Solar Rail?

by Matt Ball on July 3, 2008

I received a post today from the Urban Alliance for Sustainability, a Bay-area based cooperative of like-minded green organizations, that promote sustainability-related initiatives. A nicely-written main feature by Christopher Swan from Suntrain in their monthly newsletter discusses the return of railways to American cities. There’s also a suggestion within the document to promote the return of “retail railways.” This piece even details the size of investment needed to create a revitalized United States-wide railway that could be solar powered.

“This new railway would be a revelation in mobility. One network capable of moving anyone or anything anywhere in the US, potentially the continent, often at 60 plus miles per hour instead of 30 or less. One system generating thousands of jobs and millions of cultural relationships and uncountable business opportunities. One service where instead of focusing on the highway lanes passengers are talking, or reading or watching the view or a movie or doing e-mail, or working or sleeping or writing or having dinner or dancing in the lounge under the stars. One experience where you might get to know the person in the next seat instead of cursing at the person in the next lane. Trains can be a place to be on the way to a place.”

Be sure to check out the Suntrain website for more details on this Suntrain concept, including more writings by Christopher Swan.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Ramsey July 3, 2008 at 11:51 am

Blah, blah, blah. How many content-free rail proposals have we seen over the past 20 years? I would love to see a revitalized North American passenger rail network, but it’s going to take more than a hippy with a web site to get one. It’s a frigging moon shot. The railroads were originally built with federal dollars, in the form of land grants, billions and billions of dollars worth. Well, the federal government doesn’t have free land, anymore, the frontier is closed, so rebuilding rail infrastructure is going to take cold hard cash in the billions. Perhaps President Obama and the new Democratic congress will do it, but I doubt it. The easiest way to get hands on the required billions is to take the money out of the federal highways slush fund, but the motoring public won’t stand for *that*. The auto lobby even begrudges the paltry dollars allocated for transit improvements in the current funding equations.

Matt Ball July 3, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Paul, it looks like you may have skipped the article (, and went straight to the website. Classifying Christopher Swan as a hippie may be accurate, but he doesn’t advocate a painless, cost-free solution. There’s close accounting in the feature regarding the $600 Billion value of the north american freight industry, and the fact that rail freight is much more economical and reliable than trucks on highways. Any revamping of the rail system will have to rely heavily on freight revenue. There’s also Swan’s strong evidence of rail revival in many cities already. I don’t think we’re as far away from a solution as the tone of your e-mail implies.

Paul Ramsey July 3, 2008 at 12:30 pm

Right, all we need is the political will to spend billions of dollars on an infrastructure that will be vigorously opposed by lots of highly wealthy actors in the current economy.

There’s the physical feasibility (no problem), the economic feasibility (perhaps), and the political feasibility (no freaking way).

If President Obama doesn’t take it on in the next two years, prepare for another 10 year wait.

Matt Ball July 3, 2008 at 12:46 pm

A timeline of at least 10 years seems reasonable for such a large-scale project. I’d agree that the execution of the idea may be a long way off on the national scale, unless the price of oil keeps going up considerably. If the California high-speed rail project ( the ballot and gets passed, then perhaps we’ll see more awareness and competition between regions for this time line to accelerate.

Here in Denver where I live, we passed the 12-year FasTracks ( initiative for 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail for the Colorado front range. The project is funded through a sales tax increase of .04 cents on the dollar. The total cost of this project is more than $6 billion, and I’m still about six years away from getting a local station.

KoS July 3, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Couple food for thought.

Maybe if we didn’t have this push for rails-to-trails. There may be enough infrastructure left so as to not have to recreate the wheel, so to speak, in many areas.

And the comment about freight and railroads. It won’t work unless businesses changes back to the old mode of doing business. Meaning before the just in time business model. How many businesses are willing to go back to the old days?


D. Quiz August 24, 2008 at 10:26 am

The (r)evolution to solar powered trains is not only right, it is inevitable. The technology is already here when you combine maglev technology (which eliminates weight and power ratio problems), with perpetual motion. The result is a conveyor beltway system which loads anything and everything onto moving solar podlines – It looks like a train, but it is not because there is no waiting, no luggage, no tickets, no turnstyles, etc. Check it out at It is an amazing answer to THE energy and transporatation problems that must be answered now.

Ted Lahti March 17, 2009 at 7:51 am

We are building a solar powered passenger rail vehicle, Tell me what you think.. Ted Lahti see business plan below

Affiliate Profits July 27, 2009 at 10:31 am

Never really looked at the information like that before. Thanks!

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