Trade, Steam Power, Reciprocating Steam Engine, Railroading, Janney Coupler and Westinghouse Air Brake

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 25th, 2012

Technology 101

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.

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The Obama Administration Proposes an Ambitious and Costly High-Speed Rail Plan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 9th, 2011

Nowadays Passenger Trains Yield the Right-of-Way to Freight Trains

I remember traveling by train with my family some 20-30 years ago.  My mom loved train travel.  She lived in the golden age of rail.  Has lots of fond memories.  But these are different times.  Even 20-30 years ago.  I remember on that trip we came to a stop on a siding.  Sat there for about a half hour.  Maybe 45 minutes.  I was starting to think there was a problem with the train.  Then a freight rumbled by on the main line.  After it passed, we started moving again.

Now if you understand railroading, you know how significant this is.  Back in the golden age, before planes and the interstate highway system, it would have been the other way around.  Passenger trains got the priority because they made more money.  Back then, freight trains pulled onto sidings.  But today, though heavily subsidized, passenger trains don’t make money.  Freight trains do.  They can pay for themselves.  And make a profit.  Therefore, passenger trains take to the sidings to get out of the way of profitable freight trains.

Freight trains make money because they can move a lot of freight cheaper and faster than other means of transportation.  Passenger trains, on the other hand, are neither the fastest nor the cheapest.  Planes are faster.  Cars are cheaper.  And this is why most passenger rail, including high-speed rail, don’t make money.  Even with huge government subsidies.  Not the same for planes or cars.  One way or another, we pay our own way with these faster and cheaper alternatives.

A Public Works Project that doesn’t End

Despite this, the Obama administration is proposing to spend billions on high-speed rail.  And it’s an ambitious plan (see GOP critic calls Joe Biden’s $53 billion high-speed rail plan ‘insanity’ by Daniel B. Wood posted 2/8/2011 on Yahoo! News).

According to the plan laid out Tuesday by Biden, the first step of the six-year plan would be to invest $8 billion to develop or improve three types of interconnected corridors:

Core express corridors would form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system, with electrified trains traveling on dedicated tracks at speeds of 125 to 250 m.p.h or higher.

Regional corridors would lay the foundation for future high-speed service, with trains traveling between 90 to 125 m.p.h.

Emerging corridors would provide travelers with access to the larger national high-speed network and travel at as much as 90 m.p.h.

During times when oil prices soar, air and truck transportation costs soar.  But not rail transportation.  Why?  Because the massive rail infrastructure costs are greater than their fuel costs.  Unlike with planes and trucks.  Trains have to buy land (or right-of-ways).  Grade the land.  Build tunnels.  Bridges.  Lay track.  Switches.  Install communication systems to control those switches.  And more.  And they have to do this everywhere a train will travel. 

Planes fly between airports.  And trucks drive on roads paid for by fuel taxes.  They don’t have the infrastructure costs railroads do.  So volatile fuel costs impact them far greater than they do the railroads.  So the plan Biden laid out won’t be cheap.  It will be very, very expensive.  And take a long time to build.  It will be a public works project that doesn’t end.

But building high-speed rail is no easy process, says Leslie McCarthy, a high-speed rail expert at Villanova University’s College of Engineering. “Whether or not a bill would or should pass is the easiest part of all this,” she says. “The bigger part of the question is purchasing the land, getting right of ways, zoning issues, environmental impact assessments, laying dedicated tracks in a reasonable amount of time.”

She says the typical US highway project can be held up anywhere from three to five years at the low end to 12 to 20 years at the high end. “Legislators and the public aren’t aware of the number of federal, state, and local laws that agencies have to comply with that can’t be gotten around,” she adds.

The plan will employ a lot of people to build these railroads.  And they will have jobs for a long time.  But it will cost us a fortune in taxes.  Will the investment pay off?  When completed, will these railroads make money? 

In fact, the very thing that makes the Northeast so attractive for high-speed rail – its population density – could also make it the most difficult place to build. “There is so much population in the Northeast corridor that I don’t know if there is even enough room for the dedicated tracks needed for high-speed rail,” says Professor McCarthy. “And if the distances you are going are not sufficient to make efficient use of the high speeds, what’s the point..?”

Critics agree. Only two rail corridors in the world – France’s Paris to Lyon line and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“Both of these are the perfect distance for high-speed rail, connect cities over flat terrain with huge populations that have great public transportation to get riders to the railway,” he says, dismissing French claims that other lines make money. He says they calculate costs in ways which ignore capital costs.

Well, with only two high-speed rail lines actually paying for themselves, I guess the answer is ‘no’.  The proposed high-speed rail project will just be a sinkhole for tax money. 

High-Speed Rail:  Huge Expense with Little Benefit

All right.  So the proposed high-speed rail will never pay for itself.  And it will become a permanent sinkhole for our tax dollars.  But it will at least get cars off the road, right?  Reduce our carbon footprint?  Make the earth a greener place?  Or at least take us to our destinations faster?  Probably not (see Obama’s High-Speed Sale by Ernest Istook posted 2/8/2011 on Heritage’s The Foundry).

The “high speed” adjective invokes thoughts of bullet trains speeding at 150 mph, 200 mph or more.  The reality of Obama’s plan is—at best—the 85 mph that is the average speed of America’s fastest train, the Amtrak-run Acela.

When Obama claims his trains would reach 100 mph and more, he’s talking about peak speed reached only for short stretches, not the average.

I’ve actually traveled on Amtrak.  Not the Acela.  But we did reach speeds in excess of 60 miles an hour.  For a short period of time.  In the middle of farm country.  In a metropolitan city, for about 20 minutes or so, we crawled.  The track was so bad that speed limits were reduced.  To prevent further trains from derailing. 

City to city high-speed travel in excess of 150 mph will require new, dedicated track between point A and point B.  Until you have that you’ll never ‘average’ anything close to those high speeds.  And that will require a grand, bold and expensive plan of railroad building.  The question is, knowing that such a railroad will never pay for itself and may never move people faster (unless you build terminals outside of cities where you’ll be able to build these dedicated lines and bus people to and from these terminals), will we at least save the planet?

An exhaustive Department of Energy analysis by Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes, “intercity auto trips tend to be relatively efficient highway trips with higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates — on average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips. Additionally, if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat12 — making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

The lack of energy or pollution savings leaves us with the key problem:  Huge expense with little benefit.

So we spend a fortune for what?  Surely there must be a better way.

Rail travelers don’t pay their own way as drivers must do.  Obama’s plan would increase the rail subsidies, which already are heavily subsidized with tax money–often by hundreds of dollars a trip for each passenger–whereas the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that drivers receive no subsidy:  Drivers buy the roads through fuel taxes, and also must pay for their own car, gas, insurance and repairs.

Well, there appears to be a better way.  Cars.  And we already have them.  So wouldn’t it be cheaper and more efficient to stick with what we already have and works?

Big Infrastructure brings in Big Federal Money

Yeah, well, that’s not how politics work.  Politicians run for reelection based on how much money they’ve brought home to their districts.  And big infrastructure brings home big federal money (see High Speed Funding in President’s Budget Means More Waste of Taxpayer Dollars by Kathryn Nix posted 2/9/2011 on Heritage’s The Foundry).

Heritage’s Ronald Utt writes that a high-speed rail program would create “perpetual massive government subsidies and larger budget deficits” and “additional burdens imposed on hard-pressed state governments, which will be required to match the perpetual federal subsidies to build the system.”

And bringing home federal money to their districts will be the only benefit of high-speed rail.

Despite its cost, high-speed rail will be ineffective at achieving its goals, if Europe’s experiences are any indicator. High-speed rail is expected to reduce auto and air travel, but in Europe, the trend is actually the opposite: Despite huge government subsidies, travelers are opting more and more to take non-subsidized and less expensive forms of travel.

Per capita spending on rail alone in six European countries was comparable to the United States’ entire transportation budget, yet, says Utt, “these countries received a poor return on their money given that more than 90 percent of passengers in these countries chose other travel modes—mostly auto—despite the subsidies.” Moreover, Utt cites the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s finding that reducing travel time between major East Coast cities by 30 minutes would cost $14 billion but only reduce auto transportation by less than 1 percent.

Can you say boondoggle?

Passenger Rail cannot Subsist without Taxpayer Subsidies

High-speed rail will never pay for itself, it will require perpetual government subsidies, it will not reduce our energy consumption or reduce our carbon footprint.  All it will do is increase deficit spending at the federal and state levels. 

There’s a reason why government subsidizes passenger rail service in the United States.  Because the railroad companies know there is no money in it.  They can make money moving freight.  But not people.  So they move freight.  And let people fly or drive their cars when they want to travel.  Or let the government pay for those passenger trains the way only government can.  With our tax dollars.

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