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, December 11, 2011

Sunday Train: A Streetcar for Broadway (LA)

Nearly a month ago, Yonah Freemark had a post at The Transport Politic entitled, Los Angeles’ Streetcar Plans: Too Duplicative of Existing Services?. He wrote:
Los Angeles has big hopes for its downtown, and, like most of the country’s major cities, it has seen significant population growth in the inner core over the past ten years. Now, to extend this renaissance, the city — also like many others — is planning a [http://www.metro.net/projects/historic-streetcar-service/ streetcar line] that would traverse the district from north to south. Last month, it applied for $37.5 million in U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant dollars, which it hopes to supplement with local and private funds to complete an initial route of between 3 and 5 one-way track miles at a cost of between $106 and $138 million.

Despite the fact that planning for the L.A. streetcar goes back for more than a decade thanks to the work of a public-private local advocacy group, the city will have plenty of competition in its effort to win federal funds. Requests for the third round of TIGER funding outnumbered actual funding available by 27 to 1. With so many projects up for consideration, anything funded by Washington ought to be valuable. But L.A.’s project could benefit from significant improvement.

And then ... well, join me at one of the community blogs below:
The Stars Hollow Gazette
Daily Kos

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunday Train: Strengthening the Jobs Bill with a $0.01/gallon Oil Tariff

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Yeah, OK, its not Sunday, but I got called on Saturday morning after a Friday night class to substitute for a colleague, and that threw me off completely. Fortunately for the Sunday Train, I am massively underemployed, so there is Monday afternoon available to finish composing what I been thinking about this week.

As I discussed in Whether and How to Sell the Jobs Policy, there is not a whole lot of "pop" in the jobs bill, but there is some. The EPI analysis suggests 1m in jobs "created or saved", but of course "jobs saved" is an increase compared to a counterfactual, and not an actual increase. Over half of those are "job saved", so the "pop" is under half a million jobs.

If spread evenly across a calendar year, "just under half a million new jobs" would be 40,000 new jobs per month. If 150,000 new jobs per month is needed to bring unemployment down, that is relying on our stuttering economy to create 110,000 or more ~ close to what we have often been achieving, but there is substantial concern that we might not keep it up, after a month with about 0 (zero, zilch, nada) new private jobs created.

So the aim here is to look for something that can add some more "pop". And having read the title, you know that a 1 penny Oil Tariff is involved. Hopefully raising the question in our mind: "uhmmm, where's the 'pop' in that?"


More at:

The Stars Hollow Gazette
and Agent Orange

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Whether and How to Sell the Jobs Policy

Burning the Midnight Oil for Progressive Populism

First off, the thing to do with the BS about gutting the safety net on the excuse that the Take Everything Away Party wants to kill it is to take the idea of gutting the safety programs behind the farmhouse to the mint bed and apply a sharp ax.

How to do that, I don't know.

But if it can be done, then there's still the question of whether and how to sell the "Jobs Policy"

More at:
The Stars Hollow Gazette

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Train: The Texas Wishbone Regional High Speed Rail

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Back in the 90's, Texas tried to get an Express HSR system off the ground (that is, a bullet train system somewhere in the 125mph to 220mph range) with the "Texas Triangle" project. It was to be an entirely privately funded project. Not surprisingly, competing against the heavily publicly subsidized interstate highway and air travel systems, it did not get off the ground.

More recently, the Texas T-Bone was proposed, based on the Dallas to San Antonio leg of the Triangle and a route from Houston to Temple, then running north to Dallas with connections south to Austin and San Antonio.

While the Texas T-Bone seems to be the current plan of the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation, this is more of an advocacy group than an official HSR Commission or Rail Development Commission.

Given that we are in between periods of substantial federal funding for High Speed Rail, I thought this might be a good time to take a look at the prospects for Regional HSR, in some of the existing rail corridors within the "Texas Triangle" region ... and so arrived at the Texas Wishbone.
The Stars Hollow Gazette
The European Tribune
and Agent Orange, aka Daily Kos

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fusion Tickets: why US 3rd Parties once worked, and why they stopped.

Burning the Midnight Oil for Progressive Populism

We in the US take the two party system for granted, but a two party system is not normal among advanced industrial countries. And, in our history, we used to have a lot more third parties with a lot more impact on our political system in the US. What happened?

This diary is one of a series that was originally published as [http://thestarshollowgazette.com/diary/3679/the-insideroutsider-response-to-the-detb-ceiling-cavein single, long, sprawling diary].

For most of its political history to the late 1800's, the US was either dominated by one or two political parties. The (extra-constitutional) winner take all electoral college system and the winner take all nature of a state legislature selecting the state's Senator strongly pushed in that direction.

But alongside this was a political institution that allowed third parties to emerge and compete for influence ~ and indeed, the Great Re-Alignment from the Democrats and the Whigs to the Republicans and the Democrats occured in part thanks to the existence of third parties that were available to merge with the Anti-Slavery Whigs once they had been purged from the Whig Party.

How did this system work, and where did it go?

More text, comments, and the Midnight Oil Clip at:
The Stars Hollow Gazette
and Agent Orange.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sunday Train: Pushing for a Rapid Rail HSR Station in Ravenna, Ohio

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

OK, now, thanks to John Kasich, we are not going to get started on that Rapid Rail HSR network before 2015. Indeed, Democrats would probably have to take back one of the two Chambers of the State Legislature to be able to hit the ground running on getting that Rapid Rail HSR network going in 2015.

On the other hand, if you never lay the foundation, you always end up with an outcome you don't like.

And I don't like the way that the Ohio Hub connects to Summit and Portage Counties, so I want to work on how to get a station in Ravenna added to the Ohio Hub.

The reason its on the Sunday Train is threefold: maybe somebody can give me a great tip; maybe somebody can get an idea for something they can work on where they live; and its about making more sustainable transport options available to a medium city and a variety of inner and outer suburban landscapes.
The Stars Hollow Gazette
Docudharma, and
Agent Orange

Saturday, August 6, 2011

LQD: The AA+ rating is valid, but the S&P case is intellectually dishonest ~ Mosler

Burning the Midnight Oil for a Brawny Recovery

"LQD" is an abbreviation I first encountered at EuroTrib: it means "Lazy Quote Diary".

[http://moslereconomics.com/2011/08/06/sp-downgrades-us-on-ability-to-pay/ The quote from Warren Mosler]:
Credit ratings are based on ability to pay and willingness to pay.

David Beers of S&P knows this and has discussed this in the past.
So why then did David T. Beers decide to downgrade the US on ability to pay, and not explicitly on willingness to pay?

Sure looks like a case of intellectual dishonesty.
And I have no idea why.
So much for his legacy.

Well, its a very short post, so fair use restricts it to an even shorter quote.

But this is the gist of it: no issuer of its own currency is ever forced to default on debt issued in its own currency.

Think about it: if your family's IOU's were accepted by the bank to repay debts ... could you ever run short of the means to pay your debts?

What would an honest downgrade have said? Below the fold.

The argument for a downgrade is this:

The only credit risk is that the sovereign issuer of currency is unwilling to pay its debts, as Mosler says. An honest downgrade would be, "in voting down a clean extension of the credit ceiling, the majority in the House of Representatives of the United States demonstrated a willingness to consider defaulting on its debts as a bargaining ploy to get what it wants. This implies a risk of default greater than 0, and so US debt doesn't deserve the "absolutely no risk of default" rating of AAA.

The argument against a downgrade is this:

Even in the manufactured debt ceiling crisis, there was never any reason to believe that interest would not be paid on Treasury Debt nor that Treasury Debt that matured would be redeemed at its face value. What the Government would have done ~ for no good reason, since it has the legal authority to mint coinage with face values in the billions, which on deposit in the Fed would have allowed payment to have been cleared without requiring the issue of debt ~ would have been to miss appropriated payments which it was not legally bound to pay.

So as far as what S&P are rating, the actual payments on the actual Treasury bonds, bills and notes that Congress permitted the Treasury to issue ... there was no risk.

However, 10 years is a long time in politics, and 10 years of this bullshit, who can tell. So while its hard to make a case that bills and notes should be rated below AAA, AA+ for 10 year bonds may be a bit more plausible.


Bottom line, though, S&P is still lying to people when it pretends that the rating is about "ability to pay". Its only ever about willingness to pay for a government issuing debt in the currency it issues.

Midnight Oil ~ Read About It

Discussion at:
The Stars Hollow Gazzette
Agent Orange

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Geithner reveals exactly what is wrong with his view of the Economy

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Economics of Freedom

Quoted by digby:
TIM GEITHNER: Well, let's start with what this deal does. The most important thing is it creates more room for the private sector to grow because although it locks in some very substantial long term savings, the near term cuts are very modest. So that-- that was the really critical thing in making sure that this economy continue to grow and recover. Now, it locks in a very big down payment and it sets in motion what we think is going to be a very effective process for forcing congress to come together...

Now, for the ordinary person reading this carefully, the only reasonable response is, WTF?. However, as your insider correspondent from the quite bizarre Economist Tribe, my response is, "oh, yeah, that bullshit again."

Ah, well, economics is not the only science {*} where analyzing scat is a necessary research tool. Join me at one of the fine community blogs below.

The Stars Hollow Gazette, and
Agent Orange

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Progressivism in the New Gilded Age

Burning the Midnight Oil for Progressive Populism

The "Progressive Era" was not so named because it was an era in which Great Progress was automatic, or effortless. It was so named because it was an era where Income Inequality was high, even by US historical standards, and extraordinarily high by the standard of the Great American Middle Class Era of the 1940's to 1970's ...

... and that meant that winning Progress that went against the vested interests was very hard, and required long, determined fights against a torrent of money deployed to oppose its progress.

Indeed, one of the fruits of the Progressive Era victories was to eliminate Progressivism as a distinct political force. But now the enemies of the Square Deal, New Deal and Great Society have rebuilt a Gilded Age, and we need it once more.

Progressivism, however, while necessary, is not sufficient on its own.


The Stars Hollow Gazette
and Agent Orange

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday Train: Chairman Mica to Cities ~ Screw You

Burning the Midnight Oil for Progressive Populism

Chairman Mica says:
this proposal maximizes the value of our available infrastructure funding through better leveraging, streamlining the project approval process, attracting private sector investment, and cutting the federal bureaucracy, ... Most importantly, this six-year proposal provides the stability states need to plan major transportation improvements and create long-term jobs.

Decoding that, Chairman Mica is saying: "Screw You, Cities".

And of course, a bit of "screw you countryside" too, since those votes can be taken for granted.
Stars Hollow Gazette
Agent Orange

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Train: Chairman Mica aims to block equipment Amtrak needs to expand

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

The headline spin on House Chairman of the Transport Committee is that he is proposing to privatize the NEC to allow HSR to be built in this decade.

However, if you follow the money trail, while he proposes a process to do that, there is no funding proposed to do that. And without a funding stream for the federal share of anywhere from $40b to $100b to bring the NEC up to a state of good repair and then to make the improvements required, under current FRA regulations, to meet Mica's modest speed targets ... that part of it is not a real proposal yet.

The real proposal is to have talking points to use to object to any funding that gets out of the Senate to allow Amtrak to buy more equipment so it can expand the capacity and frequency to meet the steady increase in demand for its services.

ProgressiveBlue ;
HillbillyReport.org ;
Docudharma ;
Stars Hollow Gazette ; and,
Agent Orange .

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Train: Fighting Economic Sabotage

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

There was shocking news early this June about May economic performance: GDP growth in May was about the same as the average for the first quarter of 2011, and so employment growth was virtually stagnant, and indeed fell behind growth of the labor force.

What was shocking, of course, was that this was news to anybody. For anyone with the basics on how the economy works, it was obvious that economic growth would be sluggish.

Of course, the Republicans in Congress and the White House, both for their own reasons, completely missed the boat ~ the White House arguing if we ease off the accelerate and tap the brakes, but do it intelligently, that will eventually speed up the economy, and the Republicans insisting that, no, we have to slam on the brakes to fix things.

With such a broken political discussion, what can be done?
More at:
.Progressive Blue
....The Stars Hollow Gazette
and .Agent Orange

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sunday Train: A Brawny Recovery or Consumption-Led Growth?

... reprinted from about two years ago ~ June 2009 ...

Burning the Midnight Oil for a Brawny Recovery

On Agent Orange, bonddad writes:
Among the most important of the rules Rosie laid down, in my opinion, is #12: Get the US consumer right and everything else will take care of itself. The reason is fairly simple: The U.S. consumer has the biggest balance sheet on the planet. The U.S. consumer represents 70 percent of our GDP and about 18 percent of global GDP.

This is, however, following the entrenched habits of thought that got us into this mess in the first place. My reply, below the fold.
and Agent Orange

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Train: Why We Fight

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

"Why We Fight" is a common feature of propaganda in support of a war. Here, tonight, it is a double entendre. On tonight's Sunday Train, in honor of Memorial Day tomorrow, with two wars launched in the past decade and still ongoing (though in one, "combat operations" by US forces have finished, so any fighting and dying is of the support and training type of fighting and dying), and another recently started up, what it means when we notice that "why we fight" has a simple answer: oil.

And also, politically, why we fight for Living Energy Independence, here on the Sunday Train.
the European Tribune
and Agent Orange

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Train: Fighting FUD on the first California HSR segment

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Last week, I looked at the California Legislative Analyst Office promoting a policy of raiding the California High Speed Rail funds to build commuter rail systems in LA and San Francisco by issuing what at first blush seemed to be simply a grossly incompetent analysis of the risks of building the HSR project.

This week, I step back and take a broader view of why it would be idiotic to accept the LAO's advice, as well as why it matters to people across the country, and not just the people of California who risk ongoing oil addiction of their intercity transport between Northern and Southern California.
and Agent Orange

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Train: Legislative Analyst to Fresno: Screw You AND Your High Speed Rail

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

The big news on the High Speed Rail front this week is the effort by the California Legislative Analyst to prevent the High Speed Rail project in California from breaking ground. This is in two of their recommendations:
Fund Only Needed Administrative Tasks for Now. ... only appropriate at this time the $7 million in funding requested for state administration of the project by HSRA.
Seek Flexibility on Use of Federal Funds. We propose that the Legislature direct HSRA to renegotiate the terms of the federal funding awarded to the state by the Federal Rail Administration (FRA). ...

Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida also "sought flexibility" as part of the process of rejecting the Federal funding. Combine that with denying the California HSR Authority the funding to allow it to break ground to meet the requirements of the funding, and this report is a frontal assault on the second of the two Express HSR projects funded by the Administration HSR policy.
More at:
Progressive Blue
Docudharma, and
Agent Orange

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sunday Train: States Rights to Living Transport

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Cap'n Transit Rides Again wrote about "Getting People Out of their Cars by Not Subsidizing Roads, which perplexed Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic, which drew a response from Cap'n Transit asking whether we want to be serious, or right.

Boiling them down well beyond the point of oversimplification, Yonah argues that transit advocates must go along to get along, and Cap'n Transit argues that if you aint anti-car, you aint doing it right.

The same debate we get anytime the maximum that is politically possible is less than the minimum our society needs for survival. How do we break on through to the other side, where the minimum we must do lies within the maximum that we can do?
As always ~ well, at least since I started doing it this way ~ more at:
Progressive Blue
and Agent Orange

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Train: West Virginia River Runner Rail and the Steel Interstates

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

The flashy rail projects are the very HSR projects to build bullet trains serving urban areas with millions of people.

But the role of rail in supporting sustainable extends beyond the bullet train system alone. It may not be critical to the financial success of these bullet trains to provide service to people living in urban areas of 50,000 to 200,000 ~ but its critical to these people to have access to some form of sustainable intercity transport.

Indeed, if we are going to be harvesting wind power, solar power, sustainably coppiced biocoal, geothermal, run of river hydro, and other sustainable resources ... we are going to be creating incomes in areas away from the 1m+ cities. We best look after the needs of the people who come to those areas looking for work.

Sunday Train: Conventional Rail and the Steel Interstates ~ Best Friends Forever

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I've written several times about the direct potential of the Steel Interstate project to cut our oil imports by 10% by getting long haul freight trucking off the road. It would at the same time relieve the crushing burden imposed by long haul trucking on our over-worked, under-maintained Interstate, National and State highways, help get renewable energy resources from places that they are to places people need electricity, and of course support long distance Rapid Passenger Rail offering dramatically improved reliability and transit speed, supporting operating surpluses with multiple services per day.

I don't recollect that I have written very much about the benefit that the Steel Interstates offer to passenger rail elsewhere. So that's what I aim to do. Today I will look at one rail transport ideas I have talked about previously ~ Northeast Ohio Regional Rail ~ and what help it would receive from the Steel Interstates. Then sometime in the next week or two, I will look at the Columbus / WV / Atlantic Coast "RidgeRunner", and the benefit it would receive from the Steel Interstates.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sunday Train: HSR, Express and Locals Done Right

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

After the outcry when the Caltrain system between San Francisco and San Jose (and once in a while beyond) faced a scare that it would drop from 86 trains per day down to a peak-commute-only 48 trains per day ...
... Caltrain was able to scrape together a 76 train per day schedule.

Clem at the Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog ran the schedule through his commute service index, which weights 70% the average trip time, 30% the best trip time, 20% the average wait between trains, and 15% the maximum service gap.

So giving the original 86 train schedule a benchmark score of 100, how far did the 76 train schedule drop?

It rose to 104. On Clem's metric, the 76 train per day schedule is an improvement.

? What gives?


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sunday Train: Oil Addiction is a Political Choice, not a Necessity

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

We can tell that an energy policy is not aimed at ending our nation's oil addiction in time when the speech presenting it follows up:
The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more and more expensive to extract from the ground. ...
I set this goal knowing that we’re still going to have to import some oil. It will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time, until we’ve gotten alternative energy strategies fully in force.

Sunday Train at this blog has been lagging badly, in large part because of the extra layout effort to port the posts from the community blogs where they are first posted. So from here on out, only the introductory section will be posted, to be followed by links to the various community blogs where the full post appears.

More at:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sunday Train: American Greatness and High Speed Rail

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Community Blog Discussions at: ProgressiveBlue, HillbillyReport.org, Docudharma, and Agent Orange.

I believe that America can be greater than it ever was before.

That does not mean that its destined to be. Destiny makes us lazy. Destiny is like those post-Tour de France cycling criteriums where the top three places were guaranteed to the three big TdF heroes taking part ~ if you are in shape and need to keep going, maybe Destiny can keep the momentum going ~ but its no way to build up to race fitness.

Indeed, it does not mean that its at all likely. It may well be massively unlikely. But whether an outcome is likely or unlikely is an issue for passive spectators, watching from the sidelines. The issue for participants is whether the game is worth the candle ~ whether the prize substantial enough to make it worthwhile playing to win.

Our modern mess media trains us to the passive observer role, with their habitual "trackside race call" coverage of public affairs. However, if we participate, that trains us in the active player role, and the real life experience is a deeper lesson than the color and noise on the noise box.

What Does It Mean for a Large Nation to be Great?

If it means anything for a nation such as the United States of America to be Great, what does it mean?

For a small nation to earn the label of great ~ a New Zealand, Central African Republic (CAR), Costa Rica, Laos ~ perhaps it can do something in particular brilliantly, and everything else OK enough not to disqualify it. We do not normally call small nations "great", but its not surprising to hear that a small nation is "great at {fill_in_the_blank}." Especially "great at {fill_in_the_blank} for its size."

And maybe there is some of that for medium size and medium-big size nations, except that "for its size" implies a higher standard, the bigger it goes. What would New Zealand great for its size might fall short for Australia or Canada. What would make CAR great for its size might fall short for South Africa or the Democratic Republic of Congo. What would make Costa Rice great for its size might fall short for Venezuela or Brazil.

However, my thesis is that for the four large nations of the world ~ for China, the United States, the European Union and India ~ relative scales do not apply. Greatness for a large nation of the world must be on an absolute scale.

What does it mean to be Great in the 21st Century

We face existential challenges in the 21st century:
  • We face the challenge of resource footprint over-reach ~ a way of life that requires more than one earth to sustainably satisfy.
  • We face the challenge of self-poisoning ~ a way of life that progressively increases the toxicity of our life support system.
  • We face a challenge of climate chaos ~ either an induced development or amplification {+} of the end of the mild global climates and the onset of a much more turbulent Anthropocene
  • We face a challenge of Peak Oil ~ the transition from the prevailing energy base of modern industrial society because we have used it up, rather than because of the stronger appeal of an alternative
  • We still face the challenge of Radioactive War ~ with no actual elimination of the standing 20th century threat of nuclear war, now augmented by the threat of various dirty bombs

And for some reason as a nation we seem to be somehow incapable of doing more than didley-squat about more than one of them at a time.

But for one of the Four Large Nations of the world to be Great, it must be great in leading the way and collaborating on all of the existential challenges we face. The footprint of each is too big. Each must carry its weight across the board, and more than carry its own weight somewhere of vital importance.

We cannot claim the mantle of greatness on the basis of "nailing down loose nukes" ~ while we pursue an energy policy that fails to nail down untapped coal reserves ~ still less if that policy subsidizes and otherwise encourages the burning of coal. Maybe a smaller country, where its relative reliance on coal in its national economy translates to a much smaller absolute share of total carbon emissions ~ but not the Peoples Republic of China, the Republic of India, the European Union, or the United States of America.

Clearly, what is not Great is for a Large nation to sit on its ass, hoping that some other nations will pull its irons out of the fire.

No Single Act Is Sufficient to Face an Existential Challenge

One of the habitual, regular, predictable red herrings that Big Oil and other saboteurs of the United State of America surviving the 21st century intact is to point out that some vital action "is not enough".

Big fat hairy deal. No single action is enough in facing an existential challenge. Any challenge that can be faced down with any single action is not an existential challenge. Existential challenges require multiple mutually supporting, and often interlocking, actions to face up to them.

That reason is, first, keeps getting tosses up is because people fall for it. "Yeah, that's no enough" among those encouraged to be lazy about it translates readily into "not worth doing". But whether its worth doing is based on how irreplaceable it is, and how many support it gives to other vital actions.

And, second, because for those challenges that are clearly existential, saying "its not enough" resonates much better than "give up, all hope is lost, we are ultimately a failure as a nation and its time to try to build some other nation in this part of the world" ~ at least among the broad swathe of population between those dedicated to an action vital to our national survival and those adamantly opposed to one or more of those actions.

But while the point does not have billionaires making it, it can be conveyed to and understood by the vast majority of our civil society. Remember that the point is to communicate the point, and people across our country are familiar enough with at least one complex system to get the point: Sure a transmission is "not enough" for a car to run. An engine is not enough. Working steering is not enough. But can you drive without a transmission? Without an engine? With working steering?

We don't need a smarter electorate, we need a wiser electorate, and the "needed vs enough" idea is worth passing on to as many fellow citizens as you can, in whatever opportunity you can create to pass it on to your fellow citizens.

Why are We Facing So Many Existential Challenges?

Cast your mind back to 1980. There are two Great Nations of the World, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR is surviving a fundamentally broken domestic economy on the back of high prices for its relatively expensive to produce oil ~ and looming over the next five years is the collapse of the real price of oil from its 1979/80 peak to a multi-decade period of cheap oil ~ not ultra-cheap oil, as when the Texas Railroad Commission was stabilizing oil prices via Texas oilfield production quotas, but still cheap.

And when the price of oil dropped, their ramshackle faux-socialist centralised authoritarian economic system collapsed together with the "second world" of the "cold war" world order. Now, if I listed Five Large Nations, I reckon I'd still have to include them (unless, of course, they are merely taking a several decades long pause in the process of falling apart) ~ but I only listed four.

China was still reeling from the twin catastrophes of Mao's deliberate promotion of population growth and the insane effort to convert the agrarian revolution of the rural commune system into an decentralized mass production industrial revolution that no amount of revolutionary fervor could ever suit it for. Deng Xiaoping is just launching the reset that unleashes the potential of the Chinese communes and then uses it to launch an actual industrial revolution ~ and the population policy that violates almost every tenet of Western social liberty, while also preventing what otherwise clearly would have been by now a collapse of central authority and descent into civil war ~ a devil's choice, but after the population policies of Mao, no angel's choice was any longer available.

India has passed through the Emergency Crisis and the stunning electoral defeat of Indira Ghandi's regime and then the subsequent collapse of a new government too experienced at opposition and inexperienced in government to hold the governing coalition together, with more years political turbulence, including Indira Ghandi's, before establishing the neo-mercantilist economic order which it has been pursuing over the past few decades. Not that political turbulence ever actually went away, but the periodic political storms did not wash away the foundations of the neo-mercantilism that had been adopted.

And the European Union? This youngest of all Four Large Nations does not even exist yet, a collection of medium-big, medium and small nation states in a divided continent, like the Greek states in the days of the Second Athenian League, before unification under Phillip II of Macedon, or the several English American colonies before the establishment of the Articles of Confederation.

In 1980, if there is a Large Nation that can act as a Great Nation and tackle potentially existential challenges before they come to a boil, that would be the United States of America. And in 1980, we elected to pursue the civil society equivalent of sitting on our fat ass and watching cartoons. And we kept it up for three decades.

Of course ongoing problems kept getting worse and worse and worse until they reached the point of existential challenges. There are always problems emerging. Either they get regularly pruned down to size, or else they go to seed and get worse and worse and worse.

Things just don't get better automatically on their own. People that imagine that they do are just engaged in the age-old practice of ignoring them that are doing the coping with the problems. And if the only Large Nation who is a candidate to be a truly Great Nation and tackle the big problems before they become existential challenges instead decides to pretend that hammers are bad because we sometimes hit our thumbs with them, or governments are bad because the rules they put in place are sometimes inconvenient ~ well, the kinds of problems that can only be tackled by serious national policy of a large nation exercising leadership on a world stage will, of course, sit, and fester, and get worse, and worse, and worse.

Didn't Is not Can't. Its Only Didn't.

If somebody didn't do something, maybe it means they couldn't. Maybe it means they could, but just didn't.

If a Large Nation does not act as a Great Nation, maybe it means it couldn't. Maybe it means it could, but just didn't.

In this case, the United States of America has the capacity to be a Great Nation. We have the capacity to pull our weight on all the major existential challenges we face and to lead the way on many.

"Will we choose to do so? What are the chances we will choose to do so?" These are passive spectator questions. If we choose to do so, we can. So as active participants, we have to act in ways that supports our nation as a whole choosing to be Great again.

So what's the big deal about High Speed Rail, then?

To get everything done, as many people as possible must do something. High Speed Rail is something.

For our Large Nation, our unchecked population explosion is the massive resource liberalism that we are indulging in creating an explosion in the cost to the earth of each member of our population.

The unsustainable deficit is the deficit between our sustainable resource base and our resource footprint.

And hoping that we can head toward a urgently necessary resource conservatism on the back of an outbreak of lifestyle asceticism seems to be an entirely vain and futile one.

So we need to find ways to do better lifestyle on less resource base per task.

Express High Speed Passenger Rail is no silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 100mile to 500mile corridors where population growth under business as usual will demand massive unsustainable investment in new intercity highway capacity, Express High Speed Rail is less expensive than the status quo. And where the massive hidden subsidies and cross subsidies for operating the status quo threatens to choke our economy, Express High Speed Rail in its strongest potential corridors will generate substantial operating surpluses.

Rapid Passenger Rail is no silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 100mile to 300mile corridors where there is existing unused rail corridor capacity and transport alternatives to private motor vehicles almost completely choked off by the multiple public and publicly mandate subsidies that "private" motor vehicles enjoy, Rapid Passenger Rail can offer an secondary alternative that can stand on its own feet on a small but viable share of the market and, again, generate an operating surplus so that they are not subject to closure with each swing of the political winds ~ and so they are not required to fight local public transport for the operating subsidies that local public transport both requires and merits.

Rapid Freight Rail is not a silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 800mile to 3,000mile corridors where there is sufficient long haul truck freight to expect to recoup original capital cost of these Steel Tollways through access and user fees, they offer us a chance to get half or more of those diesel guzzling, asphalt destroying, motorist terrifying behemoths off the intercity highway network, replacing them with sleep-in-your-own-bed-at-night short haul truck routes at each end connected by long Rapid Electric Freight Rail hauls in between.

So, no, High Speed Rail on its own will not make America Great.

But until we start to do things like High Speed Rail, despite and in the face of the opposition of Big Oil and other saboteurs of an American 21st Century, we will not start to be Great.

What About Greater than it Ever Was

C'mon, "great" relative to 19th century Europe? Relative to 17th century China? Even a slaveholding, indigenous inhabitant massacring nation could hope to think of itself as great against that yardstick.

"Great" in the 20th century relative to the militarist authoritarian Japan or Nazi Germany, or faux-socialist centralized authoritarian USSR? Not really a bigger challenge, is it?

But looking in the rear view mirror, many of these existential challenges are problems of our own making, the elaboration of a grab and plunder and move on economic system that we mutated from land to fossil fuels without fundamentally changing.

Facing up to these challenges, confronting them, and tackling them well enough to survive through to the end of this century ~ yes, that would be truly Great.

Bedlam Bridge ~ Midnight Oil

There are canyons full of movie stars,
churches made of metal
There are mountains made of muscle
We have leaders who are anxious,
we have captains not courageous
Captains tumbling into madness
But there's a man who makes no enemies,
a body never breathless
No ambition ever hopeless

Up on bedlam bridge somebody is waiting
Up on bedlam bridge I'm shot to heaven
Oh, up on bedalm bridge, waiting
Oh, up on bedlam bridge, waiting

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sunday Train: Quiet Progress Edition Two ~ Sustainable Power and Feed-in Tariffs

Discussion and comments at:

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

It's one thing to call for a Nationwide Network of Electric Rapid Freight Rail Tollways, to take freight damage off the Interstate Network, or for its compelling national security and emergency preparedness reasons.

But the argument regarding its sustainability is that it provides modest reductions in carbon emissions on the back of dirty electricity, and massive reductions in carbon emissions on the back of clean, sustainable electricity. So the climate impact gains massive leverage if at the same time we are pursuing sustainable carbon free and carbon neutral power.

And so today's Sunday Train is on a quiet piece of good news on that front ~ good news that allows states that wish to pursue green jobs to do so without the Grossly Oil-addicted Party in the House of Representatives being able to get in the way.


An Abundance of Good Reasons for Electric Rapid Rail Freight Tollways

The reasons other than ecological sustainability and reduction of the amount of damage that will be caused over the next twenty and fifty years by climate chaos are certainly valid reasons in their own right.

Given the ongoing need to maintain our Interstate Network, which will only get more and more expensive in real terms as energy costs rise. With long haul trucking doing so much of the damage, while able to be replace with both less commercially expansive freight with more rapid transit and less strain on transport workers ~ often resorting to use artificial stimulants to meet the demands of trucking firms ~ and reduce the stress on motorists using the Interstate system, the opportunity to shift half or more of our long haul freight to rail is a compelling opportunity.

The fact that the system will allow the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to move material and personnel with much less consumption of petroleum in a national emergency involving disruption of oil supplies ~ say, the current wave of Arabian uprisings crossing the Sahel and hitting Nigeria, one of our main oil suppliers ~ is also a compelling argument. Indeed, as I suggested last week, the Democrats in the Senate should pursue hearings on how well prepared our freight system is to cope with a serious disruption to oil supplies, and call on Department of Defense officials to testify on the usefulness of a national grid of Electric Rapid Rail Tollways in the event of such an emergency.

However, in addition to that is the question of developing a national economy for the US that can survive after the end of the Age of Oil and Coal. We aren't getting ready to slide down the Oil E. Coyote oil production curve, but just like Oil E Coyote, ignorance of the lack of firm footing does not really mean that the footing is actually there. And when we consider the real cost of burning our fixed domestic coal resources, it is not actually cheaper ~ its just that the entrenched privilege to use the atmosphere and landscape as a dump has allowed those vested with property rights in our national coal resource to dump the cost on others and gain a financial profit while the resource is selling below its full economic cost.

The Transition from Fuel Consumption to Energy Harvest

We have, obviously, been developing and refining social institutions oriented to the generation of electricity by permanent destruction of the energy content of fossil fuel sources for centuries now. It is not surprise if the same institutions have details built into the rules that are antagonist to the process of leaving behind the dead hand of this unsustainable history and escaping into a system with more than twenty or forty more years of viability.

As I covered in a previous Sunday Train, but as is covered in far more depth at Wind-Works.org, one institution that can greatly accelerate the escape from our current economic dead-end is the Feed-In tariff. "Tariff" here is the root meaning of "a price schedule", but rather than the common usage of the "price" to import a product across a national border, it refers to the price schedule for the product provided by a utility ~ a water use tariff, a natural gas tariff or, in this case, an electricity consumption tariff.

A critical benefit of the most well developed sustainable electricity sources, such as wind power, is that it is primarily spending on equipment to harvest a renewable power source. That means that the cost of the power is mostly determined up front: unlike coal, oil, or natural gas, there is very little price risk in the economic cost of windpower.

That implies that the windpower must be financed to buy the equipment up front and then refund that financial cost over the period of harvesting the power. Wholesale power is now mostly priced at the margin, the price that must be paid to bring the "last kilowatt" onto the grid. And since there is almost no extra cost to producing power once the wind turbine is in place, the wind power will always be put on line first, and then energy sources with higher costs to produce additional power, until total energy demand is met.

When almost all of your energy cost is the cost of the fuel, as with natural gas peaker units, you only bring the units online when it refunds the cost of the fuel to do so. And if natural gas peaker units are on the margin, they can easily common the small amount extra needed to cover the capital costs of constructing the unit.

But when almost all of your energy cost is the cost of the equipment, you will continue to sell power, even far below the tariffs required to repay the loans to buy the equipment. So wind power can easily "shoot themselves in the foot", making power too cheap to be able to refund their finance.

For windpower plants, it makes sense to make a different bargain: give a guaranteed tariff when energy is delivered to the grid (possibly up to some total amount per wind farm), and in return continue to receive that same tariff even if the marginal cost of power is higher.

And once there is enough wind power on the grid, that is a good deal for consumers as well, because the average cost of the power is pushed down ~ the extra cost during periods that wind power is paid more than the marginal price is more than offset by the savings when wind power is paid less than the marginal price.

So that is the idea of the Feed-in tariff. Give a guaranteed return on power delivered to the grid, in return for not giving a windfall return when the marginal price spikes above that tariff.

Not Being Allowed to Make A Good Deal For Consumers

Except, well, there is this law, which, as recounted by the writing swarm at The Wikipedia Machine was originally enacted as part of an effort to encourage sustainable power:
The first form of feed-in tariff was implemented in the USA in 1978. President Jimmy Carter told Americans that the energy crisis was "a clear and present danger to our nation" and drew out a plan to address it.[14] As reaction to a perceived energy crisis and growing concerns over air pollution, President Jimmy Carter signed the National Energy Act (NEA) and the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). The purpose of these watershed laws was to encourage energy conservation and the development of national energy resources, including renewables such as wind and solar.[15]

PURPA required utilities to purchase electricity generated from independent power producers at rates not to exceed their avoided cost.[16] Avoided costs are designed to reflect the cost that a utility would incur to provide that same electrical generation.

And the concept of avoided cost is where the California effort to establish a Feed-in tariff came unstuck in the middle of last year:
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) asked FERC for a declaration that this program was not pre-empted by federal law, but the three major investor-owned utilities in California asked FERC to declare that the program was pre-empted.

The CPUC argued that it was not setting a price for wholesale power sales, but was only requiring the utilities under its jurisdiction to offer to purchase power from eligible cogenerators at the price set by the CPUC. In an order issued July 15, 2010, FERC rejected the CPUC’s argument that it was only setting an offering price.

FERC held that the program amounted to impermissible wholesale price-setting, which is solely within the jurisdiction of FERC.

The central question is whether "avoided cost" is forward looking ~ in which case, who is to say what costs shall be avoided in the future ~ or backward looking, which is what the three California utilities argued it should be.

Any objective measure of avoided cost must be past-bound, and incompatible with preparing for a dramatically different future. And if a state cannot put a feed-in tariff in place because it is wholesale price setting, and the FERC won't put a feed-in tariff in place without be directed to do so by an act of Congress ... that is a recipe for a lack of progress.

Now, California developed a system which was intended to cope with the limitations of the July 2010 Ruling, but the ideal is a system that provides for long term feed-in tariff price stability. The more stable an average price, the less risk in the up-front costs of wind power, and so the more wind resources will be financially appealing at that price. The greater the instability, the greater the risk premium that will be required to get a project up and going.

Which is why the following news was such good news:
In response to FERC’s July 15 order, the CPUC asked FERC for clarification regarding the flexibility it had to establish “avoided costs” for specific power resources that it wished to encourage. In earlier FERC precedent, it had been unclear whether different "avoided costs" could be established for different resources.

The Good News

In its Oct. 21 order, FERC provided the requested clarification. FERC, emphasizing that states had wide latitude in establishing avoided costs, held that a "multi-tiered avoided cost rate structure" was consistent with PURPA. FERC reasoned that where a state requires a utility to procure a certain percentage of energy from generators with certain characteristics, those types of generators "constitute the sources that are relevant to the determination of the utility’s avoided cost for that procurement requirement."

FERC also clarified that the state may also include in its avoided cost calculation the costs of transmission upgrades that would be avoided by purchasing power from closer resources. Additionally, FERC noted that a state is free to reward favored resources through other mechanisms outside of the avoided cost rate, such as the creation of renewable energy credits.

Continued limitations under PURPA

FERC’s Oct. 21 order was a clear effort to give the states more leeway with respect to feed-in tariffs, and is more state friendly than FERC’s July 15 order. However, that leeway is still limited by necessary compliance with PURPA.

This limitation has three implications.
  • 1. The only resources that could be beneficiaries of such a feed-in tariff would be those that meet FERC’s definition of a QF, which encompasses certain cogeneration, renewable, geothermal, biomass, waste, and geothermal resources.
  • 2. Although the state will have a fair amount of discretion, the rate established for the tariff must have a demonstrable relationship to the costs a utility would avoid for that class of resources.
  • 3. This PURPA-type feed-in tariff may only be used where utilities remain under an obligation to purchase from QFs.

I have emphasized the key element of the ruling. Since a state has power to impose a range of energy portfolio requirements for renewable, geothermal, biomass, waste and cogeneration, it can take the avoided cost of acquiring those energy resources into account when setting a feed-in tariff.

So the Feed-in Tariff is a two step process. First establish the portfolio requirement. Establish a penalty for undercompliance at the difference between the wholesale price of the power and a stable penalty rate. Then establish the Feed-in tariff at that penalty rate.

Note that this means the feed-in tariff has a quantity component: once the portfolio requirement is met, the penalty no longer applies. So under this system, the state that wants to gain the maximum employment impact from the system will ensure that the portfolio requirement is set in excess of the current supply of renewable power and be set to grow at a steady pace toward the ultimate target.

In other words, the Feed-in tariff cannot really, under current Federal Law, be forward looking itself, but it can take into consideration the current cost impacts of other forward looking state legislation.

Now, of course, Ohio won't be doing this

Ohio has passed from small-r republican rule to Imperial Rule, so of course it won't be happening here in the next four years. But in any state that does have a state government that is in a position to put employment in the state ahead of the interests of oil companies and coal companies ~ this offers the opportunity for substantial employment in the establishment of these renewable energy resources. Note in particular that the tariff can incorporate the avoided cost on transmission capacity of using more local sources as opposed to more distant forces, so while a purely protectionist version is not allowed, a "semi-protectionist" version is permitted that puts a premium on local rather than distant energy supplies.

And of course, if four years from now there are five to ten states that have started to leave the ranks of the zombie economies due to the expansion of green jobs in their state ... the ability of my own Governor K-Street ~ "Gov. K(sic)" for short to maintain the pretense that he gives a damn for the job of any Buckeye outside of the millionaire club will be substantially weakened.

Midnight Oil ~ Dreamworld

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Train: Going on the Attack for Amtrak

Discussion and comments at:

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

The Republicans have won one of the established political Power Positions in American Politics, and so they propose to eliminate funding for Amtrak:
The Bush budgets for 2006 and 2007 proposed ending federal support of Amtrak, the only US national passenger rail service.In fiscal 2005, the federal subsidy to Amtrak was $1.2 billion, which is what Bush spends in six days in Iraq.

Now, that was a 2005 fight by Resident George W. Bush, after he won his first Presidential election and his second term in office. So as one of their "new ideas", the new Republican House proposes the same old same old.

What a big surprise. Really, you could knock me over with a feather {Legal Disclaimer: Strictly speaking, a bronze plated ostrich feather when I am already in danger of losing my balance}.

Same old, same old

RSC: Federal Funding for Amtrak & HSR on the Chopping Block
First we had President George Bush and would-be president John McCain calling for the end of federal funding of Amtrak. Republican gubernatorial candidates joined the anti-rail chorus and campaigned on promises to refuse federal funds for passenger rail improvements and expansion if they couldn't be twisted and perverted into subsidies for trucks and automobiles instead. Now it looks as though the GOP-led House is not far behind on the bewildering but growing anti-rail bandwagon that is quickly developing into a fundamental platform position for the Republican party. Although there may not yet be enough Republicans in active office to completely defund Amtrak at this time the trend lines are clear. Presumably there will be some sort of reduction in a "compromise" between the House and the Senate. If the Republicans are able to regain political dominance Amtrak is likely to suffer a critical shortage of funds at their hands. I cannot predict exactly how much funding Amtrak will lose in a compromise bill or when the GOP will regain their former political clout, but I think it's safe to say it's going to happen eventually. The question that's bouncing around in my mind now is how much of Amtrak's current network can possibly survive on its own after all or most of their federal funding is finally lost?
[The Republican Study Committee] wants to eliminate Amtrak operating subsidies ($1.565 billion), which amounted to $32 per passenger in 2009. In 2009, 41 of Amtrak's 44 routes -- which service 500 destinations in 46 states -- lost money, indicating that, without the subsidies, Amtrak would have to significantly reduce or eliminate its service outside the heavily trafficked urban coastal routes. The plans also call for the elimination of Intercity and High Speed Rail Grants to the tune of $2.5 billion a year.

Fighting Back against the Amtrak Cutback

Now, when the Republicans had the Presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the push from the White House to eliminate operating subsidies to Amtrak did not work. The last time they tried, there was tha familiar outcry. Then-Senator Biden argued against the cut:
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about another tough issue for both of you: Amtrak. The president wants...

SEN. BIDEN: It's not tough for me.

MR. RUSSERT: You take Amtrak every day back and forth to work.

SEN. BIDEN: This is absolutely bizarre that we continue to subsidize highways beyond the gasoline tax, airlines, and we don't subsidize, we don't want to subsidize a national rail system that has environmental impact. Do you know what it would take? It would take us $71 billion to be able to go and take--if you took Amtrak out of the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston, to build enough highway on 95 to go up and back. This is the ultimate being penny-wise and a pound-foolish.

Take a 3% discount rate, and a 50 year time horizon (given the oil-addiction of our road-based intercity transport system, a time horizon of 20 years before obsolescence would be generous, so this is being extraordinarily generous). That capitalizes to $1.8b per year. So the capital savings in not having to replace the transport service in the Northeast Corridor alone covers over half of the operating subsidy.

And of course, Amtrak was also defended by a large number of other usual liberal suspects, such as a pair of radicals from Pennsylvania (continuing from above source):
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Santorum, your Republican colleague from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, said the president's elimination of federal subsidies for Amtrak is unacceptable.


MR. RUSSERT: Do you share that view?

SEN. SANTORUM: I would agree with--it's not...

MR. RUSSERT: So you're going to fight it?

SEN. SANTORUM: It's not acceptable to me, either.

The Amtrak Wedge

What was Resident George W Bush really attempting here? Look a little closer at the details of the proposal:
President Bush wants to push Amtrak into bankruptcy, and end its rail services. He proposes to set aside funds for a new train system to someday run only in the country’s northeast corridor.

Bush wants to "privatize" the rest of Amtrak by selling its assets, and let corporations make profits as they see fit.
Of course, what would "push Amtrak into bankruptcy" would be the mandates to provide service on routes that cannot be operated without a subsidy. Lift those mandates, and provide funds for the Northeast Corridor ~ where, as Biden pointed out, the cost of appropriating sufficient funds to replace that transport service with roadworks has a massive sticker shock effect ~ and Amtrak would operate in the NEC corridor that it partly owns, as well as in operating those state-subsidized lines where the state or states would be willing to replace the Federal subsidy.

It is, in other words, not primarily an attack on rail service New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts (etc), Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and California.

It is primarily an attack on rail service in West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona.

Its primarily an attack on rail service in places where people can be convinced that the operating subsidies to Amtrak is a subsidy for some "them".

And the goal is, of course, not primarily in diverting the $2.5b in operating subsidies or $1b~$4b in capital maintenance and upgrades to the service of some more Republican constituency. It is, rather, the fear that Amtrak may be entering a period of sufficient success that it will be able to start expanding upon the skeleton backbone network. The "problem" is, after all, not that Amtrak is losing riders: the problem is that Amtrak is gaining riders even in "Red States":
WASHINGTON - Despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession, Amtrak ridership hit an all-time high in fiscal 2010.

According to the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers, Amtrak carried 28.7 million riders during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 5.7% from fiscal 2009. Ticket revenue set an all-time record too, and all four Amtrak trains serving Georgia shared in the gains.

The Palmetto, running between New York, Washington and Savannah, showed the biggest surge: it carried 10.6% more riders, and ticket revenue was up a whopping 23.1%. The Silver Meteor and the Silver Star, both running between New York, Washington, Savannah and Miami, enjoyed ridership gains of 6.5% and 6.0% respectively, and revenue increases of 8.1% and 10.2%. On the New York-Washington-Atlanta-New Orleans route - which stops in Toccoa, Gainesville and Atlanta - the Crescent recorded a 4.2% ridership gain and a 8.3% revenue gain.

Looking at raw numbers, the Silver Star was the most popular Amtrak train serving Georgia, carrying 393,586 passengers during fiscal 2010. The Silver Meteor was next, with 352,286 passengers, followed by the Crescent with 298,688 riders and the Palmetto with 189,468 passengers. The Palmetto 's revenues covered about 53% of its costs; the Meteor had a 49% revenue-to-cost ratio; the Star had a 42% ratio and the Crescent had 38% ratio.

So one fear is something like the system sketched to the right. While very heavily subsidized services like The Cardinal and The Hoosier could see very substantial increase in ridership with only a small drop in total subsidy, each 1% in revenue growth in services like the Palmetto and Meteor means a 1% or greater drop in subsidy per service mile.

Because of the way that the route performance is now tallied, it is most convenient to report this in terms of net operating ratio, where a negative net operating ratio under (-50%) is in the zone where subsidy drops as fast or faster than revenue:
  • Auto-Train, (-26%);
  • Empire Builder, Palmetto, (-50%),

However, ridership and revenues are growing, and the real risk is that all but two of the remaining trancontinental routes have net operating ratios in the (-50%)~(-60%) range:
  • Capital Ltd, (-53%);
  • Silver Meteor, California Zephyr, (-53%)
  • Texas Eagle, Coast Starlight, (-55%)
  • City of New Orleans, (-56%),
  • Lakeshore Ltd, (-57%);
  • Southwest Chief, (-58%),
  • Crescent, (-59%)
  • Silver Star (-60%)

With a series of oil price shocks likely to hit in the coming ten years ~ which is either, if you believe they are freely functioning competitive commodity markets, what freely functioning competitive commodity markets do when supply constraint, or if you believe the evil commodity traders are blatantly manipulating the market, an irresistible ploy for evil commodity traders in the face of supply constraints. Indeed, since we get a series of oil price shocks from the pure free functioning scenario and from the pure price rigging scenario, and since its somewhere between the two opposite extremes ~ we're getting a series of oil price shocks in the decade ahead.

And when they hit, ridership and revenue will only grow. And, indeed, when they hit it will be too late to spring this attack.

Best to ensure that as many people live in states with no intercity rail transport at all, so that pandering to their prejudices is not threatened by the dangerous facts of personal experience or face to face discussion with somebody with personal experience.

And that is only one fear ... there are also these:

If a kernel of Express HSR and Regional HSR corridors get established, and demonstrate that they can generate positive net operating ratios ~ as the Acela services already do ~ that is a serious threat, and so to would be the establishment of a network of 100mph oil-independent electric freight rail tollways.

Because the danger is the demonstration that the way we do things is not the way we have to do things, which threatens a vast array of yellow bellied surplus suckers with their snouts buried deep in the public trough. The fear is that national passenger rail will stop being a running joke, because when that happens, there are big chunks of the Great Rip-Off Economy that are under threat.

Responding to the Attack

It is very unlikely that the Republican House on its own will be able to eliminate Amtrak operating subsidies. Indeed, it seems unlikely that this is their goal.

The goal of the House Republicans is to force patriots who do not wish to sell out our national security to the profits of the oil industry and road building lobbies into a defensive, hunkered down posture, enabling them to gouge out some or all of the HSR capital grants and some or all of the Amtrak capital grants that are the serious threat.

After all, without capital funding, Amtrak will not even be able to buy enough new passenger cars to carry more than a fraction of the people who will wish to ride when the next oil price shock hits.

We need to push our Senators ~ both Democratic and Republican, wherever possible ~ to do more than to hunker down in a defensive posture. They need to go on the attack. And since objectively this policy of the Republicans is betraying the national security interests of the nation in the service of the profits of the oil industry and the road building lobby ~ they need to go all out, wrap themselves in the flag, and go on the attack:
  • Hearings that grill the Department of Defense on how we move vital war material and maintain logistical support for vital Defense Industries in case of an massive disruption of oil supplies, such as the Shutdown of the Straits of Hormuz or collapse of national government in Nigeria
  • Hearings that grill the Department of Defense on how we mobilize troops in the event of a massive disruption of oil supplies
  • Hearings that grill the Department of Homeland Security on how their evacuation plans for each of the top 100 US metropolitan areas in the event of a massive disruption of oil supplies

In other words, don't restrict ourselves to the standard ~ an perfectly valid ~ litany of external benefits ... environmental benefits, equity of access to transportation, massive subsidies being provided to alternative means of intercity transport. Those are all points well worth hitting, but if that is the sole case, we are preaching to the choir.

We get the right 15 second sound bite from an Army General, we have the material for an ad hitting a Republican Congressman for being soft on national security.

Now, of course, I'm just an economist, so read this more as a general strategy than a specific tactic: getting the right messaging delivered in the right way is not necessarily going to come out of any one of these attacks, but if we push at the enough different edges of the established frame, we can dig up something that shakes people's perceptions. And with gas prices likely heading up again this coming summer, it puts supporters of sustainable transport in a position to gain increasing traction on the back of voter's everyday experience.

Late Update: The Fight to Save Caltrain in the Bay Area

See the California HSR Blog for More information.

Midnight Oil ~ Truganini

Sunday Train: Quiet Progress Edition One ~ Superelevation & Cant Deficiency

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Discussion and comments at:

I've mentioned several times that there are lots of Federal Rail Authority regulations that are impediments to developing sustainable transport in the United States.

One of these is in the area of "superelevation" and "cant deficiency". Superelevation is the term used in railroading for the degree of banking provided in a turn. Just as banking a turn on a road makes it possible to take the turn at a higher speed more safely, banking the track on a railroad line makes it possible to take a turn at higher speed more safely. In US rail, its measured in the inches of the higher rail above level.

And it might seem minor technical details, but this is really critical for how much new passenger transport we can get out of our existing rail alignments for how much money.

The Basic Terms: Superelevation, Cant Excess, Cant Deficiency

When a track is "cambered", that is to say banked in this way, there is a speed at which weight is evenly distributed between the two tracks.

At a lower speed, more of the weight is placed on the lower track. This is called "cant excess", which is how much the bank would have to be reduced for the load to be balanced.

At a higher speed, more of the weight is placed on the higher track, which is "cant deficiency", or how much more the upper track would have to be raised for the weight to be balanced.

Now, suppose that you have a single track that is only being lightly used by freight, and you want to take advantage of that by adding some passing track ~ say 1 mile of passing track on average for each 5 miles of track ~ to increase the capacity of the corridor to maintain the same freight train capacity and add the capacity to support passenger trains.

Now, how fast is the freight going? If this is a mainline corridor running through fairly flat terrain, carrying a large number of fairly time-sensitive freight containers from a sea port to some inland rail yard (to be hauled away by truck to the loading dock that is the final destination of the shipment), it might be rolling along at 60mph.

But suppose that its a bulk load of coal, granite, timber or any of the other high weight, low cost per ton freight tasks that are in the US travel largely by rail. It might be trundling along at 20mph. And if 20mph has a substantial cant excess, that means a lot of that up to 33 US short tons per axle load is being carried by the lower track.

Now, consider an Express intercity passenger train that we want to bring through. Since we want it to be time-competitive with Interstate driving ~ better if feasible ~ we'd like that train to be running as close to 110mph as possible.

20mph, 60mph, 110mph ~ there is no superelevation that will be anywhere close to balanced for all three. And if the heaviest freight is the slowest, if the track is superelevated at the ideal level for Express Intercity passenger trains, the result will be massive increases in wear and tear on the track because of the cant excess for slow speed freight.

Well, if you have to build that common track to avoid too much cant excess for slow speed traffic, then in turn the speed limit on the Express Intercity train through the curve depends upon the allowed amount of cant deficiency.

And if you have a choice, you put the passing track in a segment with more than the normal number of curves, so that you can superelevate that as an Express track and allow the slow, heavy freight trains to run on track with less camber.

What is it that Tilt-Trains Do?

Tilt-trains effectively act to add extra camber to passenger car. This is important in that the speed that the train can safely operate on the track normally includes speeds that will throw the passengers around inside the train.

While it is partly a physical problem ~ it is also a regulatory problem.

That is, an important part of allowed cant deficiency is the matter of what lateral force passengers are permitted to experience by regulation. Since the most common European standard is 50% higher than the US standard ~ or at least, what I thought was the US standard ~ the allowable speed of the same tilt-train through a curve with the exact same curvature is substantially higher than Europe than it is in the United States.

Now, there is more to this than just the allowed lateral force passengers are permitted to experience: there is also the matter of the weight of the train. A train with 33 US short tons per axle (a common mainline maximum in the US) is putting 16.5 US short tons per wheel on the track when operating in perfect balance. A train with 25 US short tons per axle (a common European mainline maximum), is only putting 16.5 US short tons per wheel on the upper track at a cant deficiency when 66% of the weight is carried on the elevated track. And a train with 20 US short tons per axle (a shade over the maximum weight of many European and Japanese Express HSR sets), is only putting 16.5 US short tons per wheel on the upper track at a cant deficiency with 82% of the weight carried on the elevated track.

So while allowed lateral force is an important element of operating speed through curves, the weight of the train is also an important element, as noted by German rail enthusiast Hans-Joachim Zierke, in looking at the [http://zierke.com/shasta_route/ opportunities for an Emerging HSR corridor connecting California and the Pacific Northwest via the Shasta Route] (and note that this is an unfinished project), when presenting the following [http://zierke.com/shasta_route/pages/15regulation.html example of the impact of FRA regulation on operating speed limits in the US]:
The highest curve speeds in the USA are achieved by the Acela Express. For the track between New Haven and Boston, it has a waiver for operation at 7 inches of unbalanced superelevation. This means, that the Acela is allowed to use the same curve speed as non-tilting TGVs (or multiple units) in France.

Adding results to the comparison on page 4 gives the following table therefore:

  curve radius superelevation speed limit 1
Amtrak Cascades, tilting 1000 feet 4 inches 48 mph
TGV, non-tilting 1000 feet 4 inches 53 mph
Acela Express, tilting 1000 feet 4 inches 53 mph
Baureihe 411 EMU 1000 feet 4 inches 63 mph

... In the USA, trains like the type 411 EMU are not allowed to operate. US regulations require a very high carbody strength for political reasons, which adds several tons of weight to a vehicle. If this mass is added to a European tilting EMU or DMU, it is no longer safe to operate at 11.8 inches of unbalanced superelevation, because the maximum safe axleload is exceeded.

The Acela Express is built to these strength standards. It is nearly double as heavy as European or Japanese tilting trains. Instead of restricting the axleload to 16 tons or less, the powercars weigh 25 tons per axle. No safety authority would allow values like those for the German 411 or 610 for this train, because the forces at the wheel-rail contact point would be too high for safe operation.

As a result, the "Acela Express" looses about half an hour between New York and Boston, compared to best practice in tilting train usage. (It also looses at least half an hour, compared to the calculations of US railroad engineers in the 1960s.) If this half hour of running time from New York to Boston needs to be cutted away by infrastructure investment instead, a three-digit number of millions in additional public investment will be needed at least. A similar situation will be found with almost all upgrade projects for curvy track.

In the US, the standard allowed cant deficiency of passenger rail has been set by, first, the safe operating limits of the train itself and, second, by the amount of lateral force placed on the passenger inside the train. In practice, the second is the main constraint, and this results in a much lower allowed amount of cant deficiency in the US than in Europe.

That is, even if tilt trains were acquired that were safe to operate at extremely high cant deficiencies, and which were allowed in Europe to operate at those high cant deficiencies, the existing regulations in the US would have substantially reduced the speed limit going through a curve.

The Importance of Speed Limits Through Curves

To get an idea of the importance of speed limits through curves, consider the diagram to the right. This is the modeling results (pdf) of the operating speed along the 110mph of the planned Ohio Hub 3C corridor.

When the line drops all the way down to 0mph, that is, of course, a stop at a station. However, you can see all the notches where the train slows down to take a curve at a slower speed.

Consider one of the notches where speed has to be dropped down to 40mph. In the speed profile, notice that most of the time is spent dropping down from 110mph to 40mph and accelerating from 40mph to 110mph.

That is, of course, a route profile, not a trip time profile. When we think about the average speed of the service, the slowest sections of a route loom the largest.

Consider, for example, a train that runs 50 miles at 40mph and 50 miles at 110mph. A simple average of the two speeds is 75mph. But the slow section requires 1.25 hrs while the fast section requires 0.46hrs, which is a total of 100mile in 1.71 hrs, or about 59mph. More of the time is spent at 40mph, so it looms larger in the average speed.

And consider the difference between accelerating the slower leg by 10mph and accelerating the fastest leg by 10mph:
  • 50 miles at 40mph and 50 miles at 120mph is 100 miles in 1.67 hrs, or ~60mph
  • 50 miles at 50mph and 50 miles at 110mph is 100 miles in 1.46hrs, or ~68mph

Given the importance of the amount of slow down required through curves, the table that Hans-Joachim Zierke shows represents the US tying one hand behind its back in the race with Europe and Japan to achieve sustainable transport.

However, the Regulations May Be Fixed

OK, now. Put yourself in my shoes. I am googling around for information on cant deficiency and Federal Rail Authority regulations in mid-November, when I stumble across the following notice in the Federal Register:
Vehicle/Track Interaction Safety Standards; High-Speed and High Cant Deficiency Operations
FRA is proposing to amend the Track Safety Standards and Passenger Equipment Safety Standards applicable to high-speed and high cant deficiency train operations in order to promote the safe interaction of rail vehicles with the track over which they operate. The proposal would revise existing limits for vehicle response to track perturbations and add new limits as well. The proposal accounts for a range of vehicle types that are currently used and may likely be used on future high-speed or high cant deficiency rail operations, or both. The proposal is based on the results of simulation studies designed to identify track geometry irregularities associated with unsafe wheel/rail forces and accelerations, thorough reviews of vehicle qualification and revenue service test data, and consideration of international practices.

I was even more excited when I looked at the details of the proposal, and found that both the allowed amount of superelevation and the allowed amount of cant deficiency were proposed to be increased.

While they were looking at the regulation, they noticed a flaw in the existing regulation, and restating the regulation in terms of a design target and an allowed tolerance raises the effective maximum superelevation of track to 7in.

There is a standing balance requirement on rolling stock, since it would be unsafe to operate a train that would be in danger of tipping over if it was necessary to come to an emergency stop, so its quite possible that not all rolling stock would be permitted to use a corridor that was superelevated for Express service ... but to me, you do not want every coal and granite train to qualify to enter an express bypass anyway.

For a curve with a 1000ft curve radius (which is a 5.75 degrees of curvature), under the old rules, outside of the North East Corridor, the best that could be reasonably expected would be 9" of combined camber, from 4" of superelevation of the track and an allowed 5" of cant deficiency, even with a tilt train. That means that the passenger service ~ even if its a tilt train ~ would be limited to 47mph through that curve. A freight train, which is limited to 3" of cant deficiency, and indeed all other trains limited to 3" cant deficiency, would be limited to 41mph (those are the ~40mph curves in the above speed profile).

Why is the Northeast Corridor singled out there? Because it was granted a waiver, that allowed both the Acela tilt train and the NEC Amtrak Regional trains to operate at a higher cant deficiency than generally allowed for.

Under the new rules, which would be nationwide, if an express section of track can be superelevated to 7", and a tilt train can operate with 8" of cant deficiency, that is 15" of combined camber, which would allow a express freight train to run at 49mph around the same curve, and a passenger tilt train to run at 61mph.

Indeed, one thing that this new regulation implies is that existing Amtrak services operating in mountainous terrain along "river routes" with the large number of curves that this implies can receive a substantial speed upgrade even before raising the top speed limit above 79mph. Also, Amtrak services that will be running on any segment of track upgraded for use by an Emerging HSR 110mph service will be in a position to take advantage of the higher speed track as soon as it is ready for service.

What Else Needs to be Done

Since what I have been reading is the rule proposal, but the final rule date is given as December 2010, I am not quite sure what has come of this, and due to broken links at the Federal Register, its a bit difficult to work out. That is something I am following up by email to the listed contact.

However, if anything like the proposed rule actually takes affect, this implies a substantial upgrade in the possibilities for using our existing rail corridors. Since this is being done by regulation rather than by waiver, it can be put to use across the board, rather in the piecemeal way implied by waivers of regulations. And since it is being done by regulation, it provides a standing target for the manufacturing of a new generation of more effective and efficient passenger train.

Of course, this is not everything. As Hans-Joachim Zierke notes, the "build it like a tank" approach to crash survival results in heavier trains, while the European and Japanese approach of "design the system to avoid crashes" results in lighter trains, and lighter trains are better able to take advantage of these new cant deficiency regulations than heavier trains.

But this is a good step. And its a first step that may well have been the result of a Republican Take-Over ... that is, in 2009 in the Department of Transportation, when [http://fastlane.dot.gov/ Roy LaHood] was made Secretary of Transportation and the eight year assault on rail transport by the Bush administration came to an end.

Midnight Oil ~ Kosciusko

Older than kosciusko
Darwin down to alice springs
Dealers in the clearinghouse
The settlements explode

High up in the homelands
Miners drive across the land
Encounter no resistance
When the people block the road

Old than kosciusko
Dry white seasons years ago
Darkness over charleville
The fires begin to glow

No end to the hostility
Now they wanna be somehwere else
No stranger to brutality
Now they'd like to be someone else