Monday, April 13, 2009

Obama Administration commits to high speed rail

President Obama has suddenly and unexpectedly ear marked $8 Billion toward a high speed rail system in the U.S.

Though it may be a mere drop in the proverbial bucket, if it begins the commitment to high speed rail that the eastern U.S. so desperately needs I want to trumpet this to the heavens. This is the first time and American president has commited to what is arguably one of the most important investments America can make.

Unfortunately, if Administration is serious about this commitment, the price tag will be somewhere in the $500 Billion to $1 Trillion range. But if you are going to enact "make work" projects, this is one of the best places to do so.

Notice in the article that libertatian think tank The Cata Institute is against it? I guess even superior political scientists can be in the dark on the U.S.'s energy future.

Mentatt @ yahoo (d0t) com


bureaucrat said...

I would remind the readers that high-speed electric rail is going to consume (electrical) energy as well. Electricity is not an energy SOURCE. It is an energy CARRIER. The electricity has to be made somewhere else, typically from fossil fuels. Hopefully someone will look into just how much more coal, nat. gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power (96% of electricity generators) will be needed to make all this electricity (all that supply is not airtight). It may not be a problem -- who knows. And don't forget all the battery-powered cars that will also need electricity as well.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bureaucrat!

Good point! It is the distribution system that supplies energy for transportation that is in trouble. Filling tanks with petroleum based fuels has been the method of choice for the last 100 years. There is a mature infrastructure that supports this. A real question is what is best to do in the medium and then longer term as imported petroleum becomes unavailable? Do we convert coal and natural gas to liquids and use the infrastructure we've got, or develop a whole new infrastructure to supply electricity for rail and electric vehicles. Either way, it still relies on coal and natural gas. It is a economic choice. A bunch of nuclear power will end up added to the mix, I'd expect. People are not going to give up their cars easily, and will pay a lot for the freedom and autonomy that private automotive transportation provides.

A still bigger problem exists with solar and wind power. Solar goes off at night. Period. Availability of wind presents a statistical problem that is not well understood yet. The design of a distribution system to move electricity from Kansas to Alabama or vice versa, depending on where the wind is blowing is not known. How to best store solar power for cloudy days and night is not understood well yet either. Like it or not, renewable power will not predominate for 25 to 50 years no matter how desirable it may be. It will continue to grow in share, though, and more quickly as the cost of oil rises. Lots of problems, few clear choices.


Coal Guy

Greg T. Jeffers said...


Train travel and shipping is several orders of magnitude more efficient than over the road alternatives.

I am a believer in the Mad Scientist's position that we will not have an electricity crisis - we WILL have a liquid fuels crisis.

Wind, in combination with much higher electric rates that will force conservation, will be able to deliver enough juice to supply that high speed rail.

And if I am wrong? What do we have to lose?

Donal Lang said...

Greg, you're spot on. A train operates at the equivelent of about 3mpg at speeds of around 80mph - incredibly efficient compared to a car or even a bus. Also the infrastructure, once built, is far cheaper to maintain than roads.
Here in Europe the trains compete head-to-head with airlines; by the time you've travelled to the airport, parked, gone through security and waited for your plane, taken the flight and got through the other end and travelled to the city centre again, it's often quicker to catch the train city to city, and a lot less stressful. Price is about the same now on many routes, you get more comfort and services.
Nothing but oil can get a plane into the air, but at least a train can still run on wind-driven and nuclear electricity (France is 80% nuclear). As Peak Oil makes itself felt, that has to be reassuring.

bureaucrat said...

On the other side (pessimist that I am) :) ....

I have no doubt electric trains are a better way to consume energy while shipping people and goods. However ...

1) Any studies of just how energy-efficient these trains are would be based on today's rates for electricity, not potentially increased future rates.

2) I've read all of Kunstler's blogs on his favoring high-speed rail. Yet to compare high-speed rail here to rail in Europe and Japan, where a lot less land has to be covered, is disingenuous. There are no electric trains that cross expanses like Africa or South America as models. There is the Trans Siberian Railroad, but that had to be a bear to build.

3) Where is this needed additional electricity going to come from? Coal (may peak in 2020-2025, depending), natural gas (we're swimming in it today, but tomorrow ...), nuclear (all our reactors are 40 years old and there's little money to replace them) and hydroelectric (dams! -- all the good sites are taken)? That's 96% of electrical power in the U.S. Solar & wind? Please. I ride the electric trains in Chicago. They have lots of power at 600 volts, but they are heavy as hell.

Electric trains are going to be in our future, but they are just as problematic as peak oil.

Donal Lang said...

1. The energy efficiency of trains is the same whatever the price of the fuel.

2. Long distance electric isn't a particular problem now; there are tens of thousands of miles of electric rail in Europe. It's especially attractive if it is fed by local sources of electric, such as wind in windy places, etc. It then becomes it's own distribution grid.

3. Peak Oil doesn't mean there'll be much less energy around, just that it'll be MUCH more expensive.The point of trains efficiency is getting people out of planes and cars, and goods off the roads, thus saving huge amounts of fuels.

The real question is; do you want to invest in long-term infrastructure while oil is still cheap? Or do you want to wait until you can't afford to run cars and trucks, and head back into the 19th century?

sharon said...

thanks for sharing.......

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