Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Long Standing

As the days drag into weeks, oil continues its rush from the Gulf floor to the ocean above. The politicians point fingers, the residents along the Gulf Coast question response times and commitment, and the coastline waits for the slick to make landfall.

Amidst the chaos and noise, the economy of the region hinges on the effects and success of the spill containment. Oyster beds dot the area, shrimp fishing is common place. These are the economic realities that coexist with the environmental impacts.

The world economy thrives on readily available oil products that move cars, heat homes, even form the backbone for the many plastics that are relied on every day. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy reported that 28% of the U.S. energy use was consumed by the transportation sector alone [1]. Much of the transportation sector consists of internal combustion engines operating on the Otto or Diesel cycle. The staggering consideration is that many of these engines are only 35 to 40 % efficient [2]. For every gallon of gasoline consumed, nearly two thirds is wasted.

The remnants of one alternative is a long standing one, found out under the big skies of Montana. Now just a relic left in only a few places, the Milwaukee Road's electrification represents a different choice. In the photo above, the old line-side poles coexist with the catenary poles along an old stretch of mainline. Trains have not passed this way since 1980. Electrified trains have not passed this way since 1974. To many, the Milwaukee's decision to cease electrification cost the company its existence: on the eve of the fuel crisis of the 70s, the highly efficient electric lines were turned off, the powerful locomotives sidelined and scrapped.
This brought America's Resourceful Railroad back into line with all of its competitors and counterparts, ending the alternative means of propulsion at a time when it was, perhaps, most critical.

There are decades that span the gap between the crisis in the Gulf and the Resourceful Railroad's path to the west coast. Yet, at least in my mind, the events are linked in some strange way and the decisions that have been made have unarguably led us to this point. What will the next several decades hold? Is there any room for the long standing alternative still seen in lonely stretches of the West? Perhaps. Although it is unlikely that a Little Joe will be under wire any time soon.

1)EIA. Annual energy review 2007. Technical report, Energy Information Administration,, 2007.

2)C. Ferguson and A. Kirkpatrick. Internal Combustion Engines. John Wiley and Sons Inc., second edition,



OMA said...

Disconnects seem to happen when a concept appears when the world around is engaged in an alternative which, at the time, seems to be more attractive: ie cheap oil vs high capital investment in electric. Looking back, it does not make sense, but in the absence of a critical mass of like thinkers, some very good ideas fall by the wayside. Timing is everything!

SDP45 said...

I went out and looked for the depot at Ralston, WA 2 weeks ago, and it finally seems to be gone, after spending so many years away from the right-of-way in poor shape. One more piece is gone.