Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 1 – QOL versus SOL, and new technology

The next series of posts are about broader aspects of why we all should support renewable energy and fuels and a different way of thinking that is as revolutionary and cost effective as the electricity and the automobile was to the lost world of the animal drawn wagon and whale oil lighting systems.

Do you believe that Climate change is human caused, or not?  It doesn’t really matter.  We all should be supporting renewable fuels for logical reasons that are beyond the geo-economic-political-scientific arguments that are causing the rifts between rational people and a better quality of life for everyone. Note, that I say Quality of Life (QOL) not Standard of Living (SOL) – we assume and confuse the two as being the same when each is vastly different. 

SOL is the degree of wealth and material comfort available to a person or community.  It is measured by Gross Domestic Product per capita.  In other words, how much money is moving through a country’s economy in a given year (this will be covered more in the next posting). QOL is the general well-being of individuals and societies, taking into account the negative and positive aspects of life.  It is less about the economy and more about life satisfaction, including everything from happiness, physical health, family, education, employment, wealth, safety, security to freedom, religious beliefs, and the quality of the environment.  A good SOL is good, but a better QOL is preferable!  If a QOL includes a good SOL, so much the better, as long as the SOL has all the attributes that create a good QOL!!!  Having sat in many ridiculous traffic jams and watched people struggle with finances, I note that sociological studies show that that the Quality of Life (QOL) in the U.S. is not as people would believe. If the amount of money were truly equal to QOL then people with more money should have the highest QOL.  Alas, this is not true.  People with more money feel more secure from financial threats, but other than that, they do not score any higher on any measure of QOL – indeed, in many cases they score lower because their whole world is tied up with financial worries and loss of community support.       

I also find that what people are determined to defend, quite passionately at times, is the technology they perceive is essential to standard of living in a modern industrial society. If we exclude the people who benefit directly from investments in fossil fuels, we find that people supporting fossil fuels do so from an ideological basis and not a factual one.  I was once in a discussion – actually I was talking but he was almost screaming at me – about fossil fuels and renewable energy options. The man kept saying that society and the economy would collapse without oil, coal, and gas fuels.  He kept going on about his problem of getting to work without gasoline to put in his car.  Like me he was old enough to recall the oil embargo and shortages of the 1970s and he feared a reoccurrence.  When he had calmed down, I asked him if he was in love with gasoline and the internal combustion engine, or was it more that he needed a vehicle to get to work in a reliable, efficient, convenient and cost-effective manner. Did he really care what happened behind the scenes when he flipped a light switch as long as the light or appliance came on? So many people seem ready to fight for fossil fuels when in fact what they really want is merely the technology and resource stability to maintain their lifestyle and move about with the ease that modern cars allow. If battery systems were more advanced in 1893, we would all be driving electric cars today and no one would be fighting for gasoline driven engines.  Back then we would have had coal fired, and hydro, electric generation, but batteries may have been a major storage factor even back then.  When we look at today’s problematic electrical grid system, the easiest solution using today’s options is the one most challenged – to use renewable forms of energy generation that readily lend themselves to localized sources.  More about the grid and Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) in another post.  

First, a little short story about greed and control and the electrical system we take for granted.  By 1900, the modern AC electrical grid was fast becoming the way of the worlds electrical supply.  There were two inventors vying for dominance in this new technology: Thomas Edison (General Electric) using his DC system and Nikola Tesla (Westinghouse) with his AC system.  Tesla was well ahead of the game and won the contract to electrify the lighting system at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. After that the AC system became the standard for electric utilities worldwide.  Now the big money guys got into the act. The first automobiles were electric and John D. Rockefeller was greatly concerned.  Not only was his oil monopoly profit being threatened by the electric grid (people used Kerosene derived from Oil, which had taken over from Whale oil before then) but electric cars would also remove gasoline as a potential fuel in the cars.  Rockefeller backed Henry Ford and created the gasoline driven internal combustion engine as the automotive standard. Tesla was still at the top of his game and his electricity genius was beginning to concern other money giants.  For a time, many of the leading financiers of the day vied with one another to invest in Tesla’s projects. Eventually the most important US banker of his generation, J.P. Morgan (notable financier for the Rothchild family), became Tesla’s exclusive backer during the period when he experimented most actively using wireless transmission rather than wires for conducting electrical current.  At this point the story becomes unclear.  Despite J.P. Morgan backing Tesla’s many inventions with a 51% share, it seems that Tesla was more concerned about providing humanity with cheap, even free, energy more than making money.  Almost overnight, Morgan, for whatever reason, pulled his support vilifying Tesla’s work as problematic.  The most popular and logical reason seems to be that Tesla’s potential wireless electrical system would be almost impossible (at that time) to meter usage for the buying and selling of electricity.  Tesla lived the rest of his life a broken and ruined man unable to continue his experiments.  Almost immediately after his death in 1943 all his research documentation was removed by U.S. government’s Office of Alien Property. What happened to it after that is the stuff of Hollywood movies.     

Over a century later we are still entrenched with the same system of producing electricity – we need something to spin a turbine that creates electrical AC energy.  Until relatively recently, we heated water (coal, oil, methane, nuclear decay, trash) to produce super-heated steam, or a kinetic water source (e.g. water moving downhill), that spins the turbine.  While micro-hydroelectric systems are now available (if you live near a running water source you’re allowed to use) the rest require a large-scale power plant, so we stuck with the grid system.  Or are we? 

The current technology exists for every house to be its own power generating system, which can then feed unused electricity back into a more localized grid for local businesses to use.  In classes I would show my students a Google image of the houses surrounding the university.  I asked them to notice the most wasted space in the picture that was soaking up sunlight – the roofs!  Imagine every house having solar panels (PVs) on the sunny side coupled with Solar Thermal panels, small wind generators, and below surface geothermal heat-pump systems connected to the house.  This means we could all be independent of grid electrical needs.  It has already been shown to be doable.  I had a friend who built his house off the grid in Evergreen, Colorado, and for the next 20 years that he lived there, never paid a utility bill. His water was from a well with a solar powered pump. He also had a leach field so no sewage costs either.  His house costs to build were $1.05 cent per square foot compared to the average $1.25 square foot for all the other ‘regular homes’ around him. There are so many ways to do this kind of system with current technology.  The only drawback?  People resistant to thinking differently!  Economists also have a say emphasizing its expense to changing the whole system.  What they neglect to show is how scale of use reduces prices needed for investing in this idea when building a home.  Before all the naysayers rush out to point out a minor problem, let me point out that all the technologies require some form of manufacturing that in itself can be a polluting part of the system through mining of necessary minerals.  I admit it is not perfect, but compared to the highly polluting fossil fuels that we burn ALL the time, it is a step in a better direction, because once in place they are a non-polluting source of electricity for a long time. The pollution aspect is the one I hear least about when people are arguing about getting beyond fossil fuels.  The reliability and economic aspects are always the first and foremost arguments, but quality of life gets lost in the arguments.  More about that in the next posting.

Alternative Transportation modes – New Technology High Speed Transport Systems

In the USA, the only fast way to get across the country fast is by air, which can be trying and tedious at times, especially when bad weather exists in some major part of the country.  Weather can quickly disrupt air service all across the country because of many planes having multiple legs on any flight.  (i.e. weather might be fine where you are but the weather where it is coming from is adverse.)  While aircraft can fly through bad weather, taking off and landing requires reasonable conditions.  This form of transportation is also one of the most polluting options and has adverse consequences for the quality and behavior of our atmosphere as well.  Trains have been covered already at some length in this blog but what is the state of the art for this form of transport.  High speed rail would work well for at least two express (220 mph) West-East corridors across the States and several North-South routes.   This is similar in Europe with its already well-established high-speed routes that are updating all the time.  

At this time, there are only four high speed routes in the USA.  The New York to Washington line yet with only 83 mph average speed, the Los Angeles to San Francisco still under construction and unlikely to be finished soon, the soon to be started Houston to Northern Texas line, and the newly proposed Charlotte to Atlanta line. This highly anticipated Texas line would allow people to avoid the deadly I-45 corridor.  The Texas train would resemble the Japanese Shinkansen system.  Notably, the Shinkansen has never had an any passenger injuries because of the train, not during the monstrous Earthquake of 2011 and even with two minor derailment incidents during its long service history.  It is expected that the Texas line will be running by 2026.  

One of the greatest problems with new technology is simply that – it is new and means changing how we look at the way we transport ourselves and our goods around.  The change to new technologies is like the change from horse and cart to the train and subsequently to the automobile and on to air travel.   Technology can be exciting and at the same time make many of us fear the unknown changes.       

    Hyperloop System

The Maglev, also discussed earlier, is poised to become a reality.  Elon Musk proposed an experimental Hyperloop Transport Technology (HTT) in 2012 but hasn’t gone beyond experimentation yet.  What makes the HTT different is the that the Maglev run within a low-vacuum sealed tube to all but eliminate air resistance.  The work done by Richard Branson’s Virgin company (Hyperloop 1) is showing more promise and is already for scaling up from the half kilometer track to longer track for final testing.  Over 10 places in high population density areas (10 chosen out of 2600 requests, 4 in the USA, one on Canada, one in Mexico, two in the UK and two in India) have been selected to work alongside Virgin technologies as the optimum places to build the prototypes of this transport technology.  Hyperloop one will travel at speeds of 760 mph with May 2021 scheduled for its first real run.  The advantages of Hyperloop one is that it can run from downtown city areas, with the sealed tube (above ground or even underground) completely unaffected by weather.  Of course, the tube would have escape areas if for some reason it stopped within the tube.  The tube could also be sealed to prevent vacuum loss in case of an unlikely breach of the vacuum system where the worst that could happen would be friction slowing down of the train.  The option for commuting on this HTT would allow people to live distally from where they work for the same commute time that they currently experience in city traffic.  One other advantage of ground based high-speed transport systems is that they are mainly unaffected by things like volcanic eruptions as occurred over Europe in 2010 when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air traffic across the Atlantic and Europe for over a month.  Now imagine an advanced ultra-efficient vacuum hyperloop that can travel more than 4000 mph.  While technologically possible now, the devil is in the details.  Yet, the possibility in travelling through underground tube systems at such speeds around the world is no longer science fiction but something that may be realized in the not too distant future.     

               Hovercraft (Air Cushion Vehicle)

One well known and used technology that is little discussed as a form of rapid and especially freight transportation is that using Hover technology.  In 1955 Christopher Cockerell ran the first hovercraft using a vacuum cleaner engine to create the lift.  This technology remained essentially unchanged for 50 year and because of the noisy engines were the singular reason for their lack of mainstream use.  The British successfully used them as car ferries for nearly 50 years.  New technology engines, especially with electric engines, are now allowing them to come back as an option again.  Hovercraft that are still used travel 4-6 times faster than boat ferries and 2-3 times faster than catamarans or hydrofoils.   

               The greatest advantage for hovercraft is that they can cover almost any terrain without surface preparation (e.g. mud flats, estuaries, rivers, oceans, snow and ice surfaces) and indeed this is their greatest use at this time, especially with rescue craft and military craft needing to move from aquatic to terrestrial surfaces and vice versa).  Like trains, however, they are grade restricted – can’t be too steep for the engines to push uphill or slow downhill.  Hovercraft are almost unaffected by weather conditions although heavy storms on the ocean would still need to be ridden out or avoided like any modern ocean shipping.  The reduced freight handling needs would also make hovercraft more cost effective and efficient.  Imagine loading up a mega-hovercraft in Denver bound for China.  It could take off towards California along hover paths (marked throughways that prevent these crafts going off across country) until they reach the coast.  Then after customs inspections, the craft could simply slide down the ramp into the ocean and then run full speed (up to 150 mph) across the pacific arriving a mere 43 hours later in Shanghai gliding up on the land with the same cargo on board.  No road, bridge, or rail building or any related maintenance, and only hover throughways to negotiate while on land.   

Alternative Transportation modes – The Light Rail and Urban Commuter Rail Systems.

The Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD – affectionately known as The Ride), currently runs 124 local, 16 express, 16 regional, 16 limited, 8 SkyRide, and several special services bus lines, but also 8 light rail lines and an additional 3 commuter rail lines with 71 stations and 88 miles of track.  It first opened October 7, 1994.  There are 3 commuter rail lines reaching out from Union Station to DIA, Westminster, and Wheat Ridge (AB & D lines), with 8 Light rail lines (CDEFHLR & W lines) radiating from central Denver out to the suburbs.  If you visit most large U.S. cities you will probably find a similar situation – Light/commuter rail running through the Greater city.  Often the new light rail is merely establishing along the old tram systems that once were the norm in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.  (Recall from an earlier post that Ford and Rockefeller were pivotal in removing the mass transit systems in the U.S. to make way for cars and trucks.)   

One of the problems for the Front Range is that while Denver mass transit is growing, the rest of the towns from Cheyenne to Trinidad have sparse transit options – bus or train.  Future projections of the RTD commuter rail show it eventually running from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, but the projections are more like decades in the future not mere years.  Many towns in the Front Range daily see the Heavy Train with industrial rail cars running north and south from beyond Cheyenne to beyond Raton in New Mexico.  What should be remembered is that this rail-line also used to be part of the passenger rail system as well.  When you drive I-70 from Cheyenne to Fort Collins you will notice that the heavy rail runs close to the freeway much of the way.  Now the controllers of the heavy rail system do not particularly like having to use freight trains through all of the small towns between Fort Collins and Pueblo, but that is the rail line they have – on Mason Street in Fort Collins the rail lines are literally in the middle of the street.  It takes a lot of energy to move a heavy rail train and it is inefficient and a nuisance to have to slow down or stop such a heavy vehicle. They would love to have a rail that runs east of the city, say following I-470 where many easements are already established.  But that line would need to be built.  The key here is cost. As an example, to build the light rail line up to Fort Collins would be $10-20 mile with much eminent domain (compulsory purchase) acquisition of private land to create the light rail route.  To build a heavy rail line as just described above would be more like $1-5 million per mile.  If this were the new Heavy rail line, then the current heavy rail line would be freed up at no extra cost and the commuter rail could begin immediately once the heavy rail line switched tracks it was using.  All that would be needed would be passenger parking and Stations – think of the old Loveland Depot on Railroad Avenue and 4th Street to understand where and how the commuter rail would run.  And with only 5 passenger cars instead of the 120 freight ones, the wait at rail crossing would be minimized.

Pros and Cons of mass transit commuter and light rail

Pros – Trains are more energy efficient than road vehicles, produce much less air pollution that cars, require less land than roads and parking areas required for automotive traffic and substantially reduce traffic congestion, especially at peak rush times.  Trains are a relatively safe form of transportation, causing almost no injuries and deaths compared to auto traffic.  The cost of running trains is about 90% of that to run a bus system.  Studies have also found that Transit systems, such as light rail, induce investment and development in an area in which they run, because industry sectors have a greater incentive to locate near transit corridors.  Property values have also been found to increase near transit corridors.  For example, the knowledge and computer based industries in Silicon valley located there in part because of the proximity of mass transit systems. 

Cons – Rail systems can be expensive to build and are only really cost effective along high population corridors – the front range fits this requirement, although parts of other cities need to be assessed whether rail or bus is the most viable option.  Most transit systems need city, state, or federal subsidies of some kind and ridership can vary depending on the price of gasoline.  Light rail is more prone to this problem than commuter rail.  Riders are committed to transportation schedules even if the cost is cheaper.  Although not a major problem, rail lines can cause noise and vibration for people living along rail corridors.  Areas where light/commuter rail systems are being constructed for some reason suffer endemic delays and cost overruns.  If there is a problem on a rail line the track is blocked because you cannot reroute a train like you can a bus.           

Whenever I travel east down I-70 from the mountains I am always amazed at the massive amounts of traffic and how much of it is front range traffic returning from playing in the mountains.  The adding of a very expensive ($70 million) 12 miles of express flow lane has helped a little, but anyone who still travels that route at any time of year still experiences the log-jam of traffic that are still a part of the I-70 mountain rush period experience.  For many years the idea of a Monorail from Denver to Summit County has been debated.  The monorail could travel at more than 100 mph, making stops at several stations between Denver and Eagle, with buses scheduled for the remaining short trips up side valleys to A-Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge and Minturn, and Mountain Stations at all the towns along the route between Denver and Eagle. (There would be the option of continuing it all the way to Glenwood Springs as well.)  No Traffic, fast access to the mountains, no parking problems, and the ability to relax and socialize while the trail does all the work of getting you to your destinations.  Designers say it could carry as many as 10,000 passengers an hour in each direction and cost about $25-30 million per mile to build (half the cost of two more I-70 lanes), meaning it would move nearly 8 times as many people as those extra lanes would do.  The biggest problem apparently is that it would only serve the needs of 90% of the people, something that some influential Colorado business and political leaders feel particularly strong about.    

Alternative Transportation modes – The Pros and Cons of Buses as a Real Mass Transit Option

If you go anywhere outside the USA you will finds that mass transit via bus is commonplace.  And these bus services will go to most places that people need to go.  Here in the USA, most towns in populated and in nearly all cities, buses are a norm.  Outside largely populated areas, buses are a rarity.  Even travel between rural towns can be achieved with the long-distance services (like Greyhound) can help you reach across America but the schedules are quite limited (usually once a day arrival in most small communities).   I had a friend catch a Greyhound bus in Chicago and travel for two weeks across the Western States, visiting the main national parks, using Greyhound and local buses.  He slept many nights on the bus but it worked for him.  When I tried to use Greyhound to travel from Trinidad, Colorado, to Loveland, Colorado, it would pick me up in downtown Trinidad in the evening and drop me off 8 hours later in downtown Loveland, with a 4 mile walk to still reach my house in the very early morning hours.  Needless to say, travelling by bus in the U.S. is more of a planning adventure than a convenient option at this time.  Within towns and cities during the main parts of the day, buses are much better at moving people around. 

The main reasons people express for not riding the bus are inconvenient schedules, having to sit on a bus with strangers, perceptions of hygiene conditions, illusions about safety issues, and also perceptions of cost effectiveness versus convenience.      

Pros and Cons of Buses

Pros: Since diesel buses are not confined to rails, or overhead electric lines, they have lots of flexibility to change routes and also avoid blockages (such as accident occurrences) as needed.  They are cheaper to maintain than trains, and since they have multiple riders reducing the numbers of cars on the road at the same time – this reduces pollution and traffic congestion.   If the buses have set express lanes set up for them specifically, they can avoid the problem of rush-hour traffic hold-ups.     

Cons: In order to be costs effective they need people to ride the bus on a more predictable schedule, so prices may vary during the day as ridership varies considerably.  A way to get past this is to use appropriately smaller buses during the low ridership periods with larger buses reserved for peak times of ridership.  Riders are committed to transportation schedules.  Buses can be noisier than travelling by other modes of mass transit.  Many riders offset this minor problem by using earbuds to listen to programs on their phones.    

In Loveland, the Colt and Flex runs within the center part of the town on a half-hour schedule, but there is no bus service beyond that, meaning a good walk or a bike (buses can carry bikes on racks mounted in front of the bus).  The same seems true of most of the front range towns, while in Denver a good bus service serves the main city, which is typical of most cities in the U.S.  Inside and outside the U.S. there are many exemplary cities where buses cater to most of the population.  And they are not all running on Diesel.  In fact they use many different fuels from Methane, to Hydrogen and Electricity. 

As a case study of what can happen when buses are used effectively to reduce pollution and traffic congestion we can look at the Brazilian city of Curitiba.  In 1943, the city was designed for cars with wide streets radiating out from the center and roads that circled the center at various distances our from the city.  At that time urban growth and traffic was clearly anticipated and designed for, but by the late 1960s, traffic congestion and gridlock were as common in Curitiba as every other city on the world.  Automotive traffic had just overwhelmed the system.  Curitiba didn’t have much funding, especially to build an elevated or subway tube rail system, so they had to revamp the existing traffic corridor system to be a ground level tube system but using the existing buses instead of rail.  Today, Curitiba is the model of what can happen for effective mass transit.  Not only has it almost eliminated the problems of travelling around the city, especially at peak times, but it works so well, it is estimated that 90% of people that would have originally driven now use the bus system.           

The bus system works in Curitiba because it is a hierarchical Trinary Road System with Bus routes at the top of the system.  The core of the system is the five main arterial avenues that lead from the outer to the center of the city using Bi-Articulated Buses and act as the high-passenger volume express routes.  Then there are layers of speed with minibuses routed through residential neighborhoods that feed passengers to conventional bus routes on circle routes around the central city and on inter-district routes.  What allows the buses to maintain tight efficient scheduling are dedicated bus lanes.  The bus stops themselves are cylindrical, clear-walled, raised platform tube stations with turnstiles, steps, and wheelchair lifts.  This allows for smooth transitioning of passengers who pay a single fee (around 40 cents for anywhere in the city with unlimited transfers) as they enter the stations and are kept within the closed system until they exit at their destination.  Since passengers and bus drivers do not have to think about fares once within the system, typical bus dwell time at any station is less than 20 seconds.  The main terminal stations are full of shops and conveniences, such as rest rooms, post offices, newspaper stands, and small retail facilities so that passengers do not have to exit the stations until needed.  What is also unique is that the whole system, while organized by the city, is run by 10 private bus companies.  The bus companies are paid by the city for each mile/kilometer travelled, which permits a balanced distribution of bus routes so each company makes a fair operating profit as well as allow safe and regular bus maintenance.  The city also pays the companies bus depreciation costs of one percent per month.   This means that buses have a ten year life span within the system.  After that the city uses the older buses for random school and community travel needs, and much needed mobile schools, especially for more rural areas.   All these cost benefits alleviate the main reasons that people use for not travelling on the bus – the buses have very convenient schedules, cost sharing means they are kept clean, monitored transfer stations enforce safety issues, meaning they are also cost effectiveness and convenience.  If you travel on them regularly, it also alleviates the problem of sitting on a bus with strangers since the commuters create their own bus communities.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the lessons of Curitiba are being implemented within the larger cities, but areas outside the cities there is still the ongoing problem of traffic congestion.  Much planning and transformation of mindsets are still needed.  One of the on-going options to be explored next is that of light rail, which is fast growing, especially for cities in which the creation of dedicated bus lanes on all major streets is not yet a realistic option.  However, with alternate fuels to reduce or even eliminate pollution and more social marketing about the benefits (and comforts) of bus travel, they could yet be a reality here in the U.S. as they already are in most parts of the world. 

Alternative Transportation modes – Pros and cons of various modes of transport, part 3 – Scooters & Motor Bikes

While here in the U.S. you may not see motor scooters regularly, in the rest of the world they are a primary form of transport for most people as a personal mode of transportation.  The are small, light, and able to negotiate traffic more readily than expensive cars.  Since they are relatively inexpensive to buy, this accounts for their popularity with most of the world’s population.  Bicycles are by far the most popular option after foot traffic but scooters allow you go to much further, faster, and be able to carry more than you can on a bicycle, e.g. more luggage or a passenger comfortably.  Not seen that much in the U.S. they are starting to catch on as more people recognize their more economic benefits.  Whether scooters are environmentally better depends on the type of scooter you are talking about. 

In Britain and western Europe, you will see contraptions called Mopeds.  This is a small gasoline powered engine (generally less than 50 cc) on a very light motor-bike frame that can be boosted when needed by pedaling, especially on up-grades and when needing to take off faster from a stop.   In most cases the Mopeds run about 25-30 mph and are too heavy to pedal without the engine running.    

The next powered step up are the Motor Scooters.  They are usually gasoline powered engines (up to 250 cc) although newer models now have rechargeable electric motors.  They are less powerful than Motor Bikes, which can have engines as high as 1250 cc (engines the size of small cars).   In many Asian countries, scooters are a primary form of transport, especially in the cities.  The gasoline models tend to be less polluting then a gasoline car but they tend to be noisy – like a high-powered lawn mower. The sheer numbers of scooters can cause as much if not more pollution overall with only one rider per scooter rather than car-pooling or larger public transportation options.  Obviously, electric powers scooters are quite and produce almost no pollution.   Motor bikes are a common option in states where sunshine is more prevalent.  In California recently, I was surprised at the numbers of motor bikes running fast along the roads.  In heavy traffic these high-powered bikes are allowed to travel between the congested lanes (along the lane lines) which makes them a potential danger since they can appear suddenly in the rear-view mirrors as a car is attempting to make a lane change.    

Pros and Cons of Scooters and Motor Bikes

Scooters are highly affordable (less than $1000 in many cases) while higher powered general motor bikes range between $5000-$10,000.  Specialized bikes like motor cross and Icons like Harley Davidson can be between $20,000 to $45,000.  Motor bikes therefore fall into the category of enthusiastic ownership while scooters fall in the category of cheap transport.  Other advantages are in general, gasoline models produce less pollution than cars, but as mentioned several thousands of them on the same rush hour road can be a pollution problem in themselves.  They require little parking space and are less damaging to roads – therefore less need for multilevel parking garages and road maintenance.  They are easy to maneuver in traffic and can go places cars cannot.   In general motor bikes can be twice the miles per gallon (mpg) of a car, and scooters can get up to 100 mpg.  They cost much less to insure, license, and have minimal maintenance compared to cars.  Electric scooters are quiet and better for air quality, especially when recharged from renewable sources.    

While scooters are a great option for travel of distances of less than 100 miles.  Motor Bike enthusiasts will travel cross country on big bikes.  But they can be uncomfortable and even dangerous in wet weather.  My motor bike enthusiast cousin once rode all the way back from Albania to Britain in heavy rain the whole way.  He sold his motor bike on returning home and have never ridden one since.  In general, these options suffer many of the same disadvantages of bicycles.  These powered options with their higher speeds do not fare well in collisions, especially with automotive traffic.  There are no dedicated lanes for higher powered motorized two-wheel (or three) bikes, enforcing the need for riders to be ultra-visible to other traffic and to be extra diligent in awareness of what is happening all around them – even more so than for bicycles.  As emphasized by my cousin’s story, riding in bad weather sucks, so dedicated bike users need to have plan B for bad weather days unless they have the fortitude and outer-clothing to brave the elements.  In winter conditions of course they are impractical and dangerous to the rider.    

Alternative Transportation modes – Pros and cons of various modes of transport, part 2 – Bicycles

In the U.S. we often get blindsided into thinking of only three major forms of travel: the car, the airplane, and the ….. OK, make that two forms, unless you live in a big city and then there are others of which you are aware and may even use.  Let’s go from the most local forms to the intercontinental options.  This post is the first of a series about specific alternate transportation modes.   


To many people these are the nuisance users of the road that wear spandex and glaringly colorful riding apparel, and get in the way of the automobiles.  The majority of riders in the states tend to be recreational riders and hence the colorful or more relaxed exercise apparel.  Anyone who has had experienced a weekend bike-club pack tends to have a negative view of bike riders.  This makes it dangerous for the individual riders who follow the rules of the road but end up experiencing the irritated driver not giving them the courtesy of space they need to ride safely on a road.  Many bike routes tend to have wider bike lanes on the road, and state law requires drivers to give at least 3 feet distance when passing a bike.  On many rural roads, the white line delineating the edge of the road, often also marks the berm edge, so bikes are forced to ride out into the right side of the lane.  Bike friendly towns and cities make it a point to create wide bike lanes as they repair and widen roads.        

Go to northern Europe and you quickly realize that people use bikes as a primary mode of transport for distances under ten miles and it is a part of the culture of transportation.   Go to a city like Amsterdam (typical of many European cities) and you are more likely to be run down by a bike if you do not recognize the strict lane separations that exist within the city.  On many city streets, there is the road for automobiles, dedicated bike lanes, often with their own regulatory enforcement signs, and then the side-walks for foot traffic.  In most of these cities there are major parking areas for bikes all around the city, while cars use parking structures off the main centers.  Bike riders tend to get preferential options because it is recognized that they reduce auto traffic congestion and reduce pollution.  It is estimated that in a country like Holland there are more bikes than people.  In northern Amsterdam, I saw people ride bikes on safe bike lanes from suburbs outside the city to multi-tiered bike parking barges by the waterways.  People then locked them up for the day as they walked across the road to get on the electric tram system – they were all wearing their office clothes.  Ten thousand bikes on a multi-tiered bike parking structure took up the space of a large barge.  That many cars would take up many multi story parking garages.  I saw as many people of advanced retirement age riding bikes as I did young people.  It is part of the culture.  So, what are the pros and cons of using bikes? 

The advantages are that bikes are incredibly affordable and durable, and very cheap to maintain and store.  They do not require much in the way of natural resources to make and they produce no pollution thereby making them very energy efficient – just your food calories to make them work, also giving you much exercise keeping you fit and healthy.  A pro and con is that they are very quiet, which make a warning bell for pedestrians a mandated extra.  Bikes do not need much parking space, and are very maneuverable in traffic. 

The disadvantages of bikes are that they do not fare well in collisions, especially with automotive traffic, enforcing the need for dedicated bike lanes in busy traffic areas.  Watching video of delivery riders in New York City scares me in how they move along and through city traffic.  In northern Europe, the bikes are mostly kept away from the auto traffic making accidents rarer.  Riding in bad weather sucks, so dedicated bike users need to have plan B for bad weather days unless they have the fortitude to brave the elements.  Bike trips as a primary form of urban/suburban transport are not practical above ten miles, except with an electric powered bike where a 25 mile distance is reasonable – providing electric charging facilities exist at the destination or parking area.  

Electric bikes are now more available than ever with several companies having their own designs.  There are military versions that are more powerful in that they go faster and further then civilian models.  For now, military versions are not easy to buy and less easy to insure for private citizens primarily because of road safety issues – an electric bicycle running at 35 mph on a regular road is like a very skinny low powered motorbike with all the visibility problems that motorbikes face from unaware car drivers with their blind spots around the car.  So, for now, the 20-mph limit for electric bicycles is for safety, but remember the electric power is for assistance with pedaling, not a substitution of pedaling.  That kind of unaided power takes you into another category of transport – see next post.                            

Alternative Transportation modes – Urban Sprawl and the costs of various modes of transport, part 1

Living in America (or anywhere in the developed world) today, it is a given that you need transportation just to get around.  This is because the way we design our modern living environments have taken the car culture as the default status quo.  In cities with less zoning that puts people far way from shopping and other needed facilities, there are more options than in more spread out urbanization or rural areas.   In the next couple of blog posts we would like to overview the costs as well as the pros and cons of the many transport options available.

First, if you live in a city you need to be aware that cities use large inputs of resources and produce just as large outputs of wastes.  While cities and towns only occupy about 2% of land area they can use up to 75% of resources e.g. Chicago needs 58 times its living area for the inputs to keep the city running and that contribute to ‘sprawl.’  These inputs and outputs from sprawl include Transportation: Sprawl forces people to drive cars; Pollution: Increased driving causes increased air and water pollution; Health: Sprawl promotes physical inactivity because driving replaces walking during daily errands; Economics: Sprawl funnels tax dollars into required infrastructure (e.g., roads) for further new development and increased sprawl, and ; Land use: More land is developed and less is left as forests, fields, farmland, or ranchland. 

As we move into an uncertain energy future, we need to be aware of the energetics and economics of the various modes of transportation.  For this post, let’s look at the various energy needs and the cost for each person using the main transportation options.  We will then look at the many other options of transportation and how they stack up against mass transit.

If you want to get to work in the morning, and work over 10 miles away from home, there are 6 general ways of getting to work and back in a time effective manner (obviously commuter congestion increases the energy needed – not factored in at this time).  We can use Kilojoules as the measure of energy needed to move something – in this case the number of Kilojoules to move one person per mile with the various modes. 

  • You can drive yourself and you will use 2800 kJ per mile.  Obviously, this is an average based on a 200 lb person driving a mid-sized sedan doing 29 mpg.  The main advantage is individual convenience – you decide your schedule.   Add traffic congestion and this energy cost can easily double. 
  • If you car pool with 3 other people then the energy cost per person is about 1000 kJ – it is not just a quarter each of the single traveler since the extra weight from the other 3 people adds more fuel used, but it is greatly reduced from one person by themselves (4000 Kj total rather than 11,200 kJ).  The main disadvantage is that you have to coordinate the schedules of 4 people, and traffic congestion can easily double the energy needed.   
  • A van pool of 7 people is about 640 kJ per person per mile – the van is heavier and the extra weight of seven people needs to be taken into account.  Like a car pool, the scheduling of 7 people can be awkward but having a specific time-table of departure helps all the passengers reach a compromise.  Again, congestion will raise the energy needed.
  • Now a bus is even heavier, but can take between 40-80 people maximum.  If we assume a 60 passenger bus with average occupancy throughout its route, the energy cost is about 720 kJ per passenger mile.  The advantage of a bus is the greatly reduced numbers of cars on the road, thereby reducing congestion.  If the bus has a dedicated traffic lane thereby eliminating most of any congestion for itself, the minor disadvantage of a fixed travel schedule and the slightly higher kJ from a car pool, using the bus becomes a positive factor.
  • Riding the rail takes about 640 kJ per passenger mile, assuming about 90 passengers per commuter rail car.  A minor disadvantage is the fixed travel schedule, but congestion should be non-existent, and fuel use is electricity, which if from a renewable source makes it an ideal energetic mass transit option. 
  • Now some people actually use Airline travel as part of their jobs.  In a typical city to city flight, airline travel is not only the most energetic mode of travel but also the most polluting of any other option.  (a Boeing 737-800 carries 162 people while an Airbus 320 can carry 180 passengers).  The average energetics for airline travel are 6080 kJ per passenger mile.  If you read the previous posts about use of rail, it is useful to note that rail uses only 10% of the energy cpm of air travel. 

When you look at the cost per passenger mile for operating costs (Vehicle Operation (VO), Road/Rail Maintenance (RM), and Parking Costs (PC)) with the main forms of commuter travel then a similar picture is also seen.  Numbers are costs per passenger mile (cpm) broken up in to the various operating costs:

  • Bus – $1.05 cpm ($0.75 VO, $0.30 RM, $0 PC)
  • Commuter Rail – $0.48 cpm ($0.47 VO, $0.01 RM, $0 PC)
  • Light inner city Rail – $0.67 cpm ($0.66 VO, $0.01 RM, $0 PC)
  • Automobile large town – $0.81 cpm ($0.51 VO, $0.16 RM, $0.14 PC)
  • Automobile small city – $1.17 cpm ($0.61 VO, $0.17 RM, $0.39 PC)
  • Automobile large city – $1.67 cpm ($0.71 VO, $0.21 RM, $0.69 PC)  

The big differences seen in the automobile costs are the extra fuel used in congestion and wear and tear of operating the vehicle, the numbers of vehicles impacting the road surfaces (even more so in areas with heavy winter damage and high truck traffic), and of course parking fees.  Park in Denver versus Fort Collins and you will understand how expensive parking can be between the different urban centers.  A systems analysis of moving around shows that automobiles tend to be an expensive if not often unnecessary luxury to own.  In many cities such as New York, people forgo the automobile for mass transit and rent a car when they want to travel out of town.  In areas not served by good mass transit, there are still many options that can be used to get around cheaply, efficiently, and conveniently.  We’ll look at those in the next blog post.         

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 4 – High Speed Rail Costs

Once upon a time the need for mass transit was non-existent.  Most people did not go anywhere and stayed close to where they were born, lived and worked.  And those that travelled accepted that the journeys would be long, uncomfortable, and most likely exciting in many ways – just getting to your destination was an accomplishment in itself.   Since the early 1800s taking a long trip on land meant using the rail system.  Roads were OK at best, and prone to extreme erosion, meaning that unless they were well maintained (rare except on tollways) became bumpy and uncomfortable challenges.  The kinds of roads we take for granted today are not even a hundred years old.  Before WWII roads were most likely only asphalted on tollways and only within the cities.  Everywhere else was most likely a dirt track of varying quality.   In 1919, as a young army office. Ike Eisenhower was part of a trek from Washington D.C. to San Francisco along one of the first cross-country highways (The Lincoln highway).  The convoy of 80 trucks and motorcycles took 62 days to make the journey (an average of 6 miles an hour).  “They crossed plains, mountains and deserts on roads that, up until Nebraska, were surprisingly well made. But once the convoy hit the West, the trucks started getting stuck in ditches, sand and mud, for hours at a time. By Utah, the conditions of the roads were so bad, it almost stopped the convoy altogether” (History.com).  At that time, a train took 3 days.    

While it may seem that I am espousing the rail system (I am), my main point is that what we consider normal and immutable is a relatively new idea – individual travel vehicles as a source of long-distance freedom – the great American love affair with the automobile.  Any idea can be improved if we are simply willing to sit down and think about it through ‘systems thinking.’  We used to have horses that can go more places than a car, but the car offers two advantages over a horse – speed and distance.  Having said that, it is pertinent to note that the cars we love so much sit unused on average for 95% of the day.  When you think of how much you pay for that speed convenience, the true cost effectiveness of the personal automobile becomes questionable.  The mere century long love affair with cars has been showing signs of failing as traffic woes and road infrastructure adventures become the norm.  In Europe, many people needing to go distances travel on the high-speed rail system and then use local transportation once they get to their destination.

In the last post we covered the costs of building and maintaining roads, the latter, being one of the most costly, yearly infrastructure costs we have.  As we shall see, building railroads is not cheap, but the infrastructure maintenance costs for tracks are less by comparison to roads.  The costs of equipment maintenance (e.g. trains and train and road trucks) using the systems are somewhat comparable. 

France began the European fast rail in 1981 (Japan did it in 1964), quickly followed by the rest of Europe.  The advantages of rail traffic above roads traffic are greatly reduced emissions even when diesel trains are used.  Add electric trains using renewable energy sources and emissions are almost non-existent.   So how much to build the railways?  Out on the open road through farmland and countryside, not too expensive:  about $1-2 million per mile of track.  Once you get into urban and city areas, the cost goes up because of needing to pick a line that doesn’t disrupt already existing systems.  Both road freeways and rail have the same problem, no one wants to give up their property for the common good and lots of eminent domain purchasing is necessary.  Of course, the roads and rail can be elevated, but the cost of raised concrete overhead systems raises the price considerably and means more long-term maintenance costs have to be factored in to the building costs.  So, the cost climbs to about $15-100 million per mile of track laid down.  Before you say that using aircraft is cheaper because the only need is for airports, note that a single Boeing 767 costs about $200 million per plane (seats 181-367 passengers) or $650,000 per month to lease.  The Boeing 777 (seats passengers) is about $440 million to buy.  Most High-Speed rail trains are about 16 carriages long for a total of 1300 passengers at an initial cost of about $5 million (this cost was hard to find) for the electric locomotive and carriages.   The main Chinese bullet-train line from Beijing to Shanghai takes just over 4 hours and netted over $1 billion in profit in 2016. 

While Europe and Asia are expanding their high-speed rail, the U.S. seems to be lagging behind.  Cost is obviously a factor.  China’s high speed rail with a maximum speed of 350 km/h has a typical infrastructure unit cost of about $27-33 million per mile, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels, as compared with $40-62 m per mile in Europe. In the U.S. there are only a few high-speed train routes.  The Acela line from Boston to Washington D.C. (about 457 miles) takes about 6 hours averaging only 70 mph because many sections of the rail are still of the slow-rail system.  California is building the Los Angeles to San Francisco line in the central valley but estimates are the final costs will be about $90 million per mile.  The $77+ billion dollar project has been prone to political problems, especially with the 2018 cancellation of nearly a $1 billion of federal funding. 

The take-away of all of this is that the high-speed rail systems around the world have been quite effective because of private investment coupled with governmental investment and support.  The benefit of trains over airplanes is clear for short to moderate length travel of 12 hours or less.  After that it comes down to convenience.  From an environmental perspective, trains are the best option since air travel is the most polluting forms of travel and road traffic still using fossil fuels is still a major pollution issue.  Economically, trains are still the best option for moving freight and people, and the options for renewable energy are easier with trains than most other options.  Personal transport costs are also better with trains, but the convenience factor is still a big one for American users.  When we live in a ‘got to get there now’ mentality, regardless of price (while we can still afford anything), then alternate options for transporting ourselves around will always be a debating point.  Travelling to other countries and using their transportation systems when you do not have your own personal car to drive around (I omit car rentals here because it is an price option that gets prohibitive if one means to travel across many countries with exorbitant drop off fees) you get a different perspective of what mass transit can mean.    

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 3 – Freeway and Interstate Road Costs

One of the top reasons for not developing a high-speed rail system in the U.S. is apparently the cost.  “We can’t do it because it will cost too much” is voiced without any knowledge of what the actually costs really are – it’s a mantra from those who do not want competition or change.  Just imagine what America would have been like if the initial investors in the rail system of the 1800s had been faced with that and we had to stay with horse and wagons during the western expansion.  Yes, wagon trains were an integral part of that early slower expansion prior to the American Civil, War, but afterwards it was the rail that allowed Euro-centric people to rapidly expand across the country to create the USA we know today.  So, was rail simply outmoded by automotive transportation, or was it something else that caused the decline of the great American rail roads? 

After the Civil War the U.S. train networks ran across the country.  The cattle drives, so popularly portrayed in western movies, were only a few years of the West’s history until the late 1860s: After that the rail lines spread south to the grasslands so cattle could be transported quickly and efficiently to the stockyards and slaughterhouses of the Great Lakes, and then to the cities of the growing Eastern areas of the continent – Prairie grasslands and farmlands to dinner table in less than 5 days with new grazing and watering cattle cars plus refrigerated freight cars keeping everything fresh.   It was the hay-day for the rail system until new businesses were born that competed for the railroads effectiveness.  First, decentralization of the cattle industry occurred with feed-lots taking over from full-time range grazing.  Next, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller had other ideas for which industries would dominate the American transportation scene.  Rail survived because of the need for Heavy freight (e.g. Coal), and passenger rail in the pre-airline era for most regular people traveling long distances – only the well-off could fly anywhere.  Ford lobbied extensively for roads with his new trailer trucks to carry freight and automobiles to take Americans everywhere, and Rockefeller was happy to lobby to provide gasoline to take them there.  While the rest of the world invests in building new high-speed rail systems, the U.S. sits quietly with some minor projects (by comparison), the excuse being that rail is too expensive.   So what kinds of expenses are we talking about?   First let’s look at the freeway-interstate system of roads.

Dwight D Eisenhower returned from Europe impressed by the German Autobahn system, started in 1913 as a public works project with over 1300 miles completed by 1939, that allowed Hitler to truck his troops quickly around Europe.  When Eisenhower became President of the USA he promoted the Interstate road system as a defense initiative.  It begun in 1957 with $25 billion of appropriations and was officially completed in 1992, although new section are still being added as traffic needs are realized for over 48,000 miles of interstate.  The estimated final cost was about $500 Billion (about $5-10 million per mile).  The amount of modern traffic and weather impacts makes repairing the Interstates during ‘Orange Barrel Season” an ongoing and highly lucrative business, and also a source of great frustration for traffic trying to move around the country.  The Federal interstate system was funded 90% by the federal government and 10% by the States through a highway gasoline tax.  One problem with this is that this redistributed gas tax revenue from states with lots of drivers to those with very few drivers.  The result being that funds were often taken from states that need more transportation infrastructure than they have to states that have more transportation infrastructure than they need.  Prior to the interstate system, major road projects within a state were paid from through toll systems (turnpikes) – user pays fees. 

One of the biggest costs of placing freeways through a city is the disruption to neighborhoods.  This involved a lot of eminent domain and rerouting of existing urban roads plus interstate exists to allow local traffic to still flow while allowing through traffic unhindered motion.  The problems occur (especially at peak traffic times) when freeway ‘incidents’ happen to slow the traffic flow.  Incidents as bad as accidents to people simply driving badly are enough to create the daily traffic jam woes we take as normal no matter how many lanes get added.  The term ‘Induced demand’ explains how expanding freeway traffic lanes merely allows more drivers use the freeway. 

Traffic jams can be temporarily ameliorated by new traffic systems and addition of more lanes (after the inevitable construction delays), but with over 850 cars per 1000 people in the USA the same traffic jams reoccur within 18 months.  We seriously need to rethink roads as the only solution to moving people and freight around.  And this problem is everywhere in the world.   In the previous post I talked about an 8-hour trip using high-speed rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  To drive would have also taken 8 hours under ideal road conditions but would not have been as relaxing (car rental and gasoline costs would have been more than my train ticket).  A few years ago, instead of taking the 4-hour train journey, I drove from Calais to Amsterdam in what should have taken less than 4 hours.  I spent 4 hours of that final 8-hour trip sitting in multi-lane traffic trying to get around Antwerp.  In Britain a year ago, I spent 5 hours doing what should have been a 2-hour drive because of motorway construction.  Freeways can be great, but only in ideal conditions, which are fast becoming rare.  Supporting alternate transportation systems is much more than trying to support renewal energy systems, it is about sustainable ways of getting people where they want to go in the most convenient, safest, and cost-effective systems possible.  Over a century ago, our ancestors could get to near where they wanted to go by taking the train and then using a horse system to get to the place they wanted to be.  Automotive transportation is certainly convenient (when it moves) but maybe there is a way we can use high speed renewable transportation and local systems when we get there.  Obviously, cost is a major factor to consider.  While interstates are not cheap, what is the cost of a high-speed rail system by comparison?  To be continued…..      

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 2

Why use trains?  In the last post I emphasized how the USA developed through train technology.  Obviously, the advance of automotive transport and oil use over the past century spurred the car and truck culture, and now the airline industry, we now take for granted.  It’s hard for most Americans to visualize a different way of moving around the country.  If you travel outside North America you get a different perspective of travel. 

The drive plus ferry from London to Paris used to take 7 hours or more depending on road and weather conditions, especially across the English Channel.  The intercity rail from London’s Paddington rail Station to Paris’s Gare Du Nord rail station (city center to city center) for as little as $40 takes just 2 hours and 15 minutes.  From there you have access to all the major cities in Europe without the hassle of traffic congestion and holdups that are as prevalent in Europe as they are in America.  On a trip back from Paris to London on the ‘Chunnel’ train I was able to walk up and down the train and visit the refreshments car at ease.  I talked with a French woman going from Toulouse to London on Business and why she was taking the train and not flying from Toulouse to London.  The story was much like I mentioned in the last post about flying to Chicago.  When all the wait times and airport to city connections were factored in, the journey for this woman was not only about the same amount of time but the cost using the trains was about the same.  The woman said the trains were also more convenient and comfortable.   

On a recent trip I flew to Munich and rented a car to travel around Bavaria and northern Austria.  I must say that legally doing over a 100 mph on the Autobahn back to Munich was exhilarating but strange as I had to keep moving over to the slow lane to allow the really fast cars to pass me.  Germany is renowned for it speeds on the autobahns.  I made it from the Austrian border to the outskirts of Munich in less than 2 hours.  The 16 Km (10 miles) journey at 4pm from the outskirts to city center where the hotel was located, however, took another 2 hours, and then I had the nightmare of negotiating traffic in a city I did not know all the while avoiding road construction and then trying to find parking for the car while I checked into the hotel (most European city center hotels do not have parking).  The next day I travelled the high-speed electric Intercity Express rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  It took about 8 hours and cost about $80 in a first class car (I splurged).  Flying would have been a little quicker but I would have missed all the great scenery along the way, which was wonderful, even at 300 Kph (186 Mph) top speed – all information was listed and updated continually on the ‘smart’ information board in each car.  It was also most comfortable and quiet and typical of German efficiency, on time at all the station stops (usually 3-4 minutes only per stop for nine stops) along the way.  From the main station I was able to take a local train to within a mile of my friends who lived about 20 miles from Amsterdam without hassle at Rush hour.  Light rail will be covered in another post to come soon.       

There has been much discussion over the past decade about the viability of an intercity high-speed rail system in the USA similar to Europe or eastern Asia. I’ll leave the financial realities of building this rail system and the expansion and maintenance of existing U.S. roadways for the next post.  For now, let’s focus on whether a rail system would be a viable option for the U.S.  One of the most polluting forms of travel in the world is jet travel.  Jet fuel with its emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus cloud formation accounts for as much as 5 percent of fossil fuel pollution.  Trains are electric, but of course, the source of the electricity is crucial.  Using a fossil fuel power plant is only slightly better than using aviation fuel.  However, using renewable electrical sources is ideal.  A recent report noted that Holland now uses 100% renewable energy (primarily wind energy but with some solar from Solar tunnels above the rail lines!  

The French have been experimenting with high speed rail and a few years ago tried out a 450 Kph (280 Mph) successfully.  It is still on the drawing board but remains a future option.  Japan has been working on boosting their famous Shinkansen train to get speeds of 360 Kph (225 Mph).  Now just imagine going express from center Denver to center Chicago in 4 hours or even New York to Los Angeles in 13 hours by rail!  Of course, you would have to factor in time to get to the rail station.   (Note our previous rough calculation of air travel times – NY to LA is 6 hours flying, plus 2 hours gate time before departure and then roughly 1-2 hours between home, parking, etc. for a total of 9-10 hours air travel time.)   Germany has also experimented with a high-speed ‘Maglev’ system that also shows promise.  While still theoretical we already have the technology to make them work, are vacuum ultra-speed Maglev systems.  These could work at speeds literally as high as 3000 Mph because of no need for wheels (magnetic forces are used to separate the train from the rail with no friction – the train is the only moving part).  While many countries are working on the technology, it is still just on the drawing board with just test sections of Maglev in places like Germany.     

For visitors to Japan, China, or Europe, the high-speed train systems for long journeys are a definite plus.  In Spain, the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed train (19 trains a day) takes about 2 ½  hours and costs #35 one way.  (It takes 6 hours to drive and 1 ½ hour actual flying time.)  It works so well, air flight between the cities is rarely used.  If high-speed rail works so well why is it still almost non-existent in North America?  Most reasons given are financial in that the cost is prohibitive.  Why was it not so for other countries?  The other problem has been public support.  Most Americans have never experienced the high-speed system and propaganda against high-speed rail is prevalent from special interests who will be somewhat displaced by such a system.  In talks where I have laid out the argument for high-speed rail and then taken a simple hands up survey of who would use it if it were in place gives a telling response – over 90% of people like the idea.  So, what are the financial realities of high-speed national rail versus the existing freeway road network across the U.S.?  Next post….