Transportation

They’re Parking the Trains. And the Ships and Planes and Trucks…

gc2smOff the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on May 10, 2016

(Image from Google Earth)

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It’s a picture that’s worth a thousand choruses of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Here in the Seventh Straight Successful Year of the Recovery from the Great Recession, tucked into a corner of the Arizona Desert, is a line of parked Union Pacific locomotives. It was discovered on Google Earth, so it is, as they say, visible from space. There are 292 of them, baking in the sun like so many dinosaur skeletons, in a line stretching almost five miles. They, and the people who used to run them, are now “excess capacity” for one of the country’s largest freight haulers. In this, the Seventh Straight Successful Year of the Great Recovery.

No one should be surprised. But even when you know that trade — the buying and selling of stuff — has been slowing down all over the world for years, it is startling to see such stark, graphic evidence that we are all in deep trouble.

Only two people I know of seem to understand the root of this problem: Henry Ford and Howard Davidowitz. Ford, according to persistent legend, doubled his workers’ wages because he realized that if they weren’t making enough money to afford to buy one of his cars he would go out of business. (Never mind whether the story is true or not, it contains an important truth.) Davidowitz, a world class consultant to retail merchants, said upon analysis he found that the problem was that the consumers on whom everyone is relying to save the economy don’t have — and I’m quoting here — “any fucking money.”

Lord knows we’ve tried to help, mainly by allowing him to borrow more. We showed him how to use his house as an ATM cash dispenser until he was so far in debt and under water he tanked the economy of most of the civilized world. We raised the limits on his credit cards until they were all maxed out. We made financing a new car easier than buying a gun in Chicago, and that worked for a while.

But. Everything has to be paid for, eventually. Borrowed money has to be returned, eventually, along with the interest. That’s not just a theory, like evolution. It’s a fact, like gravity.

We and much of the rest of the world have turned ourselves into a consumer economy just when the world’s consumers, like the unfortunate pilot, ran out of airspeed, altitude and ideas. A nation of bartenders and short-order cooks is unable to support the shopping malls we have provided for them.

How did we ever convince ourselves that we could prosper by consuming, without making anything? Now that we know we can’t, what are we going to do? Elect Donald Trump?

A Cargo (Bike) Cult

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

 
In days of yore cargo bike racing was a big thing in Copenhagen, something that is being resurrected by Harry vs Larry, whom I pinched this image from 

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on October 20, 2012

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It’s an interesting experience living in a country as it slowly but surely wakes up to the fact that it is not immune from the economic storm clouds that are building. Here in Denmark politicians have finally realized that the country cannot support such a cumbersome public sector in such straitened times, and that something’s gotta give.
 
For anyone unfamiliar with the Scandinavian model of ordering society, it can basically be summarized thus: high taxes, high benefits, high standard of living. I’ve written about it extensively in my old blog (which I may provide some archive files of, if anyone’s interested) – so much so that it makes me exhausted even contemplating it. It’s the kind of society that makes liberals swoon with envy and free market conservatives boil with righteous anger.
 
I used to get my daily dose of right-wing trollery from – sorry to say it – resident Americans who had fallen into the Danish honey trap but were now living out their tortured ‘prison sentence’ existences in this socialist utopia. How dare they have a well-ordered society where nobody is stinking rich and nobody is poor? It flies in the face of all logical reason!! It’s communism, I tell you!!
 
At the other end of the scale are the dreamy liberals who came to this land of social mobility, sexual equality, eco consciousness and tasteful shabby chic design, convinced that they have entered the Holy Land – and their faith is similarly unshakeable.
 
In the middle, of course, are the Danes. For them, this is just normality.
 
But now, it turns out, that normality which once seemed so unshakeable is increasingly unaffordable. It’s a basic tenet of politics in Denmark that socialism rules the roost. Even the Conservative Party would be considered pinko commies by American standards – and the far-right Danish People’s Party could be aptly described as, ahem, national socialists – although they don’t appreciate the nomenclature.
 
Thus an unholy row has broken out about something called dagpenge. Now dagpenge (pronounce dow-peng) means literally ‘day money’ – that’s unemployment benefit to me and you. If you lose your job, or quit it, you are liberally showered in the stuff. I did just that two years ago and was entitled to about $2,000 a month – and practically all I had to do to earn it was click a button on a website once a month to say ‘I want some more please’. This was great and I could have carried on for five years, if I had wanted.
 
Problems have arisen, however, because it turns out that when too many people click that button, the few people left in full time employment have trouble paying for it. It’s pretty obvious stuff, really, but it could only work in the same manner as a Ponzi scheme in an ever expanding economy. Thus the (socialist) government has now declared that the maximum length of time you will be allowed to claim this money is two years. In reality this means that a large hole has suddenly appeared in the safety net that a country used to womb to tomb entitlement could never have dreamed of until recently.
 
As a result political scalps aplenty are being eviscerated. Most of the main parties (and, oh, there are many parties here) realise that such a bloated system of welfare cannot continue in its present form, but just can’t bring themselves to do anything about it. The left wingers and communists, however, want the period to be extended and for things to carry on as normal, printing money if need be. It’s a very familiarly depressing scenario and there’s nary a news bulletin without some mention of it.
 
But the country’s underlying economic woes have serious structural problems. We can also add into the cauldron of troubles the fact that many of the country’s biggest employers are packing up and moving overseas where employees come cheaper and there aren’t so many regulations. This is further inflating the jobless figures (which, by the way, are semi fantasy because they don’t include all of those who are put on educational schemes or the ‘before time’ pensioners, some of whom are in their 20s) and reducing the tax base like a snake eating its tail.
 
As if that were not embarrassing enough, unfortunate Denmark is surrounded by economic over-achievers! To the south is smoke-belching Germany, where Chinese millionaires are standing in line to buy luxury cars, and to the north are Sweden, with its huge natural resources, and Norway, ditto but with lots of oil as well. 
 
Okay, so Denmark has some large factory fur farms, is big on biotechnology, pig ‘production’ and Lego – but it remains to be seen which of these industries can stay the course as they all rely on low oil prices, a stable trading environment and generous government subsidies.
 
Oh, and it also has Vestas – the wind power company – but even that has lost 95% of their value since 2008. That just leaves Bang & Olufsen, Carlsberg, Maersk, Lurpak, Aragorn and The Barbie Song.
 
Anyway, given the guaranteed fact of our low energy future in which most of those energy slaves we enjoy the services of today will die off, I thought I would simultaneously do my bit for the environment, secure my transport future and provide a tiny boost to one small area of Denmark’s manufacturing industry in one fell swoop. Yes, I bought myself a cargo bike.
 
I have been considering buying one for quite a while. They are very common on the streets of Copenhagen, and are used to carry everything from children and shopping, to pets and, er, expanded polystyrene. 
 
 
 
 
But with so many models available now I was having trouble figuring out which one to go for. Ignoring the cheap-looking Chinese made ones that have appeared of late (look closely at the welding and components and you’d want to ignore them too), I narrowed it down to the most popular four different brands I regularly see around me. These were as follows:

 
A Christiania Bike at work. Image courtesy of Copenhagenize
Christiania Bikes. This is the original three wheeler cargo bike. Constructed with a sturdy frame in a workshop within the sprawling commune of Christiania in Copenhagen, these are the original road warriors and have been trundling the bike lanes of the city for around 40 years. They are no-nonsense affairs, with internal gears (which is the standard on Danish bikes – meaning you have to exert backwards pressure on the pedals backwards to brake, and you don’t get the gears gunged up with crud)  and come in any colour as long as it is black. Actually, that’s not quite true any more, and you can get them in various pastel colours, if you are that way inclined. They can carry loads of up to 100kg.

 
The Sorte Jernhest. Image courtesy of this blog
Sorte Jernhest. This means Black Iron Horse in Danish, and is a cargo bike that means business. Like the Christiania Bike, it is solid and looks like it is built to last. It’s a bit more stylish than the former, with a nice looking horizontal tube frame and an industrial looking finish on the front metal box. I have never actually tried one of these out but I was tempted to go it for this because of its mix of durability and cool name. Just like the others on the market, they are not cheap, but they cost practically nothing to run and are unlikely to seriously break down in the short or medium term.

 
The Nihola Bike. Image from this blog
Nihola Bike. This is ostensibly another copy of the Christiania Bike and is manufactured in a workshop in Copenhagen. In my journalist days I went down and met the owner and he lent a few of the bikes to the newspaper for delivery purposes during the COP15 climate conference.  The design is modern and the gears work well, but to my mind the ride felt a bit ‘tinny’ and it felt like I was going to fall off when I went around a corner. Still, nice design and quite practical. I’d say they would be fine for city use and light loads, but they are not really designed for heavy, dirty work.

 
The Bullitt Bike – image from here
Bullitt Bike. This was the last of the cargo bikes I considered. Unlike the other three this is a low-slung , long-based two-wheeler, and the cargo section is in the middle. Like the name says, these go like a bullet, and are by far the fastest of the lot. What’s more, the gearing is phenomenal and being a recumbent means you can deliver more of your leg muscle power to where it’s needed. They come in a variety of colours and models and are seriously slick. I was very tempted by the Bullitt, but what put me off in the end was the price tag, combined with the fact that a bike this flashy is bound to get stolen.
 
 
So, in the end I went with my gut feeling and opted for the solid traditional hippiemobile – the Christiania Bike. The reasons for this are manifest. I shall list them as bullet points:
 
  •            It’s a tried and tested technology. If you can still see 40 year old Christiania Bikes rumbling around the streets you know that this is a bike that is built to last.
  •            It can carry a load of up to 100kg (probably more) with no problems. I will need to be able to move this amount of weight up to 20 miles every day, and it would seem ideal for it. Plus, with a single big handlebar, getting off and pushing is always an option.
  •            I want the option of being able to fit an assisting electric motor on it in the future, and the large exposed back wheel provides plenty of space to do so. The bike is fine in flat areas like Copenhagen, but it would be seriously hard to ride it up a steep hill, fully laden, without some kind of power assist.
  •            I like its black no-nonsense design and the fact that you could easily sell things out of the front box area as it is a deep box with sides that slope forwards, making presentation of the goods easy.
  •            I love Christiania. It’s a truly inspiring place to be that shows what people can achieve against all the odds (expect a long post about Christiania soon) and I want to help support its survival.
 
And so I found myself down in Christiania a couple of weeks ago hopping over puddles and sniffing the tang of marijuana on the crisp October air as I searched the flowery back streets for the Christiania Bike workshop. I entered a large brick building where overalled women were busy twisting lengths of metal and scrap objects and turning them into works of art to go on sale. I asked one lady where the bike workshop was and she pointed me to a glass door at the back and told me to just go on through. Once I’d found my way in, Jens, the manager, showed me to my new steed, which was stacked up with a consignment of others (see below).
 
 
Selling like hot cakes at the Christiania Bike workshop in Copenhagen.  That’s my bike, ready to go, in the foreground.
 
There was a bit of paperwork to go through (like paying for it) and I asked Jens how business was. He said it was pretty brisk, all things considered, and they were flat out busy with new orders (the bikes used to be made here but nowadays they are made ‘offshore’, meaning on the quaint Danish island of Bornholm, and then shipped to the mainland for assembly in Christiania). It was good to hear that they are still doing well despite all of the competition out there nowadays – five years ago these were practically the only cargo bikes you ever saw.
 
As I rode out of Christiania and joined the rush hour commuter traffic (mostly other bikes) on one of the main arteries of the city I felt like I was riding on a wave of euphoria. The steering took a bit of getting used to, and I learned that you have to lean back a little as you turn to avoid overbalancing the bike and falling off. But apart from that it felt fine to ride, and very light. Having ridden (driven?) much larger bikes during one summer spent as a rickshaw driver in Copenhagen, I was used to being a bike lane hog, although the Christiania Bike is narrow enough to allow others to pass, so this isn’t a problem.
 
Okay, so it’s just a black bike with a box on the front – but no, it’s a bit more than that – it’s a pretty low-risk security for the future. Just think: no fossil fuels to power it, no insurance, no parking fees, hardly any maintenance costs and no tax. And just riding it keeps you fit and your leg muscles bulging.
 
Okay, transport: tick. Done that, now onto the next thing …
 
 
Here’s my bike on its first ever job, earlier today – a 20km round trip to pick up a 19th century chair for my wife to restore.  It was an easy job but I can’t count on such light loads in the future.

A Few Insights Regarding Today’s Nuclear Situation

Off the Keyboard of Gail Tverberg

Published originally on Our Finite World on August 14, 2012

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord of the Diner

The issue of nuclear electricity is a complex one. In this post, I offer a few insights into the nuclear electric situation based on recent reports and statistical data.

Nuclear Electric Production Is Already Declining

Figure 1. World nuclear electric production split by major producing countries, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. FSU is Former Soviet Union.

According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, the highest year of nuclear electric production was 2006.

There are really two trends taking place, however.

1. The countries that adopted nuclear first, that is the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia, have been experiencing flat to declining nuclear electricity production. The countries with actual declines in generation are Japan and some of the countries in Europe outside of France.

2. The countries that began adopting nuclear later, particularly the developing countries, are continuing to show growth. China and India in particular are adding nuclear production.

The long-term trend depends on how these two opposite trends balance out. There may also be new facilities built, and some “uprates” of old facilities, among existing large users of nuclear. Russia, in particular, has been mentioned as being interested in adding more nuclear.

Role of Nuclear in World Electricity

Nuclear provides a significant share of world electricity production, far more than any new alternative, making a change from nuclear to wind or solar PV difficult. If nuclear electricity use is reduced, the most likely outcome would seem to be a reduction in overall electricity supply or an increase in fossil fuel usage.

Figure 2. Based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy

Nuclear is the largest source of world electricity after fossil fuels and hydroelectric, comprising about 12% of total world electricity. Wind amounts to about 2% of world electric supply, and solar (which is not visible on Figure 2) amounts to one-quarter of one percent (0.25%). “Other renewable” includes electricity from a variety of sources, including geothermal and wood burned to produce electricity. These can’t be scaled up very far, either.

Note that even with the growth of renewables, there is still very substantial growth in fossil fuel use in recent years. If nuclear electricity use is reduced, fossil fuel use may grow by even a greater amount.

Role of Nuclear in Countries that Use Nuclear

The world situation shown in Figure 1 includes many countries that do not use nuclear at all, so the countries that do use nuclear tend to generate more than 12% of their electricity from nuclear. This means that if a decision is made to move away from nuclear, an even larger share of electricity must be replaced (or “be done without”).

Figure 3. Based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

For example, in the Untied States (Figure 3), nuclear now amounts to about 19% of US electricity production, and is second only to fossil fuels as an electricity source. US nuclear production tends to be concentrated in the Eastern part of the US, so that nuclear amounts to 30% to 35% of electric production along the US East Coast. This would be very difficult to replace by generation from another source, other than possibly fossil fuels.

For countries that are planning to reduce their nuclear generation, nuclear electricity as a percentage of total electric production in 2010  are as follows:

  • Germany, 22%;
  • Switzerland, 37%;
  • Belgium, 52%; and
  • Japan 25%.

Unless these countries can count on imports from elsewhere, it will be difficult to make up the entire amount of electricity lost through demand reduction, or through a shift to renewables.

Nuclear Electric Plants that are “Paid for” Generate Electricity Very Cheaply

Nuclear power plants for which the capital costs are already “sunk” are very inexpensive to operate, with operating costs estimated at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Any kind of change away from nuclear is likely to require the substitution of more expensive generation of some other type.

The electrical rates in place today in Europe and the United States today take into account the favorable cost structure for nuclear, and thus help keep electrical rates low, especially for commercial users (since they usually get the best rates).

If new generation is added to substitute for the paid off nuclear, it almost certainly will raise electricity rates. These higher rates will be considered by businesses in their decisions regarding where to locate new facilities, and perhaps result in more of a shift in manufacturing to developing nations.

Germany’s Experience in Leaving Nuclear

It is too early to know exactly what Germany’s experience will be in leaving nuclear, but its early experiences provide some insights.

One cost is decommissioning. According to Reuters, German nuclear companies have made a total of $30 billion euros ($36.7 billion) in provision for costs related to the cost of dismantling the plants and disposing of radioactive materials. According to the same article, Greenpeace expects the cost may exceed 44 billion euros ($53.8 billion). If the amount of installed nuclear capacity in Germany is 20.48 million kilowatts (kW), the direct cost of dismantling the nuclear reactors and handling the spent fuel ranges from $1,792 to $2,627 per kW. This cost is greater than the Chinese and Indian cost of building a comparable amount of new reactor capacity (discussed later in this article).

David Buchanan of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies did an analysis of some of the issues Germany is facing in making the change. Germany was in an unusually favorable situation because it had a cushion of spare capacity when it decided to close its reactors. When Germany closed its oldest eight reactors, one issue it discovered was lack of transmission capacity to transfer wind energy from the North to areas in the South and Southwest of Germany, where the closed reactors were located. In addition, the system needs additional balancing capability, either through more natural gas generation (because gas generators can ramp up and down quickly), or more electric storage, or both.

In Germany, natural gas is an expensive imported source of energy. The economics of the situation are not such that private companies are willing to build natural gas generation facilities, because the economics don’t work: (a) renewables get first priority in electricity purchases and (b) electricity from locally produced coal also gets priority over electricity from gas, because it is cheaper.  If new gas generation is to be built, it appears that these plants may need to be subsidized as well.

Increased efficiency and demand response programs are also expected to play a role in balancing demand with supply.

Not All Countries Have the Same High Nuclear Electricity Costs

We don’t really know the cost of new nuclear electricity plants in the United States, because it has been so long since a new plants were built. The new reactors which are now under construction in the state of Georgia will provide a total of 2,200 MW of generation capacity at a cost estimated at $14.9 billion, which means an average cost of $6,773/kW.

In China and India, costs are lower, and may drop even lower in the future, as the Chinese apply their techniques and low-cost labor to bring costs down.  The World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its section on China makes the statement,

Standard construction time is 52 months, and the claimed unit cost is under CNY 10,000 (US$ 1500) per kilowatt (kW), though other estimates put it at about $2000/kW.

In the section on nuclear power for India, the WNA quotes construction costs ranging from $1,200/kW to $1,700/kW, using its own technology.

If we compare the cost of  US planned plants in Georgia to the Chinese and Indian plants, the cost seems to be three or four times as high.

These cost differences also appear in comparisons on a “Levelized Cost” basis. The EIA in its 2012 Annual Energy Outlook quotes an US expected levelized cost of nuclear of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), anticipated for facilities being constructed now. The section on the Economics of Nuclear Power of the WNA quotes levelized costs in the 3 to 5 cents per kWh range for China, depending on the interest rate assumed. A cost in the 3 to 5 cents range is very good, competitive with coal and with natural gas, when they are inexpensive, as they are now in the United States.

Some of China’s nuclear reactors were purchased from the United States, and thus will be higher in cost because of the purchased components. But knowing that China has a reputation for “reverse engineering” products it buys, and figuring out how to make cheap imitations, I expect that it  will be able to figure out ways to create low-cost reactors in the near future, whether or not it can do so today. So the expectation is that China and India will be able to make cheap reactors (probably without all the safety devices that some other countries currently require) for itself, and quite likely, eventually for sale to others. Sales of such reactors may eventually undercut sales by American and French companies.

Interest in Purchasing Reactors

The interest in purchasing electricity generation of all kinds is likely to be greater in developing countries where the economy is growing and the need for electricity generation is growing, than in the stagnant economies of the United States, Europe, and Japan. If we look at a graph of electricity production of Asia-Pacific excluding Japan, we see a very rapid growth in electricity use.

Figure 4. Asia-Pacific Excluding Japan Electricity by Source, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review.

The Middle East (Figure 5, below) is another area with an interest in nuclear. It too has shown rapid growth in electricity use, and a historical base of mostly fossil use for electricity generation.

Figure 5. Middle East Electricity by Source, based on data of the BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Use of Thorium Instead of Uranium Would Seem to be a Better Choice, if It Can be Made to Work

I have not tried to research this subject, except to note that research in this area is currently being done that may eventually lead to its use.

Uranium Production is a Problem

World uranium production fell a bit in 2011, relative to 2010, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Figure 6. World Uranium Production, based on data of the World Nuclear Association.

Production from Kazakhstan is becoming an increasingly large share of the total. Production in both the US and Canada declined in 2011. Spot prices have tended to stay low, in spite of the fact that an agreement that allowed the US to buy recycled Russian bomb material reaches an end in 2013. There are no doubt some stockpiles, but the WNA estimates 2011 production to equal to only 85% of current demand (including military demand).

Figure 7. World Uranium Production and Demand, in an image prepared by the World Nuclear Association.

A person would think that prices would rise higher, to incentivize increased production, but this doesn’t seem to be happening yet, at least. The uranium consulting firm Ux Consulting offers the following comment on its website:

The market that we now find ourselves in is like no other in the history of uranium. Production is far below requirements, which are growing. HEU [highly enriched uranium] supplies and the enrichment of tails material make up a large portion of supply, but the fate of these supply sources is uncertain. Supply has become more concentrated, making the market more vulnerable to disruptions if there are any problems with a particular supply source. Another source of market vulnerability is the relatively low level of inventory held by buyers and sellers alike.

The consulting firm ends the section with a pitch for its $5,000 report on the situation.

A person would like to think that additional production will be ramped up quickly, or that the US military would find some inventory. Markets don’t always work well at incentivizing a need for future production, especially when more or less adequate current supplies are available when Russian recycled bomb material is included. The discontinuity comes when those extra supplies disappear.

Riding the Rails on The Last Great Frontier

Discuss this post in the Frostbite Falls Daily Rant

As we come to the close of the Age of Oil and the automobile, the Older Technology of the Railroads is often held up as a possible solution, at least in the medium term.  Jimmy Kuntsler in particular is a fan of this idea.  In this article, I’m going to look at the many variables involved with a conversion back to Rail technology as an intermediate level solution to the more general collapse of other Transport Technologies more recently evolved, namely Air and Truck.

Today I took a trip with my students on the Alaska Railroad which runs a right of way from Seward all the way up to Fairbanks. We just did a small part of the trip, from Wasilla to Talkeetna. This right of way was carved out beginning in 1903, and has gone through a succession of Bankruptcies, and currently is Goobermint Owned by the State of Alaska, which bought it fromDa Federal Goobermint in 1985, which bought it out of Private ownership in 1967, after the 1964 Earthquake basically trashed the Anchorage Hub.

From Wikipedia

History

An Alaska Railroad steam locomotive crossing the Tanana River on the ice at Nenana just prior to completion of the railroad in 1923.

An Alaska Railroad passenger train rolling between Anchorage, Denali National Park and Fairbanks.

An Alaska Railroad EMD SD70MAC locomotive pulling into Denali Station.

In 1903 a company called the Alaska Central Railroad began to build a rail line beginning at Seward, near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, northward. The company built 51 miles (82 km) of track by 1909 and went into receivership. This route carried passengers, freight and mail to the upper Turnagain Arm. From there, goods were taken by boat at high tide, and by dog team or pack train to Eklutna and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. In 1909, another company, the Alaska Northern Railroad Company, bought the rail line and extended it another 21 miles (34 km) northward. From the new end, goods were floated down the Turnagain Arm in small boats. The Alaska Northern Railroad went into receivership in 1914.

About this time, the United States government was planning a railroad route from Seward to the interior town of Fairbanks. President Taft authorized a commission to survey a route in 1912. The line would be more than 470 miles long and provide an all-weather route to the interior.[8] In 1914, the government bought the Alaska Northern Railroad and moved its headquarters to “Ship Creek,” later called Anchorage. The government began to extend the rail line northward.

A 1915 photograph of the railroad under construction.

In 1917, the Tanana Valley Railroad in Fairbanks was heading into bankruptcy. It owned a small 45-mile (72 km) 3 ft  (914 mm) (narrow-gauge) line that serviced the towns of Fairbanks and the mining communities in the area as well as the boat docks on the Tanana River near Fairbanks.

The government bought the Tanana Valley Railroad, principally for its terminal facilities. The government extended the south portion of the track to Nenana and later converted the extension to standard gauge.

In 1923 they built the 700-foot (213 m) Mears Memorial Bridge across the Tanana River at Nenana. This was the final link in the Alaska Railroad and at the time, was the second longest single-span steel railroad bridge in the country. U. S. President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike that completed the railroad on July 15, 1923, on the north side of the bridge. The railroad was part of the US Department of the Interior.

The railroad was greatly affected by the Good Friday Earthquake which struck southern Alaska in 1964. The yard and trackage around Seward buckled and the trackage along Turnagain Arm was damaged by floodwaters and landslides. It took several months to restore full service along the line.[9]

In 1967, the railroad was transferred to the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within the newly created US Department of Transportation.

In 1985, the state of Alaska bought the railroad from the U.S. government for $22.3 million, based on a valuation determined by the US Railway Association. The state immediately invested over $70 million on improvements and repairs that made up for years of deferred maintenance. The purchase agreement prohibits the Alaska Railroad from paying dividends or otherwise returning capital to the state of Alaska (unlike the other Alaska quasi-entities: Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), and Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA)).

 

File:Alaska Railroad Map.PNGIf you look at the Map of the AK Railroad and what part of the State it actually covers, it is quite small really.  It just goes around 470 miles in a REALLY big patch of land.  Despite the great WEALTH of minerals in Alaska which even this short track of rail can transport, it STILL is not a really profitable venture overall, and less profitable all the time as the Energy to run it becomes ever more expensive.  Maintenance costs each year are horrendous, because the freeze-thaw cycle plays havoc with the tracks, and really the whole railroad track itself can only be used for maybe 6 months of the year.

Nevertheless, despite the fact it isn’t really Profitable and never has been, it is still LESS energy and materials consumptive than the road system is, as limited ALSO as this is up here in Alaska.  Laying right of way for even a 2 Lane road is quadruple what a Rail Track takes, and then it all has to be graded and paved over.  A Rail Track only takes Gravel, some wood ties, thin metal rails and spikes to hold them in place.  It is way simpler to build and less energy consumptive than Roadways are to build.

On the trip up, the conductor who has been riding this Railway for some 40 years pitched out stories along the way over the Intercom.  He throws out Newspapers along the way to people who have cabins and even McMansions along the route that are pretty much inaccessible by roads.  A bit of an anachronism now since just about for the whole route I was able to access 4G Wireless Internet so all those cabins also can access the net this way.

Anyhow, for the most part even in the fairly populated stretch between Wasilla and Talkeetna, this railroad line is the ONLY tie to “civilization” these folks have on a daily basis, and only for about half the year.  Rest of the time, they are pretty much cut off, and most of them will bring in their Supplies during the summer months by a variety of Oil powered means, 4 wheelers and Float Planes mostly since there are lakes all over the place to land a float plane on.  Once the fuel is no longer available for that transport, it seems unlikely to me that just the Railroad can supply these folks, though maybe it can with some adjustments.

What the railroad is mainly operating on now is the Tourist Trade, of which we were a small local part.  For each of us, it cost $70 to take the railroad all of about 50 miles of its total route, a 1.5 hour trip overall roughly.  Basically not a whole lot different length of travel than you would take on the LIRR Commuter Train if you live middle of Long Island.  That was for a ONE WAY trip, we took a Schoolbus back.

Obviously, without the Tourist Trade and people paying these exorbitant prices for the chance to look out the windows at the great beauty of the Last Great Frontier, making this Railroad run at a profit is probably impossible, at least under current Global monetary parameters anyhow.

I do suspect the Alaska Railroad will last longer than the Road system will though.  It can still be powered by Coal and Steam, in fact there is a plan in the works I believe to bring a Steam Powered Engine back on the tracks to pull a Tourist Train on this line.  Right now though, all the Trains both for Tourists and for Coal from the Healy Mine are pulled by Diesel-Electric Locomotives.  Impressive Machines they are also. It may be possible to keep these behemoths running for a while since there still is some Oil left on the Slope and perhaps some more also in ANWR, though without a huge infrastructure project to build pipelines into ANWR, even if the Oil is there getting it OUT will be close to impossible.  If the Oil can be retrieved, there is also a small Refinery around Fairbanks which can supply the rairoad with Diesel.  But of course also, there are all the Maintenance issues with these Locomotives, and I am not sure the local Foundries and metal shops are capable of doing a lot more than superficial repairs right now.

The isues with the climate and so forth are not as extreme with the rail system down in the Lower 48, but the system is of course also much larger.  Trying to maintain all this track and all the cars to pull MOSTLY bulk commodities will be extremely difficult, and getting either Diesel or Coal even to these trains will also become increasingly more expensive and difficult.  It may last longer than the Carz and Trucks, but it still always is and was a system that was subsidized by Cheap Energy, and in fact NEVER made a REAL Profit at anytime in its existence, even right at the beginning.  Building this system created a HUGE overhang of Debt, and Railroad Companies have been going Bust perpetually since the first Transcontinetal Railroad was built.  In the end, the remaining Railroad system that exists on a Passenger Level is Goobermint Owned pretty much exclusively now. Private Entrepreneurs don’t buy passenger railroads.  Even buying Commodity Shipping Railroads is a dicey proposition, ask Warren Buffet about that one with Burlington-Northern.

Regardless of ABSOLUTE profitability in Railroads though, on a Societal level with so many people in so many places we still do need some means to move goods to them, and Railroads can do this way better than Trucks and Planes can, to be sure.  Fact is, that like large Ships, Locomotives can be designed to run on Bunker Fuel, which is basically Unrefined Oil. Cars and Trucks and Planes can never run on Bunker Fuel.  Because of the SCALE of a Lcoomotive, it can burn virtually anything, and in fact could even be Nuke Powered.  Not that I support that idea, I am just saying it is way more flexible in it’s energy sourcing than the later transport schemes are.

As I walked around Talkeetna, it was very pleasant.  Even had its own Brewery!  For the exceedingly small population that lives in Talkeetna (even less than where I live in the lower Mat-Su Valley), I think they prbably can be self sufficient in most things and need little from the outside world to be delivered to them by train, even if the train only came through once a month or so during the summer months.  There IS plenty of energy to run trains along this 470 mile track for a long time to come, if you use Bunker fuel and the Coal in the Healy Mines to run Steam driven turbines instead of Diesel-Electric. It won’t last FOREVER, but it can provie a transtitionary mechanism for moving the comodities and trade goods as necessary between comunities.  NOT a People Mover.  Like the Carz, trains are a big waste of energy to move Peoples around, and peoples do not NEED to move around so much over such great distances.  perhaps it should be as it once was, a Once in Lifetime thing to make a Great Journey out beyond your Little Town, and that which only a few Adventurous Souls would undertake at all to begin with.  WHY do you realy need to leave the Little Town of Talkeetna anyhow?  Or the Little Town of Anatevka for that matter either?

Unfortunately of course, the Little Town of Talkeetna will suffer here quite soon as the Tourist Trade drops off the Map, and while overall I think it could be Self-Sufficient, MOST of the people currently living there are not READY for such a life yet.  So what is most likely to occur is that Talkeetna will in fact DEPOPULATE,and the Railroad if it manages to continue onward will stop there No More.  Many Cabins are going Empty now as the economics spin downward.

Talkeetna and places like it though, while they will not be comfortable or all that pleasant once this spin down really gets rolling are WAY better places to be than the Big Shities.  Truly, this is the LAST GREAT FRONTIER.  In my heart, I believe that anyone who wil make it through the Zero Point will be living in places like this, at the far edge of industrial civilization bordering on the full primitive.  I am GLAD I am here now, I am GLAD the course of my life brought me to this wonderful place where there remains some semblance of the purity that once existed on this Planet.  So much is GONE now, and it will not be repaired in even the lifetimes of our Grandchildren in the places Industrialization and Capitalism have already destroyed it.  Not gone here though, not completely, not YET on the LAST GREAT FRONTIER.

RE

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