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Earth Power The Almighty Buck Transportation

Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains 345

New Scientist has an interesting piece up about the calculable energy costs per mile for various forms of transportation. Despite the headline ("Train can be worse for climate than plane"), the study it describes deals with highway-based vehicles, too: the authors attempted to integrate not just the cost at the tailpipe (or equivalent) for each mode of transport, but also the costs of developing and supporting the associated infrastructure, such as rails, highways and airports. Such comparisons are tricky, though; a few years back, a widely circulated report claimed that the Toyota Prius had a higher per-mile lifetime cost than the Hummer (see that earlier Slashdot post for good reason to be skeptical of the methodology and conclusions). I wonder how the present comparison would be affected by a calculation of (for instance) how much it would cost to move by plane the freight currently carried by trains.
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Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains

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  • Blimps maybe? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:09PM (#28246635)

    I can see the logic that large airships which are held aloft passively by lighter than air gases, requiring fuel only for movement being economical, but it might be different with standard planes which require fuel to generate lift.

    Yes, rail travel requires resources of iron and such to lay down infrastructure, but that infrastructure is used and maintained for many years and pays off over the long haul. Once down, a diesel locomotive can move immense amounts of cargo for a lot less per mile than other modes of transportation, so it should balance out.

    There is the cost of regulations too. An aircraft has a large amount of money put in due to upkeep, far more than a diesel locomotive requires. This isn't to say that a locomotive is completely maintenance free, but it can go a lot more miles than a plane can before requiring service.

    Finally, there is the amount of cargo a plane carries versus a train. For example, a $150,000 plane usually can carry less than a $15,000 pickup truck.

  • by Dasher42 ( 514179 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:17PM (#28246679)

    The very fact that airliners leave their exhaust directly at or near the stratosphere should tell you something. After that, their contrails seed clouds which have an impact on the weather which I can't generalize on here. This reminds me of a study on embodied energy in cities; people were questioning the impact of making all those buildings, but it comes out that the high level of re-use by a densely packed population makes cities a much greener choice for the bulk of the human race.

  • Bull. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by thaddeusthudpucker ( 1082657 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:24PM (#28246737)
    So what TFA says is that electric trains are only green if the power is generated by non-fossil fuels. Take for example the Portland MAX, whose power is generated by wind farms. (at least they pay for their power to be generated by a wind farm.) This makes the MAX WAAAY green.
  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Alex Belits ( 437 ) * on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:25PM (#28246743) Homepage


    Prices of resources are set by people based on idea of those resources' availability, and impact of their usage on the rest of society. It's obvious that with CURRENT availability of resources in US and CURRENT level of environmental protection, the all-around best mode of transportation is Ford Expedition carrying one driver. The problem is, if you try to scale this to the whole society, you will choke everyone or run out of oil long before you will run out of hard drives in Federal Reserve to keep the records of the issued credit.

  • by mattwarden ( 699984 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:31PM (#28246779)

    I don't understand your point. Are you suggesting that commercial plane production benefits from economies of scale? To some degree, sure, but I don't think you can really call it mass production in the same way that we talk about it with other transportation methods.

  • Other benefits (Score:2, Interesting)

    by TastyCakes ( 917232 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:32PM (#28246789)
    To me, it seems transportation by trains has benefits that extend well beyond how much energy they use. For example, being able to use electricity generated in any way, rather than being dependent on av-gas, provides a stability and flexibility that planes just can't. While coal may be an ugly way to make power, for America, its supply is certainly more dependable than oil looking forward. Also, being able to reach into the centre of big cities provides a big convenience factor, in my opinion. And trains would seem to be safer (at least in properly made and maintained, grade separated systems).
  • by MtViewGuy ( 197597 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:34PM (#28246797)

    If you're talking current infrastructure, freight trains are still WAY more environmentally friendly than trucks.

    Remember, you only need four modern 4,000 bhp diesel-electric locomotives to pull 180 loaded 53" trailers, not 180 trucks spewing WAY more exhaust emissions (assuming each truck has about 400 bhp pulling power).

    The problem with airplanes is that because so much of the structure is needed for aerodynamic lift, the result is a much lower freight load per pound of structure compared to a freight train. That's why interest in super large lighter-than-air vehicles have never completely waned, since they could carry a lot of load per pound of structure.

  • No, it's not.

    The market will tell you what is the correct cost of USING a plane or a train RIGHT NOW. It doesn't reflect any sunk costs whatsoever, nor will it reflect future costs or non-immediate costs not mandated by law.

    By way of analogy: the market tells the farmer what crops people will buy. It does not tell him what crops will keep his farmland sustainable unto his children's time.

  • Easy to tell too (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:45PM (#28246855)

    By the fact that they are still used all the time. Freight trains are slow for moving things since there's lots of load/unload time, and you don't get to chose the routing as precisely as by truck. It is the kind of thing that survives only because it is so cheap. It is likely to get even better too, what with hybrid locomotives. All locomotives are electric drive these days. There is just no way to make the kind of transmission you'd need to provide the torque needed to move that thing. Thus you use electric motors, which have 100% torque from the word go. The engine drives a generator which powers the motors.

    Ok well not at all hard to add in some batteries to that and a regenerative breaking system. Unlike an automobile where the motors are additional, you just add this in to the existing power system. What's more, locomotives already have to have weight added to them, so unlike a car where the additional weight is undesirable, you just swap out the dead weights for batteries.

    GE has a line of hybrid locomotives out and they seem to do real well.

    So I'm betting we will continue to see trucks loaded on to trains, shipped to where they need to go, then unloaded for the final journey. It is inconvenient, but when hauling freight it just doesn't get any more economical on land and low shipping cost is the name of the game when large amounts are in question.

    Same deal as the massive super freighter ships. You look at their engines and they are massive, some of them take a whole barrel of fuel oil per firing of a piston. However, when you run the math on the amount they carry, you discover they are efficient beyond anything else.

  • by evilsofa ( 947078 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:45PM (#28246861)
    Does it make sense to, for example, haul coal on planes? I don't believe you can replace trains with planes, or planes with trains.
  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:48PM (#28246867) Homepage Journal

    Correct. The study is obviously flawed, economically speaking. In a real life study done years ago, trains moved freight for about 7 cents per ton/mile, and trucks moved the same freight for about 28 cents per ton/mile. As I recall, that included investment in tractor/locomotive and trailer/railcars, but did NOT include the highway/rail infrastructure.

    Obviously, MOST people and corporations moving freight find that rail and truck are both more economical than air - witness the fact that millions of tons of freight roll down the tracks and the highways each and every night, whereas air freight is reserved for small, high priority shipments. (In fact, shipping by truck is often faster than shipping by air, but I won't go into that here)

    If we were to build fleets of aircraft like the Hercules to move our groceries around the continent that demanded high quality aviation fuel (JP-5 or whatever it is they use) the cost of ALL fuels would increase because the refineries would simply shift their methods to yield more JP-5 and less diesel fuel and gasoline.

    And, in the end, those planes would still be emitting pollutants, probably worse than what we are doing right now. Not to mention, the trucks would still be around to get the groceries from the airport to the market.

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by RoFLKOPTr ( 1294290 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:50PM (#28246883)

    For example, a $150,000 plane usually can carry less than a $15,000 pickup truck.

    That's because any plane you find for $150,000 isn't designed to carry more than a couple people and their luggage. A cargo plane costs a few million dollars, but it can carry a few $15,000 pickups and their cargo. But anyway, this article isn't about money, it's about emissions. I can assure you that a plane will use far less fuel to carry a full load 2000 miles than a pickup would.

    And as for people comparing planes to cargo trains... that's also not what the article is about. Of course a cargo train can carry more a longer distance for lower cost..... and that's why they're used far more often for everything from chemicals to materials to packages than planes. They're talking about passengers. For passengers, it's more environmentally-friendly to ride a plane than a train for distances more than a few hundred miles.

  • Make no mistakes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pig Hogger ( 10379 ) <> on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:43AM (#28247167) Journal

    Make no mistakes. Rail as an industrial transportation sector predated all (save marine) by almost a century. Initially at the hands of powerful "robber barons" (the Bill Gates of the day), rail has had the time to generate pretty powerful ennemies and longlasting resentment (witness in the canadian west, where "goddammed CPR []" is still used as a curse, and likewise in the southwestern US where the Southern Pacific has not mucha in matters of a saint's aura). At the hands of those robber barons, rail has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on overland transportation for about a century before road and air transport managed to get off the ground, generating fortunes and attracting talent that has previously made rail the high-technology sector of it's time.

    With talent gone, rail first sank into routine operation and management, and as it slowly started it's long descent into hell (the 1970's), it degraded into crisis management and deferred-maintenance and emergency patch cycles that were no match for the lobbying efforts of the road and air upstarts who had developped an ever increasing arrogance.

    Case in point: when the Alaska pipeline was first proposed, Boeing seriously submitted a proposal to fly the oil in special 747-tankers, which could have brought a totally new meaning to the words "black tide"...

    Still riding high on it's nouveau-riche influence, the road and air sectors do not see the brink of the collapse they are about to succumb to. First the air with the unprecedented paranoïa that followed 9/11 that brought about billions in governmental support to troubled airlines, and now the bankrupcy of General Motors that will suck even more public money in an industry that was too arrogant to see it's own pitfalls.

    In the meanwhile, rail still trundles around, carrying stuff (and some people, too) around without much of a fanfare (save for whistling at crossings).

    Elsewhere in the world, rail systems were either developped by the States outright, or with heavy State involvement. That heavy State involvement meant that elsewhere, people were spared the costly shenanigans of private railroads (such as duplicate lines by competing railroads, or outright purchase of competing more-efficient routes []), so "other" railroads were far more efficient at providing public service than their U.S. brethen, and did not generate the resentment the robber barons of the gilded age did in the U.S.

    And those "other" railroads have managed to pull pretty impressive feats, such as the world's fastest scheduled passenger service [], something U.S. railroads would be hard-pressed to manage in the hostile environment they have to deal with. It seems that the only way the U.S. can press forward with improved rail service would be following the utter collapse of other modes of transport...

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mwahaha ( 824185 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:54AM (#28247205)
    The letter refers to moving people not freight (I think, I can't find it in the journal). The commuter trains weight is dominated by the rolling stock which has to be accelerated after each stop making it far less efficient than for freight.

    I've done some quick calculations in the past and come to the same conclusions more or less. The CO2 emitted per person per mile by planes, fairly full light rail and efficient cars is remarkably similar. I guess this isn't too surprising since the total cost per mile (for people) is also similar. Carpooling makes driving fairly environmentally friendly compared to rail. By far the most green form of transport is a full bus, but that doesn't happen often, especially where I live in LA.

    The bigger problem with planes is that this is all per mile and you can travel 8000 miles in a day - equivalent to most peoples years commute.
  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by westlake ( 615356 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:21AM (#28247329)

    Yes, rail travel requires resources of iron and such to lay down infrastructure, but that infrastructure is used and maintained for many years and pays off over the long haul.

    You have to build the road anyway.

    Rail is very good at moving bulk freight. The mile long unit train that shuttles back and forth from the coal mine to the power plant.

    Breaking bulk - dropping off a boxcar for the occasional pickup at every local factory, every rural hamlet, reaching deep into the inner city - that's hard.

  • by harlows_monkeys ( 106428 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:32AM (#28247385) Homepage

    The article points out the full buses (such as during rush hour) are more efficient than mostly empty buses during off-peak hours. Unfortunately, that kind of analysis tends to be misused, leading people into looking at individual bus routes and trips on those routes when allocating resources, rather than thinking about the system as a whole.

    What they overlook is that a bus saves nothing over my car if I'm taking my car, not the bus. To entice my out of my car regularly, I must be able to rely on the bus. If I take the bus, say, to go out to dinner, and then decide on a whim to catch a movie afterward, I need to be able to know, without having to stop and study a bunch of schedules, that I will be able to get a bus home shortly after the movie lets out. I need to be able to know that I can go to this corner near the theater, and within 15 minutes catch a bus home, without worrying that someone decided when I wasn't paying attention that the routes after 11pm were not cost effective and cut them.

    Only by committing to a regular schedule that does not cut trips--even if a particular run of a particular route gets poor ridership for months or years--can a bus system become a real alternative to cars.

  • by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:42AM (#28247427) Homepage

    Ironically, the smog/clouds formed by these airliners masks the sun's output sufficiently to slightly offset global warming (a phenomenon known as global dimming).

    Granted, aircraft produce plenty of greenhouse gases that do contribute to long-term climate change. The solution to global warming isn't to fly more planes.

    We've actually got a reasonably good set of data to support this hypothesis from the flight ban during the days following 9/11. No planes were in the sky, and it was unusually warm and sunny across the country.

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:49AM (#28247447) Journal

    Earlier this year I flew from Paris to Bangkok and was reading the information sheet of the Boeing 777-200 on which I was flying. The 777-200 is one of the most fuel-efficient long-haul aircrafts there is. So the consumption is 0.022l of Kerosene per (km*passenger) (liters per kilometer per passenger). That's better than many cars, if you drive alone, which most people, sadly, do. So if you look at it from this angle, the 777-200 is more fuel-efficient.

    But here comes the kick: from Paris to Bangkok is nearly 10.000Km. So to ship my white ass between the two points, I was responsible for consuming some 200l of Kerosene! I felt rather bad when we landed, as I imagined 200 liters of kerosene burned up in the atmosphere, just for my enjoyment (I was consoled rather quickly, though, as Thai women are the most beautiful in the world. If there was any justice, we'd have all the Miss World winners from Thailand.).

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by polar red ( 215081 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:03AM (#28247495)

    If rail is so efficient for passengers (it presumably *is* for bulk freight) why ain't it cheap?

    because kerosene is not taxed

  • Re:City planning (Score:5, Interesting)

    by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:04AM (#28247501) Homepage

    The sad truth is that most American cities are ill-suited to public transportation at the fundamental design level.

    Maybe we need to rethink the way we plan cities. Suburban-oriented development needs to stop NOW. We don't have the space or the resources to support it. There's no reason why we can't change our zoning laws to encourage new development to be constructed in a more practical fashion.

    Many recently constructed suburbs (ie. anything around DC) don't even offer the typical advantages that the suburban lifestyle promised. Houses are crammed onto tiny lots in a traffic-congested area that provides no businesses or services within walking distance. It is literally the worst-case scenario.

    The "insufficient" population density argument is bullshit. New Jersey has a higher population density than all of the European states and Japan, and yet most of the state has zero access to a public transportation system that will deliver them somewhere other than New York or Philadelphia. I lived in a rural Scottish town for a short while that had public transportation options that were lightyears better than anything I can get living in NJ, just across the river from NYC.

    France has one of the best high-speed rail networks in the world (and has had it since the 70s). Most of France is extremely rural, and yet the TGV system provides access to a huge portion of the country. The eastern seaboard of the US has 4 major cities arranged in a straight line, and we somehow can't figure out how to provide reasonable rail transportation between them. The Acela is barely faster than driving, and costs 10x as much.

    I lived in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for a while, and attempted to do my commute via public transportation at first. Geographically, the area is composed of a narrow peninsula (~10-15 miles wide) connecting Richmond to Virginia Beach. The 60mi stretch from Williamsburg to VB is very densely populated. The situation practically cries for a commuter rail line down the peninsula, with a few well-placed bus routes around the urban centers. Instead, we have numerous 4-lane traffic-clogged highways, and the world's most disjointed bus network. My fairly straightforward commute to work (25 minutes by car, basically on one road) took over 2 hours by bus.

    It's often said that only poor people ride the bus. In the case of Hampton Roads, I was tempted to believe that the people on the bus were poor because they never got to work on time.

    The naysayers are wrong. The US isn't terribly special. We CAN fix this. Yes, we've made a few bad urban planning decisions over the past 40 years, although much of the rest of the world made those same mistakes.

    The costs are justified. The economy can't survive another prolonged $5/gal gas spike. Fixing the means by which transportation works in America is far more important than any war we're fighting (and coincidentally, would have prevented the one we're currently embroiled in)

  • Re:City planning (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:53AM (#28247747)
    It would really make more sense to start an electric bus and cab fleet than to roll out high speed rail, at least in the immediate term. Long term, the nation needs a plan - something on the level of the highway system, something that will work and can actually be implemented - that can satisfy mass transit and rapid transit needs while keeping them affordable. Air transport is already very expensive and relatively inaccessible, and the price only goes up with oil. The same, I learned a few years ago, goes for Amtrak.

    Here's a stupid idea:

    Say you have a bus. Some kind of crazy miracle WTF electric bus that can roll onto an electrified track like a rail truck, connect to the third rail, travel one way at a high speed on this line (while recharging, maybe) but then decouple in an instant with the rail and go over the road. The bus fleet can already serve a city as it is, over the road, but then say you start putting high speed lines between places where you'd usually have, say, a monorail. (Got one of these in Indy for the hospitals.) Sure, it's a glorified street car, but it's not confined to the line, no wrecking balls on day one for this one. But you COULD put the tracks in over time. You COULD upgrade the service. You MIGHT be able to diversify it for truck freight. We already stick extra lanes on highways all the time, so why not use one of those lanes as ballast for a dedicated super-light track?

    It'd sure cut down on the truck related accidents here if the things were hard to derail, and at the ends of the track or at given decoupling points it could just drive onto the road. Oh, look, the track lane is ending, let's just merge onto the highway.
  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Gordonjcp ( 186804 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @04:15AM (#28248245) Homepage

    Yeah, except that rail isn't cheap for passengers. Here in the UK, you can fly to the South of France for the price of a rail ticket to Scotland. (I.e. On rail, it costs about GBP100 = US$160 to go 350 miles.)

    Recently there was a show at the Dundee Rep [] that had a pre-show involving the main characters appearing at the entrance in pink stretched limo. At the end of the run, the crew were pricing up train tickets to go from Dundee to Aberdeen - about 70 miles by road - for the next run. It was going to cost about £50 per person for eight of them.

    "Hang on a minute", said one of the crew, "How much are we paying for the limo?" So for 200 quid they travelled to the next show in the limo.

    When it costs half as much to hire a limo than go by train...

  • Re:The best analysis (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BlueStrat ( 756137 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @04:42AM (#28248401)

    By way of analogy: the market tells the farmer what crops people will buy. It does not tell him what crops will keep his farmland sustainable unto his children's time.

    Problem here is that when the crops are determined *for* the farmer by a politician or bureaucrat to keep the land "sustainable" (both the crops chosen and the definition of sustainable made by someone other than the farmer that lives many hundreds of miles away and doesn't particularly care about the farmers' individual well being) it often means the farmer can't make enough from his crops to pay the mortgage/taxes/other costs of that farm.

    So his children may never have a chance to use the land, but probably a corporate mega-farm paying sufficient protection money...oops, "campaign contributions and lobbyist-paid excursions" may.

    If the farmer decides, he has a vested interest in keeping the land producing by reinvesting in maintaining it and keeping it sustainable for his children & grandchildren.


  • by rew ( 6140 ) <> on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:47AM (#28249023) Homepage

    The problem is that these comparisons are difficult to do. The only way to accurately allow estimations of such climate-efficiency is to impose climate-taxes.

    Make every company pay for their emissions into the environment. So the costs of producing electricity will go up because the electricity company has to pay for their CO2 emissions. Similarly the steel mill producing the steel for the hummer will charge higher prices because of the CO2 they produce, and to compensate for the higher electricity bill.

    Eventually throughout industry a new price-level will stabilize and in the train tickets and airline tickets their relative climate-efficiency will show through. People will feel the climate-inefficiency of the hummer (or the prius if you believe that report) in the amount they have to pay.

    Oh, because taxing all citizens for the CO2 that their cars produce is not feasable, you add a tax on the fuels: The amount of CO2 per gallon of fuel is easy to calculate.

    And... because this will shift prices significantly, it is not feasible to start these taxes all at once. So besides that the eventual rates should be known in advance, so that companies can change their investment patterns to for example build more CO2 efficient plants in the years that ramp up the cost of emitting CO2 into the environment.

    There are some difficult problems: What is the CO2 equivalent price of radioactive wastes? This depends a lot on for example the cost of "suppose 100 years from now the storage facility generates a leak causing 100 square miles of our country to become inhabitable". The chances of that happening are small, difficult to estimate, but the resulting cost to the environment so enormous that they do make a contribution to the "global-environmental-cost" of using nuclear energy.

    Another problem is that this doesn't make sense to do in just one country. This has to be done globally otherwise it is tremendously unfair for companies that are in a country that taxes its companies compared with those that are in a country that doesn't tax its companies. (You might be able to add those taxes at the border. So competition inside a country becomes fair. And the "other country" will see that the taxes that they could've charged end up being charged at the border, and flow into the foreign government, providing an incentive for them to implement the taxes....)

  • by Philip_the_physicist ( 1536015 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @07:16AM (#28249153)

    That is usually what happens when there is less cloud. People should remember that water vapour is a greenhouse gas, and that clouds do provide effective insulation. Simply comparing the daily temperature range with the level of cloud, will, over time, be enough to make this clear, even if you haven't noticed already that starry nights tend to be colder than overcast ones at the same time of year.

    NOTE: this is not arguing either side of (any part of ) the global warming debate. Just pointing out the reason for this.

  • Re:Easy to tell too (Score:3, Interesting)

    by smoker2 ( 750216 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @07:23AM (#28249187) Homepage Journal
    Trucks do not cause 200x the damage of cars. Each axle (in the EU) is limited to 8 tonnes, which means 4 tonnes per wheel so roughly 8x the weight of a cars wheel. But read below for more on that.
    Also, at least in the UK, they ripped up most of the branch lines for the railways in the 1960s and so unless you are delivering to a very narrow corridor, you don't get close to more than 10% of the towns.

    There are also many whiners in the UK who think that trucks should be banned and everything done by trains and small vans. They simply don't do the maths.
    Consider this :
    1 truck (44,000kg gross) carries 30,000 kg of goods, at a fuel usage rate of around 10mpg. To carry the same amount of goods by small van (3500kg gross, 1500kg net) would require 20 small vans achieving around 25 mpg. Which is more efficient ? 1 vehicle making one trip, or 20 small vehicles making 1 trip, or 1 small vehicle making 20 trips ?
    The answer is obvious.
    If the trip is 100 miles, the truck uses 10 gallons. The small van uses 8 gallons for each return trip and needs 20 return trips = 160 gallons. The truck can return empty and still save 140 gallons of fuel over the small van. If you don't want to take 15 to 20 times as long to do the job, small vans will need 20x the road tax, and 20x the maintenance costs, and 20x more drivers. Not to mention the extra congestion from having 20 vehicles instead of 1 (which only takes up about the space of 3 small vans).
    Also, as a professional driver, I am more likely to see damage to road signs, street lights, crash barriers, and pedestrians caused by cars and by small vans than by trucks. Add that lot into your costings. And trucks pay 10 to 15 times the amount of road tax, and the fuel is more expensive than petrol (due to taxes).

    Sure if you could transport the goods by train and just do the last leg by truck, that would help, but here's a tip - they already do that ! The trains can't cope with the traffic. In the time it takes to load containers from a ship onto a train you can load multiple trucks and reload the ship and start on the next ship. They have holding yards to load trains just because it takes so long. You can load 40 trucks in the time it takes to load 1 box onto a train.

    So while planes might be greener than trains, trucks beat everything for real world bulk efficiency.

    The supermarket has an online store these days. I use it all the time. It costs £5 delivery, but I don't have to drive, I don't have to queue, the vans they use can carry 20 or thirty peoples shopping (reducing road congestion) and I can specify the hour they deliver. Win win all round I think.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @08:37AM (#28249663)

    A: 200 mph is not a necessity - it's a luxury.

    If you want to be competitive with commuter air travel over distances of 500 miles or so, it certainly helps if you can go fast.

    B: 50 mph trains run just fine on old antiquated rail lines.

    My car will go faster than that on the highway, for less money, and more convenient, too.

    There is little difference between moving freight, and moving people. You have x tons of mass that have to get from points a through z to points 1 through 26. Load the freight, restrain the freight against unexpected movement, accelerate smoothly, go fast as safely possible, decelerate smoothly, and dump the freight. Rinse and repeat until all the freight has been ejected.

    From a physics perspective, you are correct, but from a practical perspective, no.

    Freight trains are very efficient at moving heavy cargo at slow speeds over long distances, at low cost. The route does not have to be all that efficient, and there is plenty of freight that just has to get there eventually.

    Passengers are MUCH more time-sensitive than freight. They don't weigh much (compared to freight), so you need a LOT of passengers to achieve the economies of scale that make trains efficient. A freight customer might buy 50 carloads of coal, whereas a passenger buys one SEAT. And when the train is slow, or the route inefficient, passengers rapidly switch to other forms of transit (car, and plane being the two most popular). This is why Amtrak is a perpetual money pit. Passenger rail requires government subsidies just about everywhere (except perhaps Hong Kong), while freight trains are a self-sustaining business.

  • Re:Make no mistakes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Uberbah ( 647458 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:31AM (#28250151)

    It seems that the only way the U.S. can press forward with improved rail service would be following the utter collapse of other modes of transport.

    It would also help if the U.S. could wean itself from the corporate cock and get back into investing in the public sector. For example, single payer health care provides better care for less money yet that option is being ignored by the Senate. Instead we get half assed, wishy washy "public-private partnership" crap. Salon had a nice editorial [] on the subject a while back:

    Barack Obama's bold, ambitious budget plan proves that he is the true heir of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Consider Obama's Rooseveltian energy plan. In 1939, President Roosevelt decided to mobilize Americans to create a new source of energy: atomic power. Although he was urged to focus on government-funded R&D, FDR chose a different route. He wisely encouraged private capital to invest in atomic energy research by a variety of tax incentives. To make atomic power investment more palatable to private capital, FDR boldly chose to make all other forms of energy in the U.S. uneconomical, by slapping high taxes on kerosene and coal. With the money from the new federal Kerosene Cap and Trade system, President Roosevelt and Congress funded a small-scale federal research program, in the hope of attracting much greater private investment ...

    Wait. What's that you say? FDR didn't do that? He poured federal money into the all-public Manhattan Project and created the first atomic bomb in a couple of years? He didn't tax kerosene to make it uneconomical and to encourage private investment in atomic power?

    Oh. OK. Never mind.

    But what about Social Security? In 1935, FDR signed the historic Social Security Act. It created a complex "retirement mandate" system, forcing all elderly Americans to buy expensive annuities from private insurance companies, without, however, imposing price controls on the insurance companies ...

    What? FDR didn't force the elderly to subsidize private annuity brokers? He imposed a single, simple, efficient tax to pay for a single, simple, efficient public system of retirement benefits?

    All right, then, forget FDR. He was a socialist, anyway. Let Dwight Eisenhower serve as a model for the Obama administration. President Eisenhower authorized the biggest infrastructure program in American history, when he signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. The interstate highway act created an elaborate system of private tax incentives and public-private partnerships (PPPs) to encourage private corporations to build national highways. To begin with, all U.S. highways were leased to domestic and foreign corporations for a period of decades. Second, all U.S. highways were set up with toll booths, so that American drivers would be forced to repay the corporate owners of the national highways every few dozen miles. Finally, a system of high-speed lanes with higher tolls was created, so that the rich could whiz down the road while middle-class and poor Americans were stuck in traffic jams ...

  • Re:City planning (Score:3, Interesting)

    by chrysrobyn ( 106763 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:49AM (#28250343)

    Maybe we need to rethink the way we plan cities. Suburban-oriented development needs to stop NOW. We don't have the space or the resources to support it. There's no reason why we can't change our zoning laws to encourage new development to be constructed in a more practical fashion.

    I wholly disagree. I think the suburban design is very close to being a system of capillaries needed to support the arteries. A van could circulate through the main roads of my subdivision in 30 minutes and drop people off at a stop on "the main draw". A traditional bus could then pick everybody up an head to the next stop. Down that main draw, my work is only 7 miles away -- a 15 minute ride if we have to stop a few times. Say I'm halfway through the route in my subdivision (I am), that would be a 30 minute commute. Twice my normal commute, sure, but still reasonable. I'd take it, if it were economical. If they took everybody like me who was willing if it were made smart, then they'd have enough funds to start operating more vehicles and it would be even better for everybody (the second vehicle could to in the opposite circle).

    Instead, a bus comes by my house once an hour, and instead of going to the main artery, heads down the interstate 5 miles to a park and ride. After taking that 45 minute bus ride, I could take the 30 minute bus to work. That's insane.

    Instead of rethinking suburbia, telling people where to live based on where they work, essentially planning to rip up 75-90% of metropolitan areas and replace it with some urban planned concept, we need smarter people running mass transit. Instead of allowing them to hand-pick people who are already on the bus and finding ways for their lives to be better, they need to pick people in major population centers (subdivisions) and come up with some different ideas. Around here, if you can drive to a park and ride, the only thing that makes any sense at all is a cross-town bus, and they have high ridership. The local routes are exclusively for the people who can't afford their own transportation and for the people who are mandated by the court not to drive.

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by xelah ( 176252 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @10:30AM (#28250817)

    Prices of resources are set by people based on idea of those resources' availability, and impact of their usage on the rest of society.

    You presumably missed Economics 101, as Americans would probably call it. I'm not an expert, but I'll do my best.

    Prices in an 'idealized' free-market economy are set by the (physical, not money) costs and benefits to those people involved in the transaction, directly or indirectly (a supplier's supplier, etc). These private benefits are called internal costs. Costs on third parties - pollution, noise, aesthetics, congestion, etc - are external costs (or benefits) and are not taken in to account because the participants don't care about them. A less idealized one will have monopolies, information asymmetries and so on, but that doesn't take external costs in to account, other than by chance. This distorts economic decision making and leads the economy to make sub-optimal choices (in a 'resources in':'economic welfare out' sense). Government environmental (and other) regulation and taxes attempt to distort them back the other way.

    It's obvious that with CURRENT availability of resources in US and CURRENT level of environmental protection, the all-around best mode of transportation is Ford Expedition carrying one driver.

    That's unlikely, even if we pretend everyone's needs are the same and the benefits gained from all modes of transport are equal. The level of environmental protection is irrelevant unless it's so high it prevents the optimal choice: the best choice is almost certainly permitted by those rules, it's just not chosen by the many individuals involved because external costs are not fully taken in to account in their choices.

    The problem is, if you try to scale this to the whole society, you will choke everyone

    And this is one reason why it's not the best. It might be financially best, despite not being economically best, but that's irrelevant because finance is not an end in itself whereas economic welfare is.

  • by GooberToo ( 74388 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @11:28AM (#28251525)

    Interestingly enough, after 9/11, when all air travel was halted, it was observed that temperatures actually went up because of far fewer, reflective contrails, which prevent some of the sun's energy from reaching the earth.

    So its actually likely that fewer planes flying means higher temperatures for everyone. That in turn means more energy used by people to keep things cool. Once you add that in, it likely means the total cost of man flying is far, far cheaper than most ever realize.


  • Re:The best analysis (Score:2, Interesting)

    by DavidTC ( 10147 ) <slas45dxsvadiv.v ... m ['eve' in gap]> on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:50PM (#28253333) Homepage

    I am not convinced that market forces would not have addressed pollution issues in a way that was as good or better than the one we chose.

    It is not my job to convince you of things that are fairly obvious.

    There is no plausible means by which companies would have stopped polluting by themselves. If public opinion had turned against them, they would have simply polluted in secret, like I said. Or they simply would have purchased land far away from their workers and market and dumped there, safe from anyone voting with their wallet. Or even done that secretly.

    Your worship of the market is silly. The market operates to make companies the most money, which, once we remove the ability for companies to commit certain types of fraud and collusion, results in them creating the cheapest products via competition, via the most efficient means.

    'the efficient solution', however, does not mean 'the superior solution' for society at large. See, for example, Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' for the most efficient meatpacking industry.

I am more bored than you could ever possibly be. Go back to work.