Wheel Slippage, Coupler Failure, Slack Management and Bad Winter Drivers

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 8th, 2014

Technology 101

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.



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Big and Heavy things that Travel Fast along the Ground have a lot of Dangerous Kinetic Energy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 1st, 2013

Week in Review

The most dangerous parts of flight are the landing and taking off parts.  Why?  Because planes are big and heavy.  And they travel fast.  And whenever anything big and heavy travels fast near the ground bad things can happen.  Because that’s a lot of kinetic energy that can do a lot of damage when it comes to a sudden and unexpected stop.  But up in the air away from the ground planes easily earn their title as the safest way to travel.  For up in the lonely expanses of the sky they can travel in excess of 500 miles per hour without a care in the world.  Because the odds of them striking anything are virtually zero.  This is where big and heavy things that travel fast belong.  Not on the ground.  Like high-speed rail.  For even low-speed rail can be dangerous (see New York train derailment: Safety officials recover ‘black box’ by Tina Susman posted 12/1/2013 on the Los Angeles Times).

Investigators have recovered the “event recorder” from a Metro-North train that derailed in New York City early Sunday, a major step toward determining what caused the crash that killed four people and left scores injured…

Earl F. Weener of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a news briefing that the agency expected to have investigators on the scene in the Spuyten Duyvil area of the Bronx for a week to 10 days.

“Our mission is to understand not just what happened but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again,” Weener said. He said investigators had not yet talked to the train’s operator. Some local media have said the operator has claimed that he tried to slow down at the sharp curve where the derailment occurred but that the brakes failed.

The speed limit at the curve is 30 mph, compared to about 70 mph on straight sections of track.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the area is “dangerous by design,” because of the curve, but he said the bend in the track alone could not be blamed for the crash.

“That curve has been here for many, many years,” he told reporters at the scene, as darkness fell over the wreckage. “Trains take the curve every day … so it’s not the fact that there’s a curve here. We’ve always had this configuring. We didn’t have accidents. So there has to be another factor.”

High-speed rail is costly.  Because it needs dedicated track.  Overhead electric wires.  No grade crossings.  Fencing around the track.  Or installed on an elevated viaduct.  To prevent any cars, people or animals from wandering onto the track.  They need banked track for high-speed curves.  And, of course, they can’t have any sharp curves.  Because curves cause a train to slow down.  If they don’t they can derail.  Which may be the reason why this commuter train derailed.  It may have entered a curved section of track at a speed too great for its design.  Which shows the danger of fast trains on sharp turns.

There haven’t been many high-speed rail accidents.  But there have been a few.  All resulting in loss of life.  Because big and heavy things that travel fast along the ground have a lot of kinetic energy.  And if something goes wrong at these high speeds (collision with another train or derailment) by the time that kinetic energy dissipates it will cause a lot of damage to the train, to its surroundings and to the people inside.

The high speed of today’s high-speed trains is about 200 mph.  Not even half of what modern jetliners can travel at.  Yet they cost far more.  Most if not all passenger rail needs government subsidies.  Air travel doesn’t.  Making high-speed rail a very poor economic model.  But they are capital and labor intensive.  Which is why governments build them.  So they can spend lots of money.  And create a lot of union jobs.  Which tends to help them win elections.



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The Poor Economic Model of Passenger Rail

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 25th, 2013

Economics 101

The Amtrak Crescent is about a 1,300 Mile 30 Hour Trip between New Orleans and New York City

An Amtrak train derailed this morning west of Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Thankfully, the cars remained upright.  And no one was seriously injured (see Amtrak Crescent with 218 aboard derails in SC by AP posted 11/25/2013 on Yahoo! News).

There were no serious injuries, Amtrak said of the 207 passengers and 11 crew members aboard when the cars derailed shortly after midnight in the countryside on a frosty night with 20-degree readings from a cold front sweeping the Southeast.

This is the Amtrak Crescent.  About a 30 hour trip one way.  It runs between New Orleans and New York City.  Approximately 1,300 miles of track.  Not Amtrak track.  They just lease track rights from other railroads.  Freight railroads.  Railroads that can make a profit.  Which is hard to do on a train traveling 1,300 miles with only 207 revenue-paying passengers.

People may board and leave the train throughout this route.  But if we assume the average for this whole trip was 207 and they were onboard from New Orleans to New York City we can get some revenue numbers from the Amtrak website.   We’ll assume a roundtrip.  They each have to pay for a seat which runs approximately $294.  Being that this is a long trip we’ll assume 20 of these people also paid an additional $572 for a room with a bed and a private toilet.  Bringing the total revenue for this train to approximately $72,298.  Not too shabby.  Now let’s look at the costs of this train.

Diesel Trains consume about 3-4 Gallons of Fuel per Mile

If you search online for track costs you will find a few figures.  All of them very costly.  We’ll assume new track costs approximately $1.3 million per mile of track.  This includes land.  Rights of way.  Grading.  Bridges.  Ballast.  Ties.  Rail.  Switches.  Signals.  Etc.  So for 1,300 miles that comes to $1.69 billion.  Track and ties take a beating and have to be replaced often.  Let’s say they replace this track every 7 years.  So that’s an annual depreciation cost of $241 million.  Or $663,265 per day.  Assuming 12 trains travel this rail each day that comes to about $55,272 per train.

Once built they have to maintain it.  Which includes replacing worn out rail and ties.  Repairing washouts.  Repairing track, switches and signals vandalized or damaged in train derailments and accidents.  This work is ongoing every day.  For there are always sections of the road under repair.  It’s not as costly as building new track but it is costly.  And comes to approximately $300,000 per mile.  For the 1,300 miles of track between New Orleans and New York City the annual maintenance costs come to $390 million.  Or $1 million per day.  Assuming 12 trains travel this rail each day that comes to about $89,286 per train.

Diesel trains consume about 3-4 gallons of fuel per mile.  Because passenger trains are lighter than freight trains we’ll assume a fuel consumption of 3 gallons per mile.  For a 1,300 mile trip that comes to 3,900 gallons of diesel.  Assuming a diesel price of $3 per gallon the fuel costs for this trip comes to $11,700.  The train had a crew of 11.  Assuming an annual payroll for engineer, conductor, porter, food service, etc., the crew costs are approximately $705,000.  Or approximately $1,937 per day.  Finally, trains don’t have steering wheels.  They are carefully dispatched through blocks from New Orleans all the way to New York.  Safely keeping one train in one block at a time.  Assuming the annual payroll for all the people along the way that safely route traffic comes to about $1 million.  Adding another $2,967 per day.

Politicians love High-Speed Rail because it’s like National Health Care on Wheels

If you add all of this up the cost of the Amtrak Crescent one way is approximately $161,162.  If we subtract this from half of the roundtrip revenue (to match the one-way costs) we get a loss of $88,864.  So the losses are greater than the fare charged the travelling public.  And this with the freight railroads picking up the bulk of the overhead.  Which is why Amtrak cannot survive without government subsidies.  Too few trains are travelling with too few people aboard.  If Amtrak charged enough just to break even on the Crescent they would raise the single seat price from $294 to $723.  An increase of 146%.

Of course Amtrak can’t charge these prices.  Traveling by train is a great and unique experience.  But is it worth paying 80% more for a trip that takes over 7 times as long as flying?  That is a steep premium to pay.  And one only the most avid and rich train enthusiast will likely pay.  Which begs the question why are we subsidizing passenger rail when it’s such a poor economic model that there is no private passenger rail?  Because of all those costs.  Congress loves spending money.  And they love making a lot of costly jobs.  And that’s one thing railroads offer.  Lots of costly jobs.  For it takes a lot of people to build, maintain and operate a railroad.

Which is why all politicians want to build high-speed rail.  For it doesn’t get more costly than that.  These are dedicated roads.  And they’re electric.  Which makes the infrastructure the most costly of all rail.  Because of the high speeds there are no grade crossings.  Crossing traffic goes under.  Or over.  But never across.  And they don’t share the road with anyone.  There are no profitable freight trains running on high-speed lines to share the costs.  No.  Fewer trains must cover greater costs.  Making the losses greater.  And the subsidies higher.  Which is why politicians love high-speed rail.  It’s like national health care on wheels.



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Timetable, Train Order, Block and Block Signal

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 20th, 2013

Technology 101

The Preferred Method of avoiding Train Collisions is not being where another Train Is

Automobiles are relatively light and nimble.  It doesn’t take much energy to get them moving.  And it doesn’t take much energy to stop them.  A person only needs a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal to go safely from point A to point B.  And if someone is texting and driving and veers into your lane you can do a few things to avoid a collision.  Such as stopping quickly by stepping on the brake pedal.  Twisting the wheel quickly to move out of the way.  Or stomping down on the accelerator to pull ahead quickly.   The combination of steering, brakes and accelerator can help us avoid many collisions.  Something a train can’t do.  Because a train doesn’t have a steering wheel.  And needs about a mile to stop.

This is why we stop for trains.  And trains don’t stop for us.  Because we can stop in a much shorter distance than it takes a train to stop.  Which is why trains have the right-of-way.  And we sit at railroad crossings.  Also, without a steering wheel they can’t steer around an oncoming train.  Or around a stopped train ahead of them.  The only thing a train can do to avoid colliding with another train is to stop before hitting one.  Or not being where another train is.  The preferred method of avoiding train collisions.

So how do they keep one train from not being where another train is.  Well, they’ve used many different methods over time.  One of the earliest methods was scheduling trains by a timetable.  Say there is a section of single track connecting two cities.  At, say, 8AM one passenger train leaves point A.  While another passenger train leaves point C.  They travel towards each other on a single track.  At approximately 9AM both trains arrive at point B.  The timetable will have one train pull into a siding and wait for the other train to pass by on the main line.  After the other train clears the track between point A and point B and continues on to point C the train on the siding will return to the main line and continue to point A.  According to the timetable.

Shorter Blocks mean less Waiting Time for a Train Ahead to Exit a Block

Of course, the timetable had its faults.  Such as when two trains were traveling in the same direction.  For example, let’s say train A and train B are moving from point C to point B to point A.  Train B leaves 2 hours after train A.  Which provides a two hour separation between trains.  Allowing train A to clear the track long before train B comes through.  Unless, of course, train A breaks down.  Which would be very bad for train B coming around a bend at speed only to see the rear end of the stopped train A.  And with no steering wheel or enough distance to stop train B would run into the back of train A.  Causing great damage.  And loss of life.

The timetable also made for inefficient use of track.  For it required large time separation of trains.  Which meant fewer trains in a given period of time.  And less revenue.  To increase revenue they had to shorten the time separation of trains.  Without decreasing train safety.  And the telegraph allowed us to do that.  With faster-than-train communication we could send new instructions ahead of a train (i.e., a train order).  Such as at the next station it will reach.  Telling them to stop on a siding for a priority train to pass.  Or to proceed slowly and be prepared to stop when they reach a broken down train ahead of them.  Etc.

We separate track into blocks.  For example, the portion of track between point A and point B is one block.  The portion between point B and point C is another block.  Trains travel through a series of blocks to get to their destination.  And to maintain the separation between trains they limit one train in a block at a time.  Ideally they want two empty blocks ahead of all trains.  So they can travel at speed through one block and have an empty block ahead of them for stopping room.  Areas with little traffic will have longer blocks than areas with more traffic.  For shorter blocks mean less waiting time for a train ahead to exit a block.

A Green Light means the next two Blocks ahead are Clear

Blocks started and ended at stations.  Signal towers.  Or block signals.  The last thing a crew does before moving their train from a stop is test the train-line air brakes.  The engineer will listen to the radio until he or she hears, “Got a good set and release.”  Meaning the brakes applied and released and were safe and functioning.  “Highball from the car department.  Have a good trip.”  The authorization to proceed.  The ‘highball’ is a reference to one of the first mechanical block signals.  A ball hoisted up by a rope and pulley.  The ball had three positions.  The high position meant the track was clear and the train could proceed at full speed.  The low position meant to stop.  And the middle position meant to proceed but to be prepared to stop at the next signal.

The semaphore was a common block signal before signal lights.  A semaphore was an arm that pivoted on one end.  When it was straight up it mean the track ahead was clear.  If it was at a 45-degree angle it meant proceed but be prepared to stop at the next block signal.  If it was horizontal it meant stop.  For there was a train in the block ahead.  Operators at signal towers would report when a train left its block to the signal tower at the entrance to that block.  So that signal operator could change the signal to clear.

Today we use electric signals.  And automation.  When a train enters a block its steel wheels and axles complete an electric circuit between the rails.  Turning the signal at the entrance to this block red.  There’s a variety of signal lights.  There are two-light units with a green light over a red light.  A green light means the block ahead is clear.  And the block ahead of that is clear, too.  Providing a 2-block separation between trains.  If the light is red it means there is a train in the block ahead.  And to stop.  If there is a green light over a red light it means the block ahead is clear but the next block is not.  So proceed at normal speed into the next block but be prepared to stop at the signal at the entrance of the following block.  Another style of signal light, the searchlight, had a single color lamp and three different lens colors that changed the color of the signal.  Green meant the block ahead was empty.  Yellow meant the block ahead was empty but the next block after that wasn’t.  And red meant to stop because there was a train in the block.  Perhaps the most common signal is a 3-lamp unit with green over yellow over red.  The signaling is similar to the 2-lamp unit.  But other combinations of colors provided additional information and direction.



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Steam Locomotive

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 13th, 2013

Technology 101

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.



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Moving Big Things in Small Spaces

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 11th, 2013

Technology 101

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.



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Air Transport vs. Rail Transport

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2013

Economics 101

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.



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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 Chinese Scale Back their Ambitious High-Speed Rail Plans because their Keynesian Polices Unleashed Inflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 30th, 2011

Week in Review

Railroads are expensive to build.  And to operate.  Especially high-speed railroads.  Why?  Because unlike airplanes that fly in the air between cities trains have to travel on track between cities.  And that’s a whole lot of railroad infrastructure.  That’s why railroads don’t suffer as much during times of escalating fuel costs as trucking and aviation.  Because fuel isn’t their greatest cost.  As it is for trucks and planes.  It’s that massive infrastructure that they have to build.  And maintain.

To build a railroad you need lots of money.  And lots of labor.  Preferably cheap labor.  And that usually means government money.  And immigrant labor.  That’s how they built the first transcontinental railroad in America.  Along with a lot of inefficiencies.  And corruption.  Typical when you put government and big piles of money together.

That first transcontinental railroad needed a lot of ‘fixing up’ before it was safe for use.  They had to move some track from ice to terra firma.  Rebuild some bridges that weren’t disposable after a few uses.  That kind of thing.  Because that’s the kind of craftsmanship you get when government is in charge of the money.  What we call crony capitalism.  Government rewarding their friends.  Picking winners and losers.  And helping those who will help them.  That is, return the favor of government contracts with campaign contributions.

Governments all around the world are in favor of building more high-speed rail.  Because it will ‘put people to work’.  And ‘save the planet’.  By moving people out of gasoline-powered cars into electricity-powered trains.  Electricity that is generated from even more polluting coal-fired power plants.

The Americans have been trying.  Obama’s stimulus included billions for high-speed rail.  That did nothing.  Meanwhile the Chinese have been doing it.  By making money for the banks to lend.  And using cheap ‘second-class’ migrant labor from China’s countryside to build their high-speed rail.  And how has that been working?  Not so good (see Can’t pay, won’t pay posted 10/29/2011 on The Economist).

EFFORTS to curb inflation in China are having some painful side-effects. A squeeze on bank lending has prompted some businesses short of cash to stop paying wages to blue-collar workers. Even the much-vaunted state sector is feeling the pinch. Work has all but ground to a halt on thousands of kilometres of railway track, and many of the network’s 6m construction workers have been complaining about not being paid for weeks or sometimes months…

The government touted building railways as a great way to keep the economy buoyant during global financial trouble, and boost employment. But the $600 billion stimulus launched in 2008 is all but spent. Indeed, the central government has urged state banks to cut back on lending in order to curb inflation, which in the year to July reached a three-year high of 6.5%, before dropping to 6.1% in September.

Yet another example of why Keynesian economic stimulus stimulates only economic bubbles and inflation.  Which are always corrected by recessions.  And the greater the stimulus/bubble the greater the recession.  Of course Keynesian government economists everywhere will all come to the same conclusion.  That China isn’t spending enough.  And that governments everywhere should follow the Chinese example.  But without the one flaw of turning off the easy credit spigot.  Because Keynesians always say that any inflation created by government stimulus is minor and negligible in comparison to all the good that it does.

Similar problems have also been reported in road building and property construction, prompting a growing number of demonstrations and violent incidents, including clashes with employers and suicides. Such difficulties are likely to get worse towards the end of the year, when companies traditionally try to settle accounts with employees. Wage inflation is adding to employers’ woes. Minimum wages have risen by an average of nearly 22% in the two-thirds of China’s provinces which have adjusted them this year. Nice if you can get it, but not much use if you are not being paid at all.

But the Keynesians couldn’t be more wrong.  Once inflation starts it ripples through the economy.  Costs go up.  Wages go up.  Increasing consumer prices everywhere.  There’ll be some economic prosperity for a little while.  But soon inflation will eat away at the standard of living.  People will be making more money everywhere.  But that money will buy less and less.  It will buy less of a house.  Fewer toys.  And even less food.  This is the endgame of Keynesian stimulus.  And we’re seeing it played out on a grand scale in China.  Like we saw in Japan during their Lost Decade.  Where the Japanese suffered a deflationary spiral that just never ended.  To correct all that damage caused by their Keynesian bubble.

This could prove to have a devastating effect on the American economy.  For the Americans will have no one left to finance their debt.  And yet President Obama, the Democrats and all those mainstream Keynesian economists are all clamoring for one thing.  Can you guess what that is?  That’s right.  More Keynesian stimulus.

Some people just never learn.



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High-Speed Rail will do what Planes can do, only for a lot, lot more Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 3rd, 2011

There may be only two High-Speed Lines in the World that Actually Pay for Themselves

There won’t be high-speed rail any time soon.  Chalk up another one in the ‘lose’ column for Obama (see Senate: ‘No confidence’ in Obamarail by Barbara Hollingsworth posted 10/3/2011 on The Washington Examiner).

… the $100 million the Senate left as a “placeholder” is likely to be zeroed out by the House, Orski notes, effectively killing President Obama’s dream of a high-speed rail network throughout the U.S.

In February, the president asked Congress to appropriate $53 billion through 2018 to provide high-speed rail service. The $100 million is the Democrat-controlled Senate appropriations committee agreed to keep in the budget (by a voice vote) is a drop in the bucket.

“Senate appropriators have done more than merely declare a temporary slowdown in the high-speed rail program. They have effectively given a vote of ‘no confidence’ to President Obama’s signature infrastructure initiative,” Orski says.

You know, $53 billion was a little light to begin with to provide access to high-speed rail to 80% of all Americans.  So that $100 million placeholder obviously wasn’t going to pay for much of anything.  Not even the environmental impact studies.  At best it could maybe pay off a campaign donor or two.

“Their posture is understandable,” he added. “After committing $8 billion in stimulus money and an additional $2.5 billion in regular appropriations, the Administration has little to show for in terms of concrete results or accomplishments. Aside from an ongoing project to upgrade track between Chicago and St. Louis (a $1.1 billion venture that promises to offer a mere 48 minute reduction in travel time between those two cities), no significant construction has begun on any of the authorized rail projects.”

And the only really high-speed rail project in the works – a 220 mph, 160-mile, $67 billion bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco – is in trouble because of public opposition (a new poll found that two-thirds of likely voters in California are against it) and the fact that the cost estimates have doubled since 2008.

Orski reports that analysts now believe that the California high-speed rail project cannot and will not be built without a substantial federal subsidy – which is not likely to materialize.

Gee, I wonder where that $8 billion of stimulus funds went to.  Campaign donors?

Can NOT be built without federal subsidies?  You know why?  There may be only two high-speed lines in the world that actually pay for themselves.  One in France.  And one in Japan.  High-speed rail loses money.  Just like Amtrak.  Only more.  They’re just so incredibly costly to build.  And to operate.  To get them to pay for themselves you need numerous trains per hour.  Packed with paying customers.  And, preferably, few automobiles.

Private Railroads aren’t Building High-Speed because Passenger Rail is not Profitable.  High-Speed or Otherwise.

Japan is the home of the Bullet Train.  They ushered in high-speed rail.  To move the people of one of the most populous nations on the planet.  They are so crowded that they use 747s for commuter jets.  Now that’s population density.  Which is what you need to make high-speed passenger rail work.  Which is why the Tokaido route works (see The Difference Engine: Fast track to nowhere posted 5/20/2011 on The Economist).

OF ALL the high-speed train services around the world, only one really makes economic sense—the 550km (340-mile) Shinkansen route that connects the 35m people in greater Tokyo to the 20m residents of the Kansai cluster of cities comprising Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nara. At peak times, up to 16 bullet trains an hour travel each way along the densely populated coastal plain that is home to over half of Japan’s 128m people…

The sole reason why Shinkansen plying the Tokaido route make money is the sheer density—and affluence—of the customers they serve. All the other Shinkansen routes in Japan lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in the world. Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling.

This one Japanese high-speed rail line makes money because they pack them in like sardines.  Affluent sardines.  Who don’t need subsidized tickets.  So these trains can charge enough to cover their costs.  And with 16 packed trains an hour each way during peak time keeps these expansive rails nice and shiny.  And shiny rails produce enough revenue to cover costs.

California wants a share of that bullet-train hubris. Where Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have turned down billions of federal dollars for high-speed rail, the Golden State has been pressing on with its $43-billion scheme to build a high-speed rail service from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, with spurs eventually to San Diego, Sacramento and San Luis Obispo.

The irony is that California has the highest rate of car-ownership in the country, if not the world. It also, despite years of neglect, has one of the best road networks anywhere—certainly leagues ahead of Japan’s. On top of that, it enjoys a highly competitive network of budget airlines serving its main cities. The Los Angeles Times got it about right when it editorialised on May 16th that “California’s much-vaunted high-speed rail project is, to put it bluntly, a train wreck”.

Lots of cars, good roads and cheaper gas than in Japan.  That’s three strikes already against high-speed rail in California.  Will people leave their cars at home to pay more to be packed in like sardines and travel according to a train schedule instead of their own whim.  Which you can do with a car.  You want to go somewhere.  Just hop in the car and go.  That’s nice.  And convenient.  And you have no one coughing in your face.  Or groping you in the crowd.  Pretty nice benefits.  Especially if you’re a young lady.

And an expensive one at that. Between them, the federal government, municipals along the proposed route and an assortment of private investors are being asked to chip in some $30 billion. A further $10 billion is to be raised by a bond issue that Californian voters approved in 2008. Anything left unfunded will have to be met by taxpayers. They could be dunned for a lot. A study carried out in 2008 by the Reason Foundation, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Citizens Against Government Waste put the final cost of the complete 800-mile network at $81 billion…

The problem in making the case for high-speed rail in California is that, though it is the most populous state in the union, there are simply not enough people packed into the 50-mile wide coastal strip that wends its way 350 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Put it this way: the Shinkansen plying the Tokaido route have access to some 180,000 potential passengers per mile of high-speed track. Even by 2025, when California’s population is likely to have grown from today’s 38m to 46m or so, the number of people within the coastal strip is unlikely to exceed 85,000 per mile of track.

No wonder the Los Angeles Times called it a train wreck.  Lots of cars, good roads, cheaper gas and lower potential passenger density along the line.  No wonder they need federal subsidies.  It’s a black hole for money.  That’s why private railroads aren’t building these things.  They can’t make money with passenger rail.  High-speed or otherwise.

We should not Invest in Rail because Track is Expensive whereas Airspace is Free

Passenger rail is not a working business model.  They bleed money.  Which makes them very attractive to politicians.  That’s why they love them.  Because they know they will require more and more taxpayer money.  And they are always happy to raise taxes to pay for this public good that the public prefers not to have.

As can be seen, rail projects don’t happen fast.  So including high-speed rail projects in a stimulus bill wasn’t going to stimulate anything.  So why do it?  I don’t know.  Pay off a campaign donor or two?

Japan is built for high-speed rail.  When your cities are so crowded that they have capsule hotels you are a candidate for high-speed rail.  You have the population density that will pack trains like cans of sardines.  When you have vast tracks of open country you’re not a good candidate for high-speed rail.  The U.S. has vast tracks of open country.  And is therefore not a good candidate for high-speed rail.

We should not, then, invest in rail.  Americans will drive their cars for most trips.  And fly when it’s too long to drive.  For planes cost less per passenger mile to operate.  Because all of their infrastructure is at airports.  Unlike trains.  This is why air travel is cheaper than train travel.  Because track is expensive.  Whereas airspace is free.



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