How Electrifying Rails Can Be Accomplished and the Benefits

Solutionary Rail
A people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future

Bill Moyer, author
Patrick Mazza, editor
J. Craig Thorpe, illustrator
Backbone Campaign, 2016
108 pages, paperback, $19.95
ISBN-13 978-09980963-0-8

Reviewed by Debbie Cantrell

“Solutionary Rail” is a ground-breaking book from the Backbone Campaign, an activist group based on Vashon Island. The book is well researched, clearly written and beautifully illustrated. It is a must-read for anyone concerned about our climate and creating a sustainable economy.

“Solutionary Rail” proposes a demonstration project to show how electrifying rails can be accomplished and as a real-life illustration of the benefits and the communities they serve. The BNSF Northern-Transcon and its major branch lines, which run from Seattle to Chicago, has been proposed for the demonstration project. It is a major transport route for U.S. products to Asia. The line runs through areas with challenging topography and weather, showing that if it can work there, it can work anywhere.

Backbone is known across the nation for teaching “artful activism” at its Localize This! action camps. It assembles experts and holds workshops on nonviolent direct action, light-brigade tactics, freeway bannering, community organizing and action planning. Activists are then invited to use their skills to work on actions relevant to their local communities. Since 2003, Backbone Campaign has helped people caught in the mortgage crisis, educated folks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and helped in attempts to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Globally, they are known for instigating “kayaktivsm” to protect sensitive environments from everything from Arctic drilling to mining operations. Motivated by a desire to change the railway system’s reliance on fossil fuels, Backbone organized a team of experts and innovative thinkers to create a plan that uses current rail infrastructure as a piece of the green-energy solution. The team includes experts from the rail industry, economists, energy, engineers and artists.

The strategy involves upgrading current rail infrastructure to accommodate electric engines powered by renewable energy. Electrification can potentially lower not only reliance on fossil fuels but also on greenhouse gas emissions, create of a dependable market for new green energy projects, and provide a conduit for transmission of wind and solar power to communities that need it. Additional benefits include safer and less crowded highways due to lower truck traffic, more efficient intercity public transportation, quieter and cleaner environments in rail line neighborhoods, and improved working conditions for rail workers.

The proposal involves tribal sovereignty as a cornerstone of the planning process. Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental  Network, wrote of “Solutionary Rail”:

“Extreme extraction and the transport of fossil fuels has been devastating for indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada and around the world. Railroads have been a tool of colonization, the political takings of indigenous lands and genocide. Indigenous peoples have, however, persevered despite all odds. …

“The seventh-generation principle and responsibilities to the rights of Mother Earth-Nature is not some abstract, romantic idea but an ethic for survival of communities, the environment and all life. ‘Solutionary Rail’ taps into that spiritual challenge to change course and returns with a transformative vision for redeeming railroads and a society addicted to their dangerous cargo. Indigenous and non-indigenous rural communities can be part of this solution by powering these trains and their communities with renewable energy and transmitting the surplus to the cities.”

“Solutionary Rail” addresses strategies for funding and oversight of this huge infrastructure modernization project. Examples of public-private partnerships are discussed as an example of how this structure could be used for electrifying rails. The public benefits for communities is great incentive for government to partner with industry. The proposal involves the creation of an interstate rail authority, the Steel Interstate Development Authority, a non-profit with the authority to raise funds by selling tax-free bonds.

The proposal put forth in “Solutionary Rail” has already received unanimous approval in a 2016 resolution from the Washington State Labor Council Convention. The resolution cites dangerous derailment of fossil fuel-laden trains, rail-worker safety, the importance of rail modernization to the economy of Washington state, and the opportunity to create sustainable transportation as well as incentives for green energy as compelling reasons for their support of this project.

“Solutionary Rail” can be purchased locally at Village Books or online at

The “Solutionary Rail” campaign will require a huge grass-roots team working together to make the vision become reality. Regional teams are forming to do the groundwork of getting leaders on board. For more information or to sign up to join the team, go to

Debbie Cantrell is a Bellingham biologist, an environmental and social justice activist. She has been working on climate justice, the TPP and Initiative 735 to overturn Citizen’s United. As part of Occupy Bellingham, she has been working with the Backbone Campaign since it hosted a Localize This! action camp here in 2012. She can be reached at 360-920-0981