Fast-moving electric train on rural tracks at sunset.
Technical Summary

Electric Trains

Project Drawdown defines the electric trains solution as the increased electrification of freight railways. This solution replaces the conventional use of diesel-powered freight trains.

Railways are already efficient modes of transportation, whether for goods or passengers. Historically, they have been the backbone of the transport networks for many countries, and remain a critical part of goods transport worldwide. Due to their nature, railways are limited in destinations and flexibility, but they tend to be very low cost to operate and are often used for transportation of lower-value goods such as coal, oil, and bulk materials.

Freight railways can be made more efficient by a wide variety of approaches, including: lighter trains, which need less energy to move; better braking, often with software that supports the train pilot; and electrification of the traction power. The last alternative allows for lower amounts of energy usage at the point of consumption (onboard the train) since the train doesn’t have to carry the diesel fuel long distances before use. Railway electrification stands at about 37 percent of the global track length in 2018 (based on International Railway Union [UIC][1] data); this percentage has been growing over the last two decades by amounts that vary widely from year to year.[2] Electrification costs are high, since electrical power has to be supplied all along the length of the tracks so that trains always have access to power, very often through overhead cables. However, once electrified, running costs are very low, so for high demand routes, electrification can be very attractive financially. Electrification is promoted by global bodies as a way to reduce operating costs an emissions, so a continuation of electrification growth can be expected.


Total Addressable Market

The total addressable market for electric trains is defined as the total number of metric ton–kilometers of rail freight demand projected to 2050. This analysis compares the financial and climate impacts of electrified freight rail transport to regular tracks needing diesel-powered trains. Current adoption[3] of electrified tracks is estimated at 37 percent of the market.[4] The tonnage of freight service using electrified lines was projected from 2020 to 2050 from several sources.

Adoption Scenarios

Impacts of increased adoption of electric trains from 2020 to 2050 were generated based on two growth scenarios. These were assessed in comparison with a Reference Scenario, in which the solution’s market share was fixed at the current levels.

  • Scenario 1: Adoption is estimated using a 2.8 percent annual growth rate to 2050. This rate is double the average rate of electrification over the period 1998–2014.[5]
  • Scenario 2: This scenario assumes that 40 percent of all freight power will be electricity by 2050. A linear growth was assumed to interpolate annual adoption from 2014 to 2050. The average annual use of electrified tracks also increases by 25 percent, to represent intensified usage of electrified tracks due to the high first costs and very low operating costs.

Emissions Model

Avoided emissions are based on the reduction in fuel use from replacing conventional trains, as well as on additional grid emissions from electrification.

Financial Model

Estimates of electrification costs per kilometer were used for the solution, and zero for the conventional first costs. This assumes that the electrification of existing tracks costs about as much as the increase in cost between laying new non-electrified tracks and laying new electrified tracks. Operating costs for non-electrified and electrified freight were obtained from five sources, including the International Transport Forum, the International Energy Agency, and the UIC.


The additional demand on the electricity grid resulting from the growth of electrified track usage was accounted for in the integrated total market for electricity. To avoid double-counting emissions benefits, the results presented for electrified trains do not reflect the increasingly cleaner grid; instead, the additional emissions benefits are accounted for directly in the supply-side energy solutions.


Scenario 1 estimates emissions reductions of 0.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases, at a cost of US$631 billion.[6] The lifetime operating savings[7], however, can be as high as US$723 billion. Scenario 2 results in emissions reductions of 0.65 gigatons with a cost of US$3.0 trillion, but with lifetime savings of US$3.3 trillion.


Our results suggest that the high cost of rail electrification may be difficult to avoid, so the electrification of freight tracks may have to be balanced at least in part by government incentives. Unit costs are lower on high usage corridors, however, so these should be the initial targets for electrification. Additionally, we did not include the use of passenger rail services on electrified tracks (i.e., shared-use corridors), nor other efficiency technologies such as lighter trains and better train control technology, which may provide additional financial benefits or challenges. Overall, rail is already an efficient mode of transport, but it too can have an impact on reducing emissions—although there is an overall net cost to this reduction.

Note: August 2021 corrections appear in boldface.

[1] UIC means the Union Internationale de Chemins–de-fer (French).

[2] Electrified track length has actually decreased in some years.

[3] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in 2018. This study uses 2014 as the base year.

[4] Estimated based on UIC data that indicates that 37 percent of tracks were electrified in 2018. It is assumed that implies that 37 percent of railway freight travels on electrified tracks, in reality it’s likely higher because finances favor electrification of high demand tracks.

[5] Note that this doubled rate falls below the historical average for six of 21 years of UIC data. Note also that the doubling applies to the metric ton–kilometers of freight work performed, not necessarily the kilometers of track electrified, so this could also be interpreted as growth in the usage of existing electrified tracks..

[6] All monetary values are presented in 2014 $US.

[7] The net operating savings for the full lifetime of all units installed during 2020–2050.