Are railroads a solution to the California drought ? – Part 1

102640489-512586353.530x298The concept of water by rail has historic precedent. Railroads with water tank cars played a role during earlier U.S. droughts, in the West, the Midwest and on the East Coast. Southern Pacific Railroad, which later became part of Union Pacific, was one of the railroads that hauled water in the late 19th century to small towns in California.

I’ve been thinking about the logistical challenges of transporting mass quantities of water around the U.S. and the associated costs. In the case of the California drought there seems to be historic precedent of moving water by rail at various times in history. There are many unique characteristics about rail networks that are worth examining in detail.

I’ve used the terms “pipeline by rail” or “water rail” to refer to this concept.

Some of the obvious questions to consider:

1. Economics

– What are the costs associated with procuring, transporting and distributing water on a large scale ?

– Is it even possible to establish a market price for such as basic and critical commodity like water based on real supply and demand ?

– Which market segments (i.e. agribusiness, urban) represent the target market for bulk water ?

2. Logistics

– What are the major challenges with coordinating multiple class 1 rail carriers to move water across long distances ?

– Do the appropriate equipment/facilities exist, in large enough capacity, to transport bulk quantities of water ?

3. Regulatory Issues

– Would EPA and various environmental organizations allow large quantities of water to moved across state lines ?

4. Energy

– Is the amount of energy required to move the water proportional to a market cost per gallon ?

– What are the cost/benefits comparing De-salinization facilities to rail transport in terms of energy costs ?

5. Politics

– Will political regimes allow water to be sourced and transported by private businesses for a profit ?

– How does the political “pain” play out as the drought worsens ?

6. Risks

– See 3. Regulatory Issues !

7. Legal

– Procuring water under multiple rights regimes is going to be costly and complicated


In subsequent posts I will analyze the costs of bulk water transport to better understand the practical realties of “water rail”. Ultimately the fundamental issue will come down to the market price for water and will it be allowed to be bought and sold for profit during a humanitarian crisis.