LaDuke: The new 'Iron Horse'

Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke

I am a big fan of trains. The sight of Duluth’s historic train system was beautiful. As I watched the smoke billow from the engine, I realized that some relics should stay in the past.

Here’s my suggestion: How about an electric train Duluth? You could be the leader in the next economy. Driving is highly overrated. And, an electric train would be quiet, a lot quieter than what they’ve got going in Duluth for sure.

Here’s the case: Trains are efficient; metal on metal is less friction than rubber on the road. Trains move lots of loads, and should move safe stuff.

The rest of the world has trains. Worldwide, electricity serves nearly a quarter of railroad track miles and supplies over one-third of the energy that powers trains. China has 41% of the country’ lines electrified; Italy, 68%. But in the U.S., under 1% of tracks are electrified. In contrast, America, according to writer James Kunstler, “ has a train system which would be an embarrassment to Bulgaria.” That’s a low blow. There's no time like the present to change that.

More than that, it’s math. In terms of diesel engines, 30–35% of the energy in the fuel makes it to the wheels. Supplying electricity directly from an overhead power line means 95% of the electricity taken from the power grid is employed by the wheels. That saves money and energy, and that’s smart. No more than 5% is lost through the engine transformer and overhead wires.



There’s a national plan called Solutionary Rail. Coordinated by , they are tackling American infrastructure issues. Frankly, not many people are interested in infrastructure. It’s not as flashy as football, advertising or television. But some people have to think about how stuff is going to work, now and in the future. And, we need to do that with a lot less fossil fuels.

Railroads are a unifying system, that makes sense, and railroads can lead a transition to a clean economy. “Unlike other heavy, long-haul transportation vehicles such as ships,” the report notes, “planes, and semitrucks, trains can be easily electrified, and electricity is increasingly coming from clean sources such as sun and wind. Rail is already the most efficient form of ground transportation, and it has an unparalleled capacity to provide clean freight and passenger mobility.

Under the Solutionary Rail plan, electrification would be accomplished in conjunction with track modernization. Solutionary Rail proposes to not only electrify the rail lines, but also to put renewable energy transmission access along these same power lines.

The proposal also includes running power transmission lines through the rail corridors. It’s not easy to get the rights-of-way needed to build new long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines. Renewable energy, coming out of windy states like North Dakota and Montana, is stranded power. We need to get it on the grid.

Solutionary Rail proposes to use rail corridors to move that power along with electric trains. Rails have always been a cornerstone of American industrialism. In a new green economy, rails are essential infrastructure. Rail moves people and things. And, in this case, can also move energy.

What we need is vision, not nostalgia. After all, the guillotine was a really cool relic of the past, but we don’t want to bring it back. I think that the old time stinky, engine needs to go. Working together, we can make a new energy economy in Minnesota. In fact, a new green economy. That’s the one that will make sense in the future.

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