will at some point be a massive revival of nuclear energy, maybe using thorium technology. It's just a question of time until diesel locomotives just cease to be competitive. Maybe on small lines with infrequent trains and low traffic levels, where the costs of elctrification cannot be recovered, will diesel operation continue. But main lines will at some point gradually be electrified.
 

George Harris

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Cirdan: You are missing my point. I agree that we should move away from oil, gas, and coal for energy source wherever we can., However, until we do, if we move from burning oil at the train to burning oil/coal/gas at the power plant, we are simply moving the pile of dirt from one place to another. We should be trying to develop geothermal as much as possible, and (horrors) nuclear. My opinion: Solar may be nice but it works only in daylight and best in low latitudes and desert climates so it is really not a good all the time source of power, and wind? Wind is primarily looking like you are doing something. It is just today's flavor of the month. You can chop birds with windmills and it is OK, but horrors if you required some frog to move with pipeline. Wind is highly erratic, so you need some form of back up. This gets you back to some form of fixed power plant, but you have drastically reduced its efficiency.
 
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ALC Rail Writer

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I had the same thought George, I'm starting to lean in the direction of having freight "superhighways" that are maybe six tracks wide on the major lines (since like planes trucks would be equally subjected to carbon quotas) and perhaps diesel technology will be more efficient so as to make trains the only logical economical and environmental compromise for mass transit of goods and people across North America. (end runon)

I also had thought that, perhaps in exchange for their acceptance of HSR lines the railroads would end up getting leway written into the carbon quota regulations, and/or perhaps additional investments in capacity to build these hypothetical sextuple-tracks.
 

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I may sound like a Johnny-one-note here, but I am mystified with all the emphasis on reducing emissions, fossil fuel using, carbon dioxide emissions, blah, blah, blah, why there has not been a lot more said about geothermal. Iceland is an outstanding example of geothermal usage, but then it is so obviously available there that to do anything else would be blatantly stupid.

Nuclear is also a very obvious source. I do not understand this uproar about disposal of residuals. So, it is radioactive, but there is less radioactivity in it than there was in the stuff when it went to the plant. If not so, please tell me how. Ship the residuals back to the area of origin. Problem solved. No new radioactivity in a new location.

Once you do one of the above, then it begins to make sense to use electricity to move freight. Otherwise, I suspect line losses make the change in power a negative in the fossil fuel consumption reduction. People tend to forget how much energy is lost in transmission lines. By the way, that is true for the transmission of anything. Moving oil or gas through a pipeline also takes considerable energy. The best solution where practical is to produce the energy as near as practical to the point of consumption.

What is needed is a major rebuild of our railroad corridors on better alignments. Unfortunately that would be very expensive as the areas around them have developed.
 

Anderson

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I had the same thought George, I'm starting to lean in the direction of having freight "superhighways" that are maybe six tracks wide on the major lines (since like planes trucks would be equally subjected to carbon quotas) and perhaps diesel technology will be more efficient so as to make trains the only logical economical and environmental compromise for mass transit of goods and people across North America. (end runon)

I also had thought that, perhaps in exchange for their acceptance of HSR lines the railroads would end up getting leway written into the carbon quota regulations, and/or perhaps additional investments in capacity to build these hypothetical sextuple-tracks.
Looking at an AAR report from a few years ago, there was serious talk therein about needing to get a number of lines back up to 4-6 tracks to handle projected freight loads. This was from 2006. That said, I do suspect that what you're more likely to see is an aggressive push to reactivate secondary lines that were cut between about 1950 and 2000. In many cases, the potential capacity on those lines is substantial and the ROW is still either fully intact (the line was just put out of service and/or the rails pulled up to save on maintenance) or mostly so and those gaps could be filled back in with some added investment. Examples would be segments of the S-Line in the Southeast, the V-Line in Virginia, the ex-B&O line through the Appalachians to Cincinnati, and so on. Out west, I can think of the lines crossing Iowa (the ex-CB&Q, ex-RI, ex-CNW, etc...there are five that were considered for the Chicago-Omaha train, and all five could arguably be restored/upgraded...this is a case of where you could triple-track multiple lines in lieu of trying to sextuple-track a single line).
 

cirdan

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Cirdan: You are missing my point. I agree that we should move away from oil, gas, and coal for energy source wherever we can., However, until we do, if we move from burning oil at the train to burning oil/coal/gas at the power plant, we are simply moving the pile of dirt from one place to another. We should be trying to develop geothermal as much as possible, and (horrors) nuclear. My opinion: Solar may be nice but it works only in daylight and best in low latitudes and desert climates so it is really not a good all the time source of power, and wind? Wind is primarily looking like you are doing something. It is just today's flavor of the month. You can chop birds with windmills and it is OK, but horrors if you required some frog to move with pipeline. Wind is highly erratic, so you need some form of back up. This gets you back to some form of fixed power plant, but you have drastically reduced its efficiency.
George, I think we are in agreement but just looking at different time horizons. As you say, right now there is still too much carbon in electricity generation to make electricity very green. Large scale railroad electrification for the sake of it thus doesn't make much sense from a green point of view. My remarks are based more on the time horizon that that will change.
 

Ryan

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Cirdan: You are missing my point. I agree that we should move away from oil, gas, and coal for energy source wherever we can., However, until we do, if we move from burning oil at the train to burning oil/coal/gas at the power plant, we are simply moving the pile of dirt from one place to another.
And when we do so, we can use those "dirty" fuels far more efficiently, and have pollution control devices that would be impractical on a mobile platform.

My opinion: Solar may be nice but it works only in daylight and best in low latitudes and desert climates so it is really not a good all the time source of power
Germany is neither low latitude nor desert, and generates a massive amount of electricity from solar.


Nuclear is also a very obvious source. I do not understand this uproar about disposal of residuals. So, it is radioactive, but there is less radioactivity in it than there was in the stuff when it went to the plant. If not so, please tell me how. Ship the residuals back to the area of origin. Problem solved. No new radioactivity in a new location.
Yeah, it doesn't really work that way. Try reading this, paying particular attention to the section on enrichment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_fuel_cycle
 

PRR 60

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Nuclear is also a very obvious source. I do not understand this uproar about disposal of residuals. So, it is radioactive, but there is less radioactivity in it than there was in the stuff when it went to the plant. If not so, please tell me how. Ship the residuals back to the area of origin. Problem solved. No new radioactivity in a new location.
Yeah, it doesn't really work that way. Try reading this, paying particular attention to the section on enrichment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_fuel_cycle
Freah nuclear fuel is relatively benign. It can be transported and handled with few safeguards from radiation. Pellets can be held in a gloved hand. When the fuel is irradiated and spent, it is really nasty, highly radioactive stuff, and it stays that way for a long time. Handling and storage is complex and expensive. Good in, bad out. It seems counterintuitive, but that it the nature of the nuclear power beast.
 
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ALC Rail Writer

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I think John Q. Public's objection to nuclear plants is as much less about fuel disposal as minimizing accidents. The industry is still recovering public opinion dips as a result of the Fukushima accident, as well as Chernobyl and TMI. I know I wouldn't want to live downwind of a nuclear power plant.

Thank you Anderson for the info about sextuple tracking, I might bump that up to octuple for dramatic effect.
 

Anderson

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I think John Q. Public's objection to nuclear plants is as much less about fuel disposal as minimizing accidents. The industry is still recovering public opinion dips as a result of the Fukushima accident, as well as Chernobyl and TMI. I know I wouldn't want to live downwind of a nuclear power plant.

Thank you Anderson for the info about sextuple tracking, I might bump that up to octuple for dramatic effect.
Well, another distinct possibility would be separated freight/passenger ops within the same ROW, especially out west. One thing that would lead to is some rather impressive flyover constructions.

One other idea: If you have the train follow a "southern" route to CA and you want to throw in a cool visual (which you can thank the Desert Xpress folks for sticking in my mind), have the train hit Vegas on the way...crossing the Colorado River just south of the Hoover Dam.
 

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Regarding carbon emissions: A fairly steady rule of thumb is that electric uses 1/3rd the energy of oil or 12.5kWh to the gallon of oil. Diesel releases 22.38 pounds of CO2 per gallon which means a break-even electric train needs an energy source that is 1.79 pounds of CO2 per kWh or less. If you use nothing but coal, which is 2.08-2.18, it'll be dirtier, but electric grids are pretty much always a mix. For example in California, in 2011, our energy intensity was only 0.7 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt hour (and that's including imported electricity which makes up 30% of our consumption but the majority of our electric emissions). This doesn't account for any operational benefits; if you can run the train faster thanks to better acceleration, your overall emissions may decline.

Those operational benefits are the only reason that you'll see freight electrify and I don't think that they'll ever do so. The cost savings don't outweigh the capital investment cost and they have some operational drawbacks as well (imagine the chaos of a Southern Transcon with dead overhead; alternatively, consider the limit on power draw). If electrification can provide a bigger capacity boost than increasing the number of tracks or if it can allow for new revenue services (return of the Super C or LCL service), then you might see it, but I'm doubtful.
 

Anderson

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Regarding carbon emissions: A fairly steady rule of thumb is that electric uses 1/3rd the energy of oil or 12.5kWh to the gallon of oil. Diesel releases 22.38 pounds of CO2 per gallon which means a break-even electric train needs an energy source that is 1.79 pounds of CO2 per kWh or less. If you use nothing but coal, which is 2.08-2.18, it'll be dirtier, but electric grids are pretty much always a mix. For example in California, in 2011, our energy intensity was only 0.7 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt hour (and that's including imported electricity which makes up 30% of our consumption but the majority of our electric emissions). This doesn't account for any operational benefits; if you can run the train faster thanks to better acceleration, your overall emissions may decline.

Those operational benefits are the only reason that you'll see freight electrify and I don't think that they'll ever do so. The cost savings don't outweigh the capital investment cost and they have some operational drawbacks as well (imagine the chaos of a Southern Transcon with dead overhead; alternatively, consider the limit on power draw). If electrification can provide a bigger capacity boost than increasing the number of tracks or if it can allow for new revenue services (return of the Super C or LCL service), then you might see it, but I'm doubtful.
There are a whole host of issues with large-scale freight electrification out there, and because of that I agree that it is unlikely you'll ever see it on the scale it's happened in, for example, Russia. The only case would be if fuel prices just started marching and didn't show any signs of stopping for quite a while (think the trendline of 2003-07 without the massive drop in 2009 to calm everyone down), and even then, the issues with dead wire are potentially catastrophic.

I do think if you could increase freight speeds by 20-25% (and presumably increase the number of slots available as a result), it might make a difference. If freight could offer second-day delivery of packages to a good portion of the US, for example, it would probably be worthwhile (since you'd be able to move even more UPS/FedEx stuff by rail as a result), but absent a substantial improvement, there's not likely to be a large market for a "Super C"-type service.
 
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