Golden Age of Rail

Is the Golden Age of Rail really over for good? If the air passenger industry doesn’t reinvent itself soon, might rail again be the next really big thing?

I saw one of those grand old railroad nostalgia specials on PBS earlier this week. This one was America and the Passenger Train (Producer: Richard W. Luckin):

“This program traces the development of America’s passenger trains from 1830 to 2008 through interviews and vintage footage. Many leading experts from the railroad industry and railroad museums are interviewed – along with people who rode the 20th Century Limited, Super Chief, California Zephyr and the Daylight. Hosted by Tia Marier.”

I grew up right at the tilting-point of those great railroad days. The elegant 1920’s dining-car experiences you can watch on “Poirot” had already mostly disappeared. American rail still offered a luxury service for the well-heeled traveler right up to about 1970. And I was never “well-heeled” anyway.

But by 1970, the automobile and commercial air travel had cut so heavily into rail passenger revenues that many railroads just tossed in the towel. Some railroads hung in there for a while, feeling that even as a “loss leader” the elegance and leisure of rail travel was a great public relations boon.

It was, but it wasn’t enough. The glamor and excitement of air travel, coupled with half-day coast-to-coast travel, spelled doom for long-distance rail travel. People no longer had time to travel by train. Today, it’s theoretically possible for an executive to jet from San Francisco to New York, attend a short conference or board meeting, and jet home to San Francisco in time for dinner.

Theoretically possible, but dehumanizing. There are new barriers and obstacle courses for air travel that didn’t exist two decades ago. Add an extra hour of wait time at each airport, security checks, baggage delays, penurious overhead luggage storage, hidden extra fees for pillows, blankets, soft drinks and suitcases, a generally indifferent and sometimes hostile airline service bureaucracy, and unscheduled flight delays and cancellations. What you have is a disenchanted public and a formula for the next great revolution in travel, whatever that may be.

There’s no question airlines are feeling the pinch of fuel costs. We all are, But the industry’s troubles started way back when oil was well below $60 a barrel, not $100+ as it is today. “The economy” or not, airlines manufactured most of their own problems.

I shuttled back and forth from my Bay Area to Phoenix for over two decades. Apart from infrequent “frequent flyer” upgrades to First Class, I traveled in Steerage, or whatever euphemism they were currently applying to the cattle-car section of the main cabin. I’m only 5’8″ and 150 pounds, yet economy air seats were uncomfortably cramped even for me. I found the last several years of this to be really quite dreadful. One thing all we passengers loved to talk about was the deterioration of air service.

My long-distance rail travel was limited to an aged troop train during the Cuban Crisis, hardly illustrative of the Golden Age of rail travel. But I used and liked “light rail” a lot in the 1990’s; the SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a generally delightful experience. What I liked about it: you got on your train, traveled to your destination, and got off the train again. It’s that simple.

And who, desiring to hop BART from Oakland to San Francisco, has ever had to shop Travelocity to get the best price for a ticket? If you look at USAir quotes for a no-frills flight to Phoenix over the period of a few weeks, you’ll see what a shell game the ticket pricing racket really is. And we’re their “marks.”

Air travel has something in common with CostCo, apart from the difference that CostCo employees are polite. Sure, you can save money at a CostCo, particularly if you spend a lot there, but there’s one thing you cannot claim. No one has ever parked at a CostCo, dashed in to buy an item, and dashed back out again. That huge warehouse selection means endless corridors in a vast enclosed space, pushing carts for miles and miles “just looking” for your shopping list, and long lines at the check-outs. Airports are designed for compartmentalized efficiency. Think of a REALLY huge warehouse containing a Home Depot, CostCo, Safeway, and a Fry’s Electronics, and you have an idea of what the modern airport is really about. It is NOT designed for passenger convenience.

Call me disenchanted, disaffected, or disgruntled. For my money, the commercial airline industry can abandon interstate air passenger traffic – something it hasn’t been very good at for over 20 years – leaving it free to concentrate on air freight, the more lucrative and uncomplaining cash cow.

This is exactly what the railroads had to do half a century ago, though for different reasons. Is it too much to hope we’ve come full circle?

Would the next big thing be high-speed rail? At 220-360 mph, a bullet train will never beat a 600 mph jetliner to the destination, but when you factor in terminal delays and flight cancellations, it comes close. There are more security options, too, including disconnecting the locomotive entirely. A terrorist can’t just hijack a railroad train and crash it into a World Trade Center. If someone pulls the emergency cord, all the passengers can just get off: what are terrorists supposed to do about that? “Take me to Cuba”: not spoken on the rail lines.

You can also electrify rail lines and run them on clean renewable energy. Air traffic consumes tanker-loads of fossil fuels. Aviation will be the last  sector of the energy economy to be switched over, if ever.

Think about rail. There is just something really dangerously attractive about getting on, traveling to your destination, and just getting off again.

1,145 total views, no views today

Politically Strange Weather Year

It’s raining here right now. No, not drizzle – you can hear the rain dripping off the eaves. Shhhhh, the National Weather Service web page doesn’t know about this yet. For my area, they’re forecasting an iffy 30% chance of rain tomorrow, and patchy fog today. But what’s the forecast for the next 10 years, or 100?

Today, maybe we’ll get enough of the wet stuff I won’t have to water. The American Southwest could use more of this stuff. According to a randomly selected chart, “Cool-season Precipitation in the Southwestern USA since AD 1000“, precipitation follows a roughly 10-year cycle and (alarmingly) we are nearing a peak of a good cycle.  The paper is posted by  the University of Arizona (tree ring research), and copyright by the Royal Meteorological Society.
Continue reading

1,031 total views, no views today

Bric-A-Brac

  • Site Outage Reminder: our web host provider is taking our site offline for a four-hour outage, sometime Sunday evening or the early hours of Monday morning.
  • Gasoline Taxes: according to the American Petroleum Institute, Californians pay the highest gasoline tax per gallon of any state in the nation, above even Hawaii and New York. In cents per gallon (selected states):  CA- 48.6, HI-45.1, ME-31.0, MA-23.5, AZ-19.0, MO-17.3, WYO-14.0.
  • Due Diligence: There’s a reason why professional pollsters don’t hire drunks in internet chat rooms to conduct their polls. The next time you receive an e-mail poll, petition or “statement”, you can certainly chuck it into the junk mail or trash. But what if you think you approve? Unless you make a habit of doing everything others tell you to do, don’t just “SEND THIS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW”. Research it yourself. Are the claims true? To debunk urban myths,  www.snopes.com is a good place to start. Don’t embarrass yourself by unwittingly forwarding internet trash mail!
  • Dark matter: Yep, astrophysicists think the Hubble Space Telescope has photographed it, and they think they know what it may be. You’ve seen photos of those squiggly lines in “bubble chambers” – the impact area of high energy particle colliders, cyclotrons and atom-smashers? This high-energy shower of subatomic sparks doesn’t just evaporate. Accumulated over the 13.7 billion year lifespan of our universe, from all of the collisions and supernovas that ever existed, we may have found the “smoking gun” responsible for an expanding universe.

887 total views, no views today

Schrödinger’s Cat and Less Famous Felines

  • Amazing science, heard on the ra-didio the other day: folks with insomnia, and others who subsist on too few hours of sleep each night, tend to put on the pounds – compared to skinnier counterparts who get in their traditional eight hours a night. What about the obvious fact that “fat cat” sleeper A is presumably eating or snacking an extra couple of hours or so every day, compared to sleeper B, who by definition is fasting? The radio report just didn’t say.
  • The December Scientific American did a bit on Hugh Everett, who first (and controversially) proposed that the split between quantum physics and classical physics was needless. In the quantum world, the mathematical position of a particle in space and time may have either of one or two states, depending on its interaction with an observer. Superposed particle waves might be said to exist in two states at once. In the classical “macro” world that we know, an object may be at position A, or B, but never both at the same time.
  • You may think this pure twaddle, but as it turns out that math of the quantum world works beautifully, while the math of the classical world falls flat, in describing and predicting actual experimental quantum results. Everett’s way to reconcile this monstrous theoretical contradiction was to postulate alternative universes, where both macro states exist at the same time, but in parallel and diverging worlds. For this effort, Everett was theoretically lynched in absentia by the scientific community.
  • After being egged on by Albert Einstein, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger hatched up his famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. A geiger counter is rigged to detect the decay of a subatomic particle. If the particle decays, the geiger counter triggers release of a poison gas, which kills the cat. If the particle doesn’t decay, the cat lives. But, if in the quantum world we have to entertain the possibility of a particle in two different states at once, don’t we have to admit to the possibility of a dead-and-alive cat existing in both possible states at once?
  • My brother (who is neither as famous as Schrödinger or Einstein singularly, nor as both at the same time) was grudgingly adopted by a stray cat sometime in the 1980’s. People would say, “Oh, what a beautiful cat you have! What’s its name?” My brother would answer, “That’s not my cat”. They would say, “Yes, but what is the name of the cat?” And he would answer, “That’s not my cat“, for that indeed turned out to be the name of the cat.
  • As mean and hurtful as it sounds, there’s still more than one way to skin a cat (but not my cat). Happily, unless your cat is about the size of a subatomic particle, it can still only be skinned, so to speak, one way at a time.

807 total views, no views today

Old and New

Remember the Ice Man? This is the unfortunate neolithic hunter who died in the Alps some 5,300 years ago, becoming entombed in glacial ice until recently, when he was discovered by some hikers as the ice thawed. He became the world’s most perfectly preserved specimen of early european man, and the object of much study in the scientific community. We know what he ate, in which valleys he traveled enroute to his alpine ice grave (due to microscopic pollens found only in specific locales), what he wore, and now, the medical or forensic cause of death.

Forensic examination and CAT scans showed that he was shot in the back by an arrow. The human back is a particularly unfortunate way to be bushwhacked when you are alone, as you cannot reach the wound site to staunch blood flow, or, possibly, pull out the arrow. Once we realized he was bushwhacked, and hadn’t simply fallen into an ice crevasse as first speculated, the question was: was this the fatal wound, or did he carry the arrow into the mountains?

The CAT scan showed that the arrow hit an artery, maybe two, causing an aneurysm and massive hematoma (blood loss). It appears our Ice Man died within a few minutes of being struck down. A remarkable job of modern forensics on a 5,300 year old crime scene.


Driving home after work yesterday afternoon, I slowed down eastbound on the San Mateo Bridge instead of accelerating around what looked like a local bottleneck in the fast lane. Good thing. Seconds later, traffic came to a stop in all three lanes. I turned on the radio to see what was going on. In time, KCBS reported that “The Hayward Accident” was almost cleared. Finally, on land in the East Bay, I saw the mop-up in the opposite, westbound lanes. Our lanes were blocked only by rubber-neckers. For once, instead of being irritated, I saw why.

They had loaded one of the vehicles onto a flatbed. It had been a medium-size sedan of some kind. The front and back ends looked like aluminum foil tinsel that had been run through a shredder, or, if you will, a threshing machine. This vehicle wasn’t just smashed. It was cut to shreds. The passenger compartment was mostly intact. I never found out what happened, but memory of what I saw should make me a more cautious driver.


Speaking of threshing machines: about the time of Ice Man, contemporaries in warmer climes were figuring out how to domesticate wild grasses to produce foodstuff such as wheat and barley. As explained in the August 2007 Scientific American, in the domestication of cereal grains our ancestors favored annual grasses, perhaps because of bigger seeds, and we have favored annuals ever since. It started the annual cycles of cultivation, plowing, fertilization, tillage and harvest that we understand so well today. It also forced the hand of natural selection, favoring the grasses that bore the characteristics we favored for foodstuffs and ease of processing.

All this agriculture displaced huge land amsses populated by perennial grasses, such as found on the prairies of North America. It turns out that perennials are very much an Al Gore kind of plant. Perennials grow roots down to a depth of one or two meters, as opposed to perhaps a few inches to a foot for annuals. They require far less fertilization and irrigation, actually enrich the soil in which they grow, and make for an agriculturally much richer soil medium with a better texture and more nutrients for other plants in the ecology. To grow perennials, you do not need to resort to the expensive and destructive practice of turning and churning the soil every spring, nor of saturating it with nitrates and phosphates that ultimately poison the water table, and the soil does not blow or wash away as in modern fields.

It would seem that perennials are miracle plants that have been burned and plowed under for our more wasteful annuals. Indeed they are. Alas, we have spent five thousand years improving the annual seed stock through “natural” selection (the ones we plant are the ones that thrive) and through modern agricultural breeding and genetic research. Make no mistake, without modern plant hybridization, we could not produce or sustain ourselves much beyond near-starvation levels. It will take a while for science to come up with perennials that can produce comparable crops yields. But we have accumulated more agricultural and botanical know-how in the past 50 years than in the previous 5,000.

It won’t just be agribusiness that benefits from eliminating the enormously wasteful and polluting expense of plowing and fertilizing, but small farmers and poor sustenance farmers world wide. This could be the next big thing, comparable to the original domestication of plant foodstuffs. Imagine giant, cost-effective plains of cereal grasses, deeply rooted in their own moisture-preserving thicket of stable topsoil, stitched and bound together into a nutrient mat by those same root systems, that just keep producing and producing and producing … the Energizer Bunny of agriculture.

788 total views, no views today