JE SUIS CHARLE….or not..

The terrorist attacks on France’s “The Onion”, Charlie Hebdo, have seemingly united the Western World™ together to show their support for freedom of speech…..or so it seems. The reality of the situation is that hardly anyone truly supports freedom of speech or will stand up for someone who falls under the auspices of a government who decides to crack down on such behavior. Think I’m being hyperbolic or dramatic? Let’s look at what happened to a newspaper in Europe a few decades ago:

In 1970 a French newspaper named, oh wow – Charlie Hebdo, resumed publication after the government shut it down for mocking the news media’s portrayal of French demigod Charles DeGaulle’s passing away.

Years later another French newspaper named…hmmm never mind it was also Charlie Hebdo…fired one of their writers for offending Jews and then sat by idly as the government charged him with a hate crime.

So, at the very least we can conclude that the French are total hypocrites when it comes to defending free speech. It’s cool to be offensive, as long as you don’t offend the wrong people.

If you look to the northeast of France, Sweden, that darling of every socialist you’ve ever known, has just made it illegal to insult immigrants, gay or transgender people, or even politicians! This law was introduced to the Swedish parliament without any challenge or debate by MP Andrew Norlen who said “I do not think it takes very many prosecutions before a signal is transmitted in the community that the internet is not a lawless country – the sheriff is back in town”. I can think of few precedents to set that are scarier for the future of our civil rights and liberty than allowing this mentality to catch hold with other governments.

“We will never give up freedom of speech!” bellows British Prime Minister David Cameron to applause while at the same time his country has proposed “Electronic Disruption Orders”, which would require people who hold what the government considers “extremist views” to have their social media posts and videos approved by a government censor, and already has on the books the “Social Order Act” which makes it a crime to use “insulting words” and has seen a boy prosecuted for calling a horse gay and another prosecuted for calling Scientology a cult (It is). Were the streets flooded with protesters supporting freedom of speech? Not as far as I can tell. In fact, from my forays onto Reddit and Facebook it seems that most Brits are perfectly OK with the government telling them what is or isn’t ok to say.

Even here in America where we still manage to hold freedom of speech somewhat sacred a boy has been charged with a crime for taking a lewd photo with a statue of Jesus. The boy did not damage, deface or tarnish the statue in any way – he merely posed for a photograph which was sexually suggestive and obviously butthurt a whole lot of people. Should that be a crime? No, of course it shouldn’t. Did anyone stand up for his freedom of speech? Nope. Not a one.

All of this being said, where are the protests? Where are the masses of people standing up for free speech? I don’t see them. I see people standing up for the right to bash Muslims, which is a popular dead horse to beat these days, but I don’t see those people standing up for the right to bash gays or trans or Jews. Why is that, exactly? I’ll tell you what I think – it’s because most people have no firm principles. Most of us are weather vanes, shifting direction wherever the wind takes us. Only a few individuals remain consistent, such as the ACLU which will defend the right of a Neo-Nazi to protest the Holocaust, and we’ve all seen the vile and scorn thrown their way. As former Congressman Ron Paul says: “We don’t have freedom of speech to talk about the weather”. Freedom of speech is about protecting controversial ideas and no matter who you are or how politically correct you may try to be, it is nearly guaranteed that you hold some thought in your head which offends another human being. Should that land you in jail or, worse, a grave? Never.

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Unique, Rare and/or Weird Diesel Locomotives (Part 1)

American railroads have a rich history of demanding from builders (or cobbling together themselves) locomotive designs tailored to their specific individual needs or just going on a limb and trying something new. This list is by no means exhaustive or the most unique and rare locomotives out there, but it is fairly representative of these creations. Unfortunately, since many of these designs were either homebuilt or built by long-defunct companies information can be scarce. Without further ado, let’s get started:

 

#1 – Ingalls Shipbuilding 4-S

Model of the Ingalls 4-S. Note the raised “turret cab” and the small switching cab at the rear.

In the mid 1940s, with the end of World War II looming on the horizon,  Pascagoula, Missisisppi-based Ingalls Shipbuilding started looking for new revenue streams to help stem the loss it would suffer after winding down warship production. The post-war market for diesel engines was expected to be booming (due to government bans on their production during the war) and Ingalls decided to take a chance.

Out of several proposed designs, the 4-S was the only one actually produced. It was based around a marine 1,650 HP diesel engine and featured a “turret cab” design that gave crews better visibility when operating backwards. It also had a small rear cab with controls for yard switching work. The prototype and only 4-S ever built was ready for work in March 1946.

Several Southern railroads tested out the 4-S but none of them were interested enough to place an order, especially with a company completely new to the field with an unproven design. Eventually, the Gulf Mobile and Ohio Railroad in next-door Mobile, Alabama bought the engine for $140,000 ($1.7 million in 2014 dollars) as a favor to its major customer. Disappointed by the lack of interest, Ingalls never again tried to build locomotives.

 

The GM&O ran the 4-S for over 20 years and former crews say it earned a reputation for reliability and toughness. It once derailed upside down in Houston, Mississippi and was patched up and quickly returned to service. After a long career, it was traded in by the GM&O as a down payment for a new locomotive. The 4-S was offered to a railroad museum who, unfortunately, couldn’t afford the asking price and it was later broken up for scrap in 1967.

 

#2 – Krauss-Maffei ML-4000 Diesel-Hydraulic

The Niles Canyon Railway is restoring the only remaining ML 4000 to active service

In the late 1950s American freight trains were getting longer and heaver, but diesel locomotive design wasn’t keeping pace. The Southern Pacific railroad found that it was taking sometimes 10 locomotives just to pull a freight train. After a lot of research, it made a shocking move and turned to Germany to bring an experimental new locomotive design to the United States: diesel-hydraulics.

Instead of the diesel engines providing electricity to power electric motors in the wheels, diesel-hydraulic engines were connected by drive shafts directly to the wheels of the locomotive, like in a car or truck. Germany had pioneered these designs and was considered an expert in their use. Industrial conglomerate Krauss-Maffei designed the ML-4000 specifically for the United States with two Maybach 1,750 HP engines (double the horsepower of any comparable American locomotive) and shipped 21 of them overseas in 1961, all of them eventually ending up in service with Southern Pacific.

The units performed their job well, but it was found that diesel-hydraulics are more suited to lower speed work like switching in a railyard rather than high-speed heavy freight hauling. Once American designs started to sport more horsepower in the late 1960s, SP decided to start retiring the ML-4000s and by 1968, after only 8 years of service, all of them had been removed from active duty and all except 1 had been scrapped.

SP’s homemade “Camera Car” for making training films.

The surviving ML-4000 (#9010) had an interesting later career and is a unique locomotive in and of itself. SP renumbered it #8799 and transformed their expensive German toy into a “camera car”, disabling its engines and cutting off its nose to install a compartment to house a camera and film crew to record training films for rail crews. A second locomotive would push the “camera car” around the SP network filming scenarios to be used in a locomotive simulator, much like some of the older car simulators you might have used in driver’s ed. The last ML-4000 served in this capacity until 1984 when it was finally retired for good and donated to a California museum. It sat outside for many years heavily vandalized and continued to deteriorate until the Niles Canyon Railway acquired it in the late 2000s and started a full restoration. The original nose, destroyed by the “camera car” conversion, had to be rebuilt from scratch and many of the parts needed for the restoration that can’t be scrounged up in Europe are having to be handmade or custom ordered stateside.

 

#3 – GM LWT-12 “Aerotrain”

The Aerotrain obviously takes cues from auto design.

The Aerotrain takes the cake for many railfans when it comes to strange trains. A creation of General Motors in 1955, the Aerotrain was intended as a low-cost, high-speed train that would capitalize on GM’s automotive technology to lower costs and allow railroads to offer passenger service as cheap as bus fares. Ultimately, they never lived up to their hype and were only used for any length of time by one railroad as commuter trains.

If this coach looks suspiciously like a Greyhound bus, that’s because it is

In fact, through a strange and ultimately poor choice of design, the Aerotrain’s passenger coaches were literally GM highway buses modified and bolted onto a frame with train car bogies. The plan was that once the bus body got old and wore out, you could scrap it and strap down a newer one (also made from whatever GM’s current highway bus happened to be) to the bogies for a fraction of the cost of building a new passenger coach. Even the suspension on the coaches was styled on air-cushions after highway vehicles.

The rear of the train also looked like a car

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting in 1956, the Aerotrains made test runs with several railroads where their performance was found to be lacking – for example the design was so underpowered that both the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific had to attach helper engines to push it over mountain ranges in California. Passengers on all the railroads complained of the rough ride quality and loud noise at high speeds, mostly stemming from the air cushion suspension not being suited for railroad use. Maintenance on the locomotives was also a nightmare, with even routine jobs being extremely time consuming.

Aerotrain #3 on display at the National Transportation Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Aerotrains did eventually find a home, though, as low-speed commuter trains in the Chicago area for the Rock Island Railroad starting in 1958, but only for a short while. In 1966, much to the delight of local passengers I’m sure, Rock Island decided to do away with the finicky trains. Their career had barely spanned 10 years.

Two of the three trains produced still survive today, but neither of them are complete train-sets. Aerotrain #1 was scrapped by the Rock Island in 1965. Locomotive #2 is preserved at the National Railway Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin and locomotive #3  is on static display with a few of its coaches at the National Museum of Transportation in St Louis, Missouri.

 

Walt Disney operating the Disneyland “Aerotrain”

Now, interestingly, for such a weird and failed design the Aerotrain seems to have captured the imaginations of quite a few Americans. There were many miniature scale replicas made of it, including one by lifelong train-nut Walt Disney. The Disneyland Aerotrain had a short career like its larger brother, only running for 1 year before being demolished to make room for the more-famous monorail system.

The Washington Park Zoo “Zooliner”

The most famous replica is at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon and is arguably the most successful Aerotrain – it has been in continuous service for over 50 years and remains a popular attraction at the zoo, despite most of its riders not even being born the last time an actual Aerotrain took to the rails.

Other replica Aerotrains in active service are at Idlewild Park in Reno, Nevada and the Ellis Railroad in Ellis, Kansas. There is also one on static display at a hotel lobby in Akron, Ohio.

 

#4 Booster Units with Cabs

A typical Booster Unit, known as a B-Unit.

This next entry is shared between two separate approaches to the same concept: placing a cab on a booster unit to get a cheap locomotive in a pinch. For the non-railfans out there wondering what a booster unit is a little back story is in order.

In the early days of diesel power a single locomotive often wasn’t strong enough to pull a train by itself. Despite the fact that technology existed to operate multiple units from the lead engine, unions at the time were adamant that a full train crew needed to be placed in every single locomotive on a train. Railroads started purchasing so-called booster units, which were basically just locomotives without a cab installed, as a way to get around this hurdle. A side benefit was that without cabs, control stands or other crew amenities, B-units were slightly cheaper to buy. However, this was offset by their lack of flexibility – a B-unit had to have a cab unit (accordingly called an A-unit) to operate. Eventually, the unions eased up and railroads moved beyond the concept of B-units, preferring to have full cabs on all locomotives so they could be moved around as needed.

-Chicago and Northwestern “Crandall Cab”

CNW’s solution to a locomotive shortage – cobble one together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
In the early 1970s, the Chicago and Northwestern Railway was in need of cheap locomotives for its money-draining Chicago-area commuter trains (it was not allowed by the government to discontinue passenger service). Amtrak had just been formed by Congress and had inherited a vast amount of engines and cars from other railroads eager to ditch their passenger operations. Amtrak leadership decided they didn’t need the old B-units and sold them off for a steep discount. CNW’s Assistant Superintendent of Motive Power, M.H. Crandall,  saw the solution his railroad needed and devised a scheme to purchase some of these surplus boosters and build a cab and controls on one end to use them for commuter trains.

Starting in 1973, The Chicago and Northwestern built 11 of these locomotives and placed them into active service, running them until the government took over commuter operations in 1977. They were repainted into transit authority colors and run for another decade, with the final two Crandalls being retired in 1989. Unfortunately, none of units were saved from the scrapper’s torch.

Interesting to note is that the term “Crandall Cab” is entirely an invention of railfans – the railroads officially referred to these units as standard B-units despite their modifications.

 

– Rock Island AB6

Rock Island asked EMD to specially make their B-unit locomotives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1939 the Rock Island Railroad started the “Rocky Mountain Rocket” passenger service between Chicago and Colorado. At the town of Limon, Colorado the train was split in two and one part of the train would continue to Denver and the other part to Colorado Springs. Rock Island wanted a small, cheap locomotive that looked like a streamlined passenger coach to place on the end of the train and carry the smaller 3-car Colorado Springs section of the train. This would preserve the smooth, streamlined appearance instead of breaking it up like having a second normal-looking locomotive in the middle of the train would.

The Rock turned to locomotive manufacturer Electro-Motive Diesel to custom-build two of these special units out of B-units straight from the factory. EMD took a B-unit and replaced the two standard diesel engines with one much smaller 1,000 HP engine and used the second engine compartment for storing baggage. It placed a cab and controls with a flat nose on one end and a central door so that passengers and crew could continue to walk through the train to the other passenger cars. They were delivered to the Rock Island in 1940, before the US entered WWII and diesel locomotive production was placed on hold.

Rock Island AB6 in Chicago commuter service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over time as the Rocky Mountain Rocket got more popular, more power was needed to haul the extra cars and passengers and eventually outmatched the little AB6’s. In 1965, The Rock put standard locomotives on the train and the two AB6s,  which had already seen 25 years of service by this point, were re-assigned to Chicago commuter service. They excelled in this role and continued on until they were finally retired and, sadly, scrapped in 1974 after 34 years of heavy use.

It is probably safe to assume that Mr. Crandall at Rock Island’s rival railroad Chicago & Northwestern got his idea for turning b-units into “Crandall Cabs” from seeing the success of their AB6’s.

 

(More coming soon in Part 2)

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Rail Transit is Essential To Our City!

I was recently involved in a debate on Facebook with some friends from the Nashville area. These friends were discussing mass transit in the Music City and the topic of Nashville’s small commuter rail line, The Music City Star came up. Having an interest in trains, and reading about this little rail line previously I decided to add my two cents and point out that the ridership of the ‘Star’ is embarrassingly low and doesn’t even come close to justifying the huge amount of money spent on this project. One of these friends told me that “I’m sorry, you’re just wrong about that.” and that mass transit was essential to their city.

Let’s Look at the Data

As you can see, on its best year for which data is available (2011) a grand total of 343 people rode the Music City Star every day. 343 people out of a total population of 1,177,828 in the greater Nashville area serviced by the Regional Transportation Authority. In case you’re wondering, that comes out to 0.00029% of the population riding the train. So, given that fact, was I wrong to say that “nobody rides the train”?  Obviously not. Even more importantly,  is a transit system ridden by only 0.00029% of the population daily “essential” to life in that region? Probably not. If you stood on the edge of a major highway during the morning commute and I removed 0.00029% of the traffic, you wouldn’t even be able to perceive it, given that 343 separate automobiles would represent one minute and twenty seconds of traffic passing you on the average 6 lane highway.

How about some financial data to add to the mix?

So the Music City Star is costing the taxpayers of the Nashville area roughly $3 million dollars per year (and recently, the state of Tennessee gave the railroad a $1 million dollar bailout) on top of the $40 million dollar startup cost to remove one minute’s worth of traffic from the highways every morning and evening, representing a fraction of a percent of total daily commuters in the greater Nashville area . Is it all worth it? No, and I’m not sure what reasonable person could look at these numbers and say “Its totally worth it” with a straight face.

As I said in my Facebook debate, if you want to ride the fancy choo-choo to work you should have to pay for that privilege. These 343 people are saving on the cost of gasoline, wear and tear, and the frequency of oil changes by forgoing their automobile in favor of the train – should they not have to pay higher ticket fares to make up the $30/passenger shortfall the Star is suffering? In the interest of fairness, yes, they should.

Private Commuter Rail in Nashville

I’m an unabashed defender of the free market (the REAL free market, mind you, not this distorted crap that Republicans claim to believe in), so I like to include examples of market success whenever I can.

Nashville-Franklin car #3 and crew in downtown Franklin, TN [Hank Sherwood Collection]

I present to you the Nashville-Franklin Interurban Railway, which whisked commuters from Franklin, Tennessee to downtown Nashville for 32 years, from 1909 to 1941, always turned a profit, and boasted a yearly ridership of 150,000 in 1939.  The little interurban finally had to cave into America’s increasing love of the automobile, and the fact that Nashville shut down its streetcar lines, meaning the NFIR couldn’t ferry passengers directly to downtown Nashville anymore, costing it some allure and popularity.

Now, pay attention to the map above and notice something about the private commuter line. It was built through some of the most populated suburbs around Nashville, particularly the towns of Franklin and Brentwood.

Let’s look at a map of the Music City Star’s route for comparison, shall we:

(I apologize for the small size of the map, you can follow along on Google or Bing Maps if you need a bigger visualization)

Do you notice anything different? Look how rural the towns are compared to the private interurban. The government built a train line through the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking. You don’t have to have a degree in Transit Planning to know that you have to build where the people are and where they want to go.

Not to beat a dead horse, but here are two screenshots from Google Streetview for comparison:

Music City Star “Martha Station”

Nashville-Franklin Interurban “Franklin Station”

(Click the link to see a historic photo of this station)

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

The rule of thumb with money is that people usually spend their own money wiser than somebody else’s money. If you’re a private businessman trying to make a profit you have to respond to your customers’ needs and offer them what they want.

The NFIR did just that, running through the places where people lived and connected them with where they wanted to go and operating entirely off the private owners’ capital and the fares of its passengers and it closed its doors when the market decided that rail commuting wasn’t the best way to get to work anymore.

The Music City Star, however,  is an expensive pet project of some nostalgic railfans, running through some of the most sparsely populated areas of the Nashville metro area, and  is costing the people of the area and citizens of the state of Tennessee millions and millions of dollars for almost no gain whatsoever – be it from traffic congestion or pollution.

So, lets revisit why we are here again. I was told this train is essential to Nashville’s future and that I was wrong when I said “nobody rides it”. Who do you think is right?

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Holding the Parks Hostage

[Note: As much as I like to avoid current mainstream politics, this article will stray from that policy a bit. HOWEVER, the shutdown is not the primary focus of this article and I do not point fingers specifically at either the Democrats or Republicans, so read on]

If you are reading this in the future, the US government has currently laid off a portion of its workforce and shuttered a few agencies. The mainstream media would have you believe that we are now living under anarchy, despite the fact that 80% of government workers are still on the job. During this, *sigh*, “shutdown”, the American public has once again become the victims of one of the government’s favorite strategies: “Washington Monument Syndrome”.

Let’s ask Wikipedia what exactly “Washington Monument Syndrome” is:

“The Washington Monument syndrome, also known as the Mount Rushmore Syndrome, or the firemen first principle, is a political tactic used in the United States by government agencies when faced with budget cuts or a government shutdown.

The tactic entails cutting the most visible or appreciated service provided by the government, from popular services such as national parks and libraries to valued public employees such as teachers and firefighters. This is done to gain support for tax increases that the public would otherwise be against.

The name derives from the National Park Service’s alleged habit of saying that any cuts would lead to an immediate closure of the wildly popular Washington Monument. The National Review compared the tactic to hostage-taking or blackmail.”

See how the media perfectly framed that sticker to tug at your heartstrings and tempt you to bring out the pitchforks? “100 years of naval aviation shut down by Congress? Not on my watch, by God!”

Since the 1960s, this has been the Federal Government’s modus operandi to push the public into supporting whatever terrible policy or tax increase they are trying to push. Remember in March of this year all the crying at the Pentagon over the tiny proposed budget cuts (actually, they weren’t cuts – they were reductions in the rate of increase) and the cancelling of popular military sideshows like the Blue Angels, the Marine Corps Band, and military demonstrations at airshows and the anger this caused in the general public. My own parents were quite upset about the Marine Corps Band cancelling a performance and droned on and on about how we couldn’t “gut the military”…….ugh. But think about the effect if, instead, the Pentagon has cut out some less visible functions. Would the public have been as upset if instead of the Blue Angels, the Navy had decided to scrap some amphibious landing craft or found some innovating fuel saving measures? Absolutely not.

So, here is where the modern budget “crisis” comes into play. Hundreds of widely popular parks and monuments were shutdown across the country, while 80% of the Federal workforce was allowed to remain on the job. Included in this shutdown were a series of privately operated campgrounds in National Parks, which are 100% private and pay money into the treasury:

“Warren Meyer of Phoenix, AZ, is owner and president of Recreation Resource Management, Inc. RRM employs about 400-500 camp workers and managers across about a dozen states. It is one of a handful of companies that have been managing national parks and campgrounds as tenants for years, through previous government shutdowns including the last one in 1995-1996. Those previous shutdowns never closed any of the parks managed in this way, but the current shutdown threatens closure.

The campgrounds are self-sufficient and receive no federal funding. No government employees staff or manage the parks. The management companies pay the National Park Service out of the funds they generate from operating the thousands of campgrounds. So the reason for the shutdown is puzzling to Meyer.”

“…previous shutdowns never closed any of the parks managed in this way…”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what we call  a “dick move”.  And, predictably, instead of striking at the root of the problem the people and media are clamoring for the government to do whatever it takes, so long as they can visit Yellowstone again.

….sigh….

People, its time to sell the National Parks and let the private sector run them.

I know, it sounds crazy, but lets go back to our friend Warren Meyer who runs the private national park campgrounds:

“…our operations are self-sufficient (we are fully funded by user fees at the gate)…”

“Meyer told the Tatler that his parks generate hundreds of thousands of dollars per week.”

People LIKE and SUPPORT parks, they are willing to pay to visit these parks. We have examples of the private market successfully managing these parks at a profit. There’s no reason for the government to continue to be able to hold these lands hostage in order to bribe the public whenever they want to extract more wealth from the public.

In fact, under private ownership, the management of the parks will likely become better as the public will have a new incentive to “keep the owners honest”, and not to mention, you can actually hold private companies accountable for their actions. People from the left, already suspicious of the private sector, will become very effective watchdogs, scrutinizing every move and notifying the rest of us when something changes for the worst. People from the right, suspicious of government involvement, will help to ensure that the incompetent hand of government doesn’t reassert control over these resources. And, of course, nobody would ever have to encounter a “We’re closed due to political shenanigans” sign. Seems win-win to me.

Note:

 

 

 


For another example of private sector involvement in national parks, check out Glacier National Park, which essentially exists because of rail tycoon James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railway (which built a transcontinental route without eminent domain or government subsidy). The railroad ensured that this land was preserved, and spent considerable time and effort promoting the park and building recreational facilities there for the public to enjoy.

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What if the King Had No Pawns?

Target: Syria

So, I said way back that I would try to avoid topics like this, but my moral objections to war won’t allow me to ignore this.  Unless you’ve been under a rock, President Obama has fully completed his transformation into George W Bush and is about to launch another war of aggression in the Middle East – complete with the bullshit WMD story and UN weapons inspectors!  Hell, they even went back to the Desert Storm playbook and brought back the “incubator baby” story to tug at your heartstrings.

Instead of boring you with the political details, which can be found at AntiWar.Com (if you’re interested in facts), I’m going to take a different angle here that you don’t commonly hear.

A collage of anti-Syrian intervention pictures from Facebook

Much hay has been made over soldiers on Facebook posting pictures with signs saying that they didn’t sign up to fight in Syria. Some Libertarian commentators have even gone so far to call this a heroic stand against the intervention and congratulate these soldiers for speaking their mind.

This is all meaningless. Absolutely meaningless.

Why, you ask?

First off, what semi-intelligent human being enlists as a soldier in the US military post-WWII and DOESN’T realize that we are a worldwide empire that sticks our nose into other people’s business? I mean for fuck’s sake you have Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iran, Somalia, Iraq I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq II, and Libya,  just to name the major ones. None of them involved defending the freedoms of US citizens. I’m sorry, but if you have access to Google there is ZERO excuse for not knowing this fact. It’s not until a President with a D behind his name starts warmongering that the mostly right-leaning military starts to get upset.

Secondly, you can take any kind of anti-war statement by a solider with a huge grain of salt. Soldiers are trained to be unthinking order-followers. If the man with shiny stars on his hat says to drop a dangerous chemical over civilian areas, then by-God you better do it yesterday. Just look at any number of horrible atrocities carried out by soldiers who probably would have never even thought of doing such things had they not been in uniform.  Absent of resigning their commission, I just can’t take military anti-war statements seriously because at the end of the day these soldiers will go blow apart hospitals and water treatment plants in Syria without a blink of the eye as long as a ‘superior’ tells them to.

Just look at General Martin Dempsey back in July:

And look at him again when Obama says jump:

Also check out these excerpts from an article written by a retired general the other day:

Literally the entire article is completely negated by the closing paragraph. It is absolutely meaningless to say you are opposed to a war if you will always pull the trigger when ordered to. Your moral convictions are NULL and VOID if you are still going to kill people at the drop of a hat.

Why is this controversial to say?

Why don’t people understand this?

You do realize they can’t keep having these wars if the troops say “no”, right?

This isn’t Nazi Germany, they aren’t lining people up against the wall for saying “no” anymore. Your biggest risk from saying no is to be thrown in a concrete cell for a while with three hots and a cot. Is that worse than going out and killing women and children? Is that worse than destroying the infrastructure of a civilized nation and causing widespread suffering for years?  

We HAVE to start holding the troops accountable. Saying “I support the troops, but not the mission” is not cutting it anymore. Your continued blind support is not taking anyone to task. Clapping at the airport when they come home, flying yellow ribbons, or getting tears in your eye on Veterans Day is continuing the cycle. I’m not saying to spit on them or call them baby killers — that won’t win any hearts. I’m saying to have a frank discussion about what they are doing over there. Have a real, honest discussion about morality. Take off the blinders, forget the nationalism that was drilled into your head in school, and take a serious look at what they are doing. It is our only way to keep these tragedies from happening.

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XpressWest Killed by DOT

An update to a story I previously reported on (“Antique Infrastructure?” August 2012) about a possible private high-speed rail link between Las Vegas and Los Angeles comes from Reason Magazine. Apparently, the “private” venture had requested (and was relying on) a 5.5 billion dollar loan from Uncle Sam to finance this ambitious project and the federal money would make up the bulk of capital to build the *ahem* “private” high speed route.

On July 11, 2013 the Department of Transportation sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office stating that their review of the loan proposal was “indefinitely suspended” due to “significant uncertainties” surrounding the project.

Perhaps you are wondering what those “uncertainties” might be. Well, besides their misleading claims of being a “private” high speed rail option, they were also misleading people by saying they would connect Los Angeles to Las Vegas. In reality, the California end of their operations would only reach as far as Victorville, nearly 100 miles from Los Angeles. Even with this handicap, the company was claiming it could nab 25% of the LA-Vegas traffic, ridership numbers that would blow Amtrak’s most ridden train, the Boston – Washington DC Acela, out of the water.

Take a look at the Google Map I linked to. Once you reach Victorville, its smooth sailing all the way to Vegas.  How many people would want to go through the hassle of unpacking and waiting for a train after fighting the nightmarish Los Angeles traffic for 1-2 hours when they could just enjoy the wide -open highway for the rest of the route? The train’s strongest marketing ploy should have been avoiding LA traffic, which would require capital expenditures far greater than the requested 5.5 billion dollars.

Unfortunately, I made a mistake referring to this project as an optimistic prospect for private rail in the United States. The other project I mentioned, All Aboard Florida, is still set to begin operations in 2014, but they have also sold-out and requested Federal funds. However, I don’t feel that this project will fail like the XpressWest for the following reasons:

1) All Aboard Florida is spearheaded by the Florida East Coast Railway, a highly successful private freight railroad which has been in business since 1885 and has experience operating passenger trains in the past. Unlike XpressWest, here we have a railroad company with proven experience behind the passenger project that intimately knows the area in which it will be operating.

2) Nearly all of the track is already laid and station locations owned by the parent company. Having the infrastructure already in place and maintained to passenger standards is a humongous advantage. The time, cost and hassle of acquiring property rights, tearing down structures in the way and preparing the terrain for a roadbed is enormously expensive. Since All Aboard Florida will just run over the freight tracks of the FEC railway (except for a new portion along a highway median), they are spared the majority of the expenses involved in these projects. All they really need to do is construct stations on land they already own and purchase passenger locomotives and coaches.

3) It will use conventional trains and speeds. High speed rail requires specialized track and equipment. A conventional passenger locomotive can be run over nearly any standard railroad track. Limiting the top speed to 79 mph, the same top speed for most Amtrak trains, also keeps the project from incurring the high maintenance costs of keeping track to high speed standards (The Federal Railroad Administations limits the top speeds a train may travel at depending on the condition of the track. To operate above 79 mph requires extensive maintenance expenditures, which is why most railroads don’t bother). 

Basically, using off the shelf technology over track already laid and owned avoids the huge start up costs and red tape that might get in the way. As a Libertarian, I’m hopeful that their Federal loan is denied and this project proceeds based solely off the private capital the company is able to muster. I’d love to see private rail succeed in the United States again and I feel that the time is right for a successful example that may tempt others to follow.

 

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Electric Freight Railroads in the US

An electric freight train in Russia

Any traveler to Europe or Asia is bound to notice that the majority of trains, passenger and freight alike, are electric. While there are many benefits to running electric trains, primarily in fuel and maintenance savings, there are also some severe costs: you must have expensive-to-install-and-maintain electric catenary wires along every foot of track along with the infrastructure to maintain electric current along those wires.

Electric trains are rare in the United States (the exception being Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor) and electric FREIGHT trains are almost unheard of. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t go into extreme detail on. Restrictions on locomotive construction during WWII, cheap fuel, and increasing government railroad regulations all contributed to the decline of what electric railroads did exist.

There are a few holdouts here and there, and a couple of honorable mentions no longer with us, which I will try to document for the interested reader. This is by no means a complete list, so feel free to send me any electric trains I may have missed.

1. Iowa Traction Railroad

One of Iowa Traction’s little steeplecabs switching a customer

At the turn of the century, short electric railroads connecting a city with outlying towns known as “interurbans” became all the rage in the United States.  Most of these went out of business in the 1930s with the rise of the automobile, but not the Iowa Traction Railroad. Known to fans as the “Last of the Interurbans”, it traces its origins back to 1896.  Iowa Traction has been trudging along between Mason City and Clear Lake, Iowa for over 100 years and since it quit carrying passengers in 1936, has survived entirely off freight revenue from local industries. Its four antique steeple-cab electric locomotives are all close to 100 years old, the newest one rolling out of the factory in 1923 and are dwarfed by modern freight cars. In fact, they are only powerful enough to carry a handful of loaded freight cars at a time! Iowa Traction was purchased in 2012 by a shortline railroad company who plans to extend its track and, of course, continue to use the classic electric locomotives.

2. Deseret Power Railway

The Deseret Power Railroad is a private electric railroad that was built in 1983 to haul coal from a mine in Colorado 30 miles to a power plant in Utah. This setup, as you can imagine, makes for an extremely cost-effective method of supplying fuel for the plant. It is an isolated railroad, meaning it solely exists on its own and has no connection to other railroads. Any new locomotives or equipment have to be brought in by truck, and in fact it almost lost one of its first two locomotives when the truck transporting it hit the guardrail on a bridge. The railroad carries no commodities other than coal and its one and only customer is the power plant. Next to the Iowa Traction, Deseret Power is probably the second most well-known electric freight railroad in the United States.

3. Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad

Much like the Deseret Power, the Black Mesa & Lake Powell is an isolated electric railroad that hauls coal to a power plant. It was constructed in the early 1970s and runs 78 miles from a mine near Kayenta, Arizona to a power plant at Page, Arizona, completely within the Navajo Nation.  The railroad operates 24 hours, running 3 roundtrip trains between the mine and power plant.

4. Najavo Mine Railroad

A rare photo of a Navajo Mine electric train

The Navajo Mine Railroad is another coal mine-powerplant electric railroad. It was built in the 1970s and operates across 14 miles of track within the Navajo Nation carrying coal from a mine to the Four Corners Generating Station. Due to its remote location and it not being very well known, information and photos of it are hard to come by.

5. Texas Utilities – Martin Lake [UPDATE]

One of TXU’s rare E25B locomotives hauling a loaded coal train

[It was brought to my attention that TXU Martin Lake has ended electric train operations. Sometime in the early 2000s, both mines were closed and now all coal comes in by BNSF diesel trains from outside sources.]

Another obscure coal-powerplant electric railroad can be found just a few hours away from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in Martin Lake, Texas. This railroad operated by the Texas Utilities Company branches out east and west from the Martin Lake power plant. The Western section runs from the power plant to a lignite coal loader at Oak Hill. The Eastern section runs to a lignite mine and a connection with BNSF railway. Unlike the other powerplant railroads, this one carries commodities other than coal – mainly ash from the powerplant, and rocks to mix with the lignite coal. It also receives coal trains from BNSF carrying high-quality Powder Basin coal from Wyoming. This small railroad is virtually unknown, nearly entirely located on Texas Utilities property, and away from any major city, with few public places to photograph it from.

Another random fact about the TXU is that operates the extremely rare General Electric E-25B locomotive, the last electric freight locomotives built in the United States. Only 7 were built, all of them for Texas Utilities.

[TXU runs another smaller electric railroad operation much similar to this one at Mt. Pleasant, Texas. I didn’t include it to save space and to not be so repetitive.]

—Honorable Mentions—

The Milwaukee Road

MILW’s famous “Little Joe” electric locomotives gave 24 years of service

The Milwaukee Road was a Midwestern railroad famous for running electric freight trains across some of the most unforgiving terrain in the United States. In the early 1900s, faced with several competitors who had transcontinental railroads, the MILW decided to pursue its own route to the West and, to gain an edge over its fellow roads, it was going to build the shortest route from Chicago to Seattle. The catch was the route would cross some of the most rugged parts of the Rockies. Then, in 1912, the financially weak Milwaukee made another bold move: it decided to spend a huge sum of money to completely electrify this Pacific Extension, as it was known.

The idea wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. The steep, curvy mountain grades were too difficult for large powerful steam locomotives to navigate, so trains had to use smaller, weaker engines. This required extra steam locomotives, called helper units, to be standing by to help push these under-powered trains over the mountains. The expense of keeping these extra locomotives, crews and maintenance facilities at every mountain pass was extremely expensive. On the other hand, electric locomotives were more powerful than steam, were more effective at peak power, didn’t require as much maintenance, didn’t require coal or water, and were unaffected by the cold.  Another benefit was the regenerative braking technology that allowed electric locomotives to reverse their generators, using its downhill momentum to generate power, which not only helped slow the train without using brakes but also returned electricity to overhead lines, reducing energy costs.

The ambitious project was extremely expensive for the company (about $300,000,000 in today’s dollars), but in the end over 500 miles of the Pacific Extension was electrified. The savings were astounding – costs went down 54% per mile for passenger trains and 74% per mile for freight trains and traffic capacity increased 100%. The regenerative braking reduced energy costs by 12% and saved thousands of dollars on brake pads. These advantages helped the MILW ship freight cheaper than any of its competitors.

Abandoned MILW Electric Substation

Unfortunately, this story has a sad ending. Despite the remarkable benefits and accomplishments of their electrified system, in the early 1970s management decided to shut down electric operations and scrap the copper overhead wires, claiming that the cost of making repairs and necessary upgrades to the now 50 year old system was too high. Between 1972 and 1974, the electric infrastructure was dismantled, but as fate would have it, traffic started increasing and then the 1973 Oil Crisis struck. Hit with the double whammy costs of buying brand new diesel locomotives to replaced the scrapped electric ones and the skyrocketing cost of fuel, the Milwaukee Road had to declare bankruptcy in 1977 and by 1986 it was no more, all its lines being abandoned or sold off to new owners.

The tragic irony here is that their electric route connecting the Midwest with the West Coast would have been an indescribable competitive advantage over its diesel-burning rivals during the oil crisis and with the coming traffic increases could have helped the company prosper. Ending their bold electrification scheme was the worst possible decision at the worst possible time.

Muskingum Electric Railroad

Only two of these E50 locomotives were ever made, both for Muskingum Electric

The Muskingum Electric was a coal-powerplant electric railroad operating in Ohio. It began operations in the late 1960s and is unique for using fully automatic, driverless trains. Its two “robot trains” trains shuttled back and forth 30 miles between a strip mine and a large powerplant at Beverly, Ohio. Sensors placed in the track controlled the train’s movements and horns at crossings and slowed it down at the coal loading and unloading points. The railroad had specially built hopper cars to put on the back of the train with headlights and horns built into them so that the trains could legally run backwards without needing an engine on the front.

The MERR remained in operation until 2002, when the coal mine ran out of economically recoverable coal. Its two rare General Electric E-50 locomotives, the only two ever built, were both scrapped, unfortunately. To this day, there has never been another fully automatically “robot” freight train in the United States, so for that reason alone the MERR should get cool points.

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