Now California Wants to Force You to Ride the Magical Mystery Train

AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File

It takes a special kind of stupid to mandate electric vehicles that many people can't afford, charged on a power grid that can't support them. But beyond even that, it takes a special kind of magical thinking to mandate electric trains that haven't been invented.


Welcome to California, the land of magical thinking.

By law, "all new passenger cars, trucks, and SUVs sold in California will be zero-emission vehicles [ZEV] by 2035." ZEVs include EVs, hydrogen-powered vehicles, and plug-in hybrids (but not regular hybrids). If Sacramento gets its way, starting in 2030, freight trains will have to meet the same strict standards.

While it escaped my attention at the time, in November the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued new regulations "that would require all freight trains to be in a zero-emission configuration by 2035. By 2030, the rule mandates that diesel locomotives that are 23 years or older be retired, even though a locomotive can have a useful life of 39 years or longer."

Passenger trains will have to go full ZEV by 2030 and freight trains by 2035. The problem is that nobody makes a ZEV freight train. It also seems unlikely to be a good idea, but stick a pin in that thought because I'll come back to it momentarily.

The closest thing to CARB's new standard is a battery-electric locomotive made by a firm called Wabtec. But it's only a demonstration engine at this point; it only reduces fuel use by 11% because it has to be used in tandem with traditional diesel engines, and therefore still doesn't satisfy CARB.


California needs to go on a low-CARB diet, but alas.

Now let's get back to the practicalities of ZEV trains.

If there's one thing diesel does very well, it's generate absurd amounts of towing power. Want to pull a hundred cars of freight? Diesel. Need to deliver a semi's worth of unassembled IKEA furniture? Diesel. Towing your 26-foot camping trailer up the mountains? Diesel.

Batteries suck for towing. The additional mass drains them far more rapidly than regular driving does. I can't imagine how many locomotives worth of batteries it would take to pull the massive coal trains I see moving along the Front Range, but most of the ones I see already use four or five diesel engines.

So either California is going to require the most ridiculous number of (non-existent) electric locomotive engines, or they're going to have to electrify their entire network of train tracks. I don't even know if that's possible. But I am laughing at the thought of what would happen when the train hits the Nevada state line and the power runs out.

It isn't just the lack of ZEV locomotives that makes the mandate crazy; it's the physics. 


The only sane element to this most absurd example of Sacramento's magical thinking is that the state will need a waiver from the EPA before it can put the new regulations into effect.

If I know anything about the Biden EPA, the answer will come back, "You want permission to mandate imaginary trains on an impossible timeline? Sure, why not?"

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