Railways were once the backbone of the economy, towns sprung up along the lines, lines were built between important centres of industry and trade, and railways provided relatively safe swift travel for millions of people worldwide. Then came the automobile, highways were built, highways were expanded, and now as gas prices soar and an Oil Crisis looms, railways are once again being viewed as a sustainable level of transportation for our world.
Around this part of the world, as with many areas that once had heavy industries such as mining, there are disused and often abandoned railway grades scattered throughout the countryside. The Kootenays were an obvious choice for railway construction with the prospects of high grade ores around Nelson, Rossland and New Denver the ability to provide rapid, reliable links between the vast lakes was crucial for business.
Today, many of these railway grades are maintained as recreation trails for cycling, hiking, cross country skiing and skidooing, with romantic names such as the Kettle Valley Railway, Red Mountain Railway, Kaslo and Slocan Railway, and the Columbia and Kootenay Railway. However, as an engineer the feats and toils of my predecessors provide more than a flat trail to ride on with some bridges and tunnels to marvel at. Saying that, I’m glad that there are groups dedicated to maintaining these critical links to our local history, but equally, these links could prove to be more valuable to future generations than the network of highways that has built up across our land, yes, I believe that railways will once again become a prevalent mode of transport in many parts of North America again.
Railway travel is one of the simplest methods of transport for trips that are along well defined consumer routes, between adjacent towns, from the suburbs to the downtown core, or to link a string of remote towns or villages spread out across river valleys such as those found in the Kootenays. Currently passenger services in regional BC limited to excursion type tourist services, with no commuter services provided outside of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. This works while gas is still cheap for everyone to drive their own vehicle everywhere. But with an Oil Crisis looming, we as a society must look at ways to cut back our impact on the environment, and find ways to travel and transport that have less reliance on oil.
The Hybrid Locomotive
Here is an interesting fact: According GE, a 207-ton locomotive during the course of one year is enough to power 160 households for a year. So why not capture that energy? That?s what they thought as well and what they came up with was quite ingenious.
Take a 4,400 horsepower locomotive, add lead-free rechargeable batteries (essentially a 1,000 pound molten-salt cell), and a fuel-efficient high horsepower diesel locomotive, and you end up with quite a package. Every time the engine brakes, the dynamic energy is transferred into the batteries, thus becoming an extra 2,000 horsepower that is available for use by the operator when needed. The outcome of this? A fuel consumption reduction of about 15% and an emissions cut of a whopping 50% compared to locomotives operating today.
Best part? The first one goes into operation in 2010.
Putting together this technology with rail rights of ways that were dedicated to make transporting goods up and down mountains as easy as possible provides a sensible alternative to commercial trucking and passenger commuting in gas guzzling SUVs. I won’t say that the governments and historical societies were particularly progressive when they fought for these railway grades to be maintained for public use, but a day may come when we once again need these corridors and possibly we’ll once again hear the locomotive’s whistle on these historical lines.
Could this be a reality we have to consider?