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Solutionary Rail: A people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future

By Bill Moyer, Patrick Mazza and the Solutionary Rail Team. Backbone Campaign, 2016. 107 pages. $19.95/paperback.

Many years ago, as my husband, Louis Cox, and I were attempting to lower our carbon footprint, we committed to avoiding domestic air travel, except in an emergency. Out of that decision, we have come to love rail travel. Over the last 20 years we’ve traveled on almost all of the routes in the United States. Yes, it takes longer to get to your destination than does flying, and often the trains are late, but the relaxed atmosphere, the community seating in the dining car, and the great chance to meet interesting people from around the world far outweigh some of the inconveniences.

So, when asked to review the book Solutionary Rail about electrifying the U.S. system’s rail lines, I jumped at the chance. We’ve traveled on the electric trains in Europe and between Boston and Washington, D.C., and have experienced the rapid travel and smooth rails. We know this is a great solution for passenger rail. Electric trains generate no CO2, and when the electricity comes from renewable sources, the result is a clean energy rail system.

Solutionary Rail is a nonprofit organization made up of an incredible team of professionals who have formulated a plan for the electrification and upgrading of the rail system, starting with the Seattle to Chicago northern transcontinental route. They chose that route because the states along the route rely heavily on rail to transport their farm and manufactured goods. Although the major focus of Solutionary Rail’s work is freight transport, the benefits to passenger trains are obvious. The book makes an excellent case for the ultimate profitability and sustainability of an electric rail system. Friends will be interested to know that the organization places much emphasis on healthy and safe working environments for train staff, including better compensation, support of farmers, support of indigenous people’s rights to their land, as well as safety in urban and rural communities.

Their proposal is to use renewable energy generated along the lines and (using the railways as major transmission corridors of that electricity from rural areas to urban centers) to bring new jobs and income opportunities to small towns. This will also result in decreased pollution from the diesel engines now in use. The author writes:

Today train freight transport is at a financial disadvantage compared to truck transport.

The public extensively subsidized railroads in the nineteenth century with grants of land and money…but by the twentieth century railroads were on their own. They had to own and maintain their rails and roadbed, and pay property taxes on those assets. Meanwhile, trucks gained through the twentieth century with the spread of publicly financed roads.

With the development of the Interstate Highway System, access to most of America was made readily available to truck transport. Trucks cause much highway wear and tear for which the trucking companies are not sufficiently charged.

I was impressed with the thorough history of U.S. rail shared in the book and the care with which the team has researched the many issues facing the conversion to electrification. I also appreciated the wonderful illustrations of rural and urban clean rail centers. If you’re interested in following or supporting the progress of Solutionary Rail, go to www​.solutionaryrail​.org.

Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting and active in New England Yearly Meeting’s Earthcare Ministry Committee. She is the author of Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith.


Posted in: January 2018 Books, Quaker Book Reviews, Quaker Lifestyles

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