Populist movements don't build themselves ...

... It doesn't matter what the "horse race" outcome of the campaign is, if we fight the campaign. Fighting it, we learn how to fight. Learning how to fight political battles, we become citizens again. Becoming citizens again, we reclaim the Republic that lies dormant beneath the bread and circuses of modern American society.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sunday Train: King of the Mountain, Part 1

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I noted near the beginning of the Appalachian Hub series about the special advantages offered by rail electrification for this project.

Now that I have sketched out a process by which a national Steel Interstate network of corridors can, in fact, be built in this coming decade, this is probably a good time to come back and take a look at the challenges that are faced when putting the Steel Interstates through hilly and mountainous terrain.

Of course, if rail electrification was a particular benefit in mountainous terrain, one would expect to see it in places like, say, Switzerland.

Picture of a Swiss electric freight west of the Albula tunnel

Trans-Alpine Freight and Swiss Rail

When tuning in to news from Switzerland, the big story are so-called "base tunnels". These are tunnels that cut through "the base of a mountain". The Lotschberg Base Tunnel, featured in World's Most Spectacular Tunnels, cuts through the mountain a 1,312 feet lower than the tunnel that it replaces ... that is about a quarter of a mile lower.

Just as the original investments in Japan and France in capital-intensive HSR passenger lines, what is driving this investment in base tunnels is the capacity limits of the present rail routes. As AlpTransit's description (pdf) of the Gothard Base Tunnel Project puts it:
Construction of base tunnels under the Gotthard and Ceneri creates an ultramodern flat rail link whose highest point at 550 metres above sea level is no higher than the city of Berne. This is much lower than the highest point of the existing route through the mountains at 1150 metres. Gradients will be no steeper than where the railway crosses the Jura mountains through the Hauenstein tunnel (Basel – Olten) or the Bözberg tunnel (Basel – Brugg). The route through Switzerland becomes flatter and 40 km shorter. Italy and Germany come much closer together.

Freight trains travelling on the flat route can be longer and pull up to twice today's weight – 4000 tonnes instead of 2000 tonnes. They will be up to twice as fast, too: the fastest freight trains will have a top speed of 160 km/h. Trains like this cannot be used on existing Alpine routes because of the steep gradients and tight curves. When the flat route is complete, it will be possible to transport an equal volume of freight with fewer locomotives and personnel, and less energy.

Just as with the Japanese and French investment in Passenger HSR, it is important to put this investment in context. This is not a result of the failures of the existing Swiss electric freight rail system - it is a result of its success. That is, the growth in interstate freight transport is pushing up against the capacity limits of the Swiss system because the Swiss rail system was effective in capturing a substantial share of freight.

This figure from sheet 5 of the Gothard Tunnel pdf makes the point in no uncertain terms. The original Swiss electric freight system has carried a majority of the Trans-alpine freight that passes through Switzerland, while in France and Austria, the majority of freight has been passing by road.

And when digging further into the description of the Base Tunnel makes it clear the benefit that the Swiss have obtained from electric rail.

Why Electrification in Mountain Rail Corridors?

Bear in mind that a normal maximum gradient in many US mainline rail corridors is 1%, or "10 per thousand", when considering the following description of the route being replaced:
The ramps of the present-day railways through the Gotthard and Ceneri have gradients of up to 26 per thousand. The flatness and straightness of the base route – maximum gradient 12.5 per thousand overground and 8.0 per thousand in the base tunnels – allow productive deployment of long, heavy trains through elimination of time-consuming shunting operations. Today, a heavy freight train travelling north-south over the Gotthard and Ceneri mountain routes requires a pushing locomotive because of the steep gradients. The goal of freight trains hauling more than 2000 tonnes travelling through Switzerland without stopping at Erstfeld or Bellinzona, and without midtrain or pushing locomotives, can only be accomplished when both the Gotthard and Ceneri base tunnels are completed.

Consider that: a gradient of 2.5% and "only" being able to move 2,200tons of freight at 50mph.

As the Wikipedia machine notes, the secret to this success in the mountains lies in the higher power-weight ratio of electric locomotives:
The high power of electric locomotives gives them the ability to pull freight at higher speed over gradients, in mixed traffic conditions this increases capacity when the time between trains can be decreased. The higher power of electric locomotives and a electrification can also be a cheaper alternative to a new and less steep railway if trains weights are to be increased on a system.

Putting the Advantages to Work

Of course, one way to cope with mountainous terrain is to avoid it. In the proposed Steel Interstate system, line one, the Liberty Line from New England to California, runs along the Shenandoah River Valley, the original "highway to the west", mostly avoiding the type of terrain that the Swiss would consider to be Mountains. To the west, it runs through the lower land of southern New Mexico and Arizona, a similarly easy route through the western cordillera, and then runs up the Central Valley to bring most of California within its catchment.

The roughest terrain that this corridor needs to tackle is the alignment west and north of Chattanooga, where the existing STRACNET corridor does a sweeping S-curve to avoid the rougher terrain where the Interstate has simply been blasted through. This is a key point where the Line Development Bank will have to carefully analyze the alternative alignments, and could well opt for taking the Rapid Freight Rail corridor out of the conventional freight rail corridor, where the Rapid Freight Rail path gains time by operating at a steeper gradient than the conventional rail corridor. That is, operating at 60mph over half the distance may well be a faster path than operating at 100mph along the heavy freight alignment.

Unlike the Swiss freight system, the electrified heavy freight paths will not have to contend with constantly shuttling aside to make way for passenger trains, since the passenger trains will be on the Rapid Rail Paths, whether those are provided by dividing up the time of day that different trains run on a track, by providing separated track in the same right of way, or by providing a Rapid Freight bypass on its own Right of Way.

Once the Chattanooga to Nashville, alignment is determined, that also solves the only stretch of rough terrain that the Heartland Alignment faces, while the Gulf and Atlantic Line only ever runs to, but never through, rough terrain.

In other words, other than the Chattanooga/Nashville alignment, all of the challenging terrain has been focused on the National Line:
  • Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, within the territory tof the Appalachian Hub;
  • east of Salt Lake City and east of Sacramento, on the line to Oakland;
  • the northeastern and northwestern Oregon corridors on the line to Portland; and
  • the Southern Oregon / Northern Californian corridor between the Pacific Northwest and the California Central Valley

Indeed, it has been suggested to me that this is a line that should not exist at all. So in a couple of weeks, in King of the Mountain Part II, I'll take up the focus on the need for a genuinely national network, and the flexibility that the institution of the Line Development Bank gives us in pursuing a genuinely national network, focusing on the proposed Steel Interstate system both with and without the National Line.

The Headliners: Midnight Oil / King of the Mountain

Walking through the high dry grass,
   pushing my way through slow
Yellow belly black snake,
   sleeping on a red rock
Waiting for the stranger to go
Sugar train stops at the crossing,
   cane cockies cursing below
Bad storm coming, better run
   to the top of the mountain
Mountain in the shadow of light,
   rain in the valley below

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Job Free Recovery Continues

Burning the Midnight Oil for a Brawny Recovery

crossposted at ProgressiveBlue

The March Jobs Report has come, and though there appears to have been some employment growth in the rose colored glasses retailing sector, in most other sectors, the headline is that the Job Free Recovery continues.

There are three main numbers to focus on when looking at the monthly employment report:
  • employment
  • the headline unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted
  • the broad ("U6") unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted

... so let's have a look at them.

The report employment figure showed employment growth of 162,000. Is that good news? Bad news?

Well, its news to the extent that "the normal average season growth in employment" means that the string of job losses have come to an end. The headline unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.7%, while the broad unemployment rate increased from 16.8% to 16.9%, both seasonally adjusted.

When trying to work out what's going on with the business cycle, we look at seasonally adjusted figures, and that is, part of why the headline unemployment rate is constant. The raw figure is down by 0.2% ... but that's on average what is normal in moving from February to March.

The uptick in the seasonally adjusted broad unemployment rate is explained directly in the summary:
The number of persons working part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) increased to 9.1 million in March. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job. (See table A-8.)

So while employment increased, some of that was part-time work held by people who want full time work. Just as we would expect this early in a recovery, many businesses do not feel that they have to hire people full time when there is a wide choice of perfectly good workers who can be had with no commitment on their part.

How long would it take to get to full employment at this rate?

I saw someone "tweet" that at this rate, it would take a year to get the unemployment rate down by 1%. However, actually, since this increase in employment is very close to the seasonally expected increase, employment could grow "like this" for years without bringing the unemployment rate down by 1%.

"Like this" would, after all, be increases in employment in months where that's normal, and reductions in employment in months where that's normal.

This is why we need a Brawny Recovery: a recovery where we roll up our sleeves and get down to the work of catching up on thirty years of postponed investment in infrastructure, and thirty years of postponed establishment of a New Energy Economy to address the fact that we have an oil-addicted economy.

And there is no way to describe it other than oil addiction. After all, we are still a major oil producer. We produce about twice the world average, per person. However, we consume five times the world average.

Something to demand immediately

Something that can and should be done immediately is for the Federal Government to make up transit system budgets that are directly due to reductions in state and local sales tax receipts.

Of course, this needs to be in proportion to the downturn in tax receipts for given tax rates. We have to avoid setting up a system that encourages and rewards state and local governments that treat a budget crisis as an opportunity to throw the bus under a bus ... as in California, where the Governor seems determined to kill off public transport as a favor to his big oil contributors.

However, it should be backdated. This is something we should have been doing since September 2008, at the latest ... it is, indeed, something we should do for any recession. During a recession, farebox revenues decline, because people that have lost their job no longer have their daily commute. But the cost of operating the services remain fairly stable, and the need to have access to the services often increases. When at the same time dedicated or general fund tax receipts at the state and local level decline due to the recession, transport and transit authorities get hit with a double whammy.

There are lots of things that are a rightful part of a Brawny Recovery: electrification of local public transport corridors, establishment of Electricity Superhighways, establishment of a nationwide electric freight rail system, investment in energy efficiency upgrades to both public and private buildings ...

... but one that can have very rapid impacts is helping local transport cope with the fact that this recovery, like the two before it, look like it will take about a year before genuine employment growth starts to show up.

Not only will this help keep people in useful employment, but it will also ensure that the most vulnerable are not locked out of participating with the real employment growth, when it really does start to appear.