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1998-04-30 20:46:27


Vicious Circle: Coal - Trains - Electrical Train Switching


This appeared on a forum on Rick Cowles' Electric Utilities and Y2K site. It raises a very good question. Coal-fired electrical power plants require deliveries of trainloads of coal. Trains require electrical power for switching. Could a power blackout in one region shut down trains delivering coal to other regions? It looks like it.

I could post this in DOMINO EFFECT or SHIPPING AND TRANSPORTATION. But I'll do it here, since the power grid is the Big One.

It takes electrical power to generate electrical power. That is the dilemma we are in. We may lose power in one overloaded burst of energy. Or we may lose it station by station, city by city, as coal shortages emerge, or spare parts shortages emerge.

Western Civilization is now totally dependent on the inventions of Mr. Edison and Mr. Tesla. Whatever threatens power generation threatens the very survival of this civilization. There is no doubt about it: power generation is now threatened. Yet to conclude that this civilization is threatened is considered "doomsaying" by the boomsayers, whose name is legion.

When I think of the effects of a 60-day blackout, they look like doom to me. And I'm sitting on 60 acres with a natural gas well and three 10kw natural gas-powered generators. What are you sitting on?

* * * * * * *

Background for my question:

Coal powered electrical utilities provide the majority source of power to Minnesotans. One coal-powered plant alone at Becker, according to NSP at their web site,, burns three trainloads of coal a day!

The question (sorry for over-elaborating):

I have no idea how far away that coal is. Suppose the train has a path from point A (where the coal is) to point Z (where the NSP coal power plant is). Assume there are a multitude of power utilities operating (their service territory) between points A-Z, and we'll call these inter- mediate electric service utility territories points A-Z. Now imagine that just one power utility is down, or more, at one or more points in A-Z.

If the railroad uses electricity to operate the switches and signals between points A-Z, will a Year-2000 caused power failure (let's imagine a serious design flaw affecting critical components such that the downed power utility can't jury rig a quick fix and they're down for weeks or months then) -- if even only one utility is down, affecting say the area where 10-20 signals/switch systems exist on the railroad path, will such a downed utility prevent that railroad from making their coal delivery to NSP (or any other coal-based power utility)?

The question is really where is the electricity coming from that services those switches and signals along the railroad path? Is it from the local utilities in the crossed railroad path or is it from somewhere else? Are there failsafe/fallback power sources for those switches/signals?

What happens if the power grid is messed up and the local utilities are only servicing their local utility areas and only one utility on the path is down from A-Z. I ask this question if the answer to all of this is that the grid supplies the electricity and if the local utility is down, the grid supplies the electricity from whoever is supplying electricity to the grid--thus if this is the answer, my counter-question is this, which I repeat, if the grid can't supply electricity to the switches/signals and a local utility is downed, then is the railroad prevented from making that complete route?

Last, can these switches/signals be operated manually without any electricity? Or is the manual fallback option no longer in existence everywhere?

Conclusion (fears) if the answers are not pretty...

If the answers are that the railroad can't make the delivery if only one utility is downed along the path, or if the grid is disabled and local utilities are only servicing their local service areas (but one of the utilities are down along the path), and if manual fallback (when power does not exist) is no longer an option, then coal-based utilities are very much at risk in 2000. It means, again if all the above answers are "not pretty", that one bad link in the chain, breaks the chain.

Thanks for anybody's help in digging out the answers to these questions.

Roleigh Martin

Asked by Roleigh Martin ( on April 05, 1998.


Talked to my buddy who works for Burlington-Santa Fe: Signals and switches draw their power from the local utility. They have *some* emergency generators, but limited fuel. I don't know how many switches can be operated by hand like they did 100 years ago, but I do know they have fewer employees to do it than 100 years ago. I'd say an extended outage spells real trouble, and a great need for personnel, just to keep minimal vital shipments rolling.

Answered by Lane Dexter ( on April 10, 1998.

Response to railroad vulnerability

I spoke yesterday for quite some time with the president of Fort Worth Technologies. They are involved in the reprogramming efforts related to Y2K. Their largest client happens to be Burlinton Northern/Santa Fe. He relayed to me that this railroad company supplies 80% of this nations fuel and coal.

In their effort to fix their code, they were on schedule to complete their task prior to 2000. In the past two years they completed 10 mil lines of code and in the last couple of months discovered an additional 33 million lines of code. This now puts them 2 years behind in completion. The entire company realizes that there is no hope in finishing this code. The president just sold his house and doesn't know where he's going, but he knows what the future holds...and it doesn't look good.

Answered by Greg Griffin ( on April 16, 1998.

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