“Forever Fleet”: It may look silver, but it’s really green

It may look silver, but it's really green. (4 pages, PDF)
It may look silver, but it’s really green. (4 pages, PDF)

Trains have long been known to be the most fuel-efficient and environmentally respectful way to travel. That includes Corridor Capital’s Hi-Level “Forever Fleet” of stainless steel cars.

Electrically powered trains are the the leaders in both categories. A typical electric passenger train of the type used in Europe and Asia uses only 0.2 mega-joules of energy per passenger-kilometer. That’s 13 times less than the average personal automobile and 10 times less than a domestic airliner.

An electrically powered high-speed train — one capable of operating faster than 150 mph — uses about one-third more juice per passenger than a conventional train, but even that figure turns out to be almost nine times lower than the per-passenger energy consumption and greenhouse-gas discharge of a private automobile.

Even a diesel-powered train of the type used on most North American railroads is still about three times more energy efficient than a car and more than twice as efficient as a domestic jet.

Those figures come from Transport Revolutions (New Society Publications, 2010) by Canadian professors Anthony Perl and Richard Gilbert. These authors demonstrate repeatedly that trains represent the most energy-efficient way to move large numbers of people.

But while Perl and Gilbert correctly evaluated the superior energy efficiency and environmental impact of trains in motion they never investigated another side of the issue: the energy need to produce a typical train (and the greenhouse gases discharged in the manufacturing process).

The dark side of the steelmaking process

American passenger trains usually are made of steel, and steelmaking is one of the most energy-intensive and pollution-generating processes in modern industry.

Moreover, the cars used on American passenger trains, including the double-decked Next Generation cars soon to be built for three Midwestern states plus California, are built of stainless steel, a special alloy of iron, chromium and nickel that’s both lighter and stronger than conventional steel and has the additional virtue of being rustproof.

The downside of this wonder-metal, however, is that producing it uses even more energy and generates even more greenhouse gas than does the production of conventional steel.

“If a ton of stainless steel was produced from raw materials, it would create 4.2 tons of CO2 emissions,” said an article in the August 14, 2013, edition of “Your Energy Blog.”

And that figure covers only the extraction and smelting of the iron ore and the reheating of the iron with chromium and nickel to make stainless steel. It does not cover the cost of transporting the materials as they move from extraction to smelting to forming to manufacturing.

Getting to alloy is not cheap

The two additional metals required to make the alloy known as stainless steel require are particularly hard on the environment, according to “Your Energy Blog.”

“8.7 tons of CO₂ are released to process one ton of ferro-nickel, 6 tons of CO₂ are released for every ton of ferro-chromium mined. “

In fact, the environmental penalties associated with the smelting of these ores go beyond just the release of greenhouse gases.

You don’t want to mess with chrome or nickel

Anyone who’s ever visited the site of a large nickel-smelting operation, such as Sudbury, Ont., or Ducktown, Tenn., knows that the smokestack discharges from the smelter leave the hillsides bare of vegetation for miles downwind.

And according to Mark Reutter, a Baltimore-based writer specializing in the railroad and steel industries, chromium’s environmental penalties may be the worst because the chemical needed to process it form a toxic residue that won’t go away.

“Hexivalent chromium VI, a byproduct of chromium smelting, is considered one of the most toxic substances known to science,” Reutter said. “It can go airborne, it can get into drinking water and it can cause cancer. It does not biodegrade. It stays in the soil forever. The sites where chromium formerly was smelted have to be ‘capped’ with a seven-foot thick layer of clay. Baltimore used to be a major center of chromium smelting, and we’re having a big dispute right now over a developer who wants to dig down below one of those caps to put up a new building.”

Don’t forget about water

Reutter, whose book Making Steel: Sparrow’s Point and the Rise and Ruin of an American Industry (University of Illinois Press, 2004), is a highly respected study of steelmaking, said it’s easy to overlook another major victim of the steelmaking process–America’s dwindling supply of fresh water.

“It requires huge amounts of water to cool steel,” he said. “A blast furnace generates heat in the range of 2900 degrees, and reheating iron so you can blast the impurities out of it with oxygen generates 3000 degrees of temperature. Plus the impurities form a sludge.”

Using recycling to spare the environment

“Your Energy Blog” said about two-thirds of that energy and greenhouse-gas discharges can be recycled by recycling this metal rather than producing a fresh supply from ore.

In a typical year, such as 2004, the global steel industry produced 17 million metric tons of stainless steel.

“Recycling facilities reduce this energy by one-third and CO₂ emissions by 29 million tons,” according to the blog. “If all stainless steel came from scrap, 2/3 less energy would be used and nearly ¾ of the emissions would be reduced. Until possible, 1/3 will have to do.”

Upcycling takes it to the next level

“Until possible.” Is it possible—today—that those numbers could be reduced even further?

According to German industrialist Reiner Pilz, of Pilz GmbH, they could reduced dramatically—close to zero, in fact—if manufacturing were to switch from recycling to what Pilz called “upcycling.”

What’s the difference? In 1994 Pilz told an interviewer that while recycling requires an item made of metal to be melted down and then re-formed into other manufactured products, upcycling skips the melting down and uses the manufactured item itself as the raw material for a more advanced product of the same type.

You can do that with a railroad car

This is precisely the approach Capital Corridor chose when it acquired the rights to more than 50 stainless-steel double-decked passenger railcars built in the 1950s and 1960s by the legendary Budd Co. of Philadelphia for the long-distance overnight trains of the Santa Fe Railway. Amtrak sold the former Santa Fe “Hi-Levels” to private collectors in 2001 when it realized it lacked the budget to overhaul them and equip them with State of The Art interiors and electro-mechanical systems required by today’s travelers.

“But the stainless-steel carbodies are intact,” said Corridor Capital Chairman James E. Coston. “They’re just waiting to be ‘tubed out’ and re-equipped with modern heating, air conditioning, plumbing, seating and carpeting—plus electronic passenger-information screens that show the train’s position and on-time performance, ” said Corridor Capital Chairman James E. Coston.

“Stainless steel never rusts and never loses strength due to metal fatigue,” Coston said. “VIA Rail Canada is running U.S.-built stainless-steel cars the same age as the Hi-Levels, and their engineers say the old Budds are the most rugged and cheapest-to-maintain cars they operate. The passengers love them because inside they feel like the most advanced passenger trains being built today—smooth-running, silent—with no squeaks or rattles—and equipped with the latest features and comforts.

“That’s the great virtue upcycling a stainless-steel passenger car rather than buying a new one,” he said. “ You not only save money and take a huge burden off the environment, but you can make it new again without melting it down. That’s why we call our Hi-Levels ‘the Forever Fleet.’”