Planes, trains and buses: What gets electrified next?

A Washington state ferry arrives at a shipyard to start its conversion to hybrid-electric power.
A Washington state ferry arrives at a shipyard to start its conversion to hybrid-electric power.


Billions of dollars are available for states and cities to electrify their public-transportation systems

It’s not just cars that are getting electric motors. Electric-powered public transit is also generating new interest across the U.S.

The infrastructure bill that Congress passed in November 2021 offers billions of dollars for states and cities to expand public transportation and electrify their systems. That could help cities overcome some of the hurdles that have slowed the transition to electrified mass transit—like the high cost of new electric vehicles, building the necessary charging stations and retraining workers.

Here’s a look at some of the places where public transit is getting electrified and some of the ideas on the drawing board.


Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest ferry system, with 10 routes serving 18.2 million riders last year, is transitioning its iconic green-and-white vessels from diesel to fully electric and hybrid propulsion over the next decade.

In the initial phase through 2030, three of the largest existing ferries will undergo conversions, removing some diesel engines and adding battery packs to enable hybrid operation. “Having the diesel engine on board but trying not to use them very often is the goal," says Matt Von Ruden, who heads the ferry agency’s system-electrification program.

The agency projects the three ferries will use 95% less diesel fuel than the current models and save $60 million over their life cycle, based on the lower cost of electricity versus diesel fuel and reduced maintenance needs thanks to the streamlined electric propulsion systems. Sixteen ferry terminals are slated for charging-infrastructure installation and the agency is taking bids for more hybrid ferries.

Von Ruden saw the viability of the project firsthand on a tour of Norway’s well-established electric ferry networks. “The technology is there already," he says.

New York Harbor will also be a bit quieter when the Governors Island ferry is replaced with a hybrid vessel this summer. According to Sebastian Coss, director of planning and real estate for the Trust for Governors Island, the ride not only will be quieter and smoother but also hopefully will demonstrate what’s possible for electric transit for the almost one million visitors the island gets each year.

“Part of the ethos of the island is to showcase leading-edge technology that is focused on climate change and adaptation," he says.


Electric city buses have become common in much of the country, with a total of 1,873 buses on the road in 43 states in 2022, according to data from the Federal Transit Administration. That was a 21% increase from the number of buses in 2021.

The Missoula Urban Transportation District in Montana received its first six electric buses in 2019 and another six in 2021. They drive more than a quarter of all the miles covered on the district’s bus routes, according to district spokeswoman Olga Kreimer. The district has committed to a fleet with zero tailpipe emissions by 2035.

The buses are more expensive to buy than diesel models but start to make up for the cost with each mile driven, according to Kreimer. In 2023, electric buses averaged 53 cents a mile to run, while diesel buses averaged 83 cents. More than a million miles were driven by the fleet last year.

The district had to make some upgrades, like building enough chargers, and its mechanics also had to learn new skills. But Kreimer says these issues have mostly been overcome.

The main difference between diesel and electric buses is how long they can stay on the road. In the winter, when temperatures dip below 10 degrees, the first generation of electric buses lose 30% to 40% of their range. In less frigid weather, a bus can go up to 150 miles on a full charge, compared with 300 miles for a bus with a full tank of diesel.

But the electric buses offer a quality-of-life bonus in the winter, when Missoula commonly experiences weather inversions that trap vehicle exhaust and other pollutants in the valley.

Meanwhile, some cities also are moving to transition their school-bus fleets to electric, with more than 3,800 electric school buses delivered or operating across the country, according to the World Resource Institute.


Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route between Boston and Washington, D.C. is the biggest electrified passenger-railroad line in the country, but new efforts are under way. Caltrain, a service between San Francisco and San Jose, is testing a new electric train that has a battery but relies on overhead wires for power during sections of the trip.

California is building an electrified high-speed railroad line that would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with trains that can reach 242 miles an hour. There are 119 miles of rail under construction, with the first section in the Central Valley to be completed by 2035, according to Bruce Armistead, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s chief of rail and operations delivery.

Meanwhile, Brightline, a private company, plans to build a line for electric trains that will connect Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., a city about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Brightline expects construction to take four years, according to Ben Porritt, senior vice president of corporate affairs for the company.

Porritt says the company is also investigating about a dozen other possible lines across the country, like Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago to St. Louis or Indianapolis.

“Once you build the first, you can build more and improve each time," he says.

More electrification will come in California if the EPA approves the state’s new railroad pollution law, which would go into effect in 2030. The law would require railroad companies operating in the state to replace their oldest trains with cleaner diesel models and eventually zero-emission options.


Electric-plane makers envision a role for their planes making short flights from airfields close to homes and businesses, replacing noisy helicopters in some cases. For instance, the Downtown Manhattan Heliport is seeking Federal Aviation Administration certification and working on building charging infrastructure needed for electric aircraft by 2025.

Many of the new electric-plane initiatives are exploring designs that don’t work well with internal combustion engines, according to Scott Cary, a ports and airports project manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “It allows options for aircraft design that may not have existed before," he says.

One approach gaining traction is “blown lift," a technique the National Aeronautics and Space Administration developed in the 1950s. Rather than relying on long runways to reach high speeds to generate lift for takeoff and landing, blown-lift aircraft use rows of propellers to blow air over the wings, allowing short-takeoff capabilities. While inefficient for combustion engines, this design is well suited for electric propulsion, according to John Langford, CEO of Electra, a hybrid-airplane maker that uses an electric blown-lift system for its short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft.

The Virginia-based company started testing its nine-seat hybrid planes in November, targeting trips between 50 and 500 miles. The planes need about a tenth of the runway distance that traditional planes require, according to Langford.

Jackie Snow is a writer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Planes, Trains and Buses: What Gets Electrified Next?
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Planes, Trains and Buses: What Gets Electrified Next?
Planes, Trains and Buses: What Gets Electrified Next?
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Planes, Trains and Buses: What Gets Electrified Next?
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