On July 6, 2013, a 4,701 ft-long train weighing 10,287 tons carrying crude oil stopped for the night at Nantes, Quebec. She stopped on the mainline as the siding was occupied. The crew of one parked the train, set the manual handbrakes on all 5 locomotives and 10 of the 72 freight cars and shut down 4 of the 5 locomotives. Leaving one on to supply air pressure for the air brakes. Then caught a taxi and headed for a motel.
The running locomotive had a broken piston. Causing the engine to puff out black smoke and sparks as it sat there idling. Later that night someone called 911 and reported that there was a fire on that locomotive. The fire department arrived and per their protocol shut down the running locomotive before putting out the fire. Otherwise the running locomotive would only continue to feed the fire by pumping more fuel into it. After they put out the fire they called the railroad who sent some personnel out to make sure the train was okay. After they did they left, too. But ever since the fire department had shut down that locomotive air pressure had been dropping in the train line. Eventually this loss of air pressure released the air brakes. Leaving only the manual handbrakes to hold the train. Which they couldn’t. The train started to coast downhill. Picking up speed. Reaching about 60 mph as it hit a slow curve with a speed limit of 10 mph in Lac-Mégantic and jumped the track. Derailing 63 of the 72 tank cars. Subsequent tank car punctures, oil spills and explosions killed some 47 people and destroyed over 30 buildings.
This is the danger of shipping crude oil in rail cars. There’s a lot of potential and kinetic energy to control. Especially at these weights. For that puts a lot of mass in motion that can become impossible to stop. Of course, adding safety features to prevent things like this from happening, such as making these tank cars puncture-proof, can add a lot of non-revenue weight. Which takes more fuel to move. And that costs more money. Which will raise the cost of delivering this crude oil to refineries. And increase the cost of the refined products they make from it. Unless the railroads find other ways to cut costs. Say by shortening delivery times by traveling faster. Allowing them an extra revenue-producing delivery or two per year to make up for the additional costs. But thanks to the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, though, not only will they be adding additional non-revenue weight they will be slowing their trains down, too (see Rail safety improvements announced by Lisa Raitt in wake of Lac-Mégantic posted 4/23/2014 on CBC News).
Changes to improve rail safety were announced Wednesday by federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in response to recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
The federal government wants a three-year phase-out or retrofit of older tank cars that are used to transport crude oil or ethanol by rail, but will not implement a key TSB recommendation that rail companies conduct route planning when transporting dangerous goods…
There are 65,000 of the more robust Dot-111 cars in North America that must be phased out or retrofitted within three years if used in Canada, Raitt said, adding, “Officials have advised us three years is doable.” She said she couldn’t calculate the cost of the retrofits, but told reporters, “industry will be footing the bill…”
The transport minister also announced that mandatory emergency response plans will be required for all crude oil shipments in Canada…
Raitt also said railway companies will be required to reduce the speed of trains carrying dangerous goods. The speed limit will be 80 kilometres an hour [about 49 mph] for key trains, she said. She added that risk assessments will be conducted in certain areas of the country about further speed restrictions, a request that came from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities…
Brian Stevens head of UNIFOR, which represents thousands of unionized rail car inspectors at CN, CP and other Canadian rail companies, called today’s announcement a disappointment.
“This announcement really falls short, and lets Canadians down,” he told CBC News.
“These DOT-11 cars, they should be banned from carrying crude oil immediately. They can still be used to carry vegetable oil, or diesel fuel, but for carrying this dangerous crude there should be an immediate moratorium and that should have been easy enough for the minister to do and she failed to do that.
“There’s a lot of other tank cars in the system that can carry crude,” Stevens explained. “There doesn’t need to be this reliance on these antiquated cars that are prone to puncture.”
Industry will not be footing the bill. That industry’s customers will be footing the bill. As all businesses pass on their costs to their customers. As it is the only way a business can stay in business. Because they need to make money to pay all of their employees as well as all of their bills. So if their costs increase they will have to raise their prices to ensure they can pay all of their employees and all of their bills.
What will the cost of this retrofit be? To make these 65,000 tank cars puncture-proof? Well, adding weight to these cars will take labor and material. That additional weight may require modifications to the springs, brakes and bearings. Perhaps even requiring another axel or two per car. Let’s assume that it will take a crew of 6 three days to complete this retrofit per tank car (disassemble, reinforce and reassemble as well as completing other modifications required because of the additional weight). Assuming a union labor cost (including taxes and benefits) of $125/hour and non-labor costs equaling labor costs would bring the retrofit for these 65,000 tanks cars to approximately $2.34 billion. Which they will, of course, pass on to their customers. Who will pass it on all the way to the gas station where we fill up our cars. They will also pass down the additional fuel costs to pull all that additional nonrevenue weight.
Making these trains safer will be costly. Of course, it begs this burning question: Why not just build pipelines? Like the Keystone XL pipeline? Which can deliver more crude oil faster and safer than any train can deliver it. And with a smaller environmental impact. As pipelines don’t crash or puncture. So why not be safer and build the Keystone XL pipeline in lieu of using a more dangerous mode of transportation that results in tragedies like that at Lac-Mégantic? Why? Because of politics. To shore up the Democrat base President Obama would rather risk Lac-Mégantic tragedies. Instead of doing what’s best for the American economy. And the American people. Namely, building the Keystone XL pipeline.
Starting a Train to Move is like Starting a Car to Move on Snow and Ice
Starting and stopping a train takes great skill. Because one of the greatest advantages of rail transport is also one of its greatest weakness. Steel wheels and steel rails. With very little friction between the two. Allowing trains to travel very efficiently. Rolling effortless over great distances. Once they get moving, that is. Which is where that skill comes in.
Starting a train to move is like starting a car to move on snow and ice. If you stomp the accelerator the wheels will just spin on the snow and ice. Just as steel wheels on steel rails will. Because of the low amount of friction between the two. The throttle on a North American locomotive has 8 ‘run’ positions. And one ‘idle’ position. The engineer starts the train moving by moving the throttle to position one. As the train begins picking up speed the engineer advances the throttle through all the positions until reaching run eight.
As the engineer moves the throttle he (we will use the pronoun ‘he’ for simplicity in lieu of ‘he or she’) watches the amp meter and wheel slip indicator. Which is why he advances the throttle through each position. To slowly start the train moving. If he ‘stomped the accelerator’ the wheels would slip and spin freely on the steel rail. Damaging both wheels and rail. Without moving the train. In addition to preventing wheel slippage he is also trying to prevent one other thing. Coupler failure.
Getting a Train Moving is Difficult but Keeping it Safely on the Track can be Harder
Driving a train is a study in slack management. Each coupler on a train has slack in it. They are not permanently affixed to the railcar or engine. They can move forward and backward a little bit. With a shock absorbing device that deals with the compression and tension forces between cars. This slack exists at each coupler. The longer the train the more couplers and the more slack. When a train starts moving it takes very little effort to pick up the slack in a coupler. But it takes a lot more effort to get the car moving once you do pick up the slack. And if you apply that force too quickly you can snap the coupler right off of the car.
An engineer picks up this slack by moving slowly while in run one. And he moves slowly by having the brakes partially set. That is, he moves the throttle to run one and slowly releases some air in the train line. As he does the brakes release. A little bit. Just enough to allow the train to move at a crawl. Slowly picking up the slack without breaking a coupler. Once he picks up all the slack he releases the brakes completely. And slowly picks up speed. Able to pull great weights of freight trailing behind as there is so little friction between steel wheels and steel rail.
Of course, that is also a problem. For curves. Where the engineer has to slow the train down so the centrifugal force doesn’t pull the train off the tracks. Or on gradients. Where the engineer has to slow the train on downhill portions to prevent a runaway. Or add sand to the track on uphill runs (through automatic sand feeders in front of the drive wheels). To prevent wheel slippage by adding friction between the wheel and track. Getting a train moving is difficult. But keeping it safely on the track can be harder. Which requires the ability to slow a train in time for curves and downhill gradients. Which takes time. And a mile or so of track.
When it comes to Driving a Car in the Winter you have to approach it like Driving a Train
Driving a train is like driving a car on snow and ice. There’s a lot of wheel slippage. It’s difficult to slow down. And you really have to slow down for curves. For if you turn the steering wheel at speed your front wheels will just slide across the snow and ice and the car will keep going straight. If you stomp on the brake pedal and lock the wheels your wheels will just slide across the snow and ice in the general direction you were traveling in. Today, modern cars have systems to help people drive on snow and ice. Like anti-lock brake systems. And traction control systems.
An anti-lock brake system prevents the wheels from locking up during braking. The system monitors wheel rotation. If it senses a wheel that is no longer rotating it will begin pulsating the brakes. Applying and releasing the brakes some 15 times a second. So the wheel keeps rotating, giving the driver control. A traction control system also monitors wheel rotation. If it senses a wheel rotating faster than another (because it’s spinning in ice and snow) it will slow that wheel and/or apply more power to the non-slipping wheel. Giving today’s drivers more control of their cars in the ice and snow.
Of course none of these systems will help if the driver is irresponsible behind the wheel. And lazy. If you don’t shovel your driveway after it snows. Or if you do but push that snow into the street in your driveway approach. For a car needs to have the rubber in contact with the pavement for traction. If not you get wheel slippage. And we all probably have a neighbor who thinks the best thing to do when this happens is to step down on the accelerator. To spin those wheels faster. And does. Digging a hole in the snow. And then begins swearing because the stupid car got stuck in the snow.
When it comes to driving a car in the winter you have to approach it like driving a train. You need to start slowly and monitor your wheel slippage. Sometimes it’s best to just let the engine idle in gear to slowly get the car moving. Then once the car is moving on top of the snow and ice you can slowly increase the speed. But never so much to cause wheel slippage which will just dig a hole in the snow and ice that you may not be able to drive out of. And you have to start slowing down long before you have to stop. Always being careful not to lock your wheels. Simple stuff. Something every driver can do. For these are things every engineer does. And driving a locomotive is a lot more difficult than driving a car.
The Steam Locomotive was one of the Few Technologies that wasn’t replaced by a Superior Technology
Man first used stone tools about two and a half million years ago. We first controlled fire for our use about a million years ago. We first domesticated animals and began farming a little over 10,000 years ago. The Egyptians were moving goods by boats some 5,000 years ago. The Greeks and Romans first used the water wheel for power about 2,500 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago. James Watt improved the steam engine about 230 years ago. England introduced the first steam locomotive into rail service about 210 years ago.
In the first half of the 1800s the United States started building its railroads. Helping the North to win the Civil War. And completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869. By 1890 there were about 130,000 miles of track crisscrossing the United States. With the stream locomotives growing faster. And more powerful. These massive marvels of engineering helped the United States to become the number one economic power in the world. As her vast resources and manufacturing centers were all connected by rail. These powerful steam locomotives raced people across the continent. And pulled ever longer—and heavier—freight trains.
We built bigger and bigger steam locomotives. That had the power to pull freight across mountains. To race across the Great Plains. And into our cities. With the chugging sound and the mournful steam whistle filling many a childhood memories. But by the end of World War II the era of steam was over. After little more than a century. Barely a blip in the historical record. Yet it advanced mankind in that century like few other technological advances. Transforming the Industrial Revolution into the Second Industrial Revolution. Or the Technological Revolution. That gave us the steel that built America. Electric Power. Mass production. And the production line. None of which would have happened without the steam locomotive. It was one of the few technologies that wasn’t replaced by a superior technology. For the steam locomotive was more powerful than the diesel-electric that replaced it. But the diesel-electric was far more cost-efficient than the steam locomotive. Even if you had to lash up 5 diesels to do the job of one steam locomotive.
The Hot Gases from the Firebox pass through the Boiler Tubes to Boil Water into Steam
The steam engine is an external combustion engine. Unlike the internal combustion engine the burning of fuel did not move a piston. Instead burning fuel produced steam. And the expansion energy in steam moved the piston. The steam locomotive is a large but compact boiler on wheels. At one end is a firebox that typically burned wood, coal or oil. At the other end is the smokebox. Where the hot gases from the firebox ultimately vent out into the atmosphere through the smokestack. In between the firebox and the smokebox are a bundle of long pipes. Boiler tubes. The longer the locomotive the longer the boiler tubes.
To start a fire the fireman lights something to burn with a torch and places it on the grating in the firebox. As this burns he may place some pieces of wood on it to build the fire bigger. Once the fire is strong he will start shoveling in coal. Slowly but surely the fire grows hotter. The hot gases pass through the boiler tubes and into the smokebox. And up the smoke stack. Water surrounds the boiler tubes. The hot gases in the boiler tubes heat the water around the tubes. Boiling it into steam. Slowly but surely the amount of water boiled into steam grows. Increasing the steam pressure in the boiler. At the top of the boiler over the boiler tubes is a steam dome. A high point in the boiler where steam under pressure collects looking for a way out of the boiler. Turned up into the steam dome is a pipe that runs down and splits into two. Running to the valve chest above each steam cylinder. Where the steam pushes a piston back and forth. Which connects to the drive wheels via a connecting rod.
When the engineer moves the throttle level it operates a variable valve in the steam dome. The more he opens this valve the more steam flows out of the boiler and into the valve chests. And the greater the speed. The valve in the valve chest moved back and forth. When it moved to one side it opened a port into the piston cylinder behind the piston to push it one way. Then the valve moved the other way. Opening a port on the other side of the piston cylinder to allow steam to flow in front of the piston. To push it back the other way. As the steam expanded in the cylinder to push the piston the spent steam exhausted into the smoke stack and up into the atmosphere. Creating a draft that helped pull the hot gases from the firebox through the boiler tubes, into the smokebox and out the smoke stack. Creating the chugging sound from our childhood memories.
The Challenger and the Big Boy were the Superstars of Steam Locomotives
To keep the locomotive moving required two things. A continuous supply of fuel and water. Stored in the tender trailing the locomotive. The fireman shoveled coal from the tender into the firebox. What space the coal wasn’t occupying in the tender was filled with water. The only limit on speed and power was the size of the boiler. The bigger the firebox the hotter the fire. And the hungrier it was for fuel. The bigger locomotives required a mechanized coal feeder into the firebox as a person couldn’t shovel the coal fast enough. Also, the bigger the engine the greater the weight. The greater the weight the greater the wear and tear on the rail. Like trucks on the highway railroads had a limit of weight per axel. So as the engines got bigger the more wheels there were ahead of the drive wheels and trailing the drive wheels. For example, the Hudson 4-6-4 had two axels (with four wheels) ahead of the drive wheels. Three axles (with 6 wheels) connected to the pistons that powered the train. And two axels (with four wheels) trailing the drive wheels to help support the weight of the firebox.
To achieve ever higher speeds and power over grades required ever larger boilers. For higher speeds used a lot of steam. Requiring a huge firebox to keep boiling water into steam to maintain those higher speeds. But greater lengths and heavier boilers required more wheels. And more wheels did not turn well in curves. Leading to more wear and tear on the rails. Enter the 4-6-6-4 Challenger. The pinnacle of steam locomotive design. To accommodate this behemoth on curves the designers reintroduced the articulating locomotive. They split up the 12 drive wheels of the then most powerful locomotive in service into two sets of 6. Each with their own set of pistons. While the long boiler was a solid piece the frame underneath wasn’t. It had a pivot point. The first set of drive wheels and the four wheels in front of them were in front of this pivot. And the second set of drive wheels and the trailing 4 wheels that carried the weight of the massive boiler on the Challenger were behind this pivot. So instead of having one 4-6-6-4 struggling through curves there was one 4-6 trailing one 6-4. Allowing it to negotiate curves easier and at greater speeds.
The Challenger was fast. And powerful. It could handle just about any track in America. Except that over the Wasatch Range between Green River, Wyoming and Ogden, Utah. Here even the Challenger couldn’t negotiate those grades on its own. These trains required double-heading. Two Challengers with two crews (unlike lashing up diesels today where one crew operates multiple units from one cab). And helper locomotives. This took a lot of time. And cost a lot of money. So to negotiate these steep grades Union Pacific built the 4-8-8-4 articulated Big Boy. Basically the Challenger on steroids. The Big Boy could pull anything anywhere. The Challenger and the Big Boy were the superstars of steam locomotives. But these massive boilers on wheels required an enormous amount of maintenance. Which is why they lasted but 20 years in service. Replaced by tiny little diesel-electric locomotives. That revolutionized railroading. Because they were so less costly to maintain and operate. Even if you had to use 7 of them to do what one Big Boy could do.
Pressure and Temperature have a Direct Relationship while Pressure and Volume have an Inverse Relationship
For much of human existence we used our own muscles to push things. Which limited the work we could do. Early river transport were barges of low capacity that we pushed along with a pole. We’d stand on the barge and place the pole into the water and into the river bed. Then push the pole away from us. To get the boat to move in the other direction.
In more developed areas we may have cleared a pathway alongside the river. And pulled our boats with animal power. Of course, none of this helped us cross an ocean. Only sail did that. Where we captured the wind in sails. And the wind pushed our ships across the oceans. Then we started to understand our environment more. And noticed relationships between physical properties. Such as the ideal gas law equation:
Pressure = (n X R X Temperature)/Volume
In a gas pressure is determined my multiplying together ‘n’ and ‘R’ and temperature then dividing this number by volume. Where ‘n’ is the amount of moles of the gas. And ‘R’ is the constant 8.3145 m3·Pa/(mol·K). For our purposes you can ignore ‘n’ and ‘R’. It’s the relationship between pressure, temperature and volume that we want to focus on. Which we can see in the ideal gas law equation. Pressure and temperature have a direct relationship. That is, if one rises so does the other. If one falls so does the other. While pressure and volume have an inverse relationship. If volume decreases pressure increases. If volume increases pressure decreases. These properties prove to be very useful. Especially if we want to push things.
Once the Piston traveled its Full Stroke on a Locomotive the Spent Steam vented into the Atmosphere
So what gas can produce a high pressure that we can make relatively easy? Steam. Which we can make simply by boiling water. And if we can harness this steam in a fixed vessel the pressure will rise to become strong enough to push things for us. Operating a boiler was a risky profession, though. As a lot of boiler operators died when the steam they were producing rose beyond safe levels. Causing the boiler to explode like a bomb.
Early locomotives would burn coal or wood to boil water into steam. The steam pressure was so great that it would push a piston while at the same time moving a connecting rod connected to the locomotive’s wheel. Once the piston traveled its full stroke the spent steam vented into the atmosphere. Allowing the pressure of that steam to dissipate safely into the air. Of course doing this required the locomotive to stop at water towers along the way to keep taking on fresh water to boil into steam.
Not all steam engines vented their used steam (after it expanded and gave up its energy) into the atmosphere. Most condensed the low-pressure, low-temperature steam back into water. Piping it (i.e., the condensate) back to the boiler to boil again into steam. By recycling the used steam back into water eliminated the need to have water available to feed into the boiler. Reducing non-revenue weight in steam ships. And making more room available for fuel to travel greater distances. Or to carry more revenue-producing cargo.
The Triple Expansion Steam Engine reduced the Expansion and Temperature Drop in each Cylinder
Pressure pushes the pistons in the steam engine. And by the ideal gas law equation we see that the higher the temperature the higher the pressure. As well as the corollary. The lower the temperature the lower the pressure. And one other thing. As the volume increases the temperature falls. So as the pressure in the steam pushes the piston the volume inside the cylinder increases. Which lowers the temperature of the steam. And the temperature of the piston and cylinder walls. So when fresh steam from the boiler flows into this cylinder the cooler temperature of the piston and cylinder walls will cool the temperature of the steam. Condensing some of it. Reducing the pressure of the steam. Which will push the piston with less force. Reducing the efficiency of the engine.
There was a way to improve the efficiency of the steam engine. By reducing the temperature drop during expansion (i.e., when it moves the piston). They did this by raising the temperature of the steam. And breaking down the expansion phase into multiple parts. Such as in the triple expansion steam engine. Where steam from the boiler entered the first cylinder. Which is the smallest cylinder. After it pushed the piston the spent steam still had a lot of energy in it looking to expand further. Which it did in the second cylinder. As the exhaust port of the first cylinder is piped into the intake port of the second cylinder.
The second cylinder is bigger than the first cylinder. For the steam entering this cylinder is a lower-pressure and lower-temperature steam than that entering the first cylinder. And needs a larger area to push against to match the down-stroke force on the first piston. After it pushes this piston there is still energy left in that steam looking to expand. Which it did in the third and largest cylinder. After it pushed the third piston this low-pressure and low-temperature steam flowed into the condenser. Where cooling removed what energy (i.e., temperature above the boiling point of water) was left in it. Turning it back into water again. Which was then pumped back to the boiler. To be boiled into steam again.
By restricting the amount of expansion in each cylinder the triple expansion steam engine reduced the amount the temperature fell in each cylinder. Allowing more of the heat go into pushing the piston. And less of it go into raising the temperature of the piston and cylinder walls. Greatly increasing the efficiency of the engine. Making it the dominant maritime engine during the era of steam.
Ships once used Tugs to Maneuver around in Small Spaces but Today they use Tunnel Thrusters
As technology progressed the more things we needed to make other things. Small factories grew into large manufacturing plants. Which consumed vast quantities of material to produce vast quantities of goods. Requiring ever larger means of transportation. And we have built some behemoths of transportation.
Water transport has been the preferred method for heavy transport. Which is why most early cities were on rivers. As time passed our cities got bigger. Our industry got bigger. And our ships got bigger. Huge bulk freighters bring iron ore, coal, limestone, etc., from northern ports across the Great Lakes to docks on small rivers and harbors further south. On the open lakes these ships can put the pedal to the metal. Roaring across these lakes at breakneck speeds of 15 mph. If you’ve ever seen a Great Lakes freighter at full throttle you probably noticed something. They push a lot of water out of their way. Something they can’t do in those small rivers and harbors. As their wake would push the river over its banks. So they slow down to a non-wake speed of something slower than a person walking.
Lakes are huge bodies of deep water. But these Great Lakes freighters, or lakers, often enter narrow and shallow rivers. Some rivers even too shallow. So they dredge a channel in them. So these lakers don’t bottom out. Some lakers have to travel upriver to offload. Then turn around. Which isn’t easy in a shallow river when your ship is 700-1,000 feet long. They once used tugs to push these ships around. But today they use tunnel thrusters. An impeller inside a tunnel through the ship at the bow and stern perpendicular to the beam and below the water line. Which can turn a ship without the forward motion a rudder requires. Allowing it to move as if a tug is pushing it. Only without a tug.
Interesting thing about Trains is that they don’t have a Steering Wheel
With the introduction of the railroad cities moved away from rivers and coastlines. But the railroads only became a part of the heavy transport system. Cities grew up along the railroads. Where farmers in a region brought their harvests to grain elevators. Trains took their harvests from these elevators to ports on rivers and coastlines. Where they could offload to ships or barges. And it would take a large ship or a barge. Because one long train can carry a lot of harvest.
Interesting thing about trains is that they don’t have a steering wheel. For there is only two directions they can go. Forward. And backward. If you’ve traveled passenger rail to the end of the line you may have experienced a train turning around. The train will reduce speed to a crawl as they switch over to a perpendicular-running track. For trains do not travel well on curves. Because the wheels are connected to a solid axel. So in a turn the outer wheel needs to travel faster to keep up with the inner wheel. But can’t. Causing the wheels to slip instead. Causing wear and tear on the train wheels. And track. Which is why curved track does not last as long as straight track. The train travels a while on this perpendicular track at a crawl until the rear end passes another switch. It then stops. And goes backward. Switching back to the track it was originally on. Only now backing up instead of traveling forward. The train then backs into the passenger terminal. Ready to leave from this end of the line going forward. To the other end of the line.
Freight trains are a lot longer than passenger trains. Some can be a mile long. Or longer. And rarely turn around like a freight train. Rail cars are added to each other creating a consist in a rail yard. A switcher (small locomotive) moves back and forth picking up cars and attaching them to the consist. In the reverse order which they will be disconnected and left in rail yards along the way. Once they build the consist they bring in the go-power. Typically a lashup of 2-3 locomotives (or more if they’re the older DC models). The lead locomotive will typically face forward. Putting the engineer at the very front of the train. In the old days they had roundhouses to switch the direction of these locomotives. Today they turn them around when they need to like the passenger train turning around. Which is much easier as they only have to turn around one locomotive in the lashup.
Planes may Fly close to 500 mph in the Air but on the Ground they move about as Fast as Someone can Walk
Airplanes are big. In flight they’re as graceful as a bird in flight. But it’s a different story on the ground. Planes are big and heavy. They have a huge wingspan. And the pilots sit so far forward that they can’t see how close their wingtips are to other things. Such as other airplanes. When they leave a gate they usually have a tug push them back and get them facing forward. At which time they start their engines. As it would be dangerous to start them while at the gate where there are a lot of people and equipment servicing the plane. They don’t want to suck anything—a person or a piece of equipment—into the jet engines. And they don’t want to blow anything away moving behind the engines as the jet blast from a jet can blow a bus away. And has. In flight they use their ailerons to turn. The flaps on the tips of each wing that roll a plane left or right. Causing the plane to turn. The rudder is used for trimming a plane. Or, in the case of an engine failure, to correct for asymmetric thrust that wants to twist the airplane like a weathercock. On the ground they use a little steering wheel (i.e., a tiller) outboard of the pilot (to the left of the left seat and to the right of the right seat) to turn the nose gear wheel.
Pilots can’t see a lot out of the cockpit window while on the ground. Which is why they rely on ground crews to give them direction. And to walk alongside the wings during the pushback. To make sure the wings don’t hit anything. And that no one hits the plane. Once the tug disconnects and the plane is under its own power the flight crew takes directions from ground controllers. Whose job is to safely move planes around the airport while they’re on the ground. Planes may fly close to 500 mph in the air but on the ground they move about as fast as someone can walk. For planes are very heavy. If they get moving too fast they’re not going to be able to stop on a dime. Which would be a problem if they’re in a line of planes moving along a taxiway to the runway.
When we use big things to move people or freight they work great where they are operating in their element. A ship speeding across an open lake. A train barreling along straight track. Or a plane jetting across the open skies. But when we rein these big things in they are out of their element. Ships in narrow, shallow rivers. Trains on sharply curved track. And planes on the ground. Where more accidents happen than when they are in their element. Ships that run into bridges. Trains that derail. And planes that hit things with their wings. Because it’s not easy moving big things in small places.
Trains require an Enormous Amount of Infrastructure between Terminal Points whereas a Plane does Not
Trains and jets are big and expensive. And take huge sums of money to move freight and passengers. Each has their strength. And each has their weakness. Planes are great for transporting people. While trains are best for moving heavy freight. They both can and do transport both. But pay a premium when they are not operating at their strength.
The big difference between these two modes of transportation is infrastructure. Trains require an enormous amount of infrastructure between terminal points. Whereas a plane doesn’t need anything between terminal points. Because they fly in the air. But because they fly in the air they need a lot of fuel to produce enough lift to break free from the earth’s gravity. Trains, on the other hand, don’t have to battle gravity as much. As they move across the ground on steel rails. Which offer little resistance to steel wheels. Allowing them to pull incredible weights cross country. But to do that they need to build and maintain very expensive train tracks between point A and point B.
To illustrate the difference in costs each incurs moving both people and freight we’ll look at a hotshot freight train and a Boeing 747-8. A hotshot freight gets the best motive power and hustles on the main lines across the country. The Boeing 747-8 is the latest in the 747 family and includes both passenger and freighter versions. The distance between Los Angeles (LA) and New York City (NYC) is approximately 2,800 miles. So let’s look at the costs of each mode of transportation moving both people and freight between these two cities.
Railroads are so Efficient at moving Freight because One Locomotive can pull up to 5,000 Tons of Freight
There are many variables when it comes to the cost of building and maintaining railroad track. So we’re going to guesstimate a lot of numbers. And do a lot of number crunching. An approximate number for the cost per mile of new track is $1.3 million. That includes land, material and labor. So the cost of the track between LA and NYC is $3.6 billion. Assuming a 7-year depreciation schedule that comes to $1.4 million per day. If it takes 3 days for a hotshot freight to travel from LA to NYC that’s $4.3 million for those three days. Of course, main lines see a lot of traffic. So let’s assume there are 8 trains a day for a total of 24 trains during that 3-day period. This brings the depreciation expense for that trip from LA to NYC down to $178,082.
So that’s the capital cost of those train tracks between point A and point B. Now the operating costs. An approximate number for annual maintenance costs per mile of track is $300,000. So the annual cost to maintain the track between LA and NYC is $840 million. Crunching the numbers the rest of the way brings the maintenance cost for that 3-day trip to approximately $278,671. Assuming a fuel consumption of 4 gallons per mile, a fuel cost of $3/gallon and a lashup of 3 locomotives the fuel cost for that 3-day trip is approximately $100,800. Adding the capital cost, the maintenance expense and the fuel costs brings the total to $566,553. With each locomotive being able to pull approximately 5,000 tons of freight for a total of 15,000 tons brings the cost per ton of freight shipped to $37.77.
Now let’s look at moving people by train. People are a lot lighter than heavy freight. So we can drop one locomotive in the lashup. And burn about a gallon less per mile. Bringing the fuel cost down from $100,800 to $50,400. And the total cost to $516,153. Assuming these locomotives pull 14 Amtrak Superliners (plus a dining car and a baggage car) that’s a total of 1,344 passengers (each Superliner has a 96 passenger maximum capacity). Dividing the cost by the number of passengers gives us a cost of $384.04 per passenger.
Passenger Rail requires Massive Government Subsidies because of the Costs of Building and Maintaining Track
A Boeing 747-8 freighter can carry a maximum 147.9 tons of freight. While consuming approximately 13.7 gallons of jet fuel per mile. At 2,800 miles that trip from LA to NYC will consume about 38,403 gallons of jet fuel. At $3/gallon that comes to a $115,210 total fuel cost. Or $778.97 per ton. Approximately 1,962% more than moving a ton of freight from LA to NYC by train. Excluding the capital costs of locomotives, rolling stock, airplanes, terminal infrastructure/fees, etc. Despite that massive cost of building and maintaining rail between point A and point B the massive tonnage a train can move compared to what a plane can carry makes the train the bargain when moving freight. But it’s a different story when it comes to moving people.
The Boeing 747-8 carries approximately 467 people on a typical flight. And burns approximately 6.84 gallons per mile. Because people are a lot lighter than freight. Crunching the numbers gives a cost per passenger of $123.11. Approximately 212% less than what it costs a train to move a person. Despite fuel costs being almost the same. The difference is, of course, the additional $465,753 in costs for the track running between LA and NYC. Which comes to $346.54 per passenger. Or about 90% of the cost/passenger. Which is why there are no private passenger railroads these days. For if passenger rail isn’t heavily subsidized by the taxpayer the price of a ticket would be so great that no one would buy them. Except the very rich train enthusiast. Who is willing to pay 3 times the cost of flying and take about 12 times the time of flying.
There are private freight railroads. Private passenger airlines. And private air cargo companies. Because they all can attract customers without government subsidies. Passenger rail, on the other hand, can’t. Because of the massive costs to build and maintain railroad tracks. With high-speed rail being the most expensive track to build and maintain. Making it the most cost inefficient way to move people. Requiring massive government subsidies. Either for the track infrastructure. Or the electric power that powers high-speed rail.
Getting a Long and Heavy Train Moving was no good unless you could Stop It
Trains shrank countries. Allowing people to travel greater distances faster than ever before. And move more freight than ever before. Freight so heavy that no horse could have ever pulled it. The only limitation was the power of the locomotive. Well, that. And one other thing. The ability to stop a long and heavy train. For getting one moving was pretty easy. Tracks were typically level. And steel wheels on steel rails offered little resistance. So once a train got moving it didn’t take much to keep it moving. Especially when there was the slightest of inclines to roll down.
Getting a long and heavy train moving was no good unless you could stop it. And stopping one was easier said than done. As trains grew longer it proved impossible for the locomotive to stop it alone. So each car in the consist (the rolling stock the locomotive pulls behind it) had a manual brake. Operated by hand. By brakemen. Running along the tops of cars while the train was moving. Turning wheels that applied the brakes on each car. Not the safest of jobs. One that couldn’t exist today. Because of the number of brakemen that died on the job. Due to the inherent danger of running along the top of a moving train. Luckily, today, all brakemen have lost their jobs. As we have safer ways to stop trains.
Of course, we don’t need to just stop trains. A lot of the time we just need to slow them down a little. Such as when approaching a curve. Going through a reduced speed zone (bad track, wooden bridge, going through a city, etc.). Or going down a slight incline. In fact slowing down on an incline is crucial. For if gravity is allowed to accelerate a train down an incline it can lead to a runaway. That’s when a train gathers speed with no way of stopping it. It can derail in a curve. It can run into another train. Or crash into a terminal building full of people. All things that have happened. The most recent disaster being the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Where a parked oil train rolled away down an incline, derailed and exploded. Killing some 38 people. While many more are still missing and feared dead.
Dynamic Breaking can Slow a Train but to Stop a Train you need to Engage the Air Brakes
Trains basically have two braking systems today. Air brakes. And dynamic braking. Dynamic braking involves changing the traction motors into generators. The traction motors are underneath the locomotive. The big diesel engine in the locomotive turns a generator making electric power. This power creates powerful magnetic fields in the traction motors that rotate the axles. The heavier the train the more power it takes to rotate these axles. It takes a little skill to get a long and heavy train rolling. Too much power and the steel wheels may slip on the steel rails. Or the motors may require more power than the generator can provide. As the torque required to move the train may be greater than traction motors can provide. Thus ‘stalling’ the motor. As it approaches stall torque it slows the rotation of the motor to zero while increasing the current from the generator to maximum. As it struggles to rotate an axle it is not strong enough to rotate. If this continues the maximum flow of current will cause excessive heat buildup in the motor windings. Causing great damage.
Dynamic breaking reverses this process. The traction motors become the generator. Using the forward motion of the train to rotate the axles. The electric power this produces feeds a resistive load that draws a heavy current form these traction motors. Typically it’s the section of the locomotive directly behind the cab. It draws more than the motors can provide. Bringing them towards stall torque. Thus slowing their rotation. And slowing the train. Converting the kinetic energy of the moving train into heat in the resistive load. Which has a large cooling fan located above it to keep it from getting so hot that it starts melting.
Dynamic breaking can slow a train. But it cannot stop it. For as it slows the axles spin slower producing less electric power. And as the electric current falls away it cannot ‘stall’ the generator (the traction motors operating as generators during dynamic braking). Which is where the air brakes come in. Which they can use in conjunction with dynamic braking on a steep incline. To bring a train to a complete stop. Or to a ‘quick’ stop (in a mile or so) in an emergency. Either when the engineer activates the emergency brake. Or something happens to break open the train line. The air brake line that runs the length of the train.
When Parking a Train they Manually set the Hand Brakes BEFORE shutting down the Locomotive
The first air brake system used increasing air pressure to stop the train. Think of the brake in a car. When you press the brake pedal you force brake fluid to a cylinder at each wheel. Forcing brake shoes or pads to come into contact with the rotating wheel. The first train air brake worked similarly. When the engineer wanted to stop the train he forced air to cylinders at each wheel. Which moved linkages that forced brake shoes into contact with the rotating wheel. It was a great improvement to having men run along the top of a moving train. But it had one serious drawback. If some cars separated from the train it would break open the train line. So the air the engineer forced into it vented to the atmosphere without moving the brake linkages. Which caused a runaway or two in its day. George Westinghouse solved that problem. By creating a failsafe railway air brake system.
The Westinghouse air brake system dates back to 1868. And we still use his design today. Which includes an air compressor at the engine. Which provides air pressure to the train line. Metal pipes below cars. And rubber hoses between cars. Running the full length of the train. At each car is an air reservoir. Or air tank. And a triple valve. Before a train moves it must charge the system (train line and reservoirs at each car) to, say, 90 pounds per square inch (PSI) of air pressure. Once charged the train can move. To apply the air brakes the engineer reduces the pressure by a few PSI in the train line. The triple valve senses this and allows air to exit the air reservoir and enter the brake cylinder. Pushing the linkages to bring the brake shoes into contact with the train wheels. Providing a little resistance. Slowing the train a little. Once the pressure in the reservoir equals the pressure in the train line the triple valve stops the air from exiting the reservoir. To slow the train more the engineer reduces the pressure by a few more PSI. The triple valve senses this and lets more air out of the reservoir to again equalize the pressure in the reservoir and train line. When the air leaves the reservoir it goes to the brake cylinder. Moving the linkage more. Increasing the pressure of the brake shoes on the wheels. Further slowing the train. The engineer continues this process until the train stops. Or he is ready to increase speed (such as at the bottom of an incline). To release the brakes the engineer increases the pressure in the train line. Once the triple valve senses the pressure in the train line is greater than in the reservoir the air in the brake cylinders vents to the atmosphere. Releasing the brakes. While the train line brings the pressure in the reservoir back to 90 PSI.
This system is failsafe because the brakes apply with a loss of air pressure in the train line. And if there is a rapid decline in air pressure the triple valve will sense that, too. Say a coupler fails, separating two cars. And the train line. Causing the air pressure to fall from 90 PSI to zero very quickly. When this happens the triple valve dumps the air in an emergency air reservoir along with the regular air reservoir into the brake cylinder. Slamming the brake shoes onto the train wheels. But as failsafe as the Westinghouse air brake system is it can still fail. If an engineer applies the brakes and releases them a few times in a short period (something an experienced engineer wouldn’t do) the air pressure will slowly fall in both the train line and the reservoirs. Because it takes time to recharge the air system (train line and reservoirs). And if you don’t give it the time you will decrease your braking ability. As there is less air in the reservoir available to go to the brake cylinder to move the linkages. To the point the air pressure is so low that there isn’t enough pressure to push the brake shoes into the train wheels. At this point you lose all braking. With no ability to stop or slow the train. Causing a runaway.
So, obviously, air pressure is key to a train’s air brake system. Even if the train is just parked air will leak out of the train line. If you’re standing near a locomotive (say at a passenger train station) and hear an air compressor start running it is most likely recharging the train line. For it needs air pressure in the system to hold the brake shoes on the train wheels. Which is why when they park a train they manually set the hand brakes (on a number of cars they determined will be sufficient to prevent the train from rolling) BEFORE shutting down the locomotive. Once the ‘parking brake’ is set then and only then will they shut down the locomotive. Letting the air bleed out of the air brake system. Which appears to be what happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer may not have set enough hand brakes to prevent the train from rolling on the incline it was on when he parked the train for the night. On a main line. Because another train was on a siding. And leaving the lead locomotive in a five locomotive lashup unmanned and running to maintain the air pressure. Later that night there was a fire in that locomotive. Before fighting that fire the fire department shut it down. Which shut down the air compressor that was keeping the train line charged. Later that night as the air pressure bled away the air brakes released and the hand brakes didn’t hold the train on the incline. Resulting in the runaway (that may have reached a speed of 63 mph). Derailment at a sharp curve. And the explosion of some of its tank cars filled with crude oil. Showing just how dangerous long, heavy trains can be when you can’t stop them. Or keep them stopped.
With the Steam Engine we could Build Factories Anywhere and Connect them by Railroads
Iron has been around for a long time. The Romans used it. And so did the British centuries later. They kicked off the Industrial Revolution with iron. And ended it with steel. Which was nothing to sneeze at. For the transition from iron to steel changed the world. And the United States. For it was steel that made the United States the dominant economy in the world.
The Romans mined coal in England and Wales. Used it as a fuel for ovens to dry grain. And for smelting iron ore. After the Western Roman Empire collapsed, so did the need for coal. But it came back. And the demand was greater than ever. Finding coal, though, required deeper holes. Below the water table. And holes below the water table tended to fill up with water. To get to the coal, then, you had to pump out the water. They tried different methods. But the one that really did the trick was James Watt’s steam engine attached to a pump.
The steam engine was a game changer. For the first time man could make energy anywhere he wanted. He didn’t have to find running water to turn a waterwheel. Depend on the winds. Or animal power. With the steam engine he could build a factory anywhere. And connect these factories together with iron tracks. On which a steam-powered locomotive could travel. Ironically, the steam engine burned the very thing James Watt designed it to help mine. Coal.
Andrew Carnegie made Steel so Inexpensive and Plentiful that he Built America
Iron was strong. But steel was stronger. And was the metal of choice. Unfortunately it was more difficult to make. So there wasn’t a lot of it around. Making it expensive. Unlike iron. Which was easier to make. You heated up (smelted) iron ore to burn off the stuff that wasn’t iron from the ore. Giving you pig iron. Named for the resulting shape at the end of the smelting process. When the molten iron was poured into a mold. There was a line down the center where the molten metal flowed. And then branched off to fill up ingots. When it cooled it looked like piglets suckling their mother. Hence pig iron.
Pig iron had a high carbon content which made it brittle and unusable. Further processing reduced the carbon content and produced wrought iron. Which was usable. And the dominate metal we used until steel. But to get to steel we needed a better way of removing the residual carbon from the iron ore smelting process. Something Henry Bessemer discovered. Which we know as the Bessemer process. Bessemer mass-produced steel in England by removing the impurities from pig iron by oxidizing them. And he did this by blowing air through the molten iron.
Andrew Carnegie became a telegraph operator at Pennsylvania Railroad Company. He excelled, moved up through the company and learned the railroad business. He used his connections to invest in railroad related industries. Iron. Bridges. And Rails. He became rich. He formed a bridge company. And an ironworks. Traveling in Europe he saw the Bessemer process. Impressed, he took that technology and created the Lucy furnace. Named after his wife. And changed the world. His passion to constantly reduce costs led him to vertical integration. Owning and controlling the supply of raw materials that fed his industries. He made steel so inexpensive and plentiful that he built America. Railroads, bridges and skyscrapers exploded across America. Cities and industries connected by steel tracks. On which steam locomotives traveled. Fueled by coal. And transporting coal. As well as other raw materials. Including the finished goods they made. Making America the new industrial and economic superpower in the world.
Knowing the Market Price of Steel Carnegie reduced his Costs of Production to sell his Steel below that Price
Andrew Carnegie became a rich man because of capitalism. He lived during great times. When entrepreneurs could create and produce with minimal government interference. Which is why the United States became the dominant industrial and economic superpower.
The market set the price of steel. Not a government bureaucrat. This is key in capitalism. Carnegie didn’t count labor inputs to determine the price of his steel. No. Instead, knowing the market price of steel he did everything in his powers to reduce his costs of production so he could sell his steel below that price. Giving steel users less expensive steel. Which was good for steel users. As well as everyone else. But he did this while still making great profits. Everyone was a winner. Except those who sold steel at higher prices who could no longer compete.
Carnegie spent part of his life accumulating great wealth. And he spent the latter part of his life giving that wealth away. He was one of the great philanthropists of all time. Thanks to capitalism. The entrepreneurial spirit. And the American dream. Which is individual liberty. That freedom to create and produce. Like Carnegie did. Just as entrepreneurs everywhere have been during since we allowed them to profit from risk taking.
When the Engineer advances the Throttle to ‘Run 1’ there is a Surge of Current into the Traction Motors
Once when my father suffered a power outage at his home I helped him hook up his backup generator. This was the first time he used it. He had sized it to be large enough to run the air conditioner as Mom had health issues and didn’t breathe well in hot and humid weather. This outage was in the middle of a hot, sweltering summer. So they were eager to get the air conditioner running again. Only one problem. Although the generator was large enough to run the air conditioner, it was not large enough to start it. The starting in-rush of current was too much for the generator. The current surged and the voltage dropped as the generator was pushed beyond its operating limit. Suffice it to say Mom suffered during that power outage.
Getting a diesel-electric locomotive moving is very similar. The massive diesel engine turns a generator. When the engineer advances the throttle to ‘Run 1’ (the first notch) there is a surge of current into the traction motors. And a drop in voltage. As the current moves through the rotor windings in the traction motors it creates an electrical field that fights with the stator electrical field. Creating a tremendous amount of torque. Which slowly begins to turn the wheels. As the wheels begin to rotate less torque is required and the current decreases and voltage increases. Then the engineer advances the throttle to ‘Run 2’ and the current to the traction motors increases again. And the voltage falls again. Until the train picks up more speed. Then the current falls and the voltage rises. And so on until the engineer advances the throttle all the way to ‘Run 8’ and the train is running at speed.
The actual speed is controlled by the RPMs of the diesel engine and fuel flow to the cylinders. Which is what the engineer is doing by advancing the throttle. In a passenger train there are additional power needs for the passenger cars. Heating, cooling, lights, etc. The locomotive typically provides this Head-End Power (HEP). The General Electric Genesis Series I locomotive (the aerodynamic locomotive engines on the majority of Amtrak’s trains), for example, has a maximum of 800 kilowatts of HEP available. But there is a tradeoff in traction power that moves the train towards its destination. With a full HEP load a 4,250 horsepower rated engine can only produce 2,525 horsepower of traction power. Or a decrease of about 41% in traction horsepower due to the heating, cooling, lighting, etc., requirements of the passenger cars. But because passenger cars are so light they can still pull many of them with one engine. Unlike their freight counterparts. Where it can take a lashup of three engines or more to move a heavy freight train to its destination. Without any HEP sapping traction horsepower.
There is so much Energy available in Refined Petroleum that we can carry Small Amounts that take us Great Distances
The largest cost of flying a passenger jet is jet fuel. That’s why they make planes out of aluminum. To make them light. Airbus and Boeing are using ever more composite materials in their latest planes to reduce the weight further still. New engine designs improve fuel economy. Advances in engine design allow bigger and more powerful engines. So 2 engines can do the work it took 4 engines to do a decade or more ago. Fewer engines mean less weight. And less fuel. Making the plane lighter and more fuel efficient. They measure all cargo and count people to determine the total weight of plane, cargo, passengers and fuel. So the pilot can calculate the minimum amount of fuel to carry. For the less fuel they carry the lighter the plane and the more fuel efficient it is. During times of high fuel costs airlines charge extra for every extra pound you bring aboard. To either dissuade you from bringing a lot of extra dead weight aboard. Or to help pay the fuel cost for the extra weight when they can’t dissuade you.
It’s similar with cars. To meet strict CAFE standards manufacturers have been aggressively trying to reduce the weight of their vehicles. Using front-wheel drive on cars saved the excess weight of a drive shaft. Unibody construction removed the heavy frame. Aerodynamic designs reduced wind resistance. Use of composite materials instead of metal reduced weight. Shrinking the size of cars made them lighter. Controlling the engine by a computer increased engine efficiencies and improved fuel economy. Everywhere manufacturers can they have reduced the weight of cars and improved the efficiencies of the engine. While still providing the creature comforts we enjoy in a car. In particular heating and air conditioning. All the while driving great distances on a weekend getaway to an amusement park. Or a drive across the country on a summer vacation. Or on a winter ski trip.
This is something trains, planes and automobiles share. The ability to take you great distances in comfort. And what makes this all possible? One thing. Refined petroleum. There is so much energy available in refined petroleum that we can carry small amounts of it in our trains, planes and automobiles that will take us great distances. Planes can fly halfway across the planet on one fill-up. Trains can travel across numerous states on one fill-up. A car can drive up to 6 hours or more doing 70 MPH on the interstate on one fill-up. And keep you warm while doing it in the winter. And cool in the summer. For the engine cooling system transfers the wasted heat of the internal combustion engine to a heating core inside the passenger compartment to heat the car. And another belt slung around an engine pulley drives an air conditioner compressor under the hood to cool the passenger compartment. Thanks to that abundant energy in refined petroleum creating all the power under the hood we need.
The Opportunity Cost of the Plug-in Hybrid is giving up what the Car Originally gave us – Freedom
And then there’s the plug-in hybrid car. That shares some things in common with the train, plane and (gasoline-powered) automobile. Only it doesn’t do anything as well. Primarily because of the limited range of the battery. Electric traction motors draw a lot of current. But a battery’s storage capacity is limited. Some batteries offer only about 20-30 miles of driving distance on a charge. Which is great if you use a car for very, very short commutes. But as few do manufacturers add a backup gasoline engine so the car can go almost as far as a gasoline-powered car. It probably could go as far if it wasn’t for that heavy battery and generator it was dragging around with it.
This is but one of many tradeoffs required in a plug-in hybrid car. Most of these cars are tiny to make them as light as possible. For the lighter the car is the less current it takes to get it moving. But adding a backup gasoline engine and generator only makes the car heavier. Thus reducing its electric range. Making it more like a conventional car for a trip longer than 20-30 miles. Only one that gets a poorer fuel economy. Because of the extra weight of the battery and generator. Manufacturers have even addressed this problem by reducing the range of the car. If people don’t drive more than 10 miles on a typical trip they don’t need such a large battery. Which is ideal if you use your car to go no further than you normally walk. A smaller battery means less weight due to the lesser storage capacity required to travel that lesser range. Another tradeoff is the heating and cooling of the car. Without a gasoline engine on all of the time these cars have to use electric heat. And an electric motor to drive the air conditioner compressor. (Some heating and cooling systems will operate when the car is plugged in to conserve battery charge for the initial climate adjustment). So in the heat of summer and the cold of winter you can scratch off another 20% of your electric range (bringing that 20 miles down to 16 miles). Not as bad as on a passenger locomotive. But with its large tanks of diesel fuel that train can still take you across the country.
The opportunity cost of the plug-in hybrid is giving up what the car originally gave us. Freedom. To get out on the open road just to see where it would take us. For if you drive a long commute or like to take long trips your hybrid is just going to be using the backup gasoline engine for most of that driving. While dragging around a lot of excess weight. To make up for some lost fuel economy some manufacturers use a gasoline engine with high compression. Unfortunately, high compression engines require the more expensive premium (higher octane) gasoline. Which costs more at the pump. There eventually comes the point we should ask ourselves why bother? Wouldn’t life and driving be so much simpler with a gasoline-powered car? Get fuel economy with a range of over 300 miles? Guess it all depends on what’s more important. Being sensible. Or showing others that you’re saving the planet.
Early Cities emerged on Rivers and Coastal Water Regions because that’s where the Trade Was
The key to wealth and a higher standard of living has been and remains trade. The division of labor has created a complex and rich economy. So that today we can have many things in our lives. Things that we don’t understand how they work. And could never make ourselves. But because of a job skill we can trade our talent for a paycheck. And then trade that money for all those wonderful things in our economy.
Getting to market to trade for those things, though, hasn’t always been easy. Traders helped here. By first using animals to carry large amounts of goods. Such as on the Silk Road from China. And as the Romans moved on their extensive road network. But you could carry more goods by water. Rivers and coastal waterways providing routes for heavy transport carriers. Using oar and sail power. With advancements in navigation larger ships traveled the oceans. Packing large holds full of goods. Making these shippers very wealthy. Because they could transport much more than any land-based transportation system. Not to mention the fact that they could ‘bridge’ the oceans to the New World.
This is why early cities emerged on rivers and coastal water regions. Because that’s where the trade was. The Italian city-states and their ports dominated Mediterranean trade until the maritime superpowers of Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, Great Britain and France put them out of business. Their competition for trade and colonies brought European technology to the New World. Including a new technology that allowed civilization to move inland. The steam engine.
Railroading transformed the Industrial Economy
Boiling water creates steam. When this steam is contained it can do work. Because water boiling into steam expands. Producing pressure. Which can push a piston. When steam condenses back into water it contracts. Producing a vacuum. Which can pull a piston. As the first useable steam engine did. The Newcomen engine. First used in 1712. Which filled a cylinder with steam. Then injected cold water in the cylinder to condense the steam back into water. Creating a vacuum that pulled a piston down. Miners used this engine to pump water out of their mines. But it wasn’t very efficient. Because the cooled cylinder that had just condensed the steam after the power stroke cooled the steam entering the cylinder for the next power stroke.
James Watt improved on this design in 1775. By condensing the steam back into water in a condenser. Not in the steam cylinder. Greatly improving the efficiency of the engine. And he made other improvements. Including a design where a piston could move in both directions. Under pressure. Leading to a reciprocating engine. And one that could be attached to a wheel. Launching the Industrial Revolution. By being able to put a factory pretty much anywhere. Retiring the waterwheel and the windmill from the industrial economy.
The Industrial Revolution exploded economic activity. Making goods at such a rate that the cost per unit plummeted. Requiring new means of transportation to feed these industries. And to ship the massive amount of goods they produced to market. At first the U.S. built some canals to interconnect rivers. But the steam engine allowed a new type of transportation. Railroading. Which transformed the industrial economy. Where we shipped more and more goods by rail. On longer and longer trains. Which made railroading a more and more dangerous occupation. Especially for those who coupled those trains together. And for those who stopped them. Two of the most dangerous jobs in the railroad industry. And two jobs that fell to the same person. The brakeman.
The Janney Coupler and the Westinghouse Air Brake made Railroading Safer and more Profitable
The earliest trains had an engine and a car or two. So there wasn’t much coupling or decoupling. And speed and weight were such that the engineer could stop the train from the engine. But that all changed as we coupled more cars together. In the U.S., we first connected cars together with the link-and-pin coupler. Where something like an eyebolt slipped into a hollow tube with a hole in it. As the engineer backed the train up a man stood between the cars being coupled and dropped a pin in the hole in the hollow tube through the eyebolt. Dangerous work. As cars smashed into each other a lot of brakemen still had body parts in between. Losing fingers. Hands. Some even lost their life.
Perhaps even more dangerous was stopping a train. As trains grew longer the locomotive couldn’t stop the train alone. Brakemen had to apply the brakes evenly on every car in the train. By moving from car to car. On the top of a moving train. Jumping the gap between cars. With nothing to hold on to but the wheel they turned to apply the brakes. A lot of men fell to their deaths. And if one did you couldn’t grieve long. For someone else had to stop that train. Before it became a runaway and derailed. Potentially killing everyone on that train.
As engines became more powerful trains grew even longer. Resulting in more injuries and deaths. Two inventions changed that. The Janney coupler invented in 1873. And the Westinghouse Air Brake invented in 1872. Both made mandatory in 1893 by the Railroad Safety Appliance Act. The Janney coupler is what you see on U.S. trains today. It’s an automatic coupler that doesn’t require anyone to stand in between two cars they’re coupling together. You just backed one car into another. Upon impact, the couplers latch together. They are released by a lifting a handle accessible from the side of the train.
The Westinghouse Air Brake consisted of an air line running the length of the train. Metal tubes under cars. And those thick hoses between cars. The train line. A steam-powered air compressor kept this line under pressure. Which, in turn, maintained pressure in air tanks on each car. To apply the brakes from the locomotive cab the engineer released pressure from this line. The lower pressure in the train line opened a valve in the rail car air tanks, allowing air to fill a brake piston cylinder. The piston moved linkages that engaged the brake shoes on the wheels. With braking done by lowering air pressure it’s a failsafe system. For example, if a coupler fails and some cars separate this will break the train line. The train line will lose all pressure. And the brakes will automatically engage, powered by the air tanks on each car.
Railroads without Anything to Transport Produce no Revenue
Because of the reciprocating steam engine, the Janney coupler and the Westinghouse Air Brake trains were able to get longer and faster. Carrying great loads great distances in a shorter time. This was the era of railroading where fortunes were made. However, those fortunes came at a staggering cost. For laying track cost a fortune. Surveying, land, right-of-ways, grading, road ballast, ties, rail, bridges and tunnels weren’t cheap. They required immense financing. But if the line turned out to be profitable with a lot of shippers on that line to keep those rails polished, the investment paid off. And fortunes were made. But if the shippers didn’t appear and those rails got rusty because little revenue traveled them, fortunes were lost. With losses so great they caused banks to fail.
The Panic of 1893 was caused in part by such speculation in railroads. They borrowed great funds to build railroad lines that could never pay for themselves. Without the revenue there was no way to repay these loans. And fortunes were lost. The fallout reverberated through the U.S. banking system. Throwing the nation into the worst depression until the Great Depression. Thanks to great technology. That some thought was an automatic ticket to great wealth. Only to learn later that even great technology cannot change the laws of economics. Specifically, railroads without anything to transport produce no revenue.