Following the Tragedy at Lac-Mégantic shipping Crude Oil by Train in Canada will be more Costly

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 27th, 2014

Week in Review

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.


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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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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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President Obama’s opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline puts more Oil on Trains like the one in Lac-Mégantic

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 29th, 2013

Week in Review

Oil fuels the modern economy.  We use it everywhere.  And can’t live without it.  Even those people who hate it sipping their coffee while they surf the Internet and engage in social media in their favorite coffee shop.  None of which they could do if it were not for oil.  The coffee they drink crossed the ocean on a ship burning diesel refined from oil.  The smartphone they use contains plastic.  Made from oil.  And these smartphones crossed the ocean on a ship burning diesel before they could use them.  The cars in the drive-thru at the coffee shops are burning gasoline refined from oil.  The freight trains and trucks burn diesel that deliver the goods these coffee shops sell.

Oil makes everything better in our lives.  Without oil life expectancy would plummet.  As hospitals wouldn’t have any life-saving equipment made from plastic.  Ambulances couldn’t speed patients to the hospital.  And there would be no backup generators during a power outage.  As there would be no backup power available at our wastewater treatment plants.  Or at our freshwater pumping stations.  We would return to the 19th century.  Using steam and water power in our factories.  Horses in our cities.  Doing our business in an outhouse.  And drawing our water from a well.  Except for the rich, of course.  Who would be able to enjoy these luxuries.  Luxuries that most of us take for granted today.

Oil is so important in our lives that we should be doing everything within our power to make it as inexpensive and plentiful as possible.  Like building the Keystone XL pipeline.  So we can transport oil safely in large quantities.  Reducing the cost of transportation.  Thus lowering the price at the pump.  Which would also prevent things like this from happening (see What’s in rail tankers and why can’t we know? posted 9/27/2013 on CBC News).

Nearly three months after the  Lac-Mégantic disaster, rail safety remains at the top of the national agenda with a meeting of federal and provincial transport ministers this week focusing on the question of what is in tanker cars and why provinces and municipalities can’t get that information.​

After the conclusion of the meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba’s transportation minister said the legacy of the Lac-Mégantic disaster in July must be safer rail system across Canada.

Steve Ashton said there is an urgent need to look comprehensively at rail safety at a time when more oil is being shipped by rail and the Lac Mégantic disaster is fresh in the public mind.

This is what happens when the environmentalists get their way.  And President Obama secures their support.  And their money.  President Obama opposes the Keystone XL pipeline.  And other pipelines where he can.  Because his liberal base hates oil.  Even though the lives they enjoy would not be possible without oil.  So their opposition to oil and pipelines forces oil onto trains.  That travel through our cities.  Sometimes derail.  And explode.  Killing 47 in Lac-Mégantic.  And destroying a part of that city.

With continued opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline more oil will travel by train.  More trains will derail.  And explode.  But the Democrats will secure the support of their liberal base.  And the environmentalists can claim a victory in the war against oil.  While they enjoy their coffee and smartphones in their favorite coffee shop.  That only oil makes possible.


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Power Outage stranding Electric Trains show the need for Coal and Oil

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 29th, 2013

Week in Review

There are few more costly ways to move people than by train.  Running a passenger train is incredibly expensive.  With the biggest cost in maintaining all the infrastructure before point A and point B.  Track, signals, rights-of-way and people.  Lots and lots of people.  To build this infrastructure.  To maintain this infrastructure.  With electric trains requiring the most costly infrastructure of all.  Especially high-speed trains.  These costs are so great that they are greater than their fuel costs.  Unlike the airlines.  That provide a much more cost-efficient way to move people.

Trains are slower than planes.  And they make a lot of stops.  So they appeal to a small group of users.  So few travel by train that it is impossible to charge a ticket price that can pay for this infrastructure that people can afford.  Which is why governments have to subsidize all passenger rail except for maybe two lines.  One Bullet line in Japan.  And one high-speed line in France.  Governments pay for or subsidize pretty much every other passenger train line in the world.  Which they are only more willing to do because those ‘lots and lots of people’ are union workers.  Who support their friends in government.

So governments build passenger rail lines more for political reasons than economic.  For passenger rail is bad economics.  In a highly dense city, though, they may be the only option to move so many people.  But even then the ridership can’t pay for everything.  So it requires massive subsidies.  Worse, by relying on electrified trains so much these rail lines are subject to mass outages.  Unlike diesel electric trains.  Trains that don’t need such a costly infrastructure as electric trains do.  And with a full tank of diesel they can move people even during a large-scale power outage.  Like that currently happening with Con Edison (see Stranded NYC Commuters Ask Why Metro-North’s Power Failed by Mark Chediak & Priya Anand posted 9/27/2013 on Bloomberg).

Less than a year after Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED) left 900,000 customers in the dark during Hurricane Sandy, the utility faces the wrath of stranded commuters over a power failure that has crippled trains from New York to Boston.

Con Edison, based in New York, has warned it may take weeks to restore electricity to the Metro-North Railroad’s busiest line, which serves Connecticut and parts of suburban Westchester County. An electrical fault cut power on a feeder cable while an alternate was out of service for improvements…

The latest high-profile power failure for Con Edison follows Sandy, the worst storm in the company’s history, which brought flooding that left lower Manhattan without power for days. A few months before Sandy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, stepped in to resolve an employee lockout by the company that led to protests outside the Upper East Side home of Kevin Burke, the chairman and chief executive officer…

The rail operator is running buses and diesel-powered trains to accommodate no more than a third of the New Haven route’s regular ridership…

The power failure also affected Northeast Corridor passenger-rail service, as Amtrak canceled its Acela Express trains between New York and Boston through Sept. 29.

How about that.  Dirty, filthy, stinky diesel comes to the rescue.  Refined from petroleum oil.  As much as people hate it they can’t live without it.  No matter how hard they try.

This is what you can expect when you wage a war on reliable and inexpensive coal.  Pushing our power provides to become green only raises the cost of electric power generation.  Disconnecting coal-fired power plants from the grid removes more reliable power while replacing it with less reliable power.  And forcing power companies to invest in renewable power reduces their margins.  As they have to maintain their entire electric distribution system even if everyone has a solar power at home.  Because solar power won’t turn on your lights once the sun goes down.  And windmills won’t spin on a calm days.  So while power companies have to maintain their systems as if there is no solar or wind power they can’t bill for that capacity when the people get their power from renewable sources.  So they have little choice but to cut costs.  Leading to conflict with the unions.  And making an aging infrastructure go longer without maintenance.

You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t wage a war on coal and oil without getting costlier and less reliable power.  If you want lower-cost and more reliable power than you use coal and oil.  If you want to pay more for less reliable power then you can’t bitch when the trains stop running.  And the more we move away from coal the more our train will stop running.


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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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Trucks, Trains, Ships and Planes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 21st, 2013

Technology 101

Big Over-the-Road Tractor Trailer Trucks have Big Wheels so they can have Big Brakes

If you buy a big boat chances are you have a truck or a big SUV to pull it.  For rarely do you see a small car pulling a large boat.  Have you ever wondered why?  A small car can easily pull a large boat on a level (or a near level) surface.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is stopping once it gets moving.  For that is a lot of mass.  Creating a lot of kinetic energy (one half of the mass times velocity squared).  Which is dissipated as heat as brake shoes or pads rub against the wheels.  This is why you need a big truck or SUV to pull a boat.  So you can stop it once it gets moving.

Big trucks and big SUVs have big wheels and big brakes.  Large areas where brake pads/shoes press against a rotating wheel.  All of which is heavy duty equipment.  That can grab onto to those wheels and slow them down.  Converting that kinetic energy into heat.  This is why the big over-the-road tractor trailer trucks have big wheels.  So they can have big enough brakes to stop that huge mass once it gets moving.  Without the brakes turning white hot and melting.  Properly equipped trucks can carry great loads.  Moving freight safely across our highways and byways.  But there is a limit to what they can carry.  Too much weight spread between too few axles will pound the road apart.  Which is why the state police weighs our trucks.  To make sure they have enough axles supporting the load they’re carrying.  So they don’t break up our roads.  And that they can safely stop.

It’s a little different with trains.  All train cars have a fixed number of axles.  But you will notice the size of the cars differ.  Big oversized boxcars carry a lot of freight.  But it’s more big than heavy.  Heavy freight, on the other hand, like coal, you will see in smaller cars.  So the weight they carry doesn’t exceed the permissible weight/axle.  If you ever sat at a railroad crossing as a train passed you’ve probably noticed that the rail moves as the train travels across.  Watch a section of rail the next time you’re stopped by a train.  And you will see the rail sink a little beneath the axle as it passes over.

If a Ship is Watertight and Properly Balanced it can be covered in Green Water and Rise back to the Surface

So the various sizes of train cars (i.e., rolling stock) keeps each car from being overloaded.  Unlike a truck.  Steel haulers and gravel trains (i.e., dump trucks) have numerous axles beneath the load they’re carrying.  But these axles are retractable.  For the more wheels in contact with the road the more fuel is needed to overcome the friction between the tires and the road.  And the more tires in contact with the road the more tire wear there is.  Tires and fuel are expensive.  So truckers like to have as few tires in contact with the road as possible.  When they’re running empty they will have as many of these wheels retracted up as possible.  Something you can’t do with a train.

That said, a train’s weight is critical for the safe operation of a train.  In particular, stopping a train.  The longer a train is the more distance it takes to stop.  It is hard to overload a particular car in the string of cars (i.e., consist) but the total weight tells engineers how fast they can go.  How much they must slow down for curves.  How much distance they need to bring a train to a stop.  And how many handbrakes to set to keep the train from rolling away after the pressure bleeds out of the train line (i.e., the air brakes).  You do this right and it’s safe sailing over the rails.  Ships, on the other hand, have other concerns when it comes to weight.

Ships float.  Because of buoyancy.  The weight of the load presses down on the water while the surface of the water presses back against the ship.  But where you place that weight in a ship makes a big difference.  For a ship needs to maintain a certain amount of freeboard.  The distance between the surface of the water and the deck.  Waves toss ships up and down.  At best you just want water spray splashing onto your deck.  At worst you get solid water (i.e., green water).  If a ship is watertight and properly balanced it can be covered in green water and rise back to the surface.  But if a ship is loaded improperly and lists to one side or is low in the bow it reduces freeboard.  Increases green water.  And makes it less likely to be able to safely weather bad seas.  The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 while crossing Lake Superior in one of the worst storms ever.  She was taking on water.  Increasing her weight and lowering her into the water.  Losing freeboard.  Had increasing amounts of green water across her deck.  To the point that a couple of monster waves crashed over her and submerged her and she never returned to the surface.  It happened so fast that the crew was unable to give out a distress signal.  And as she disappeared below the surface her engine was still turning the propeller.  Driving her into the bottom of the lake.  Breaking the ship in two.  And the torque of the spinning propeller twisting the stern upside down.

Airplanes are the only Mode of Transportation that has two Systems to Carry their Load

One of the worst maritime disasters on the Great Lakes was the sinking of the SS Eastland.  Resulting in the largest loss of life in a shipwreck on the Great Lakes.  In total 844 passengers and crew died.  Was this in a storm like the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?  No.  The SS Eastland was tied to the dock on the Chicago River.  The passengers all went over to one side of the ship.  And the mass of people on one side of the ship caused the ship to capsize.  While tied to the dock.  On the Chicago River.  Because of this shift in weight.  Which can have catastrophic results.  As it can on airplanes.  There’s a sad YouTube video of a cargo 747 taking off.  You then see the nose go up and the plane fall out of the sky.  Probably because the weight slid backwards in the plane.  Shifting the center of gravity.  Causing the nose of the plane to pitch up.  Which disrupted the airflow over the wings.  Causing them to stall.  And with no lift the plane just fell out of the sky.

Airplanes are unique in one way.  They are the only mode of transportation that has two systems to carry their weight.  On the ground the landing gear carries the load.  In the air the wings carry the load.  Which makes taking off and landing the most dangerous parts of flying.  Because a plane has to accelerate rapidly down the runway so the wings begin producing lift.  Once they do the weight of the aircraft begins to transfer from the landing gear to the wings.  Allowing greater speeds.  However, if something goes wrong that interferes with the wings producing lift the wings will be unable to carry the weight of the plane.  And it will fall out of the sky.  Back onto the landing gear.  But once the plane leaves the runway there is nothing the landing gear can gently settle on.  And with no altitude to turn or to glide back to a runway the plane will fall out of the sky wherever it is.  Often with catastrophic results.

A plane has a lot of mass.  And a lot of velocity.  Giving it great kinetic energy.  It takes long runways to travel fast enough to transfer the weight of the aircraft from the landing gear to the wings.  And it takes a long, shallow approach to land an airplane.  So the wheels touch down gently while slowly picking up the weight of the aircraft as the wings lose lift.  And it takes a long runway to slow the plane down to a stop.  Using reverse thrusters to convert that kinetic energy into heat.  Sometimes even running out of runway before bringing the plane to a stop.  No other mode of transportation has this additional complication of travelling.  Transferring the weight from one system to another.  The most dangerous part of flying.  Yet despite this very dangerous transformation flying is the safest mode of traveling.  Because the majority of flying is up in the air in miles of emptiness.  Where if something happens a skilled pilot has time to regain control of the aircraft.  And bring it down safely.


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Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is Probably as Good an Idea as High-Speed Rail

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 18th, 2013

Week in Review

We transport heavy freight over land by train.  And transport people over land by plane.  Have you ever wondered why we do this?  Especially you train enthusiasts who would love to travel by train more often?  Here’s why.  Cost.  Railroads are incredibly expensive to build, maintain and operate.  Because there is rail infrastructure from point A to point B.  And at their terminus points.    Whereas planes fly through the air between point A and point B.  Without the need for infrastructure.  Except at their terminus points.  Making railroading far more expensive than flying.

If planes are so much cheaper to operate than trains then why don’t we use planes to transport all our freight?  Here’s why.  Price.  Trains charge by the ton of freight they transport.  And they can carry a lot of tons.  An enormous amount of tons.  Which makes the per-ton price relatively inexpensive.  A plane can carry nowhere near the amount of freight a train can carry.  It’s not even close.  Which makes the per-ton price to ship by plane very, very expensive.  So only high priority freight that has to be somewhere fast will travel by plane.  Heavy bulk items all travel by train.

We may be having an obesity problem but in the grand scheme of things people are very light.  But take up a lot of volume for their given weight.  The space their body physically occupies.  And the greater space around them containing the air they must breathe.  That holds the food and drink they must consume.  And the toilets they need to relieve themselves.  Now let’s look at a 747-400 with 450 passengers on board.  Let’s say the average weight of everyone comes to 195 pounds.  So the total flying weight of the people comes to 87,750 pounds.  Assuming flying costs for one trip at $125,000 that comes to $1.42 per pound.  If we add 15% for overhead and profit we get a $1.64 per-pound ticket price.  So a 275-pound man must pay $451 to fly.  While a 120-pound woman must pay $197 to fly.  Of course we don’t charge people by the pound to fly.  At least, not yet.  No, we charge per person.  So the per-person price is $224, where the lighter people subsidize the price of the heavier people.

The 747-400 is one of the most successful airplanes in the world because it can pack so many people on board.  Reducing the per-person cost.  Now let’s look at that same cost being distributed over only 28 passengers.  When we do the per-person cost comes to $4,464.  Adding 15% for overhead and markup brings the per-person price to $5,134.  A price so high that few people could afford to pay for it.  Or would choose to pay for it.  And this is why we transport people by plane.  That can carry a lot of people.  And we transport heavy freight by train.  That can carry a lot of tons.  And why this idea will probably not work (see Elon Musk Is Dead Wrong About The Cost Of The Hyperloop: In Reality It Would Be $100 Billion by Jim Edwards posted 8/16/2013 on Business Insider).

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s plan for a space-age Hyperloop transport system between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost only $7.5 billion, he said in the plans he published recently…

But the New York Times did us all a favor by calculating the true cost of the Hyperloop: It’s going to be ~$100 billion…

The Hyperloop is a pressurized tube system in which passenger cars zoom around on an air cushion, at up to 800 miles an hour.

There is no greater infrastructure cost between point A and point B than there is for high-speed rail.  Because these rails have to be dedicated rails.  With no grade crossings.  All other traffic either tunnels underneath or bridges overhead.  These tracks are electrified.  Adding more infrastructure than just the tracks.  All of which has to be maintained to exacting standards to allow high-speed trains to travel safely.  Which is why high-speed rail is the most costly form of transportation.  Why there are no private high-speed rail lines as only taxpayer subsidies can pay for these.  And for all these costs these trains just don’t transport a lot of people.  Making high-speed rail the most inefficient way to transport people.

The Hyperloop will be more costly than high-speed rail as this is an elevated tube system of exacting standards.  Requiring great costs to build, maintain and operate.  While transporting so few people per trip (28 per capsule).  Not to mention high-speed travel is very dangerous.  Unless it is up in the air separated by miles of open air.  But on the ground?  When a high-speed train crashes it is pretty catastrophic.  And it can tear up the infrastructure it travels on.  Shutting the line down.  So traveling 800 miles an hour inside a narrow tube is probably not the safest thing to do.

Of course the biggest fear in a system like this is some politician will pass legislation to build it.  Because of all the taxpayer-subsidized union jobs it will create.  As they are constantly trying to build high-speed rail for the same reasons.  For the politics.  Not because it’s a good idea.  For any idea requiring taxpayer subsidies is rarely a good idea.


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High-Speed Train crashes in Spain because things moving at High Speeds on the Ground can be Very Dangerous

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 27th, 2013

Week in Review

Trains are heavy.  Getting a train moving is one thing.  But getting it to stop is another.  Because heavy things moving fast have a lot of kinetic energy.  The energy of something in motion.  In classical mechanics we calculate the kinetic energy by multiplying one half of the mass times the velocity squared.  That last part is really important.  The velocity part.  For as the speed increases the kinetic energy increases by a far greater amount.  For example, a train increasing speed from 30 kilometers per hour (18 mph) to 190 kilometers per hour (114 mph) increases its speed by 533%.  But because we square the velocity the kinetic energy increases by 3,911%.   Making high-speed rail more dangerous than regular rail.  Because of the great amounts of kinetic energy involved.

Airplanes are very heavy.  They travel at great speeds.  And have great amounts of kinetic energy.  Which is why plane crashes or so horrific.  Anything with that amount of kinetic energy suddenly stopping dissipates that energy in great heat, noise and the explosion of solid parts.  But plane crashes, thankfully, are rare.  For when they are travelling at those great speeds they’re up in the air thousands of feet (or more) away from anything they can hit.  And if there is a malfunction they can fall safely though the sky (with enough altitude) until the pilots can recover the aircraft.  For airplanes have the best friend to high speed objects.  A lot of empty space all around them.  Not so with high-speed rail (see Driver in custody after 80 killed in Spain train crash by Teresa Medrano and Tracy Rucinski posted 7/25/2013 on Reuters).

The driver of a Spanish train that derailed, killing at least 80 people, was under police guard in hospital on Thursday after the dramatic accident which an official source said was caused by excessive speed.

The eight-carriage train came off the tracks, hit a wall and caught fire just outside the pilgrimage destination Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on Wednesday night. It was one of Europe’s worst rail disasters…

Video footage from a security camera showed the train, with 247 people on board, hurtling into a concrete wall at the side of the track as carriages jack-knifed and the engine overturned…

El Pais newspaper said the driver told the railway station by radio after being trapped in his cabin that the train entered the bend at 190 kilometers per hour (120 mph). An official source said the speed limit on that stretch of twin track, laid in 2011, was 80 kph…

Investigators were trying to find out why the train was going so fast and why security devices to keep speed within permitted limits had not slowed the train…

Spain’s rail safety record is better than the European average, ranking 18th out of 27 countries in terms of railway deaths per kilometers traveled, the European Railway Agency said. There were 218 train accidents in Spain between 2008-2011, well below the EU average of 426 for the same period.

There are no rails to derail from in the air.  And no concrete walls to crash into.  Air travel requires no infrastructure between terminal points.  High-speed rail travel requires a very expensive, a very precise and a highly maintained infrastructure between terminal points.  As well as precise controls to keep the train from exceeding safe speeds.  Planes do, too.  But when you have thousands of feet of nothingness all around you there is time to make adjustments before something catastrophic happens.  Like derailing when speeding through a curve too fast.

Air travel is safer than high-speed rail travel.  Which is why when a plane crashes it’s big news.  Because it happens so rarely these days.  Thanks to good aircraft designs.  Good pilots.  And having thousands of feet of nothingness all around you when flying at speeds close to 950 kph (570 mph).  Unlike having a concrete wall just a few feet away from a train traveling at high speeds.

High-speed rail may work in France and Japan.  The only two rail lines to pay for themselves are in these countries.  But every other passenger rail line in the world needs a government subsidy.  Because the costs of a rail infrastructure are just so great.  Making high-speed rail more of a source of union jobs than an efficient means of transportation.  Which is why they are a fixture in countries with liberal governments.  Who subsidize the high cost of these union jobs with taxpayer money.  In exchange for votes in the next election.


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