The Electrification of Vancouver Island (passenger and freight rail)

(There is an addition to this article here)
I’ve proposed to a number of people over the past few months that what needs to happen in order to limit our consumption of oil *and* our emissions of climate-change inducing fumes, is to electrify our transportation networks.

With regular joes like myself, I usually get a fairly positive “ya, that makes sense” kind of response.

With other people “in the know”, like rail workers or business people or general cynics (not that there’s anything wrong with cynics), I get the “that is wayyy too expensive”… or “there isn’t enough electricity”… or it (passenger) would never be used, etc.

Well. Today, I’m going to poke a few holes in that anti-electrification/railfreight argument. I’ll see over time if anyone can come around and just try to fill them in. (This is similar to Al Gores approach in The Inconvenient Truth… what can I say, the most boring man ever in the White House actually inspired me! ;))

So. One main facet of my thought on efficient transport is electrified railroad. I’ve asked around and the response is generally pretty negative mainly because “short line” railroads can’t afford the capital expenditure that would be required to electrify a line. I’ll accept the capital expenditure argument for now… though when it comes down to money… the solutions are even more simple.

This post, though deals with the issue of electricity supply.

Exactly how much energy does it cost to run an electric freight train? Would we need a whole bunch of Nuclear Power plants like France and Japan?

The answer…

Absolutely not.

Electric rail does not actually consume a great amount of electricity considering its transportation capabilities, and in terms of net energy consumption (in MegaJoules) it consumes roughly half that of road/trucking for freight and passenger service. The Nukes are needed, mainly, for the highspeed (TGV) and other incredibly fast services… but as we’ll see, even those aren’t insurmountable.


Lets get to the point.

How much electricity would we need, on Vancouver Island, to run our existing shortline railroad.

It’s pretty simple math.

A: Electric Rail Consumption is based on KiloWatt Hours/KM (KMh/km)
B: The E&N shortline is approximately 290KM of track
C: Most Electricity Generation stations are measured in GigaWatt Hours/year

So, we need to know:

#1: How many KWh/km does an average electric pass/freight train consume?
#2: How many KM does the rail traffic actually put on in a year
#3: How many GWH/yr does the rail traffic consume.

OK… (if you just want to know the answer, feel free to scroll down to the bottom 🙂 )

#1… The UK put out a great report on their rail networks consumption and emissions. On Page 13 is a very handy table detailing electrical consumption of various “Classes” of engines (which simply means different types and manufacturers).

I’ll use Class 92 Engines which are very versatile and incredibly powerful (over 5000hp). They are the engines used in the “Chunnel” to transport freight and passengers between England and France, so we can be quite sure that these trains are very capable of pulling very heavy loads (they also travel at nearly 150KM/h, which is far more than what we require on Vancouver Island)

According to the UK document, these trains consume between 21 and 41KWh/mile (depending on freight load/weight).

That works about very roughly to 13-26KWh/km

#2 Next, we need to know travel distances. In 2000, there was a report put up on Trainscan which gives some insight on rail traffic on the E&N, it gives a good overview of the daily routine.

Here’s the breakdown by services per week.
VIAs E&N Passenger rail service puts on 3,154km between Courtenay/Victoria
RailAmerica (now ICF/SRY) logs about 450km of freight between Courtenay/Victoria
and on the Port Alberni stub, which stopped service in the late 90s, around 840km (based on a 140KM roundtrip 6days/wk)

Total mileage per week?

that’s 231,088km per year


#3 So now, all we need to do is multiply the kWh/km * km per year… and we get our answer…

To power the entire E&N shortline, all year, with regular service as was happening in the late 1990s… the electrical requirements (using very overpowered freight/passenger engines) (drumroll)

3.0 to 6.0GWh per year

It’s always good to be safe… so lets say 8GWh per year… that will give us a little room for “growth”.

So… 8GWh per year. But how much is that really?

Well, if you read my earlier post on Alternative Energy and BC Hydro yesterday, and followed the links you would have ended up here. A handy little chart detailing power generation of proposed facilities approved by BC Hydro.

Lets take one plant close to my hometown, the Franklin River Run-of-River Small Hydro project.

It’s rated capacity?

19GWh per year.

That’s over 2x the amount needed to run the entire rail system on the Island for the year.

But wait… what if we want “rapid transit” on the Island. That will likely require *even more* electricity.

Well, what other plants do we have proposed coming online on Vancouver Island?

From North to South….

Songhees Creek Hydro Project @ Port Hardy 61GWh/year
Victoria Lake Hydroelectric Project @ Port Alice 39GWh/year
Raging River 2 @ Port Alice 13GWh/year
Clint Creek Hydro Project @ Woss 27GWh/year
Barr Creek Hydroelectric Project @ Tahsis 15GWh/year
McKelvie Creek Hydroelectric Project @ Tahsis 14GWh/year
Gold River Power Project (using Biomass) @ Gold River 745GWh/year

So what was that about a shortage of power on the Island?

The current proposals for new power on Vancouver Island total 914GWh / year of capacity.

8GWh is under 1% of that.

And that would, easily, move most, if not all of the current medium-haul transport truck traffic off of the highways as well as give enough headroom for a little bit of expanded passenger service.

Dedicate 5% of that new power (~95GWh/yr) to electrified rail, and you would quadruple the amount of “pulling power” on the rail… Victoria and Nanaimo could likely have LRT and/or Electric trolleys… and all freight on the Island could move by rail.

10%… we could have our own TGV on the Island.

Now get back to that original 8GWh number… a a little river like this can produce double the amount of electricity to power an entire shortline railroad. How many little rivers like this are there on Vancouver Island? in BC? 10s? 100s? 1000s?

Electricity is the key to our oil-free future.

The right kind of motivation will easily move the money to make it happen.

Next, I’d like to look at electrifying the entire Canadian rail system. 😉 (small goals, I know)

(There is an addition to this article here)

6 replies on “The Electrification of Vancouver Island (passenger and freight rail)”

  1. That’s a nice breakdown. It would be interesting to compare the cost per kilometer to that of trucking. And the cost of laying/maintaining/upgrading the track and station infrastructure.

  2. What you’re missing is peak power consumption. The average consumtion over a year might be only 8 GWh/y but if you are only producing 8GWh and you need 12 during rush hour, you’re trains aren’t going anywhere. Even if your load is even over the day, most transit systems shut down at night.

    What you need to find is how many GWh you would need to keep your trains running at peak time assuming more trains are run rush hour.

    I must say that I’m curious what the plan is for all that extra power that’s proposed.

  3. That’s something I have been trying to find out. Not much information available out there in terms of peak power required but I’m sure I can dig it up.

    “I must say that I’m curious what the plan is for all that extra power that’s proposed.”

    What plan is needed? Just sell it. 😉 The IPPs generally sell it to BC Hydro, which can then do with the extra capacity what it pleases… which is generally sell it on the open market.

  4. It just occured to me that it would be quite easy to figure out the theoretical peak load of such a system.

    All you have to know is the number of locomotives on the system and their maximum rated horsepower and convert it to kilowatts.

    In our case, the E&N system is quite small. When it last operated as a viable freight hauler there were 2-3 locomotives on the Alberni sub, and 2-3 on the Victoria-Courtney sub.

    Rail America used the EMD GP38 which are rated at 2000 horsepower, or 1.5MW.

    The Via Rail ‘Budd’ RDC cars are rated at about 280hp*2 for each car. So lets say 600hp per car. Via has 3 cars on the Island.

    so… 3 * 600… 1,800HP maximum power from Via
    6 * 2000hp… 12,000hp from RailAmerica

    13,800hp total… which translates to:


    or 10.2MW.

    So the Franklin River Project alone would not be able to handle the peak-immediate load of the E&N… but, say, if you combined it’s “sister” facility at China Creek (which has the same capacity) the two together would easily produce enough electricity assuming the head is sufficient through the generators… and again, given the abudance of run-of-river possiblities on the Island, sufficient power for future expansion is readily available.

  5. Interesting projections. One problem is that rail would mainly replace longer-haul trucking and passenger commuting. You would need to factor in the energy used by car or truck to get to/from points of departure or destination.

    Do Vancouver island residents need to drive a lot to get to shopping, schools, etc.? With all of that electric power, one option for total daily driving of less than 50 miles might be to use fully electric cars that can recharge overnight. But that wouldn’t be practical if cars need to drive longer distances, and I’m not sure the savings with hybrid cars yet would offset their higher purchase price.

    One other question is whether shifting to electricity would bring a saving in energy costs per household.

  6. Given the fact that BC has some of the lowest electricity rates in the world ($CAD 0.06 per KWh)… I’d say that if anywhere was a good candidate for “electrifying” the highways it’d be here. The infrastructure is well suited and people are in bedroom communities that are 20-50miles away from their work.

    The rest of the commuting is within 10 miles, so you could either look at all-electric cars with charging stations at work locations, or extensive LRT. Subways won’t work here.

    Also, as far as trucking goes, most of the trucking is medium-haul supplying and shipping between the wood/fiber/paper mills, logging trucks, and fuel. There are existing railbeds that have served those mills and many large businesses in the past. They would need to be reactivated to be used, but there is no reason why that couldn’t happen given the proper incentives.

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