An organization based on Vashon Island, Backbone Campaign, is taking its creative thinking in a new direction. They are leading a coalition project called “Solutionary Rail” to electrify our rail system and advance the practicality of alternative, green energy. What does “Solutionary” mean? It is a combination of the words “revolutionary” and “solutions.” When applied to railroads, this becomes “Solutionary Rail, a people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future.”
I’m writing this review of “Solutionary Rail” as I ride the Amtrak Coast Starlight, heading all day and overnight from Seattle to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I really enjoy train travel, but we all know that passenger trains have been on the endangered-species list for some time. Once, people rode trains to get from city to city and small town to small town. Now, we drive our cars or travel by plane. Getting places quickly has become more important than taking in the landscape through the train car window or minimizing our carbon footprint by avoiding jet planes. Once, trains carried much of our freight from farms to cities and from ports to factories and beyond. Now, diesel trucks do most of that work, pounding away on our roads. Only heavy cargo is now hauled by train — principally grain and, in recent years, oil and coal, the coal dust polluting the air and the oil just a derailment away from igniting or spilling into waterways.
This is where Solutionary Rail comes in. It’s a plan to upgrade tracks to increase the speed and frequency of trains, making rail a more attractive option for passengers and for freight. Diesel engines will be replaced by electric engines. And the source of the electricity? Not coal or other fossil fuels, but wind, sun and other surface-level sources of energy.
Not only will the trains run on clean energy, but the whole train corridor will become a conduit for moving wind and solar electricity from the rural and tribal lands where it is harvested to the towns and cities that need it. Upper-tier lines, almost like telephone lines, will carry the wind and solar electricity all along the train corridor for use in towns and cities.
If the Solutionary Rail vision becomes reality, we could shift from relying on diesel trucks to carry our farm goods and industrial products to relying on trains carrying these goods. This would lower the number of highway fatalities, reduce the wear and tear on our roads, and — crucial to our survival on Earth — reduce the amount of carbon and other suffocating gases we are currently pouring in to the air. Truck drivers displaced by this shift could be among the many new employees of a greatly expanded rail industry.
But is this feasible? The Solutionary Rail Team (including Backbone Campaign founder Bill Moyer, Patrick Mazza and many others) makes a convincing case. They propose public-private partnerships to raise the initial money to capitalize Solutionary Rail. And they propose a “new, state-based institution to capitalize rail electrification and modernization, the Steel Interstate Development Authority (SIDA).” The SIDA would be “a not-for-profit corporation operating under a board appointed by participating states … with the authority to raise funds for infrastructure investment on both publicly and privately owned rights-of-way.” They also propose beginning with the Chicago-Seattle/Tacoma northern rail corridor: All segments of this rail corridor are owned by BNSF, whose chief stockholder is billionaire Warren Buffett. So there is just one owner to work with, and one who is likely to be interested in the plan.
The Solutionary Rail plan wants this to uplift all people as well as the planet: farmers, tribe members, city dwellers, union workers and everyone needing meaningful, good-paying jobs. This is a crucial aspect of the project, given the history of the American railroad. The tracks were laid by the sweat and on the backs of immigrant Chinese laborers and African-Americans in the years directly following slavery, made famous by the legend of John Henry. Now fueled by diesel, which is harmful to human health as coal is, early engines were fueled by the coal that miners risked their lives and health to dig up from the belly of the Earth. Railroads played a violent role in the decimation of Native-American tribes in the early 20th century, a fact that “Solutionary Rail” lays bare.
The history of the American railroad is an important part of the story of American labor as well: In 1925, African-American men were employed by railway magnate George Pullman as “Pullman Porters,” who since the end of slavery had waited on mostly White passengers in the railroads’ sleeping cars. They unionized as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for decent wages and self-determination. Their motto was “Fight or Be Slaves.” Since 2007, 13 different rail industry labor unions, each with their own history, have formed the Railway Workers United (RWU). RWU’s voice is one of the many featured in “Solutionary Rail.”
“Solutionary Rail” could be the next chapter in this history. It could help us take the crucial step out of the long period of fossil-fuel mining and burning into a sustainable-energy future. It could give farmers a cheaper mode of transporting goods to markets, one that would be healthier for people, the water and the land. And it could create jobs and economic opportunities for the poor and communities of color, offering some redress to the historical exploitation they have suffered.
The book does a great job of lifting up the interests of farmers and railway labor and the Native-American tribes whose lands are crossed and whose economies can benefit from the project. What the project needs more of, however, is a broad anti-racist perspective. How will Solutionary Rail benefit African-Americans who experience unemployment at a much higher rate than White people and who suffer chronic health conditions? And how will Solutionary Rail benefit other poor people, whether they are from White communities, the descendants of immigrants 150 years ago or more, or recent immigrant communities? We can infer how the project will benefit poor and middle-class Americans with increased job opportunities in general and better health as a result of decreased diesel burning near poor neighborhoods. But the Solutionary Rail team needs to make its anti-racist, anti-oppression focus more explicit as the project develops.
The Solutionary Rail Team has already created an impressive network of interested parties, including government, farmers, labor unions, business and tribes. And it has hired a youth intern to do outreach in the Midwest areas of the northern rail corridor. Now it’s our turn to help build this network — by sharing copies of the book, discussing it in book groups, asking our local libraries to make the book available, sharing links of interviews and using social media to continue to spread the word and enlarge the discussion. Make sure all our voices are part of the planning — become Solutionaries!