Steel Interstate

Sunday Train: A Steel Interstate for the Keystone West Corridor


In the last Sunday Train, I talked about the study on Keystone West improvements commissioned by the PennDOT. This study finds that upgrades are expensive, and benefits are modest, in terms of allowing for one or two additional services per day, but at a substantially higher subsidy per passenger mile.

However, this study had a quite peculiar "hole" in the range of options: even though the Keystone East is a Rapid Passenger Rail corridor, electrified and upgraded to 110mph to allow the successful upgrade in frequency and transit speed of the Keystone service between Harrisburg and NYC via Philadelphia ... Rapid Passenger Rail was completely ignored as an option.

This meant that the only speed upgrade that was considered was an Express HSR corridor that was "designed to fail" under the designated criteria, since it would be on a different alignment, and so not pass through the communities between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh currently served by the Keystone West.

While "back of the envelope" calculations suggested that filling in this hole would offer some advantages, it would still give an intercity service requiring operating subsidized for a decade or more.

However, this was all under "status quo" assumptions. What I look at this week is what changes for the Keystone West if we were able to start building out a Steel Interstate system for this country, to shift some of the petroleum-dependent, carbon-emitting pavement-destroying heavy diesel truck long-hail freight onto sustainable powered electrified Rapid Rail Freight. Join me for this much more promising future ... below the fold.

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Sunday Train: Five Levels of US Intercity Rail Policy

In Sunday Train last week, I referred to the Bipartisan Majority to Authorize the funding of Amtrak as "Good News". One commentator in the discussion in one of the crossposts pointed out that the news wasn't all that particularly good, since continued funding on this basis over the indefinite future will spell serious trouble for the system as a whole.

Now, as I suggested more than once, the "good news" last week certainly was not unqualified good news ... that is, to say it was "qualified" good news was already taking on board the bad electoral news for Amtrak in the continued Republican House Majority combined with a new Republican Senate Majority, which opened the door to some of the deep, slashing cuts to Amtrak that some on the Republican side have long hoped to make. So the "qualified good news" was that in going for a total defunding of Amtrak, the radical reactionary wing of the Republican party overplayed its hand, opening the way for a majority of House Republicans, along with basically the entire Democratic caucus, to authorize the continued funding of Amtrak at just about the levels that have been in place over the past four years.

But that was set against the bad news of the INDOT refusing to continue the Hoosier State service on the ground of basically not being allowed to have its cake and eat it too ... insisting on acting like the organization putting together a passenger rail service, without being treated as a passenger railway. And so I started thinking about the Hoosier State / Cardinal corridor in the context of, on one hand, the very low bar for "good news" in transport funding with this Congress, versus the tremendous need we have for a massive wave of investment in transport that can be powered by sustainable, renewable energy. And to organize my thinking, I started to sort it out into five levels:

  • Level 0: "Very Much Worse";
  • Level 1: "Barely Scraping By";
  • Level 2: "A Basic Skeleton Service Done Right"
  • Level 3: "Incremental Growth"
  • Level 4: "Aggressive Growth"

More about the five levels ... below the fold.

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Sunday Train: Future of Rail Technical Symposium, Washington DC. 3 Feb, 2015

Last week in Washington DC, your Sunday Train correspondent was able to attend the "Future of Rail Symposium" held in Washington DC. The presenters discussed various aspects of building a Steel Interstate corridor, including the Steel Interstate concept, a discussion of electrified rail around the world, why rely on electricity rather than LNG for major backbone corridors, the engineering and economics of electrification in North America, an approach to financing an initial Steel Interstate corridor without requiring new legislation to be passed through our gridlocked Federal government, vehicle and track considerations of the "Rapid Freight" rail component of the Steel Interstate, the labor dimension and the need for a new social contract with Rail Labor, and a final presentation on the "Solutionary Rail" proposal by the Backbone Campaign to establish a Steel Interstate on the BNSF Northern Transcon corridor.

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Sunday Train: Crutches vs Splints for the Highway Fund's Broken Leg

There was a gleam of hope this week for state officials faced with the prospects of having to start delaying projects and lay off people working on maintenance and new construction funded from the Federal Highway Fund: Bloomberg:

Lawmakers’ fight over how to fund roads and transit probably will end with legislation from the Republican-led House sent to President Barack Obama, leadership aides in both parties said.

House and Senate leaders have been collaborating on a strategy for preventing the Highway Trust Fund from running dry at the height of the summer road-construction season. While bills approved July 10 by committees in both chambers are similar, the Democratic-led Senate’s version contains tax proposals seen as obstacles in the House.

But this is akin to lending someone with a broken leg crutches and hoping that it will heal on its own. For some fractures, that might work, but most would require a splint at least, and for serious fractures, you need to set the leg and put it in a cast of some sort.

In the case at hand, the long term broken funding model that lays behind the Highway Funding crisis is something that requires something better than a temporary loan of crutches.

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Sunday Train: Freight Transport and the Highway Funding Crisis, Part2

We are going to be hearing increasingly this year about the Highway Funding Crisis. Much of that discussion will be directed toward exploiting the political leverage that our car addiction gives to the Highway Lobby.

But there is the other side of the Highway Funding Crisis, which is freight transport. Our freight transport system has been as deliberately addicted to road funding as our passenger transport system, and in the process is quite heavily addicted to diesel fuel.

Now, the Sunday Train has frequently tackled this issue from the side of the physical unsustainability of our dependence on petroleum based fuels for a majority of our transport. However, its also the case that the system of public finance upon which we built our road transport system is becoming more and more financially unsustainable.

Last week's Sunday Train started laying out the problem, while it is in this week that I look at one overlooked part of the solution. This is not a free-standing essay this week, so if you have not read Part 1 last week, go ahead and do that before moving on to this week's Part 2.

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Sunday Train: Our Trebly Broken Highway Funding System

Over the balance of this year, you are likely to hear more and more about our broken Highway Funding system. For instance, William Moore, of the consultancy group Vianovo and member of the Transportation Transformation Group, wrote at Infra Insight this last 13 March that:

Absent swift action by Congress, state departments of transportation will begin to have cash flow problems that could delay payments to vendors and slow projects. Without action by the fall, new projects may have to be shelved until Congress can resolve the funding crisis that confronts the Highway Trust Fund.

However, this is just the most visible layer of pending crisis in our highway funding system. Even if we were to fix the threat to engage in spending at status quo levels,status quo spending has been falling behind the damage done by cars and trucks to our roads for decades, and even if we were to fund our transportation to address the massive shortfall in maintaining our current highway system, we have not seriously begun in addressing the fact that our current transport system is one of our principle contributor's to our economy's present climate change suicide course.

We have a trebly broken highway funding system, and there is no guarantee that we will actually address the simplest of the problems.

The good news is that we do not need massive technological breakthroughs to fix this triple layer cake of crisis. The bad news is that what we do need is a political movement with both the focus and the clout to push the existing available solutions onto the table, in the face of determined status quo resistance ... and those who have at least glanced at our political system over the past decade would be aware that building such a movement is a "to be solved by reader" kind of problem.

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Sunday Train: Portfolio Theory vs the Myth of Intermittent Wind Power

This last week, in the comment section of the EnergyCollective, I saw the same myth that I have seen time and time again regarding wind power:

Fact 1: renewables are aleatorically intermittent, and so unreliable.

Fact 2: due to Fact 1, they cannot provide energy when it is needed, but only when and in the quantity they can

Fact 3: users have to get energy when they need it, not when it is aleatorically provided

Fact 4: to date, there is no storage system that can be useful for a complex industrial society

Fact 5: due to facts 1 to 4, renewables need to have a back up system that can cope with the needs of the users.

Fact 6: that back up system cannot be just stopped and then put to generation in a few seconds or minutes, and usually have to generate at low efficiency to maintain the back up at call point, generating added costs, besides the usuals as maintainance, lost profits, complex distribution grid, etc.

... not surprisingly ending with climate crisis denialism in "Fact" 8, since the name of the game here is clearly not arguing by starting with facts and seeing what conclusion you arrive it, but rather is myth creation and propagation in support of an already selected conclusion.

While many people don't know what "aleatorically" means, many would actually share the misconception that windpower is an intrinsically intermittent resource. However, for wind power, the "Fact 1" is in many cases "Falsehood 1". Even though individual wind turbines are intermittent, for many wind resource regions, it turns out that a substantial share of wind power is not intermittent at all, in either their "by chance (aleatorically) and unpredictable" component or their "by chance (aleatorically), though predictable" component.

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Sunday Train: Is Dirty Ethanol Here to Stay?

The AP Reports (courtesy of yahoo):

The failure so far of cellulosic fuel is central to the debate over corn-based ethanol, a centerpiece of America's green-energy strategy. Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn't emerged as a replacement.

"Cellulosic has been five years away for 20 years now," said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now the first projects are up and running, but actually it's still five years away."

The administration defended its projections, saying it was trying to use the biofuel law as a way to promote development of cellulosic fuel. But the projections were so far off that, in January, a federal appeals court said the administration improperly let its "aspirations" for cellulosic fuel influence its analysis. Even with the first few plants running, supporters acknowledge there is almost no chance to meet the law's original yearly targets that top out at 16 billion gallons by 2022. "It's simply not plausible," said Jeremy Martin, a biofuels expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "2030 is the soonest you can anticipate it to be at that level."

Green Ethanol still "Five Years Away" ... just as they were when I first blogged on this topic in 2007 ... while Dirty Ethanol is the mainstay of the US Ethanol mandate. So how long are we to accept Dirty Ethanol as a "bridge" to a Green Ethanol seemingly always right on the five-year horizon?

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Sunday Train: Steel Interstate Revolution

The Steel Interstate is a proposal to pursue dramatic gains in the energy efficiency of long haul freight transport in the United States, resulting in:

  • Substantial reductions in Petroleum Imports;
  • Substantial reductions in Greenhouse Gas emissions;
  • Substantially improved protection from Petroleum Supply interruptions;
  • Improved productivity for North American manufacturing; and
  • Substantial reductions in damage to the existing Asphalt Interstate System

How can it promise all of this? By mining gross inefficiency. The United States has one of the most energy inefficient systems of moving freight long distances available under current technology, and we combine that with an economy that relies heavily on moving freight long distances.

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Sunday Train: Rapid Rail and Pedal to the Metal Climate Change Policy (part 1)

Earlier this month, Micheal Hoexter offered a "A Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan" to respond to the challenge of Climate Chaos at New Economic Perspectives, also crossposted to Naked Capitalism (part 1, part 2 and part 3).

His plan is an overarching plan for a 15-20 year equivalent-to-worldwar mobilization of our economy for the purpose of reducing the degree of severity of the climate catastrophe that our economy has signed up for under status quo policies. What I am looking at this week is the role that Rapid Freight Rail and Rapid Passenger Rail can play as part of the mix of Pedal to the Metal Climate Change policies addressing transport.

There is a tremendous gap today between the maximum that is politically feasible and the minimum required to make a serious dent in the challenge that we face. This piece lies primarily on the "minimum necessary" side of our current political dysfunction, looking at necessary (though not sufficient) structural transformations of our transportation system. However, it is also address in part to the "maximum feasible" side, since these are policies that can be put into place on the back of only a partial political breakthrough, which may not on its own be enough to get a complete Pedal to the Metal policy package in place.

I argue that both Rapid Freight Rail and Rapid Passenger Rail can play the roles of "front-runner" policies on the transport side of a Pedal to the Metal Climate Change policy package. One of the things we look for in prospective front-runner policies is that the policies stand on their own, but they also strongly complement follow-up policies that we would look to put into place to complete the Pedal to the Metal policy package.

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