The National Gravity Energy Grid

How about harnessing gravity to drive electric trains? What if every axle on the train was equipped with a generator that automatically engaged only on the down grades, assisting in braking, while producing electricity? Trains already have axle powered generators producing far more electricity than is required throughout the train, maybe the access electricity could be sold to surround cities instead of building another dam? This was one man's thought.

by Don Malcolm

When Harry was a boy he was always on the lookout for trains. Throughout the early years of his childhood he was fascinated by trains. He cut out pictures of trains from magazines and newspapers. He filled scrapbooks with trains. But, except for those pictures, Harry very rarely got to actually see a train. 

The valley in eastern Ontario where Harry was born and raised had no trains. It had horses and wagons and sleighs and a few old cars and trucks. There were lakes and streams teeming with bass and northern pike and eastern brook trout to occupy the endeavours of young boys. There were bears and wolves that howled, and whippoorwills to gladden the ear with their evening calls in late spring. Some insisted there were fairies who played tiny harps and guitars and flutes. There were ghost stories that could strike stark fear into the heart of solid rock. Everyone knew there were hoop snakes. But there were no steam whistles sighing and moaning away in the night. There were no trains. 

About sixty-fi ve km to the north of Harry’s home, and an equal distance to the south, there were seldom used railway lines. Whenever Harry was driven across one of those lines he watched anxiously for a train. He hoped there would be some minor occurrence that would cause the car to stop near the track so he could have a chance to see a train go by. Maybe a tire could go fl at or the car could run out of gas, or something. Those things happened often in those long ago days, but for Harry they never happened near a railway track. 

Once, while riding with his grandfather near Napanee he saw part of a train. They broke over a hill just in time to see two box-cars and a caboose disappear around a bend. A couple of years after the Napanee train sighting, luck smiled on Harry. He spent a week visiting an aunt on Pinnacle Street in Belleville. In those days a spur that was used for switching cars ran right up that street. Harry spent all of his waking hours on the sidewalk enchanted by the massive steam engine as, with its bell ringing, light fl ashing, steam gushing and, from time to time a short blast of the whistle, it went about its work. The experience didn’t cure Harry’s preoccupation with trains. 

Just before he turned eighteen, Harry joined the Canadian Navy. In a high state of excitement he climbed aboard a train in Kingston knowing he was about to fulfi ll two yearnings of his young life. He would ride on a train and he would see the world outside his limited experience up to that time. During his time with the navy he would experience both beyond his wildest dream. The steam train carried him down through Eastern Ontario, through Quebec and New Brunswick where, from St. John, he went by ferry across the Bay of Fundy to Digby, Nova Scotia. From Digby, another train took him the short distance to the new entry training base at Cornwallis. Harry had come a long way from the hills and valleys of his home sod. He was not yet sick of trains. 

That fi rst train ride would mark the beginning of many thousands of miles Harry would travel in trains pulled, at fi rst, by steam engines and later by diesels. It would also be the beginning of many exciting adventures. Sailing out of Halifax in a frigate in November he learned about fear in a north Atlantic storm, the necessity of chipping ice on superstructure and rigging while suffering from sea sickness, and learning to walk on a heaving deck. But he also learned the thrill of leaving the winter behind and sailing down to the summer-like weather of Bermuda and Havana. On Boxing Day, 1952, having transferred to the navy’s west coast division, he boarded a steam train in Halifax bound for Victoria. 

To cross Canada from coast to coast by train is to gain an appreciation of the immensity and diver sity of the country that can scarcely be imagined by studying a map on a classroom wall. Harry watched in fascination through all the daylight hours as, one after another, vistas of his country filled his window and fell behind. From the rugged coastline of the Atlantic provinces through the hardwood, pine and mixed forests and farms of Quebec and Ontario, the broad open spaces and the big sky of the prairies, the winter landscape unfolded like the turning of pages in a book. 

Perhaps no-one, travelling west in Canada for the first time, is quite prepared for the mountains. Unless one gets a chance to look ahead on one of the long sweeping curves of the track, the mountains seem to appear rather unexpectedly, as if a reclusive giant had suddenly thrown down a massive rock barricade to stop all westward progress. 

Harry soon noticed a difference in the sound and movement of the train as it laboured up the inclines and braked on the declines of each minor summit while working toward the Continental Divide and the downward run to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. He found the trip through the mountains to be an edge of the seat experience that left him wondering at the challenges the builders of the railway must have faced. On all sides the mountains rose up to unbelievable heights. The tracks crossed deep chasms with rivers far below and sometimes ran straight through mountains where labourers had, years before, cut tunnels with drills and dynamite. 

At the town of Hope, about a hundred and sixty km east of Vancouver the mountains open out to the lowlands of the broad Fraser Valley. In about two hours the train will arrive in Vancouver. Harry’s cross Canada train ride will be completed. From Vancouver he will cross the Strait of Georgia by ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island and the navy base at Esquimalt. Harry is still not sick of trains. 

Since that first train-ride, Harry has travelled many times throughout Canada in trains, cars and aircraft. And while passenger aircraft can satisfy the demands of time, flying at thirty thousand feet does not sate the hunger for one’s country. For many Canadians, trains are the iconic symbol that bonds the country from ocean to ocean, the hunger and the feast. 

As Harry grows older his interest in trains has not diminished. In fact, that interest has progressed to an almost dream-like state. 

Skihist Provincial Park is about six km northeast of Lytton BC on the Trans Canada Highway. It occupies a high point overlooking the Thompson River just before it marries the Fraser River and the two, in celebration of their union, plunge ecstatically into Hell’s Gate Canyon and race as one to the Pacific Ocean. Harry camps at Skihist at every opportunity. The park is a train-watchers dream. From Kamloops to Vancouver, both the CN and CP main lines use the Thompson and Fraser valleys, crossing and re-crossing the rivers, sometimes one above the other as contours and elevations dictate. 

It was at Skihist that Harry began his dream of a national gravity energy grid. While watching and listening to the eastbound trains toiling up the incline toward the Continental Divide, while those westbound fought against gravity with applied brakes to keep the heavily laden cars from over-running the engines, Harry started thinking about harnessing gravity to drive electric trains from coast to coast. 

What if every axle on the train was equipped with a generator that automatically engaged only on the down grades, assisting in braking, while producing electricity, having much the same effect on momentum as do engine retarders on heavy diesel trucks? Trains already have axle powered generators producing far more electricity than is required throughout the train. 

Harry’s dream goes on. What if the trains were pulled with electric engines, with, perhaps, a diesel engine added to assist on long steep inclines, and the railway right of way became a coast to coast energy grid? From the Continental Divide the tracks run downhill both ways to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Could the trains going down hill help to pull those going up? 

Throughout the breadth of Canada it would be a rare day if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow somewhere. Perhaps from coast to coast along the “national gravity energy grid” solar and wind generated electricity, produced by independent operators, could be fed into the grid. Perhaps solar panels could be installed above the grid or even between the rails. Perhaps the railroad could sell electricity to towns along the grid. Do we really need another hydro dam, or electricity produced by burning tires, coal, railway ties or natural gas in the power boilers of polluting pulp mills? 

Harry is neither an engineer nor an electrical technician. He is a dreamer. But in his lifetime he has seen technological advances to stagger the imagination. He has seen citizens of earth journey beyond the pull of earth’s gravity, walk on the moon, and come home again. He believes the only limits to what mankind can do are the limits of imagination. 

Perhaps there are chapters yet to be added to the national dream. 

***

[From January/February 2004]

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