Rail Efficiencies

This is a guest post by Hans Noelder, a mechanical engineer and cofounder of the Madison Wisconsin Peak Oil Group. This is a link to Hans' blog, where this originally was posted.

Having recently traveled from my home near Madison, Wisconsin to Pontiac, Michigan using rail as much as possible (Metra commuter rail from Harvard, Illinois to Chicago and thence Amtrak to Pontiac) it is clear to me that investments in rail-based transportation could yield substantial environmental and social benefits in this region of the United States – primary among them a massive reduction in automobile-centric sprawl. The synergy between rail transit and dense, pedestrian-oriented urban habitat is especially clear in the Chicago heartland. Her leaders – God bless them! – never allowed their transit system to collapse, much less be systematically dismantled by transit-averse business interests.

However, I am troubled by the various claims I've seen over the years regarding energy consumption and CO2 emissions per passenger-mile for trains/streetcars versus automobiles versus airplanes.

Table 2.12 from Department of Energy's Transportation Energy Data Book #27 Click for larger image.

Environmental organizations and sustainability advocates routinely assert that energy consumption for passenger rail is much "greener" than driving or flying. But Tables 2.13 and 2.14 (summarized in 2.12, above) in the Department of Energy's Transportation Energy Data Book #27 indicate that existing Amtrak intercity passenger rail is only 25% more efficient than the fleet average for cars; furthermore, Amtrak is only 19% more efficient than air travel!

Given the greater-than 80% reductions in GHG emissions we need to achieve in the coming decades, and given the fact that new CAFÉ standards mandate a 40% improvement in the mileage of cars and SUVs by 2020, efficiency gains from passenger rail of 19% to 25% seem paltry. Moreover, due to basic laws of aerodynamics, the efficiency of high speed rail (i.e. trains moving at 150-300 mph) will inevitably be less than trains moving at 50-100 mph. While I cannot recall the source at present, I am quite sure I have seen credible data within the last five years which indicated that Bullet Trains in Japan were no more energy-efficient on a passenger-mile basis than airplanes.

Of course the real issue vis a vis energy and CO2 is the practical potential for these transportation modes in the future, not the existing efficiencies of each as currently deployed. During the past half-century, aerospace companies (with lavish financial support from the Department of Defense) have pursued the most ambitious research and development programs by far of any “transportation” industry in the United States. Along the way, improvements in engines, aerospace materials, and aircraft designs have yielded astonishing increases in the efficiency of air transport (almost ten-fold). And even though they vigorously marketed absurdly inefficient cars in the '60's and then gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks more recently, automobile companies also made notable investments in R&D during the same time period; consequently the energy efficiency of engines and transmissions were substantially improved. (It is the sheer size and weight of SUVs and pickup trucks which make them gas hogs, not their drive-trains.)

Meanwhile, passenger rail locomotives and rolling stock in our nation changed very little even as ridership plummeted (until recently) and domestic engineering activity all but ground to a halt. Thus we must ask how efficient our passenger trains could be if they were constructed with aerospace materials, up-to-date engineering, etc. What if hybrid drives and regenerative braking were widely deployed? What if more trains were electrified? What if the expansion of electrified rail were coordinated with upgrading the national electrical grid? Having languished for so long, surely our passenger railroads are ripe for major improvements!

And there are sound reasons to believe that investing in rail technologies rather than airplanes or automobiles is likely to produce the biggest efficiency gains overall. Thanks to many decades of top-notch engineering, aircraft have already approached their theoretical efficiency limits; thus spending billions more on R&D probably won't change efficiencies by more than a percent or two. Similar logic applies to automobile R&D generally, although electric cars and battery technologies might prove to be an excellent gamble. Even so, such breakthroughs in "automotive" technology might be used to equal or greater advantage in trains rather than cars. Given the nature of "fixed costs", it is usually much cheaper to install a particular technological improvement in a single unit – say, a locomotive that moves 250 people – than to install that improvement in many units – say, 250 cars that move 250 people.

Usage factors must be carefully considered also; the percentage of empty seats makes an enormous difference in passenger-miles per unit of energy or pound of CO2. (While the vehicle occupancy of automobiles cannot (yet!) be less than one, trains and airplanes often travel with relatively few passengers – and sometimes with none at all.) How much more usage-efficient is existing Amtrak service along the heavily-used Washington-Boston corridor versus lightly traveled routes in the "hinterlands"? How efficient is the best existing passenger rail in Europe? Japan? Practically speaking, what kind of usage factors could we expect for high-speed service along a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis route?

Given our worsening ecological circumstances, our unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and the prospects for a long and severe recession, America desperately needs facts rather than urban myths and "green-washing"; we need reality-based planning rather than cheerleading and poorly conceived, hastily-approved public works projects. We must thoroughly analyze the efficiencies of our existing transportation modes, soberly review existing and practically-achievable alternatives, and then responsibly choose those transportation arrangements our heirs can afford in the future. This is not the time to shoot from the hip, "wish upon a star", or print our money into hyperinflation!

And throughout it all we must never forget this elemental fact: proximity is the most efficient form of "transportation" that will ever exist. There is nothing like already being within a short stroll, a flight of stairs, or a quick bicycle ride from where we want to be. Our greatest challenge is to stop manufacturing so many "needs" for more complex, ecologically-disruptive forms of transportation in the first place!

This is a very nice article. Thanks for posting here.

I believe separate data are kept for passenger and freight efficiency. Do you have any comparisons for energy by weight by distance for truck, rail, ship and air?

The link is to Transportation Data Book 27. I believe this is the 27th edition of this book. Some of the exhibits give a history over the years of Btu/passenger mile, and how they have changed.

There are a few freight comparisons.

Exhibit 2.15 compares railroad to intercity waterborne commerce for freight. According to the table, railroad comes out ahead of waterborne freight, on a Btu per ton/mile basis. Rail is shown a 337 and waterborne commerce at 514. I do not understand exactly what kind of waterborne freight this is. The relationship seems strange. If it were ocean going freight, it seems like it would be lower. It may be that the waterborne freight there are looking at is only going a short distance, so there are big loading and unloading costs.

Exhibit 2.16 gives a Btu per "Heavy-single unit combination truck" mile. How much one can ship in a truck would depend on how dense the cargo is, so it is hard to directly compare.

I haven't looked at Transportation Data Books for other years. They may provide additional data.

The only way I can see water born freight having higher energy cost than rail is if the ships are made to travel very quickly. I would like some physicists and engineers to check my factoids, but I believe the following is true: While air resistance rises as a cube function of velocity (third power), with movement through water it rises as a function of the sixth power.

Hence, if ocean going vessels have been "pedal to the medal" they may be less efficient than rail freight, but if they slow down they could be much more efficient.

While air resistance rises as a cube function of velocity (third power), with movement through water it rises as a function of the sixth power.

I think the water case is more complicated. Fluid dissipation pretty much scales as the cube, but ships also have to contend with wave drag, whereby the ship creates a surface wave, that radiates energy away. The power in this wave, may vary with velocity, as the shape/wavelength of the wave interacts with the waterline of the ship. Those bulbous underwater blobs on the bows of ships can decrease wave drag, by displacing the bow wave ahead of the main body of the ship. I suspect all things being equal, that wave drag does increase pretty rapidly (I don't know if your sixth power is right). Nevertheless, the discussions of fuel saving for cargo ships that I've seen, seem to assume the cube law.

There's a thing called "Hull Speed" with displacement hulls. As the boat goes faster the surface wave emanates from farther back on the boat. When you've reached the speed where the wave is emanating from the back of the boat, you are at "Hull Speed" and it take substansive amount of power to go faster (then you would be planing). The "Hull Speed" for a displacement hull is a function of its length (1.34 * sqrt(waterline length)).

OK I have a BS in Physics and an MS in Engineering, but my fluid mechanics book is at work, and I'm studiously avoiding going near the office over the four-day holiday weekend. So, I had to resort to Wikipedia. The coefficient of drag equation is

Drag_force = (1/2) * rho * v^2 * Cd * A


rho = fluid density
v = velocity
Cd = coefficient of drag
A = reference area (for cars, frontal cross-sectional area; for ships, wetted area (air resistance of a ship is neglected as inconsequential))

So, if you double the speed you quadruple the force of drag. Since work = force * distance, by doubling the speed you have quadrupled the work necessary to move each mile, so your engine has to increase proportionally. Also, since you are covering each mile in half the time, the power output of the engine has to double again. As you can imagine, the horsepower requirements ramp up quickly. For example, the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 has 638 hp and a top speed of 205 mph. The fastest production car in the world, the Shelby Supercar Ultimate Aero, has over double the horsepower - 1,287 hp claimed - but a top speed only 52 mph faster - 257 mph.

So, if you double the speed you quadruple the force of drag.

There's something else to consider. The v^2 in the equation is an artefact of the kinetic energies involved in colliding with molecules impeding your movement. When you double your speed the collisions have quadrupled in force, but in a given time interval t you have also doubled the number of molecules you are colliding with because you are moving thru them twice as fast.

That makes the total drag at any given instant proportional to v^3, total energy expenditure going from point A to point B is still proportional to v^2 (trip time is reduced if speed is increased).

Right - thus the power output of the engine has to double again, as I stated originally.

Indeed, I didn't read closely enough.

It's been a long time since I've done fluid mechanics myself, but that equation assumes a constant Reynolds number, a valid assumption for air resistance of cars and trains, not so for ships in water.

The top speed of supercars is good for bragging rights and not much else. Once you get much over 200 mph, you're limited as much by aerodynamic stability and tire safety as by power and drag; the Mclaren F1 reached a top speed of 231 mph with 627 hp. The Wikipedia page says the SSC Aero has a theoretical top speed of 273 mph; I suppose that's based on power and drag.

I do not understand exactly what kind of waterborne freight this is. [...]

I see lots of coal, iron ore, and gravel on barges on the Ohio River. They move freight boxes too. Jeffboat in Jeffersonville IN builds most of the barges, their business picks up when fuel prices go up.

A simple explanation for oil prices

Instead of a desperate effort to keep our high consumption auto centric suburban way of life going, we need to be investing in things like rail transportation—especially electrified rail transportation, which can be powered by alternative energy sources like windpower. However, this would force us to recognize that we live in a finite world, with finite fossil fuel resource. This is a difficult idea to sell since the finite world concept violates most people's concept of how the world works--which is that we can have an infinite rate of increase in our consumption of a finite fossil fuel resource base.

We can only hope for an outbreak of rational thinking in the months and years ahead.

Our greatest challenge is to stop manufacturing so many "needs" for more complex, ecologically-disruptive forms of transportation in the first place!

This is the only significant thing you've said. Why not talk about that instead?

Thanks for the compliment, but I think you have the wrong author.

Nice to see someone do a actual attempt at research on the subject. expect to be flamed though by a certain rail fan in 5..4...

Seems to me that their strategic goals are quite similar.

What if hybrid drives and regenerative braking were widely deployed? What if more trains were electrified? What if the expansion of electrified rail were coordinated with upgrading the national electrical grid? Having languished for so long, surely our passenger railroads are ripe for major improvements!

Phoenix is proud to open it's first 22 miles of electirfied light rail this weekend. There will be more to come.

Focusing on transport efficiency ignores the larger externalities, both pro and con. Infrastructure differences, durability, funding approaches, community layout aspects, housing impacts, and developmental focus are very significant.

If we didn't have roads between buildings, would we have covered sidewalks for inclement weather and sunny promenades for nice weather walking? Would we have a train station at the indoor malls and event centers? Would we have indoor parking for suburban park-and-rides? What would a suburban neighborhood look like without streets and driveways? How would you bring home a new TV or sofa, or a pool or fence? Would the notion of front-yards and back-yards change, with gravel alleys in the back versus curbed streets in the front?

Total cost and convenience seem to me to be the base factors for consideration, though changes to the status quo are important too. Of course many cost factors are invisible (what's the visibility of garage and driveway costs in an analysis of auto-lifestyle TCO?), and others are blurred (would I rather pay more taxes for a nice bus/train solution versus the monthly personal costs/savings in auto and insurance?).

What we need is some "planned societies" that provide workable examples of a transit-oriented lifestyle. Not just a vacation village somewhere, but a real working city with active construction, residential neighborhoods, manufacturing and warehouse districts, entertainment, professional workplaces, grocery stores, and shopping. Is there one in the first world with no personal car traffic at all?

Not cities, perhaps, (though Masdar City is a dream in a few minds) but there are several village-sized settlements that are pretty well self-contained. I agree that we badly need more emphasis on designing vehicular travel out of everyday life.

PT in PA

If one goes for minimized car use, rather than zero (more realistic IMHO, although I would like to some attempts at zero), the two best examples are New Orleans and New York City. And the lowest auto use districts in those two cities are Manhattan and the Lower Garden District (my neighborhood :-)

I live what a "low oil" lifestyle is like, coupled with a high quality of life. I could repeat the litany of nearby destinations and services, but I am not feeling well.

Best Hopes for Old Urbanism,


During my youth on one of my trips from Texas to New Orleans, I decided to ride on The Streetcar Named Desire. To my disappointment I discovered that it had become a bus line, though it did retain the name Desire. Does that bus line still exist?

I suggested to Alan that he call his presentation "A Desire Named Streetcars."

The Desire bus line was "suspended" post-Katrina.

I have done considerable work to recreate the Desire Streetcar Line (route a hybrod of Desire and St. Claude streetcars).

Best Hopes,


Alan's input in this conversation might include some challenge to the above, but I doubt it'll count as flaming. It's a welcome discussion.

He did mention (Alan) that the Hybrid Loco drive trains have seen some recent improvements, but it's hard to believe there'll be much argument against the suggestion that Rail should get R&D support akin to that which Aerospace and SUV's have been lavished with.

... but ... while rail "can" easily double it's passenger miles by adding another 25-30 riders on each route, cars and planes can't do that...

Can also increase the "efficiency" of rail by combining passengers and freight. Perhaps high-value packages, what now goes in Mail, UPS and Fedex trucks. If the main reason for the low "efficiency" is the high weight of rail cars and locomotives, relative to the weight of the passengers, then can add quite a bit of freight to the same trip with minimal increase in the fuel used (until the weight of the payload starts to reach a significant portion of the total weight).

The way it is measured here, adding feight will reduce efficiency.

As a side note, most passenger airplane lines are also freight, so that penalty is included for them.

Arr, ye landlubbers! Not even a mention of the most efficient means of transport of all?! Water is the way to go...

That mere 25% efficiency gain doesn't sound quite right when compared with the efficiency gains in the transport of cargo by truck and rail listed below. Might it be at least partly due to the fact that most passenger trains are not optimally utilized because of lack of ridership on certain lines and at specific times? Whereas cargo is usually packed for maximum bang for the buck and can be scheduled for shipment accordingly if time is not a mission critical factor.

Anyways as someone who lives only a mile and a half from the Intracoastal Waterway http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intracoastal_Waterway I have always thought that it is an enormously under utilized resource both for the transport of cargo and passengers. I have become a frequent user of the electric diesel hybrid Water Taxis in the Fort Lauderdale area where I live. I could see larger more comfortable versions of these vessels being used for longer overnight trips up the coast.


Number of miles one ton can be carried per gallon of fuel:

. By truck will travel 59 miles

. By rail will travel 202 miles

.. By barge 514 miles

The efficiency of barge is often overstated, since barge routes are more circuitous - think of the lower Mississippi winding back and forth.

Also, the applicability of barges is fairly limited. I'm buying rail carloads of salt from New Mexico and Utah now, and I don't see any direct barge service to Wisconsin...much less timely service... much less service during the winter.

Further, you also have to consider the full origin to destination energy consumption. By shipping the salt by rail, my business can unload it closer to where it needs to go, whereas by barge it would use relatively inefficient truck for a longer haul from the port to destination.

As to passenger travel, I think we need to look at corridor specific results. Where there is enough volume, the service provided can be a closer approximation of optimised efficiency like the Northeast Corridor instead of a three car train being pulled by one locomotive that occurs too often on too many of Amtrak's once a day and emerging corridor routes.

On the other hand, commuter trains in Chicago probably have fairly high passenger miles per btu, and it could be improved considerably with regenerative braking if electrified, such as the Metra Electric (formerly ICG) line.

Likewise, comparing average automobile efficiency is a little deceptive. If you compare single occupant vehicles vs. the other modes, then the other modes look a lot better. Compare a vanpool against other modes, then the vanpool looks better.

Today we are luck, since on that table there is the efficiency of a van full of people. It is one of the hightests ones, what is great, we have plenty of fat to spare on a migration from current lifestyle.

What seems to be missing here are the infra-structure costs. How much energy goes on rail and road construction and maintance? I guess that air and water transportation will shile for long distances by that kind of analisys (well, water shines on any kind of analisys...)

Why, might I ask, are you "buying carloads of salt", and moving them to Wisconsin?

Can it be, a government department is wasting FF to salt the roads for other FF wasters?



Power Down.

I think another issue is the Btus embedded in the trains or other equipment. These Btus get to be an important share of the total cost. In the case of rail, there is also laying the tracks and maintaining them. In the case of trucks, the issue is the cost of the trucks and the roads that they use. For boats, it might be the cost of locks and other infrastructure.

Another issue is the convenience. A long-distance passenger train going cross country will travel night and day. It most likely will stop in a lot of towns along the way. A person traveling across the country may put up with traveling all night, but it is difficult to get any local traffic between say, 2:00 am and 3:00 am. Because of this, long-distance passenger trains are likely to be less-than-full during night-time hours.

"another issue is the Btus embedded in the trains or other equipment. These Btus get to be an important share of the total cost."

Gail, do you have any data?

I've often seen speculation to this effect, but I've seen very little good, hard numbers. I think there's little doubt you're correct on capital cost, but embedded energy is very likely to be different.

For most manufacturing, energy is probably less than 5% of cost. Most steel and aluminum are recycled, especially for large items like vehicles (95+% of US vehicles are recycled at end of life, and 50+% of vehicle steel inputs are from recycled sources). Furthermore, manufacturing energy is primarily electric, with smaller process heat and even smaller liquid fuel for parts transportation. Given that (in the US, at least) we have plenty of cheap electricity (and affordable wind energy available, should we choose), this embedded energy seems unimportant.

I agree about convenience: if you want to compare personal transportation to mass transit, you should adjust for convenience. An easy way to do this is to use 4-person carpools or 8 person vanpools for comparisons with rail/bus, not single occupancy vehicles.

Check out the blog post Energy Use and Pollution of Travel Modes which summarizes a UC Berkeley study on the life cycle energy consumption and emissions figures for various travel modes. Energy consumption for construction and other non-operational uses accounts for 13-18% (for aircraft) to 28-36% (for onroad vehicles) to 52-62% (for light rail/subway with elaborate underground stations).

@about commuting convenience, one must consider that carpools require all riders to coordinate their departures and returns to occur at the same time. Public transit, with reasonably frequent headways of 1/2 hour or more, is better suited for flextime and individualized schedules.

hmm. Your summary of the Berkeley study suggests that conventional analyses of rail overstate it's energy efficiency versus light vehicles. I'll take a look.

"carpools require all riders to coordinate their departures and returns to occur at the same time. Public transit, with reasonably frequent headways of 1/2 hour or more, is better suited for flextime and individualized schedules."

OTOH, rail stations are rarely close to both home or work, which requires multiple trip segments (many people are very far away, with 2 or even 3 trip segments each way). A headway of 1/2 hour isn't all that individualized, and arrival isn't usually perfectly on time, so one has to add a time factor for early arrival.

There's no question that rail is less convenient than a single-user vehicle, so some adjustment is necessary.

Carpool schedules can be negotiated, often with office-mates, or by choosing from a large pool of potential partners via an online matching site.

A carpool of only two people is very easy to negotiate, and yet saves 50% of energy consumption. Perhaps we could agree that a carpool of two is equivalent to mass-transit.

There's no question that rail is less convenient than a single-user vehicle, so some adjustment is necessary.

Not necessarily.

I find a 2.5 block walk to the streetcar, and waiting (on a quite beautiful avenue) for the next streetcar, taking the streetcar downtown or Uptown and walking to my destination usually is more convenient (and no or little more walking) than driving, circling and finding a parking space, and then walking to my destination. MUCH more pleasant and safer as well.

But then I live in Transit Orientated Development.

Best Hopes for Old Urbanism,


Yes, you live in the south (where snow is rare), have an unusually convenient setup, and New Orleans is highly unusual: it's housing is fairly low density (that of an average suburb elsewhere), and the cost of living is low, and yet it has good transit - that's unique. Is there any other location in the country with dense, convenient rail and NO's very low cost of living?

Rail stations are rarely close to both home or work, which requires multiple trip segments (many people are very far away, with 2 or even 3 trip segments each way). A headway of 1/2 hour isn't all that individualized, and arrival isn't usually perfectly on time, so one has to add a time factor for early arrival.

Alan, do you really disagree that for most people rail is less convenient than a single-user vehicle? Especially for non-commuting purposes??

I like rail and Transit Oriented Urban Housing - I use rail daily to commute, and live in "TOUH". It's a healthier, nicer way of life. OTOH, it's much more expensive than suburban living, and I see no reason why wind/solar powered PHEV's can't eliminate the liquid fuel/CO2 problem for those who prefer suburbia - energy efficiency simply isn't the main selling point for rail and urban living.

When I was working with the Millennium Institute (located in TOD at Court House Station, Orange Line, DC Metro), I talked with some apartment & condo owners that also live at the station (ground floor retail, upper floor residential).

Many did not have cars (rent by the hour cars nearby) and lived quite conveniently. For them taking Metro was easier than driving.

The lack of Urban Rail places a large scarcity premium on TOD (30% of Americans want to live in TOD, 1% to 2% do). Massively expanding TOD would reduce that premium significantly by increasing the supply to match the demand.

I think that we can, and should, create a society where Urban Rail is more convenient than driving for at least one third of the population (likely to be 50+% when all is done).

TOD is inherently more energy efficient than Suburbia. Less energy heating & cooling, less energy to supply services, usually less energy for water & sewer.

Best Hopes for TOD (and TOUH),


BTW, New Orleans has a Wildlife Refuge and some rural areas within the city limits, so "urban density" statistics are questionable. Does anyone know of a source for population AND square miles by zip code ? I live in 70130 (partially filled by warehouses & port).

I have long thought that New Orleans (and especially the Lower Garden District) should be a template for the future of much of the USA. "New Urbanism" has certainly looked closely here for workable, livable concepts.

I find my neighborhood to be very "human scale dense" as well as very pleasant (and cheap :-)

"TOD at Court House Station...Many did not have cars (rent by the hour cars nearby) and lived quite conveniently."

I have no doubt this is possible, and desirable. But - is it cheap? Do these condos sell for $100/Sq Ft (as I suspect real estate does in New Orleans, and as it commonly does in exurbs), or for $250+/SF, as in most areas that well served by rail?

"Massively expanding TOD would reduce that premium significantly by increasing the supply to match the demand."

The US just finished massively overbuilding (mostly suburban) residential (and commercial) real estate, and in large part as a result is suffering from a massive credit crunch. You're seriously suggesting a massive program of over-building urban real estate, in order to crash that market even further? Seriously??

Just as importantly, I suspect that 1) land around Courthouse station, and almost every city with dense rail, is 10x as expensive per sq ft as in NO, and 2) construction costs in dense cities are at least 25% higher than in exurbs - no amount of overbuilding is going to erase that cost difference.

"TOD is inherently more energy efficient than Suburbia. "

Of course. But is that the most important selling point for TOD? Absolutely not - quality of life is (human scale, safety, low stress, etc, etc). Is TOD an important silver BB for Peak Oil/AGW? Sure, but it's not the most important solution, or the cheapest (by far) - wind, solar and PHEV's are. It's much, much, much cheaper and faster to electrify cars and build wind power.

"New Orleans has a Wildlife Refuge "

I took that into account - IIRC, it was about 20% of the city. Subtracting it, and using pre-Katrina #'s still left NO pop/sq mile in the range of the average large exurb.

"I find my neighborhood to be very "human scale dense" as well as very pleasant (and cheap :-)"

That's my point. No other area in the country that has a dense rail system is also that "human scale", or that cheap. I'm guessing, but I suspect NO built it's rail during a past period of greater density and affluence, and now, in effect, it's getting the best of all worlds by living off that past.

You're seriously suggesting a massive program of over-building urban real estate, in order to crash that market even further? Seriously?

Building out, not "over-building'.

30% of the market (a percentage likely to grow) wants something. Less than 2% have it. It is going to be difficult to over-build that for quite some time.

Sure, but it's not the most important solution, or the cheapest

I strongly disagree. If half the nation moves to TOD, it will be, by far, the most important part of the solution.

And if lifespans and life cycle costs are considered, it is the cheapest solution as well.

construction costs in dense cities are at least 25% higher than in exurbs

That is a false measurement. By sq ft and not by unit. Return to 1950 norms for living space (-60% roughly) and retail space (-90%) which TOD will trend towards, and expanded TOD will be affordable. The "dense urban building cost differential" # per sq ft will be compensated/over compensated by fewer sq ft.

Combine fewer sq ft (lower unit costs if higher sq ft costs) with lower direct and indirect energy & auto costs and overall costs will be significantly lower with a higher quality of life.

"Greenfield" TOD around a new Urban Rail station will avoid many of the costs associated with building in dense urban environments. And most TOD in the next decade should be greenfield. I saw examples of such around yet to be opened stations on the Green Line in Dallas.

Post-Katrina, several new Lowe's and Home Depot's were built in New Orleans to supply the expanding home repair market. Closer stores have certainly reduced costs. To some degree, expanded TOD building will reduce costs by similar measures.

NO built it's rail during a past period of greater density and affluence

The St. Charles Streetcar Line was built in 1834/35 and they use streetcars built in 1923/24. Rehabbed in 1989-92. "Fully depreciated" is certainly accurate. But the Canal Streetcar Line opened April 18th, 2004 at a cost of $150 million with 24 new streetcars (all but 1 mile on route closed in 1964). Riverfront in 1982.

NO pop/sq mile in the range of the average large exurb

Do I believe statistics or my lying eyes ?

The streets around my block are all 28' wide (one way, parallel parking on both sides, minimal off street parking area, my guess is 40% and that is just "pull in" slots, few driveways). SWAG is that between 20% and 25% of land area is devoted to the automobile.

My apartment is in a house cut into 6 one bedroom apartments, next door is old duplex converted into 5 two bedroom condos (attic built out post-K), other next door is 9 unit apartment building (circa 1900 ?)

A review of on-line tax records, adjusted for personal knowledge, shows, on my block (1300 St. Andrew), one 12-plex, two 9-plexes, one 7-plex, one 6-plex, one 5-plex and one SFR. A large majority are one bedroom, perhaps eight units are two or three bedroom.


On these two 4 faced square blocks, 1300 (left & right side) St. Andrew consumes about 40% of the area (not 25%) and we have an almost uniquely low % of SFRs and duplexes for the Lower Garden District (but most blocks with SFRs and duplexes have much smaller lots so density does not drop that much. More duplexes than SFRs in Lower Garden).

I have seen Suburbia, the density I live in is several multiples (x8 SWAG) of Suburbia.

Large areas are taken up by rail switching yards, warehouses and the port. Economically useful but low residential density.

Best Hopes for Seeing Reality beyond statistics,


A montage of 81 photos of the Lower Garden District post-K.


# A large part of the "dense urban building cost differential" is stricter codes that result in better quality & longer lasting construction. Booming suburbs and exurbs have notoriously lax building codes, and low quality/short lived construction. Lower upfront costs, but much higher life cycle costs.

Alan, we're really starting to repeat ourselves. I really feel like you're not thinking this through, not really processing what I'm saying....but, I'll try again.

You just said "Building out, not "over-building'." But, before you said: "The lack of Urban Rail places a large scarcity premium on TOD (30% of Americans want to live in TOD, 1% to 2% do). Massively expanding TOD would reduce that premium significantly by increasing the supply to match the demand"

So, what you're proposing is a large buildout (on the order of 30% of current residential units) - note the word "Massively" - intended specifically to sharply reduce housing prices! Don't you agree that we're already badly overbuilt? Are you seriously proposing a "massive" real estate construction program intended to further reduce housing prices(!!), with the idea that could realistically happen anytime soon? Seriously???

"If half the nation moves to TOD, it will be, by far, the most important part of the solution."

"If" is the operative word. You're talking about expanding residential real estate by 30-50%? At the current rate of construction (with the unrealistic assumption of all construction dedicated to TOD), that would take 50 years, and cost roughly $12 trillion just for the real estate.

"if lifespans and life cycle costs are considered, it is the cheapest solution as well."

Maybe for a modest amount of new housing, built as new housing was needed over a long time period. How could abandoning massive quantities of existing housing and replacing it with new units, even if they were tiny urban condos, be low cost? Really, single family utility/maintenance cost is significant, but it's not that much - people have shown they're happy to pay it.

And even if squeezing 50% of the population into tiny urban condos were the low-cost solution, do you really think you could sell that??

"That is a false measurement. By sq ft and not by unit."

It's the only measurement. Reducing sq ft means gives you something that's not comparable. A reduction is a loss, and it has to be done for a good reason. To suggest that people arbitrarily give up their yards, and cut their sq ft by 50%, is, well, wishful thinking.

"Return to 1950 norms for living space (-60% roughly) and retail space (-90%) which TOD will trend towards, and expanded TOD will be affordable."

As I've said before, why on earth would people move into tiny urban condos if they didn't have to? If they wanted to save money, why not buy a somewhat smaller house in the suburbs, or even a slightly smaller townhouse in the suburbs - why move to a tiny urban condo? If they want to save gasoline, why wouldn't they just buy a Prius, or a Volt?? Remember, just because people like the idea of TOD doesn't mean they're willing to pay a lot for it. Heck, 60+% of light vehicle buyers say they're interested in hybrids, but they're a lot more interested when gas prices are high.

I'll write more on the rest as I have time.

Don't you agree that we're already badly overbuilt? Are you seriously proposing a "massive" real estate construction program intended to further reduce housing prices(!!), with the idea that could realistically happen anytime soon? Seriously???

Please note the Kunstler quote that appears periodically in the upper left corner. American Suburbia is the greatest waste of resources in the history of humanity. Grasp that concept and it is easier to accept reality.

People moved there as part of racism/escape from the "Other", as part of the herd mentality (ask any real estate agent about the "hot" areas), gov't inducements, not because they independently thought that was what they wanted. Larger yards, etc. were ex post facto justifications & rationalizations, not the original reasons.

As proof, who in their right mind would want avocado colored appliances with burnt orange shag carpeting ? Yet, a MAJORITY of new Suburban homes had that (or harvest gold) for a short period of time.

Given the low quality (see low sq ft prices) of Suburban construction, most of it will need additional investment for major repairs in a decade or two.

"Good money after Bad" comes to mind.

What we have "badly overbuilt" is a waste of resources and should be abandoned rather than repaired, in large part (My guess is pre-1970 Suburbia will largely survive, post-1970 Suburbia will largely not. Exceptions to every rule).

Yes, the coming waste boggles the mind ! (But so does the coming diabetes epidemic (due to obesity coupled with low exercise)).

What I foresee is just a repeat of what has happened already. Deja vue all over again (credit Yogi Berra).

It took roughly twenty years # to thrash almost EVERY (with VERY few exceptions) prime commercial property ## in the USA. A breath taking waste !

Coupled with the trashing of many well built established neighborhoods ###.

We did it once, we can do it again !

As noted, 30% of the population WANTS to move to TOD. Once others see the improved life style, and the herd mentality sets in (see Suburbs with 30+% of the homes boarded up & abandoned, just like inner city neighborhoods of two generations ago). Suburbs will become the new "inner cities". Please remember the social isolation endemic in Suburbia and how that will aid in the transition.

As before, some people will stay as their neighborhoods empty out and become the new slums. They may buy PHEVs, pay their increased taxes for decreased services (see cities in the 1950s and 1960s), buy more guns and repair their leaking roofs, rotten fascia, leaking plumbing, falling apart cabinets and cracked slabs.

Just like those older couples that clung on in the inner cities in the 1960s.

All that needs to be done (IMHO) is 1) Build to meet the unmeet demand; first "T", then "OD" and 2) No MORE gov't subsidies to preserve or promote Suburbia.

Public policy choices can, and will, make a difference. A USA with a much shrunken Suburbia and a much expanded TOD will be a better (and healthier) America by all measurements. Energy efficiency, community, health, quality of life among others.

Best Hopes for Energy Efficient Living,


# roughly 1950 to 1970

## Known as "Downtowns".

### Called "Inner cities", Please note the connotations that word brings to mind when that phrase should imply the best real estate with the best quality of life.

Great series of posts, Alan. You're on a roll.

Please note that Kunstler is not an authority - he's an entertaining writer of fiction. Take a look at the section on alternative energy in "The Long Emergency" - he's making it up as he goes along.

"American Suburbia is the greatest waste of resources in the history of humanity."

Says who, besides this discredited Kunstler? And if so, why does it matter? It exists, and you need to make a pretty strong case for demolishing it. Am I wrong to think that all that "inner city" housing pretty much exists, and is still occupied? How did those people become less important than those who participated in white flight? Why do we seem to think of the inner city as having been depopulated? IOW, when the suburbs were built, we weren't replacing housing, we were adding new housing, housing that was needed. How is that comparable to abandoning suburbia, and moving everyone into new TOD housing?

more when I have time...

Suburbia exists, but the quality of construction has continually declined over time. It is NOT "durable" and will require increasing maintenance over time. Year 2000 "spec" built homes will likely be tear downs EVEN WITH MAINTENANCE by 2035-2050. An architecture professor confirmed that the design life before major maintenance has shrunk from 30 to 20 years. Most year 2000 built commercial (strip malls, fast food) is designed to tear down in 20 to 30 years.

Talk to any older construction worker to confirm (I have used some in their 60's helping others rebuild in New Orleans, we joke about it).

The core cities have often lost population and it will be relatively cheap and easy to increase population density above historic highs (build on parking lots, build a few medium or high rises, subdivide existing housing, convert commercial property).

In the 1960 census, New Orleans had a population of 627,525 and a metro population of 987,695. In 2000, 484,674 and a metro population of 1,337,726.

New Orleans could easily house 750,000 (900,000 would be doable IMO) and provide employment for more than that since all of the primary job centers (port, tourism, manufacturing, oil & gas support, medical center, education, gov't) are exclusively in Orleans Parish.

Similar stories in a number of other locales. Add pre-1970 Suburbs and a geographic collapse back is generally quite doable (unsure what to do with Las Vegas though).

Best Hopes for Energy Efficient Living,


"Suburbia exists, but the quality of construction has continually declined over time."

Could you be more specific? Are we talking foundations, siding, 2-4's, roofing? Do you have any reason to believe that TOD construction standards will be any better?

And, again, don't you agree that we have a housing surplus right now? Condo's have a 17 month backlog of supply: http://www.nahb.org/fileUpload_details.aspx?contentID=55761

Total units of overall housing sales are at 625,000 units/year - how much of those are explicitly TOD? 25,000/year? With maybe 150,000 more that are TOUH? How many TOD units do you feel we're likely to build within 20 years?

more later...

on my block (1300 St. Andrew), one 12-plex, two 9-plexes, one 7-plex, one 6-plex, one 5-plex and one SFR. A large majority are one bedroom, perhaps eight units are two or three bedroom.

So at most 1/6 of units are suitable for families, mostly families with only one child.  They wouldn't meet legal requirements for child custody for many divorced parents, which may specify separate bedrooms.

Even with transport-oriented development, the nation is going to need many areas with far less density.

As noted, move one block over. Plenty of two & three bedrooms there.

Market response to market demand, with some randomness in my one block (a higher % of 4+plexes, duplexes are the most common single type overall, but zero on my block).

A separate bedroom for every child ?

I survived sharing one with my two brothers.

Of course, the consequences are apparent :-)

And one child families are becoming quite common (see fertility rates).

At least three families with children on my block (one with two children, two with one child).

Some alteration of demographics and housing allocation will result in future years to meet demand. They just completed a duplex (two 2 bedroom condos) on the parking lot close to Zara's (2 blocks away).

Different demand would have resulted in three one bedroom condos, or a 3 bedroom plus 1 bedroom, etc.

And I will pleasantly surprised if I die 40 years from now and 51% of Americans live in TOD. If I am pleasantly surprised, then the largest single effort to deal with Peak Oil (and Climate Change and resource depletion in general) will have been the move to TOD.


A separate bedroom for every child ?

For opposite-sex children.

"I will pleasantly surprised if I die 40 years from now and 51% of Americans live in TOD. "

That's so slow. Clearly, you feel 51% is a maximum. Well, I'd describe 100% of new cars being mostly electric, 20 years from now, the same way. That would accomplish a great deal more, a lot faster, at much less expense.

You've said that NYC uses 50% less energy. Well, that suggests that moving 50% of Americans into TOD would reduce energy consumption by 25% overall.

That's so little. We can get 40% of oil consumption (and 15% of overall energy) by just electrifying light vehicles.

Similarly, Multi-family construction maybe reduces energy consumption by 30% - that can be done with improved insulation and windows! You've suggested that families would have to reduce their sq ft by 60%. We can do so much more with better housing design. Heck, a PassivHaus can reduce by 90%+, with only 5-6% additional cost: that's about the cost of the average realtor commission just to sell one's old house, let alone buying, moving into and furnishing a new house.

Moving to TOD is so indirect, so slow, so expensive as an energy solution. There are much faster, easier, cheaper ways.

PHEVs are coming, but VERY slowly !

Best case, 100,000 on the US roads on 1/1/2012 (I would take a bet for fewer).

It would be a long term strategic mistake for the USA to preserve the bulk of Suburbia, even if it can for the next few decades. Opting for the low efficiency "Suburban" form would be a terrible mistake.

Better windows and insulation can be much better applied to TOD and Suburbia. Much less surface area (see complex shapes of modern McMansions and calculate surface area/resident) with, say, a roughly cubic duplex (just one shared wall).

I think a complete fleet changeover in 20 years is completely unrealistic. I will still be driving my 1982 M-B 240D then :-)

Multiple solutions will be required. Adding PHEVs to Suburbia today is simply not enough.

The biggest single, but not the only, mitigation that we can do is not PHEVs but meeting the existing, unsatisfied demand for TOD. Almost no new "T" in decades has slowed TOD development to a crawl.

You will note that I did not advocate any particularly punitive actions to actively shrink Suburbia, just no MORE subsidies to save it.

One particular Suburban subsidy I can see coming is tax credits for PHEVs. That money could be better spent on Urban Rail. PHEVs will last just 16 years and consume lots of oil to support (see asphalt, policing, medical care after accidents. Suburban lifestyle in general).

If I misjudge and a massive build-out of Urban Rail does not lead to the sequence of events I foresee, so be it. Only good will come from such a build-out, the open question is just how much good (I foresee it as part a transitional salvation of both the Global Climate, the US economy and US quality of life). It may end up being just a medium size silver BB, roughly the same size as PHEVs.

BTW, I could see, realistically, 30% of the population in TOD within 25 years and 51% in 40 years. Build Urban Rail faster (proportionally) than the French and remove institutional obstacles to TOD is all that is needed IMO.

Running a streetcar 3 blocks away from existing housing turns that housing into TOD. The neighborhood will start a spontaneous change.

I can also see 25% of the total vehicle fleet (assuming no shrinkage in #s) as PHEVs or EVs in 20 years; not 100%. A smaller fleet would raise the % a bit.

Please note that decades of $4+ gallon gasoline in most of the OECD (EU + Japan) has not resulted in any PHEVs or large #s of EVs. Why will the USA, with longer average trips, be significantly different ?

More Tomorrow (bsy today),


"PHEVs are coming, but VERY slowly !"

I understand, and share, your frustration, but they're actually coming quite quickly - you have to keep in mind that the most important thing is the electric drivetrain. This is what strong hybrids like the Prius provide, and sales are growing 50% per year. They have 1 million on the ground in the US.

"Best case, 100,000 on the US roads on 1/1/2012 (I would take a bet for fewer)."

Could be. GM, IIRC, is promising 10,000 Volts in 2010, and 60,000 in 2011. Toyota is promising a few hundred in 2009, and hasn't said anything specific for later years. Several other manufacturers have laid out plans. For those of us who want these ASAP, it's not fast enough...but, that's really very fast - remember, they were gleams in the manufacturer's eyes only 2 years ago.

"I think a complete fleet changeover in 20 years is completely unrealistic. I will still be driving my 1982 M-B 240D then :-)"

Of course - a complete fleet changeover in 20 years is neither realistic or necessary. Some people keep their cars for many decades: I'm still happily driving a 1990 Accord, and Jay Leno drives a 1907 Detroit Electric (still using the same battery!). There's a very long tail of old cars, but...it's not important.

The important thing is that new cars are used much more than old. 50% of VMT comes from cars less than 6 years old. Less than 6 years old! And, of course, if there's another serious oil price spike that difference will be even more pronounced.

"Multiple solutions will be required. Adding PHEVs to Suburbia today is simply not enough."

Multiple solutions will be very helpful. Compared to TOD, PHEV's are a faster, cheaper way to get liquid fuel savings. It can give us all the reduction we need for passenger liquid fuel consumption.

OTOH, A TOD contribution will be great. Given that TOD is valuable for other reasons, a TOD energy savings will be all to the good. If we do TOD for the right reasons (i.e., not primarily for energy) then it's energy savings will be a very cost-effective bonus.

"Better windows and insulation can be much better applied to TOD and Suburbia. Much less surface area (see complex shapes of modern McMansions and calculate surface area/resident) with, say, a roughly cubic duplex (just one shared wall)."

Multi-family construction would be substantially more efficient if all things were equal, but they aren't. Keep in mind that window sq ft is much more important for enrgy consumption than outside wall sqft, and townhouses and condo's maximize window area per unit. Single family houses can place windows on southfacing walls to pickup winter sun, place overhangs to block summer sun, etc, etc. Condo's won't do that, because they want every unit to have maximum exposure. The bottom line: efficient design is far more important than single-family vs multi-family.

more later...

The first Prius sold in the USA was in 2001. There are over 230 million registered vehicles (from memory) in the USA.

Seven years to get to less than a "drop in the bucket" effect on gasoline consumption hardly supports your case.

Three Christmas's ago I was reading the Real Estate section of the Phoenix paper (The Phoenix Republican ?) while visiting family.

To quote from memory "Energy efficiency features remain a niche market with limited appeal, while amenities such as granite countertops, (local term for gazebo, starts with R), sunrooms, ample windows, etc. remain strong selling points."

So much for energy efficient Suburbia already built today. And likely not that much appeal tomorrow.


"The first Prius sold in the USA was in 2001."

And at the time, oil was dirt cheap, and automative analysts scoffed. The recent 2.5% market share would have been considered the heights of fantasy.

"Seven years to get to less than a "drop in the bucket" effect on gasoline consumption hardly supports your case."

That's moving the goalposts. Toyota made an big leap of faith, and the Prius has been an enormous success. 2.5% market share is big. The Prius is now on the top ten list of best sellers.

The bottom line: the tech is here, and has been for a while, but dirt cheap oil and institutional resistance to change kept it out of the marketplace. If we have either expensive oil (as we had recently) or strong government support (as we have now), or both, it will grow very quickly.

"There are over 230 million registered vehicles (from memory) in the USA."

Again, it's worth keeping in mind that many of those are driven little. Probably 15M provide 20% of VMT.


"Three Christmas's ago "

At that time, oil & gas were still cheap, and only very recently had been dirt cheap. Why would anyone's energy-related plans or preferences have changed ?

"So much for energy efficient Suburbia already built today. "

We're talking about buyer preferences: this is not too surprising when energy is cheap. This may tell us little about changing energy efficiency over time, which is governed much more by changes in building code than by buyer preference (again, when energy is cheap). Furthermore, were the preferences of urban/TOD buyers any different??

"And likely not that much appeal tomorrow."

Maybe. The home building industry is very slow to change, but I do see signs of change.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what your point is. If energy efficiency were a hard sell in suburbia, how would transit or TOD be an easier sell on the basis of energy efficiency (especially given how much more expensive they are vs the alternatives, for energy savings)?

"Three Christmas's ago" is indicative of built Suburbia today. There was no revolution in Suburban energy efficiency reported for 2007 or 2008 new homes.

I fervently hope that we do NOT build any more; that would be the worst of all worlds.

If we build no more Suburbia (hope, hope, hope)# then any arguments about good design are null & void. That is "what could have been" and nothing more. The only argument is retrofitting existing Suburban structures to a high standard of energy efficiency (almost hopeless IMHO).

Demographic studies that ignore Peak Oil, suggest that we have almost all the 3+ bedroom homes we will need already.

The polling that suggested that roughly 30% of Americans want to move to TOD was done in an era of low energy prices. Raise prices and demand will likely increase. What little TOD that existed got a premium price on the market due to the imbalance between supply and demand.

You cannot argue that "Suburbia exists and we must adapt to it, despite it's inherent flaws" and "We should expand Suburbia".


# A good reason not to subsidize PHEVs, that subsidy may result in a few more Suburban homes being built. ANOTHER gov't subsidy for Suburbia !

""Three Christmas's ago" is indicative of built Suburbia today. There was no revolution in Suburban energy efficiency reported for 2007 or 2008 new homes."

Alan, you didn't really answer the ideas I raised (which seems to contribute to our going in circles), and I'm really not sure what your point is. One main point: urban housing isn't significantly more efficient, energy-wise. Urban condo's aren't more efficient than suburban condo's, likewise for townhouses. Is it single-family houses you dislike, rather than suburbia??

more later...

The exact same building uses more energy in Suburbia than in an Urban environment. VMT to and from it is typically higher in Suburbia, deliveries (UPS, US Mail, Pizza, etc.) take more oil, water and sewer service takes more energy to pump (and more feet of lines to maintain), much more road surface proportionally, more sq ft of retail to service it typically etc.

Suburbia is inherently inefficient.

But the average Suburban structure is less efficient because it is larger as well.

Suburban townhomes (two shared walls for most units, one for end units) across from a school and two blocks from a grocery store do irritate me much less than complex Suburban McMansions in cul de sac land.


"The exact same building uses more energy in Suburbia than in an Urban environment. "

Not internally - HVAC, lighting, water, etc. That's what most people mean by "building energy consumption", and they're correct to do so - the rest is trivial, except for transportation for the residents, which people normally assign to a different category. The way you're presenting it is misleading.

"deliveries (UPS, US Mail, Pizza, etc.) take more oil, water and sewer service takes more energy to pump (and more feet of lines to maintain), much more road surface proportionally, more sq ft of retail to service it typically etc."

Allen, that's unrealistic and misleading. Those things don't add more than a % point or two to overhead - we saw that in a Post on a CA community's government fuel costs: it was trivial as a % of the overall community operating cost.

"the average Suburban structure is less efficient because it is larger as well."

That's not a normal usage of "efficiency" - it's misleading. That embeds an ideological argument ("anti-suburbanism"?) into the analysis. I understand why - I feel the same way about SUV's - but it's misleading.

"irritate me...complex Suburban McMansions in cul de sac land."

I know what you mean. Some of this is conspicuous consumption, which is annoying. OTOH, a lot of it isn't: kids and dogs like yards (playing in the street really isn't a great idea); and a lot of people really, truly love having big gardens and lots of quiet.

2.5% market share is big.

2.5% is SMALL, especially when that is just new sales, not existing fleet.

2.5% of the fleet would be a SMALL drop in the bucket of oil demand.

2.5% of current sales does not qualify as a drop in the bucket. Statistical noise is much much larger.


"2.5% is SMALL, especially when that is just new sales, not existing fleet."

2.5% of new car sales is abou 350K cars.

Now, how much TOD is being sold per year? We only have 625K residential units being built & sold, total. Perhaps 3%, or 20K? With another 7% being TAh (Transit Adjacent Housing,.i.e, within 3 blocks of rail). That gives 63K per year.

So, TOD/TAJ is about 20% of the number of new hybrids.

Now, residential construction has contracted, and won't be growing for some time, and hybrid sales are growing...

There has been almost no new "T" for a couple of decades. Build that and TOD will result. (I saw TOD on the Dallas Green Line# opening months before the Light Rail Line does).

New PHEVs will not last that long. Accidents take their toll every year, they are lightly built (to make batteries last longer; structural weight is needed for durability and repairability).

# It is interesting that the largest Light Rail project approved by the GWB administration was in Dallas, #2 in Phoenix.

New car sales are plummeting, Toyota has postponed (canceled ?) the US Prius factory, so all is not rosy in Hybrid land either.


"There has been almost no new "T" for a couple of decades. Build that and TOD will result."

Sure, but how much? Your article on Ready-to-Go Urban Rail Projects suggests a 6% reduction in transportation oil use in 12 years. A similar commitment to hybrids and PHEVs could easily save 35% by then, and 75% in 20 years.

"New PHEVs will not last that long."

Do you have any concrete info to back that idea up? It sounds completely unrealistic to me. You're overestimating the crash rate, and again, it's rare that a car is totally unrepairable from a crash. A lot of vehicles are "totalled" (recycled) starting around 15 years of age, simply because their resale value has declined below the cost of a single large repair - say, $1,000. That won't happen with PHEV's for quite a while: Priuses are barely depreciating, and that will continue if gas prices go back up, and they're badly needed.

"they are lightly built...structural weight is needed for durability and repairability)."

Nah. They have extremely good crash resistance.

"It is interesting that the largest Light Rail project approved by the GWB administration was in Dallas, #2 in Phoenix."

Sigh. It's interesting that the Bush ranch is PO ready...

"New car sales are plummeting"

True, though not nearly as much as housing. And, hybrid sales have been hurt much less than others (at least until November, which was weird).

"Toyota has postponed (canceled ?) the US Prius factory"

They're completing the building, and keeping the existing US staff. They're conserving capital, until things are more predictable.

"all is not rosy in Hybrid land either."

True. Continued PO/AGW preparation, via hybrids/PHEVs & TOD, will need strong government commitment. We can only hope...

My figures are deliberately conservative, and easily defensible (IMHO).

Your figures are unbelievably optimistic, especially for a product that does not yet exist.

One factor is that people will have to buy those PHEVs, *IF* they are available. Many/most will chose not to for both good & bad reasons.

But that many PHEVs are almost certainly not going to be available for sale. Supply chain, design and engineering and tooling delays, problems with early models.

WHY has Toyota waited so long to produce a couple of hundred PHEVs ? Answer: Technical issues in making PHEVs work properly in the real world.
Likewise, why do you think cars are "totaled' only starting in Year 15 ?

A lot of vehicles are "totaled" (recycled) starting around 15 years of age,

How many cars have you ever (lifetime) taken to the body shop ? A statement that I find completely out of touch with insurance adjuster and body shop reality.

I would substitute 3 or 4 years for 15.

Go to a salvage yard. Some last year models, and Year 3 & 4 is when the percentages of collisions that result in "totals" begins to rise.

Collisions are likely the #1 cause of cars retiring, they are driven more in their newer years, PHEVs will start dying in their first 12 months.

I Googled for collision rates leading to scrapping for the USA but found nothing (odd).

"Good crash resistance" means crumple zones. Mangled sheet plastic (not much metal). Nothing to do with being repairable (perhaps the opposite) and certainly nothing to do with durability.

I stand by my statement, durability is enhanced by weight as a general rule. Hybrids, PHEVs and EVs *ALL* have weight as the #1 enemy. The Insight has an aluminum body (perhaps stronger and more durable, perhaps not, but a bear to repair after a serious collision. Expensive and difficult to build as well).

Once the scarcity premium "wears off' due to greater #s of PHEVs and hybrids on the market, Priuses will depreciate like other cars#. Wild guess is two years after the US factory opens, old Priuses will decline quickly in price.


# Some cars "naturally" depreciate faster than others. I strongly suspect that Priuses will be among the best. But almost zero depreciation will end soon.

"My figures are deliberately conservative, and easily defensible (IMHO)."

Eeeexcept, they're the result of a much more aggressive government policy than that which exists now, and $155B of new spending. That's aggressive.

"Your figures are unbelievably optimistic, "

Not really - the math's straightforward. It does assume the same kind of new-found aggressiveness that I mentioned just above. It's what you might describe as "commercial best effort".

"One factor is that people will have to buy those PHEVs, *IF* they are available. Many/most will chose not to for both good & bad reasons."

True. If oil prices stay low, and government policy is bad, then PHEV's will grow slowly. The same is true of rail, of course. And, finally, they will be developed, and be widely available to grow very quickly, once conditions are correct.

"that many PHEVs are almost certainly not going to be available for sale. Supply chain, design and engineering and tooling delays, problems with early models."

Design and engineering has been proceeding in various ways for decades. There are 10's of millions of EV's in use in various forms (though not as road-legal vehicles). This is really old tech. 40% growth per year isn't especially fast growth: ICE vehicles did that or better in their early years, and many other products have done it in a sustained fashion. It will take advantage of existing tech and suppliers, and won't require larger volumes of raw materials, except for lithium (which won't be a problem, though it will have to be imported). It will require sustained governmental policy, something which is also true for rail.

"WHY has Toyota waited so long to produce a couple of hundred PHEVs ? Answer: Technical issues in making PHEVs work properly in the real world."

Sure, in part - Toyota bet on the wrong battery tech. They, in classic Japanese fashion, had a company in their Keiretsu commit to old-fashioned cobalt li-ion, which is very touchy to manufacture safely without having thermal runaway problems (i.e., laptop fires). Now they're having to backtrack, and start over. That doesn't apply to other auto companies using other tech, like...most of them (including GM). Also, Toyota would like to keep the Prius tech going as long as possible, to minimize costs and maximize profit. Other companies don't have that legacy problem.

"Likewise, why do you think cars are "totaled' only starting in Year 15 ?"

I didn't phrase that properly. Of course, cars can be totalled at any age - it's just especially acute when cars are older, and resale values are so low.

"Collisions are likely the #1 cause of cars retiring, they are driven more in their newer years, PHEVs will start dying in their first 12 months."

Sure, just not at a high rate. At a wild estimate, perhaps .5% per year.

"I Googled for collision rates leading to scrapping for the USA but found nothing (odd)."

I've seen data a while ago, but it's not widespread. Part of the problem is, of course, the confounding of fashion and economic obsolescence (which I discussed before) with true mechanical failure.

""Good crash resistance" means crumple zones. "

True, though it does say something about good quality design and structural strength.

"I stand by my statement, durability is enhanced by weight as a general rule. "

Keep in mind that kinetic energy is proportional to mass: the lighter the vehicle, the less energy must be absorbed by the body.

"Hybrids, PHEVs and EVs *ALL* have weight as the #1 enemy. "

Not really. Regenerative braking greatly reduces the importance of weight (early regen braking was less effective, due to NIMH batteries with high charge-discharge losses - li-ion is much better). Actually, wind resistance is enemy #1.

"Once the scarcity premium "wears off' due to greater #s of PHEVs and hybrids on the market...almost zero depreciation will end soon."

Could be. Depreciation will reflect supply and demand: if gas prices are low, and Toyota (and competitors!) catches up with demand, the depreciation will rise. If gas prices jump, then depreciation will stay low. As long as hybrids/PHEVs are really needed to deal with PO/AGW, resale prices will be very high, and scrappage rates will be very low. If hybrid depreciation is high 5-15 years from now, it will likely be a good sign: it will mean that PO hasn't bitten, or has been defanged.

Compared to TOD, PHEV's are a faster, cheaper way to get liquid fuel savings.

I disagree.

Start construction on this list in the next 12 to 36 months (varies by project) and follow-up with a much larger list as the first projects on the list are completed.


I have the inherent advantage of working with a mature proven technology and a world wide user base. MUCH easier and faster to ramp up :-)


"Start construction on this list in the next 12 to 36 months"

hmmm. A 6% reduction by 2020. Toyota has said that it expects all of it's models to be hybridized by then. That could easily be done for all manufacturers, reducing new car oil consumption by 1/3, and the overall fleet by a conservative 15%. And that's without plugins.

"I have the inherent advantage of working with a mature proven technology "

Hybrids are extremely mature & proven. EV's are 120 years old. Plug-in hybrids were developed 100 years ago, and the production engineering and manufacturing problems are trivial, in the grand scheme of things.

"MUCH easier and faster to ramp up :-)"

Not really - rail, unlike vehicles, can't be mass-manufactured: it has to be hand-installed, like any large, local construction project. It has a much more complex planning process, which must be done anew for every project, and a complex set of inter-dependencies which is inherent in any such large, complex system. An assembly line, OTOH, can double production overnight just by going to double shifts (with a bit of planning for need supplies, of course), or in a year by being replicated next door (or, sadly, in China).

For those of us who want these ASAP, it's not fast enough...but, that's really very fast - remember, they were gleams in the manufacturer's eyes only 2 years ago.

Some of us who were working in the auto industry at the time were talking about PHEVs in the early 1990's.  It was management and government which wanted nothing to change (or, like California with its ZEV mandate, wanted too much to change and made perfect the enemy of the good).

"Some of us who were working in the auto industry at the time were talking about PHEVs in the early 1990's."

Sure. Heck, Porsche created one in 1904, and GM had a concept PHEV in 1979, didn't they? The basic technology is very old - my point was that the Volt was a new vehicle, and they always take 4-5 years to bring to production. In fact, GM is bringing the Volt in as or more quickly than the average ICE vehicle, which says something.

"It was management and government which wanted nothing to change"

It was the whole of the car & oil industries. Government & management were just the conduit for their influence (sure, some engineers liked electrical drive trains, but even more were threatened by the thought of obsolescence).

"One particular Suburban subsidy I can see coming is tax credits for PHEVs."

Rebated carbon taxes would be the best thing, but that's not going to happen. In the absence of penalties for consumption, you have to have subsidies for efficiency. Tax credits for PHEVs are very cost-effective.

"That money could be better spent on Urban Rail."

That's a false choice - we can and should do both. That's part of my message to you: it's a bad idea to suggest "rail only" (or PHEV only).

"PHEVs will last just 16 years"

Where the heck does that come from? Priuses are almost not depreciating at all - it looks like they'll be in service until they rust out (maybe 25-30 years).

"and consume lots of oil to support (see asphalt, policing, medical care after accidents. Suburban lifestyle in general)."

No, not really. Asphalt isn't needed for paving. The other overhead costs are very small, and easily addressed with PHEV's.

more later...

Automobiles are constantly crashing into each other and into things. This is one factor that limits their life.

Since PHEVs are supposed to be driven more urban/suburban miles, more accidents. PHEVs just don't last long enough. Cars do get recycled for reasons other than rust (flood a PHEV, stolen and burned, etc.)

One can easily build concrete roads, but asphalt is the material of choice for repairs. Fill a pothole with a plug of concrete and let a frost heave shove it up. It will promote taking Urban Rail.

Overlays are asphalt, often on concrete.

And since we are talking about repairs, not new roads, asphalt will be used.

Subsidize Urban Rail (and bicycling) first, then TOD. Nothing left over for lower priorities like PHEV in a rational allocation.

Let the market place save Suburbia, if it is to be saved. No MORE gov't subsidies (their mothers milk for over half a century). Enough is enough !


The costs of auto accidents are NOT "trivial". Those injured and killed are often near their economic prime (society has invested in their education, etc. but no or little return yet). Medical care (16% of GDP from uncertain memory) and some goes towards accident victims (some in year of injury, some decades later). The torn up cars themselves. The cost of policing roads. And more costs.

"PHEVs just don't last long enough. "

First, I suspect you're confused by the fact that a lot of US older vehicles (especially small Japanese) disappear to S America in their teens. They're quite prized down there. Also, it's rare that a car is totally unrepairable either from a crash, or mechanical problems. A lot of vehicles are recycled starting around 15 years of age, simply because their resale value has declined below the cost of a single large repair - say, $1,000. That won't happen with PHEV's for quite a while.

2nd, really, does it matter? It will take 10 years at minimum for PHEV's to be a majority of new vehicles (that's perhaps what you call "commercial best effort", not a WWII effort). In 30 years, when those start to die, we'll have more than enough - we'll be able to handle replacements.

"One can easily build concrete roads, but asphalt is the material of choice for repairs. "

Sure - it's been easy and cheap. But, it's not necessary (I asked our local deputy supt of county highways, a highway engineer of 25 years experience, if it was, and he looked surprised at the question, and just said no). A quick search turned up a number of industry analyses which said lifecycle costs of asphalt and concrete paving were comparable (concrete appeared to have a higher initial cost, and lower operating cost and longer life).

Really, Alan, are you suggesting that a dire asphalt shortage will do in suburbs? Cities have roads too, after all, even if they have fewer of them.

"Subsidize Urban Rail (and bicycling) first, then TOD. Nothing left over for lower priorities like PHEV in a rational allocation."

Not if you think PO or AGW are serious problems, coming fast. We can eliminate 75% of passenger transportation oil consumption in 20 years. TOD would just be beginning to take a real bite out of the problem.

"Let the market place save Suburbia, if it is to be saved. No MORE gov't subsidies (their mothers milk for over half a century). Enough is enough !"

Well, we could eliminate the residential mortgage deduction (the mother of all gov't subsidies), and just eliminate most new construction (whether suburban or TOD). More seriously, I agree with you that carbon taxes or tighter CAFE requirements would be better than PHEV tax credits. And PHEV tax credits aren't essential - they'd just slow things down a bit. And really, they're not really a way to help PHEV's, mostly they're a way to level the playing field and give domestic manufacturers a bit of help, given all of the indirect (and direct) subsidies that asian manufacturers get.

"The costs of auto accidents are NOT "trivial". "

I absolutely agree - that's one of the big reasons I take a train daily. Again, I think rail/TOD/TOUH's a great thing - I just think it's silly to justify it primarily based on energy savings. Trying to do so will harm your cause: it will harm your credibility, and divert attention from the real benefits. Worse yet, of course, would be if transportation reactionaries used it as a justification to stall PHEV's, though I think that's unlikely - more likely it will just contribute to rail's neglect. Last, but not least, I hate to see people on TOD get the message that rail is our only hope - it contributes to their despair, give that rail is clearly currently neglected; it's ramp up would be slow and expensive; and it's an inadequate replacement for 100% of our transportation needs.

A long thoughtful response apparently got lost in a TOD crash this morning.

I will rewrite a short version later.


That's a shame.

I always save comments before submission (ctrl-a, ctrl-c). Longer ones I save during editing, really long ones I do in a word processor (wordpad or word).

There seems a late 1930's ambiance to these discussions of rail's place as we enter the "Long Emergency'. Only in America, we have to talk ourselves back into extending, expanding, rehabbing the rail mode. Except that, as the depression drew to a close, we still HAD mains and branch line rail service, local warehousing and a shadow system of Electric Interurban lines that moved people by day and got freight & victuals downtown at off hours.

In Russia, Asia, the EU, even in Saudi Arabia, the railway expansion is happening, not debated. Certainly we should try to understand why ALL OTHER developed countries are moving with all due haste to emplace the sort of rail network our "Greatest Generation" deemed irrelevent. This one generational aweshit is going to take more than a thousand attaboys to fix. We have no choice, it falls to Rahm Emanuel and Ray LaHood to talk to the people at AAR & Go-Rail asap. Bring the boss to understand, like Abe Lincoln, railway's role as Guarantor Of Societal & Commercial Cohesion for the Union Of States!

Some silent observers are thinking about ways & means of moving forward; here are some points of reference:

USA Military doctrine for over 100 years saw railways as "Second Dimension Surface Transport Logistics Platform", stand-alone sytem of getting someplace firstest with the mostest, using the least fuel & manpower. Stiull true, which explains why the other economic powers, particularly Russia & China, are going all out to emplace railway capacity & reach. Old but eerily prescient military manual is James A Van Fleet's "RAIL TRANSPORT AND THE WINNING OF WARS", get from Association of American Railroads (202-634-2100).

Fast forward to a modern look at rail, an Oil Interregnum workbook is "ELECTRIC WATER" by Christopher C. Swan ((New Society Press 2007).

Suggest all State National Guard office adjutants have copy of the mentioned, plus download "GCOR" the railroad rules used in the US. For all hands, get volumes of the US Rail Map Atlas, from (spv.co.uk). Be familiar with rail lines of your respective locale, past & present. One more finishing touch, see books on Spreckels' Pacific Electric System, in the L.A. area; an excellent model for the Peaking Oil "Long Emergency" (Kunstler's Magnum Opus).

Many rail promoters talk generalities: in order to be the calm one in the room, it helps to have specific examples, US and the world over, of past rail systems and more importantly. modern strategic applications of railway engineering.

It's fun, to be sure, to dream about fleets of hybrids, new super-efficient electric cars, perpetuating the imagined right of everyone on earth to a private vehicle at puberty. Enjoy the reverie. Dead serious strategic planners in other places, military planners with atomic arsenals, are right now seeing to the railway components in their respective spheres of influence.

Please see ASPO newsletters 42, article 374, and ASPO Newsletter 89, article 1037, for modest outline of steps. Happy New Year, fasten your seatbelts!

It is damning how just about every time a news article (any media) mentions spending some of the ~$8.5T of existing/upcoming 'stimulus' monies, the first and foremost thing that is trumpeted is spending money on infrastructure, and the top two or three items that are pushed are roads, bridges, and tunnels. It seems that our Mad Max possible future will be amply provided with 12-lane superhighways from nowhere, U.S.A. to nowhere, U.S.A. New runways and airport infrastructure are a close 'next' on the list.

Freight trains, and heavy and light passenger rail barely receive a nod. Investment in a national energy infrastructure gets a muddled mention. Nothing is as sexy, immediate, visible, and potentially rewarding to incumbent politicians as road construction. Great opportunities for politicians to plaster little green signs along the road naming the road after them ('Bud Shuster Byway, AKA I-99 in PA, is but one example).

Before they start paving over millions of more acres of fertile land with unneeded highway lanes, parking lots, and truck stops/rest plazas, flood the 'Change' website and your Congress-peoples' web sites/email with voter instructions to slow down, put the money gun back in the holster for a little while, and think rationally and create a logical long-term plan for energy and transportation infrastructure.

And, before Boeing Commercial Airplane Company goes down the drain after GM, Ford, and Chrysler, Uncle Sam needs to sit down with them and explain the future of commercial air travel. Open-rotor prop-jets, and turboprops (small, medium, and large) will be the order of the day. All made almost entirely of lightweight composites. So they will max-cruise at no more than 360 Knots...big deal, so your 2 hour flight becomes 2+25...as long as they can keep the props reasonably quiet, fuel efficiency will be king.

It also would greatly help if our population wasn't on-track to reach some 400M people come 2047 or so. We just passed 300M what, 4-5 years ago? Despite the best efforts of a minority of selfish Americans (3,4,5,10, 17 kids anyone?) the 'native U.S. citizenry's fertility rate is pretty darn close to the 2.1 needed for zero population growth. It is immigration, both legal and illegal, which is pushing us to 400M and beyond. I do not have anything against people from other countries, but, if we keep letting people move here in large numbers our natural environment and our quality of living will decline (no culture war references here, just 'too may people'). The whole 'more people equals more opportunity' blather is part of the ubiquitous sales pitch of 'more is better' and 'growth equals prosperity' nonsense we have been sold for ever as part of the financial/corporate Ponzi Scheme. Less is more, smaller is beautiful.

Hoping for some sanity and logic in this upcoming new year.

Well put. So far, I have not had much reason to think that Obama understands this or wants to take the political risks of doing something about it. Every time I have heard him say something about his stimulus plans, he runs through the list of roads, bridges, education, etc. Never once I have I heard the words "rail" or "railroads" or "transit," etc. The only hope is that he is waiting to get in and then may try to tackle the autocentric mindset. I don't understand why so many people hate rail so much and flip out at the mere mention of it, but they do.

Last year on a visit to London England, I used electrified commuter rail quite a bit, both underground and regular trains. While riding in these trains I often wondered how much more efficient they would be if they used regenerative braking instead of friction brakes. The usage patterns of these trains is a perfect application for use of this technology, short bursts of acceleration followed by a period of steady speed running followed by a short period of deceleration and a stop lasting generally less than a minute.

If more research was done into ultra-capacitors, they could probably be used for the required short term energy storage instead of regular batteries. A quick hop over to wikipedia indicates that many electric locomotives already use "dynamic braking" where the motors are used to generate current to provide braking but, I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases,this recaptured energy is just dissipated in dummy loads rather than captured in batteries or ultra-capacitors for further use.

Also from wikipedia thye fact that diesel electric "hybrid" locomotives have been in regular use since the 1940s. In fact the diesel electric system was a solution to the daunting problem of delivering the massive torque required to move modern locomotives. Mechanical and hydraulic transmissions were just not up to the task. Most modern diesel powered locomotives are just huge generators siting on top of a set of axles driven by electric motors.

So, I agree with Hans that

Having languished for so long, surely our passenger railroads are ripe for major improvements!

I see vast opportunities for the US to invest in electrified rail and other markets like the UK to retrofit existing systems with regenerative braking to increase efficiency. Research into aerodynamics of typical flat faced commuter trains to reduce the energy required just to overcome aerodynamic drag. There is a huge amount of space between the bogeys of most commuter rail cars to accommodate any new equipment. Talk about low hanging fruit! Lets hope that things like this show up on the new administration's radar.

Alan from the islands

Last year on a visit to London England, I used electrified commuter rail quite a bit, both underground and regular trains. While riding in these trains I often wondered how much more efficient they would be if they used regenerative braking instead of friction brakes.

Some already is:

Increasingly, the AC electrified lines in the UK have new units that can utilise regenerative braking; its use on the DC electrified lines (London Underground and the 3rd rail lines south of the Thames) is beginning to come on stream


Some underground commuter systems already use a kind of regenerative braking, and have done so since original construction in early twentieth century. In these systems, the grade level of most track is a few meters below the grade level of the track in the stations. The train rolls upgrade when entering the station and down grade when exiting the station. This is much more efficient and much less complicate than pumping energy back into the electric third rail.

A problem with this is that it is not realistic to retrofit this after the tracks and tunnels are built.

It may be true that this grade change regeneration is pretty common. It may be that electromotive regeneration is an idea whose time will never come. I know about it only in the context of solving energy problem in high school physics, from my father who took HS physics during WW I period.

It may be true that this grade change regeneration is pretty common.

Unfortunately it requires a pretty good change in elevation to make a significant difference. An object falling a hundred feet in a vacuum will acquire 54mph. Since most subways travel at least that fast, elevation changes of around ten feet will only represent single digit percent of the needed energy storage.

Research into aerodynamics of typical flat faced commuter trains to reduce the energy required just to overcome aerodynamic drag.

I bet you'll find that the skin drag along the cars and the interference drag between cars and at bogies would make the improvement from a reshaped nose rather small.  There's a reason that freight trains don't bother with fairings on cars; until you get toward Acela/Shinkansen/TGV speeds, it just doesn't pay to add the cost and weight.

Hello TODers,

As discussed before: we need Alan's standard gauge ideas for the major RR & TOD 'spine and limbs', then very cheap [but durable] narrow gauge, human-scale passenger and freight minitrains as the supporting 'ribcage'. These narrow and light tracks can be easily relocated as required, and will provide the basis for eventual pedaling SpiderWebRiding, to help avert the Zimbabwe head-balancing transport network of vital goods.

Recall that Chicago hand-dug sixty miles of underground narrow gauge rail back in 1899. It might only take 5 recycled SUVs to make this beauty [loco engine maybe 500-1,000cc displacement, typical SUV engine is 3,000 to 6,000 cc]:


Also, one recyced SUV might make 3 freight mini-flatcars or even possibly more.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

It seems to me as though you are thinking in the right direction. We need more human scale, small solutions that can reuse what we now have, and that are ultimately adaptable to pedaling instead of using fossil fuels or electricity.

Why avoid electrical use for transportation ? A VERY poor goal, guaranteeing a bad outcome !

If we run short of electricity, we just turn on & off the power to households (18 hours off/day in Baghdad in the summer) and slow down electrified rail a bit.

There is no inherent reason that there will not be power for electrified rail. Any future electricity shortage will NOT be shared equally. As I noted before, the first choice for rotating blackouts will be the power guzzling, low density, Suburban McMansions.

If the Germans did not cut power to the Paris Metro in occupied France (while rotating blackouts to residential areas), why should Georgia Power cut power to Atlanta's MARTA, even as they rotate blackouts through Gwinnett, Barrow, Cherokee, Paulding, etc counties ?

Electrified rail is like hospitals, small consumption and very large social benefit. The exact opposite of residential air conditioning.

You are analyzing under false assumptions.

Best Hopes for Seeing the Light,


Well, if you burn the extra food you'll need for pedaling on a steam engine you'll increase efficiency several times.

Excercise is healthy and everything, but narrations of everything going back to manual labor is just doomer porn, and has almost no chance of ever happening.

I believe rail will play a big part in the future of our planet. Rail will first replace long distance trucking as the cost per mile is much cheaper. This..will of course require a change from our "just in time" mentality used in warehousing & factories today.

Later, I think you'll see rail replace long distance human travel. Cars will still exist, but will be used for short term trips in cities or for the people that continue to live in rural areas. Trains will be the primary mode of travel from one city to another (maybe diesel or electrified).

Water (barge and ship) transport will also become more popular as air freight dwindles. We'll eat less papaya's but still drink coffee. Things that travel long distances will be those with a long shelf life (coffee, spices, rice). You may well see a day when the lowly banana is considered a delicacy

Someone needs to measure a system like the GO Train near Toronto, Ontario to measure the energy cost per km per person. Having rode that system for years (it's a packed house), I simply can't believe that a person in an SUV uses just a bit more energy than a person in that packed train.

Finally..people talk as if 25% is a small number. World oil demand has apparently dropped 7 million barrels a day. We've seen what that does to the price etc. 25% is not a huge number, but what happens when it's combined with other factors..electric cars, the use of wind power, etc.

The top article said "existing Amtrak intercity passenger rail is only 25% more efficient than the fleet average for cars". Given that we can and do make cars that are 2x or 3x more efficient than the current "fleet average" in the USA, that "25% more efficient" is actually very very bad, as it's far less efficient than what is easily possible with small cars.

And current technology locomotives are much more efficient than existing Amtrak diesel locomotives. Furthermore, look at the average passenger load factor cited by the USDOT. It's only 20 passengers per vehicle. When USDOT did their sampling for this data, researchers picked the poorest performing trains (most of which are no longer operating like the old Lake Country Limited from Chicago to Janesville where train crews often outnumbered passengers). If the USDOT was interested in accuracy and not in keeping America addicted to cars and oil, they would correct their biased research.

When was the last time you saw 20 passengers on an entire Amtrak train? In reality, it's common to see more than 5-10 times as many passengers on Amtrak trains, hauled by locomotives which the rest of the developed world's railways would consider energy inefficient.

Consider correcting the false USDOT research with load factors 5-10 times higher and consider the impacts of Amtrak acquiring more efficient locomotives. If done, the rail efficiency data would blow away that of autos and airplanes.

Then there's the energy saving impacts of compact land use fostered by increased use of rail vs. urban sprawl fostered by highways and aviation.....

For more, read:

If we retain massive transportation, I belive long distance main corridors will be served by trains. But that is not the entire history, as there are less used routes, and I belive those will be served by planes (or boats, where possible).

There must be a treshold for how intense must be the trafic so that building a rail makes sense.

There are about 180,000 miles of rail lines in the USA and about 160,000 miles of Interstates & US Highways (from memory).

Few new rail lines need to be built.

The main lines (about 36,000 miles) need to be electrified (and perhaps 50,000 miles of branch lines "later" (SWAG)). Electrification of a single track is about $2 million/mile; double track about $2.5 million/mile (2004 #s).

Quite a few main lines need to be double tracked (single > double track increases capacity by x3 to x4 plus faster transit times), improved signals, track bed improved, more grade separation from roads, etc.

But the basic system is in place !

Best Hopes for Better Railroads,


Well we're not short of energy yet, only oil. So rail is nice (even wrt boats) because it is fairly easy to electrify. It is potentially synergistic with electric cars. Just need a nice system to put your car on the train for inter-city travel. Car recharges on the way.

Apart from the obvious improvement in efficiency that could occur if the load factors were to increase, a person who lives in a city and relies solely or almost solely on public transit is probably going to travel less and is probably going to walk and/or bicyle more. I know this from personal experience. In addition, it seems valid in that one has to walk from one mode to another and one is also more likely to plan one trips better. In addition, one is more likely to walk certain distances from, let's say a subway or light rail stop, rather than maybe wait an extra ten minutes for the connecting bus to one's home or destination. Further, the more one walks the more one can walk because of the improvement in physical ability.

Thus, the above is related to the general idea that one has to analyze the true relative efficiency of the different modes based upon a holistic approach that takes into account the possible and desired changes in the way cities are laid out with respect to the proximity of the various services that one needs to function on a day to day basis. As an example, transit oriented development will lead to further efficiencies which should be attributed to the overall relative efficency of mass transit vs personal transit.

In time, with the reduction and, in some cases, elimination of roads from everywhere to everywhere, the cities will become more compact thus leading to even less energy devoted to transporting oneself from place to place.

The bottom line is that the table purporting to show the relative efficiencies of the various modes is totally inadequate and misleading. It would be a shame is this misleading data has much influence on public policy regarding expenditures on roads and autos versus alternative forms of transport. Sadly, I think this data will be used by the autophiles to further justify their total dominance and destruction of our landscape and air.

Once I built a railroad
I made it run


Geez, I think I got this link at TOD: http://strickland.ca/efficiency.html

"Energy Efficiency of different modes of transportation", James Strickland's numbers differ considerably from the DOE source cited in this article. It is amply footnoted and sourced.

Let it suffice to say that rail efficiency, as presently constituted, leaves much room for improvement, but I believe the DOE figures have to be like most government "intelligence". As Alan Drake has many times cited, rail electrification is probably one of the best ways to improve efficiency.

I may be wrong, but I believe virtually all electric locomotives employ regenerative breaking and feed back into catenary. Self-propelled transit cars may not, but I don't know. Most mainline diesel locomotives use regenerative braking, but the energy produced is dissipated as heat in grids on the top of the locomotive. Aside from yard switchers, there is no practical way to capture and store the energy (there are operating hybrid "Green Goat" yard locomotives).

In the US we also have a regulatory environment which mandates particularly "heavy" designs for passenger carriage. The reason for this is the mixed freight and passenger use we have on most lines (e.g., the Amtrak Acela in the NE corridor was an adaptation of a European design, which had to be removed from service for a period of time because of much heavier designs [http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/15/national/15cnd-amtr.html]. Passenger locomotives in the US are adaptations of freight service locomotives -- they are not an exclusive design for passenger service. Improved efficiency would not require aerospace materials and methods -- rather a serious study of European designs.

Lastly, track and structures are not designed for speed and efficiency. Decades ago there were super-elevated curves, but they most likely do not exist in the US any more. Switches and turnouts are generally not designed for speed. All this requires additional braking and acceleration (i.e., wasted energy).

The post of Hans Noelder cites, perhaps the biggest benefit of increased rail for passenger travel in the US is to encourage more dense, pedestrian-friendly cities and towns. For anybody that have traveled to Switzerland and used rail, it is obvious what a potential rail has to offer.

Unfortunately, TPTB want more highways and the economic stimulus will be squandered on more highways and a generally discredited model of transportation. We probably don't have the qualified engineering and construction workforce to accomplish much in the next few years, any way. Indeed, the country is probably bankrupt and the future will look more like JHK's vision than the Jetsons on steel wheels on rails.

Sgsstat - thanks for the excellent link. Suggest all who read the post have a look. Covers many issues backed up with data. Can't find the voting buttons at the mo. or I'd vote you up!

How influential is cost/km on choice of travel mode? What if rail was made free or 10% or 20% etc of the cost? How would usage and hence passenger km performance respond? Could there be a case for investing in rail inc. fare subsidy rather than highways? (FWIW IMO the auto and highways industries are as they are largely in order to provide customer base for oil products).

The points re track structures is critical. The whole discussion regarding relative efficiency and improvements thereto, is irrelevant in light of the Capital Structure requirements. Europe's system is mainly set up for passenger rail and is speedy with frequent service. The US for freight except for some regional passenger systems.

The US system is almost exclusively used for long haul and virtually all freight transportation. Passenger rail (transcontinental) is not efficient, as it is frequently delayed by slower freight trains.

For their to be hi speed rail - beyond commuter rail - a separate system needs to be constructed for fast trains with relatively equal high speeds so that they do not impede one another. The lack of being able to change lanes to pass a slow freight train, except at sidings, results in relatively slow net speeds and an undesirable passenger transport system. Local high speed rail - say between Philadelphia and NY, don't have to deal with freight traffic.

There is no controversy that rail is a very efficient means of delivery. The problem is that we have a relatively efficient freight system and very limited passenger systems.

The capital costs will be exceedingly high. It will probably not begin to happen until fuel prices once again skyrocket. By then we will be behind the curve. -- but that seems to be the typical situation. Once such a system is developed, more efficient and faster and more comfortable accommodations will be the next issue to be addressed.

I believe the DOE figures have to be like most government "intelligence"

With the ideological bent of the current administration, I have little confidence in the numbers provided by DoE. Strickland's numbers are very well sourced.

Typical efficiency in urban service

Mode Passenger-miles per gallon
Rail 600
Trolleybus 290
Tesla Roadster 246
Diesel bus 78
Scooter/light motorcycle 75
Smart fortwo cdi 74
Toyota Prius 72
Ford Explorer 21

Look at the link that is provided. There is a history of these amounts going back 27 years, and trends. I don't think they are fabrications of the current administration.

I would like to see the pieces that go into the calculations. One would think that one would need to included the energy to build the trains or cars or buses, amortized over an appropriate period. The calculation would also need to include the energy required to build and maintain roads or railroad systems. If any of these are excluded or done wrong, the calculation could be misleading.

Strickland gets specific "real world" data for cited locations. Gov't uses lots of assumptions, many of them faulty IMHO.

The new Swiss 58 km tunnel is designed to go 100 years between major maintenance (shut down one of two tunnel bores for weeks/months, then do the other).

I saw their maintenance schedule (vague & sick memory ATM), 6 or 8 hours shut down every 5 years, a day every 10 years, etc.

Concrete ties have a nominal life of 50 years, rail depends upon use. Only 20 or so years coming out of Powder River basin (coal trains beat it to death), 50+ years most other places (100 year old rail is rare).

Ballast (rock) lasts a LONG time as do tunnel bores (original trans-Continental tunnels dug by Chinese are still in use).

Electrical overhead "typically" lasts 40 to 50 years.

Best Hopes,


It seems to me that one of the big issues for rail is the number of years over which a train (and track) can be used, because a big share of the Btu cost is the cost of the trains themselves.

If we build new trains, and the first new trains are ready in 2020, but we can only use them until 2030, that would be a very short time-frame. If we build trains we plan to use from 2020 to 2070, that would be more in line with the kind of time frame we might be able to expect from such a large investment.

The question I have is whether we will really to be able to keep up anything very sophisticated operating until, say, 2070. If we try to electrify rail, will be able to keep everything in place, to keep the electricity going that long? Will we able to keep repairing all of the bridges, when there are bad storms? If we look back to the 19th century, we see trains operated by coal, and at times, pulled by horses over tracks. These required a lot less sophistication. Maybe we need to look at flexibility, but on the down-side of technology.

Electrified railroads are quite easy to keep running. Early examples circa 1890s and widespread systems by the 1920s, indicate that cutting edge technology is not required.

The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War were able to keep an electric tram system going ! Switzerland was able to keep their electrified rail going during 7 years of isolation during WW II. The Indians kept their electrified rail (now 28% of track miles, unsure of 1947 %) going during the genocide and disruption of partition and Independence.

I daily use streetcars built in 1923/24. Philadelphia is replacing EMUs (self propelled electric rail passenger cars that can operate singly, in pairs or in trains) that Ed Tennyson speced and ordered in 1964/5. According to Ed, all one needs to do is refurbish these SEPTA EMUs for another 25 to 30 years of daily service.

Modern technology is, of course used, when it improves efficiency, capability and/or reliability. Not required (as it is with modern cars).

Best Hopes for durable, energy efficient transportation,


The study that is discussed in this blog post considers the life cycle energy costs of each mode, with stated assumptions about the lifespan of various transportation infrastructure elements.

Also, on the time frame of several decades, the energy-saving benefits of compact urban development become apparent. Switching from an auto trip to a transit trip saves a certain amount of energy, but the presence of transit itself creates efficient neighborhoods that save twice as much energy.

I agree regarding the compact neighborhoods. It is the compact neighborhoods that mix residential with stores, schools, government offices, and other businesses that greatly reduces fuel use. The frustration is that with our current overbuilt residential and commercial sectors (and lack of capital to build more), it is difficult to change the kind of neighborhoods we have currently.

Trees continue to grow regardless of recessions. (The decline of newspapers may alter the pulp/lumber ratio though).

Un- and underemployed construction workers are an available (and now cheaper) workforce.

Home Depot prominently displays each price roll back on raw materials, a trend that will likely continue.

TOD will likely require less capital. Building out Suburbia and Exurbia includes building infrastructure from scratch. Roads, sewers, water, electrical substations and distribution, cable, fire stations, schools and more on farm fields.

Most, but not all TOD, will not require this infrastructure investment. And almost no TOD will require the full set of "green field" infrastructure routinely required by Suburbia.

This significantly lowers the capital costs to society (if not the developer).

Fewer sq ft/person lowers costs, but some common walls do almost as much to reduce construction costs. Avoiding the McMansion habit of complex shapes (that maximize heating and cooling costs by maximizing surface area) will also significantly reduce costs.

Just ask a roofer on the cost differential/sq ft between a simple V roof and a McMansion roof.

Pulling back on the ten fold (1000%) explosion of commercial space/capita will free up even more capital.

A reduced budget can build more units in TOD than in Suburbia. We do have the capital to expand TOD, but not BAU Suburbia.

TOD is the obvious answer to reduced capital.


Trees continue to grow regardless of recessions. (The decline of newspapers may alter the pulp/lumber ratio though).

Which is interesting when you give some thought to Accoya®.

I was on the road yesterday and went beneath a number of bridges in the process of being repainted.  It occurred to me that Accoya® beams would not corrode and require no painting.  Accoya® decking would not be degraded by salt displacing the calcium in concrete, nor have rebar rust and fail.  Suburbia becomes a whole lot easier to maintain with such products.

Accoya would be useful for construction of high value items, such as window frames, but bridge decking ?

Lightly used rural roads perhaps. The properties of the wood change little > Accoya, I assume that includes abrasion resistance.

Maintenance free bridges (for 150+ years) are possible today, but avoided because of cost. Robert did not give any specific cost $, but I assume (reasonably) that the price of Accoya is many multiples of untreated lumber.

In any case Suburban development avoids bridges as much as possible, they are expensive ! Better to build a more circuitous route instead (more VMT). Maintenance of bridges is likely <1% of the total cost of maintaining Suburbia.

Medical maintenance of obese Suburbanites in the future is the truly large, unaccounted for cost. With BAU, it is a public health certainty that diabetes rates will increase dramatically.

Add the every day costs of auto related death and life altering injuries (SWAG over 1% of GDP).

More Later,


My suburb has all of this except gov't offices, but isn't the sort of neighborhood that I envision Alan talking about. On this square-mile block we have an elementary school, a pharmacy, a strip mall, several restaurants, and convenience stores. 3 grocery stores are within 2 miles, plus a small medical complex with docs and urgent care and more shopping and restaurants. A few small office buildings and two multi-unit apartment complexes as well. Middle school is 2 miles away, but high school is about 7 -- all the way across town (only one 6,000 person highschool versus several 2,000 schools so as to have a better football team).

Within the square mile it's almost walkable, provided you walk on the streets, as only about half has continuous sidewalks. Around the outside edge, where people would want to walk or bike to the multi-mile destinations there is almost no sidewalk and zero bike-lane space -- it's brush or rough grass to the neighborhood fenceline and bar ditches for the roads. We're only 1.2 miles from a very nice exercise/biking path, but it's impossible to ride there non-suicidally (I can manage it, with some trepidation, but would never try it with kids).

The traditional "main street" downtown is 3 miles away -- a bit far for biking, but an easy drive (or bus ride, or trolley if there were such things here). It's still "mostly walkable" and quite vibrant, though turnover has been high of late, and some building are a bit run-down.

Gov't offices is the big lack, though. Here the state is pushing hard to consolidate in the capital, which is 100 miles away. Multi-purpose satellite offices have been closing for years for "efficiency", and greatly reducing "convenience". Really only social services are much distribute anymore.

If my neighborhood is any indication, most infrastructure for "living" is pretty close, and with in-fill development and a transit overlay I think this suburb would remain viable (it was an independent town since 1900, and the train track is still in use daily). I can see a need for more apartments, and many of those are going up in the anchor city, but not in this suburb. More office space would be good, too. If we had transit, infilling box-store/strip-mall parking lots with office buildings would do this fine.

I think that collapsing less-viable living areas (which may require inter-state relocation) and bulking-up in areas near power, water, and food would be do-able, even during energy decline. I can easily see how to convert my suburb into a walkable/bike-able/bus-able/tram-able town. It would just take some initiative. Sidewalks and buses would be cheap. Rail and tram would cost more.

it was an independent town since 1900, and the train track is still in use daily

I am reminded of the Boston "rail suburbs", which I had previously noted as being post-Peak viable suburbs.

As you said, add sidewalks, bike paths, commuter rail service on the existing freight rail line, and a circulating streetcar line (one stop @ commuter rail station) and let the market react.

Even those outlying areas will likely survive if they are close to a viable hub/mini-city.

Best Hopes for Rail Suburbs,


I don't see why trains can't be built to last for 50 years or more. Just look at how the technology of electric motors has advanced over the years with better tolerances, less vibration, higher efficiencies, and variable speed drives which reduce motor stress. All of these improvements lead to greater longevity and reliability.

Still, it's right to question the architecture. New transportation technologies depend much more on microprocessors and software to achieve high efficiencies and to warn of potential failure. If we look at all the technological changes in data transfer, microprocessors and software in just the last 10 years, it's hard to imagine maintenance of a single thread of soft/hardware to keep a rail system going for 50 years.

Lack of ADA (handicapped) accessibility is driving the replacement rather than refurbing of many older Urban Rail cars.

As noted, SEPTA is replacing 43 y/o EMUs ATM, etc.


I'll add my rounded averages numbers from my Heart Rate Monitor watch estimates this year: (1 kcal~=4 BTU)
Biking : 160 BTU/mile (12 mph)
Walking: 240 BTU/mile (4 mph)
Running: 320 BTU/mile (8 mph)

A pretty good deal all around for desk jockeys!

This is great, but I would add...

My electric bicycle consumes 15 wh/mile when I'm pedaling, 25 wh/mile when I'm not That's on moderately hilly terrain that includes both some in-town miles and some highway miles.

That's 85.2 BTU/mile for the electric bike without my pedaling...

So, actually, electric bicycle is by far the most efficient mode of transport, moreso than a person pedaling (and far more than the Van Pool).

Does that figure include the basal metabolism of the person riding the electric bike. If not, then perhaps basal metabolism should be subtracted from the post on biking, walking, and pedaling. Otherwise, I think the comparison might be a bit distorted.

Well, from the best figures I can find, average resting metabolism is 200-300 BTU/hr. So, if I'm traveling 18 mph (easy to do on an electric bike), that would add around 17 BTU/mile.

Now, I am not sure whether the other poster accounted for the 17 BTU/mile resting metabolism in his calculation. But either way, this is still extremely efficient.

This raises an interesting question:

How many watts of PV panel, at your typical local insolation, would it take to power your average daily travel at 25 Wh/mi?  Presto, 100% carbon-free renewable transport energy!

< blockquote >How many watts of PV panel, at your typical local insolation, would it take to power your average daily travel at 25 Wh/mi? Presto, 100% carbon-free renewable transport energy!

Yes... I actually have a small solar array - not presently large enough to power my house, but more than enough to power my electric bike for around town trips.

It truly is carbon lite, though not carbon free (must replace tires and brake pads, occasionally).

This may overstate the btus attributable to the activities cited. I think you should subtract the calories expended while sitting on the couch or sitting in a car. Or does the HR monitor account for that?

What is really interesting about the table is the lowest BTU/passenger-mile entry--'Vanpool'--car pooling/car sharing
a tiny 1332 BTU per passenger-mile. It blows away any other mode of passenger transport.

Fortunately the folks at community solutions have already been noddling this one.

Imagine using existing vehicles or their more energy efficient hybrid descendants combined with wireless technology and GPS to just get a person from A to B.
No maglev trains, noisy street trams or subways--just smart communications and sharing.
No giant infrastructure or crowded cities.

The Smart Jitney is a system of efficient and convenient ride sharing that addresses in the short-term the problem of transportation in a post-peak oil world. The system utilizes the existing infrastructure of private automobiles and roads due to the time, expense, and difficulty of building a new transportation infrastructure amongst such a dispersed population. The goal of the system is to insure that each private car always carries more than one person per car trip, optimally 4-6. This would cut auto gasoline usage by an estimated 80 percent and commute time by an average of 50 percent within two years.

The Smart Jitney system would use cell phones and the Internet for ride reservations and coordination. Riders and drivers would have modified cell phones with a Global Positioning System (GPS) function. Software experts from the military command-and-control communication systems would join engineers and programmers from the nation's airline and automobile reservation systems to create the tracking and scheduling database for a new nationwide human transport system using existing cars.

If this system cuts gasoline use by 80%, renewable ethanol or E85 could handle all our 'van-pool' needs.

Best idea since sliced bread.

Ah!! Finally, a way to pay for my Prius, or my next one in 2010, the one that is supposed to have even better gas mileage, performance, and room.

This is great, but "tiny" is relative. See my post above about how many BTU's/mile an electric bike consumes. It is truly "tiny".

the percentage of empty seats makes an enormous difference in passenger-miles per unit of energy or pound of CO2./

Unless you are a cornocopian, you have to assume that at some point in the future, those empty seats will be filled to capacity. A 100% occupied train is far better than 20% more efficient than a 100% occupied Toyota Prius. And, unlike more efficient cars, trains produce an efficiency "multiplier" effect as neighborhoods redesign to be more walkable and dense. I don't think this is taken into account with the DOE calcs.

Studies have shown that transit-oriented development reduces vehicle trips by 50% and the length of those trips by another 50% (Europe as a whole is similar, using only 50% of the gasoline Americans do per capita) If the entire vehicle fleet were to achieve 50 MPG, but VMT continued to climb due to conventional urban development patterns, those savings would be eliminated. In contrast, put that same car in a neighborhood developed because of nearby transit, that car now gets 200 MPG.

Yes, proximity, i.e. walking or biking is by the far the best. Living where you work should be strongly promoted.

And there is no need to operate trains as airplanes on the ground. I hate flying in the air, but I hate the idea of flying on the ground even more. At whatever speed efficiency starts plummeting, that's where to stop. We get there later -- so what?

In general, I agree that "green gestures" need to be examined one by one. We need to make sure things actually work. Far too much we only go thorough the movements.

Given those numbers, trains don'y seem all that promising in terms of energy efficiency. Even freight, if the numbers quoted in the comments above are correct is only 2-3 times better than trucks. Lets think about some physics:

The train is supposed to gain efficiency, versus cars/trucks for two reasons:
(1) The wheels/roadway are steel, so that rolling resistance is supposed to be lower than for air filled rubber wheels.
(2) The very long profile, should mean less aerodynamic drag per unit of volume transported.
(3) At larger scale, the thermodynamic efficiency of the motor should be higher.

But, as drawbacks, we have very heavy large traincars, and probably a lower level of technology, nearly all of which was designed when energy was considered to be cheap.

Now if I take a quick look at alternatives:
Passengers vans, cars. These can gain quite a bit from going hybrid. Also electronic technology, should allow us to form these into road-trains, whereas multiple vehicles travel as a single unit bumper-to-bumper, reducing the aerodynamic drag. Also bluff bodied vehicles, such a trucks, and vans, could be seriously more aerodynamic by the addition of skirts, and "boattail" shaped rear farings. It seems to me there is a lot of scope for significant (1.5 to 2.5 times) improvements here.

What about trains:
Hybrids: clearly for nongrid connected trains, where starting/stopping or braking down hills these would help alot. For long distance travel on level terrain hybrid technology is just dead weight.

aerodynamics: What about car to car gaps? Are these covered by flexible farings on modern passenger trains. If not, these gaps probably cause a good fraction of the total drag. I don't know how much research has been done here? there ought to be scope for improvement, but is the opportunity large enough to compete with electronically controlled road-trains?

From my physics textbook, the tractive/rolling resistance of steel on steel is 0.002 to 0.003. For rubber on asphalt, this is 0.01 to 0.02. Hence the energy lost due to the friction of the wheels on the surface is approximately 3 to 10 times greater for rubber tyres on the road.

Rolling friction is only a small part of the energy needed for motion(20# per ton). Maybe steel on steel would require
2# per ton.
Resistance due to grade is minor also(20# per ton per 1% grade).
Resistance due a fast acceleration of 0-60 mph on 10 seconds
would be considerable, around 600# per ton. This is applied intermittently of course.
The most important is resistance due to wind(speed). At 80 mph, wind resistance is around 300# for a small car.
A 10 ton mass transit bus running at 30 mph with lots of stops might have 500# of air resistance, 6000# per acceleration, 300# for climbing gentle slopes and 200# for rolling friction.

Rolling friction might predominate for very heavy, very low speed loads on flat land.

No energy is actually needed for 'motion'. Energy is needed solely for acceleration. To maintain constant motion, energy is consumed by balancing the decelerative forces due to friction with the acceleration by the force provided by the engine. Counting energy needed for acceleration is meaningless when comparing vehicles for efficiency unless of course one has regenerative braking where there is the potential for all that energy released to be harnessed and reused.

But comparing straight cars with rail, basically one only needs to consider the efficiency of the engine & bearings etc, rolling friction and air friction. A few years ago, I did a mathematical modelling exercise involving measuring the deceleration of a car subject to friction. The car was accelerated to 110Km/hr and then left to coast down to 0. Distance and time were measured and the data analysed to develop a set of differential equations to describe the motion of the car. What we found was that above 65km/hr, for this car, air resistance was the greater factor and below this, rolling friction was. I think it would be similar to other cars.

Air friction will always be greater for a set of spaced road vehicles than for a train to move the same number of goods or people. This is quite noticable if you ever tailgate a truck. On my little GN250, I used to regularly ride up to Napier about 320km from here. I was trying different ways of going further on my tank of gas, and the best result was sitting right up the back of a big rig. I had to throttle right down and I could just sit there about a meter from the back with hardly any throttle on. That was the only time I got there on less than a tank (10 litres) of petrol.

In terms of a train, they have exactly the same sort of tailgating.

24 people per train!!!!! No wonder the energy/person numbers are schewed so much. Maybe so in the States, but the potential is vastly greater given that you can have thousands of people in a train without a great increase in energy use. This is in issue of usage, not of energy efficiency.

Check sgsstat's link above - much better data than the Gov. table.

Yeah, I think this is a bit outdated due to the passenger load factors. Airlines have been running their planes slap full during the past year's oil price runup. The table cited shows 20.5 passengers per vehicle (railcar?) for Amtrak intercity rail. But the commonly used double-decker Superliner coaches have seating for 84 people each. On a 15-car passenger train, allowing for 3 sleeper cars at 40 passengers capacity each, a diner, and a baggage car, that's 84 x 10 + 3 x 40 = 960 passengers per train at max capacity, or 720 passengers at 75% capacity. Dividing 720 by 15 cars gives 48 passengers per rail car "vehicle," a much higher load factor than apparently exists now. At this higher load factor, the BTU per passenger mile would be roughly be 20.5 passenger/vehicle*2640 BTU/passenger-mile = 54,325 BTU / vehicle-mile. Say a 75% loaded train uses 15% more energy than the lightly loaded one - so 54,325 BTU / vehicle mile (lightly loaded) x 1.15 = 62.473.25 BTU / vehicle-mile (heavily loaded). Now divide by 48 passengers / vehicle: 62,473.25 BTU / vehicle-mile (heavily loaded) / (48 passengers / vehicle) = 1,302 BTU / passenger-mile - beats out the vanpool. And this with existing equipment.

A quick google search in French yielded the following link: http://www.amisdelaterre.org/IMG/pdf/8pagesTGV.pdf (a document by "Les Amis de la Terre", an environmental group, advocating standard electric trains rather than high speed rail). Within the document they rate a standard electric train (which travels at 160 Km/hour) as using 30 wh per passenger kilometer or 162 BTU per passenger mile. They rate a high speed (300 Km/hour) TGV at 83 wh per passenger kilometer or 452 BTU per passenger mile. These estimates are respectively 6% and 16% of the above estimates, yielding a savings of respectively 94% and 84% with existing technology.

Some info about Pendolino tilting electric trains on the London-Manchester route (journey time just over two hours for 184 miles):

On a typical London to Manchester journey, a Pendolino will return around 750kWh of electricity to the power supply system for re-use, and Virgin's drivers are trained in economic and energy saving driving techniques.


Our Pendolino trains emit 76% less CO2 than the same trip by car or plane.


These trains tilt to go round curves more quickly, but this adds to the weight and therefore they are quite heavy. However, this does not matter very much because at high speeds air resistance dominates over all other frictional forces and air resistance is not a function of weight.

Regenerative braking helps improve efficiency appreciably, even though the average distance between stops is about 50 miles. As far as I know, the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is the only railway in the UK where braking energy can be fed back into the National Grid. On some other electrified routes, regenerated energy can be used by other trains if they are not too far away from the braking train. If no other train is nearby, as detected by a rise in the overhead wire or third rail voltage to an unacceptable level, the energy must be dissipated as heat in resistors.

The WCML sub-stations are bi-directional, so that 25 kV AC from the trains can be fed back to the National Grid at for example 132 kV AC. All of the braking energy can be used all of the time because the National Grid is effectively infinitely receptive to the power levels that trains use. There will always be more than enough kettles, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, light bulbs, etc., switched on to absorb all the braking power.

Prof Lewis Lesley, ex-Liverpool John Moores University developed an energy-efficient tram which uses about 3x less electricity per passenger.km than other modern trams operating in the UK. Also less than the Swiss rail network, which in turn uses less than faster and heavier electric trains such as the Pendolino.

He gave a talk on it in October '08 at a conference in Bath, UK. It sounded as though its first use would be in Ireland, not the UK.

I think Virgin's claim is intended to present their train in the best possible light and uses an old (wrong) UK government figure on the CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity together with an optimistic load factor. As far as I can tell, the energy consumption of planes is slowly dropping as new ones like the 787 come in (it would drop faster if we had enhanced R&D on fuel efficiency plus compulsory retirement of gas guzzlers) whereas the consumption of trains is slowly rising as weights and especially speeds increase.

The Pendolino is extremely heavy, partly for crash protection. If it didn't have regenerative braking, it would presumably consume even more electricity.

I hope this is obvious to everyone, but if high-speed rail eg the TGV/Shinkansen is only as efficient as an airliner there is still the advantage that it is electric.

There is no airplane fuel 'in the pipeline' (so to speak) anywhere near as efficient as diesel/kerosene/jet/stove/petrol. Jet engines can burn just about anything (I've used 3 out of those 5 in my airplane!) but it has to be diesel-like to have a useful energy density.

Airplanes use at best about 1/25 of their fuel to lift their fuel at a constant speed & height. {Of course, since this is 'all' burnt on average they only carry half the fuel they need for any given flight. No wonder I hate statistics!} Presumably cars, trucks and trains less so (in order), but I have no statistics. Considering this, the airplane efficiency is even more remarkable!

Grid electric trains don't carry any fuel but can run on anything - the fuels above, nuclear, coal, natural gas, wind, solar, wave, etc. They automatically upgrade to the most advanced power-generation technology. And existing diesel-electric locomotive have the potential to be converted to overhead wires, not a likely option for existing airplanes. Although 737 fuselages would make mighty nice carriages.

The downside is that if the grid fails so does the train. On a tactical level ("the power's out") keeping some fuel in the diesel-electric locomotives will keep the trains running today. On the strategic level ("the grid collapsed 2 years ago") there is a problem, but there is hope for an improved electrical grid. Fossil petroleum will eventually be a dead end.

Picture this 'bio-fuel' - 23,750,000 tonnes of grain are grown on the Prairies at 500m (Calgary is 1000, Winnipeg is 300), put on overhead-electric rail, lifted over the Rockies and arrives in Vancouver at sea-level or 200 m at Thunder Bay. Like a gondola, the cars going up counter the cars coming down, but these are connected electrically. The energy losses would be fantastic but like a hydroelectric station all that grain mass coming downhill should generate substantial power. The modern alternative (fuel in, heat and smoke out) seems slightly less elegant.

Of course, in this scenario there would be a FedEx surcharge for living in Colorado.

Thanks for saying this.

The post is interesting, but this is a liquid fuels crisis we are facing. We may have a follow on electricity crisis (especially due to natural gas issues) but electricity can be made from a whole host of things.

There are a lot of ties between oil and electricity. One is the one we are seeing now--a shortage of oil tends to knock out the financial system, because we cannot have economic growth without an abundance of oil, and without economic growth, consumers-businesses-and governments cannot pay back debt with interest. WIth a collapsed financial system, there is a significant chance that we will have major shortages of both liquid fuels and electricity.

There are other ties as well. We need oil to maintain roads and electric transmission lines.

Because of these ties, I find it hard to believe that there will be more than a five year difference in the time when we have a serious liquid fuel problem and a serious electricity problem.

You keep forgetting that before 1910 the railroads used very little oil, burning mostly coal and the interurban railroads (trolleys and short distance intercity lines) ran on electricity generated by coal and hydro. Why do you keep insisting that with lower oil availability, not lack of oil, we cannot have electric railroads?
I make my living as a mechanical engineer and have worked for jet airplane manufacturers, railroads, railroad supply companies, state DOT's, and now am an independent consultant. Even with lowered oil production, the US still will have enough oil to use a small amount for building and maintaining electric grid to power the RR's. It is simply a matter of priorities. Oil for air travel will not be available, but the EROEI of oil for RR's is 10 or 20 so the feds will make sure that they get their share - it happened in 1974, 1979 and will happen again.

Mark S. Bucol

The current financial system has big trouble with non-growth and big trouble with volatility. We have both those things and I agree that a new, working, free enterprise system would have to be very different. Most of the world, outside the USA, is considering moving towards a command economy for a while: even supposedly right-wing leaders like Sarkozy. Someone has christened this Global Social Democracy, though I suspect that democracy will often not be enhanced. The railways preceded oil, and when Lenin said “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country" it was before the Russian economy was significantly dependent on oil. I'm absolutely certain that we can maintain an electricity network close to the rail lines [assuming we can generate the electricity, and there is certainly no shortage of thorium if we can figure out how to use it]. Nor do I think we'll ever be short of oil for uses with high marginal utility -- as the ERoEI drops it will oscillate between being too expensive to use and being too cheap to pump.

If there is a shortage of electricity, this should have no effect on electrified rail transportation. The two are NOT connected because electrified rail is a priority user and will not be blacked out#.

Suburban## households will endure 45 minute rotating blackouts, but NEVER transportation.

France uses 2.3% of their electricity for transportation (the USA 0.19%). A small enough percentage to not need to cut them.

The Germans cut electricity routinely to Parisian households (use the fuel for the war effort), but not the Paris Metro. If the Germans would not cut electricity to electrified rail in occupied France, why should Americans do it to themselves ?

#During a hot summer a few years ago DC Metro reduced top speed to 40 mph to conserve electricity. No blackouts, even as brownouts and rotating blackouts went through Suburban residential areas

## Suburban households use twice as much as Urban households, so they are a better target. And they rarely have priority users (such as hospitals) tightly embedded in their local grid.

Best Hopes for Proper Priorities; Blackout Suburbs not Electrified Rail,


1) Oil is not required to support an electrical grid feeding rail.

Switzerland electrified it's main lines in the early and mid-1920s (when oil was present but not yet essential). Many Swiss rail lines run where no roads exist, and all access is by rail. So road access is not required.

The SBB (SwissRail) electrical grid operates at 16.7 Hz, the "other grid" for the rest of society operates at 50 Hz (USA 60 Hz). Today, about 10% of SBB power is bought from the main grid and converted from 50 Hz to 16.7 Hz. (They like to buy cheap French nuclear power late at night).

It is my understanding that SBB built it's national grid (at 16.7 Hz) before the rest of Switzerland built a national 50 Hz grid.

Transport for this rail electrification 80+ years ago was almost entirely by rail. Steam first, then electric locos. This includes the SBB owned hydroelectric dams and power stations that were built to power the SBB grid.

But SBB could "make do" and keep Swiss society and economy functioning with their own separate rail electricity grid.

The German rail (DB) electricity grid is also 16.7 Hz and it interconnects with the SBB grid.

2) We can have a "serious electricity problem" and this would have no significant effect on electrified rail.

18 hours/day without electricity in Atlanta suburbs (a la Baghdad) would be classified as 'serious" during a Georgia summer (Iraqis certainly think so). These blackouts would have no effect on MARTA other than a "go slow" to conserve electricity and this "go slow" would add a few minutes (<5) to most commutes.

Zero scheduled blackouts for MARTA while you sweat in the dark for hours between brief "on periods" is the logical choice for society. Residential air conditioning (and electric heating) uses MASSIVE amounts of electricity (up to half of all demand in heat waves), MARTA (Urban Rail in general) uses very little electricity (0.19% in USA, 2.3% in France).

Best Hopes for Seeing the Light,


Air conditioning is a luxury. My grade school wasn't A/C equipped until my 6th grade, and it was hot but survivable.

Today nobody can conceive of a house or car without A/C. My wife and kids like the thermostat set at 72 in the summer and 75 in the winter (???). I suspect we'll learn differently in a few more years.

Saving enough electricity to run electrified rail is extremely easy. The Bush Recession/Depression will "save" more than enough by itself.

France uses an average of 851 watts/capita, the USA 1,460 watts/capita.


Applying the percentages, France uses slightly less than 20 watts for electrified transportation, the USA almost 2.8 watts.

To say that the USA could not find (best case IMO) 30 watts for electrified rail to keep basic transportation going is ludicrous.


I found it interesting that Puerto Rico, a warm but poorer part of the USA, gets by with 669 watts/capita.

Drop US electrical demand down to Puerto Rico levels and there will be LOTS of electrical generating capacity for electrified rail.

I suspect that outlawing hair dryers could save most of the current 2.8 watts/capita (1500 watts for 3 minutes/day would run all the current US electrified rail). THAT is how easy it is to run electrified rail !!

Very insightful re rail options and benefits.

I'd suggest however that appealing to 'economy of scale' may be somewhat misleading. History has shown that large engineering initiatives of many kinds looked economical, but proved to be so only if many side costs are not factored in, such as waste and pollution costs in the past, and transportation to/from the large-scale mode train transportation in the current case.

Therefore I'm hoping the Obama 'infrastructure initiative' also invests equally heavily in small scale transportation initiatives oriented to local and midrange transit use, including bicycle, NEV, and the good old foot. It should not only be possible and safe to use these means, it should be pleasurable and highly efficient. That's what will get folks out using those modes.

The costs of small-scale transportation mode infrastructure improvements are also much smaller, and therefore a dollar invested in small scale will go a lot further in terms of benefits per person utilizing that mode. There is huge potential for reuse and repurposing of existing infrastructure, in the small-scale realm. For example, the cost of taking an existing 4-lane street and making it into 2 slow lanes to accomodate safe and enjoyable bicycle and NEV traffic, while keeping 2 car lanes, costs the price of paint and signage - a pittance given the benefits. As another example, Obama should invest in the 'knowledge infrastructure' of small-scale transportation by training technical school students to convert tens of thousands of existing, already-manufactured NEV-capable electric golf carts parked in cities all over America, into NEV certified vehicles.

I haven't read all the comments above, but I'd like to share some info about the European railway network.

A few years ago I did my PhD in mechanical engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. There I had number of colleagues who worked in railway mechanics. The research typically concerned wheel-track interaction and a friend of mine studied brake systems for trains. In Europe all freight cars are standardized, and their brakes are operated pneumatically. This means that when the driver pushes the "brake" button in the engine, the engine will start to brake, and then the braking action will propagate backwards through the train. This means there will be compressive forces between each car, and this puts a limit on how hard the driver can brake. Too high compressive forces will cause the train to derail. And this also puts a limit to the speed by wich the freight train can travel safely.

Passenger cars however are electrified, so when the driver pushes the brake button, the braking can be started with the last car, so that forces between each car become tensile. This means that passeger trains can be braked more efficiently than freight trains and they can travel safely at a higher speed. A result of all this is that freight trains are mostly operated at night, and kept away from day traffic when the faster passenger trains are in use. If a freight train is on a track, then the passenger traffic sharing that track needs to be adapted to the slower freight train.

As I understand it, if all freight cars were to be modernized and equipped with electrically operated brakes, this would allegedly double the capacity in the European rail network, without building one meter of new track. But freight cars are standardized so that they can be interchanged between countries and so that cars can be re-classified in classification yards. The system is essentially built on 1940's technology. A standardization of railway brakes should, at least in my mind be cheaper than building new track. But it would require a joint standardization effort by many countries, and would involve many train operators. To my knowledge no such work is under way...

As I understand it, and maybe the readers can confirm this, during the age of the steam engine, the last car was a braking car, and had a "braker" on board. When the "chauffeur" blew a certain signal with his steam whistle, then the braker started to brake the train from the last wagon. So in this case, it seems the tech-development has actually gone backwards...

Mats Lindqvist,
Lund, Sweden

Interesting! Not something I would have thought about.

Hello Mats

I worked for a fair number of years as a testing engineer and as a performance engineer for the British railway system before I retired, so I think I can quote on this subject as well as anybody else on here. Freight and passenger braking was one of the aspects I got heavily involved in during my career.

Just to enlighten the people, I'll go through a few basics before coming to a few salient points.

Freight trains in Europe, America and elsewhere are usually braked by a pneumatic (ie compressed air) system. This system was invented in America (Westinghouse) and has been introduced widely. There are two major versions of this system. The first is the brake as used in America and elsewhere (but not generally in Europe). This I will dub the "Triple Valve" system. The real name escapes me for the moment! The second is known as the "Graduable" system which I describe briefly below, and is used extensively by European railways including the UK. It is worth mentioning here that the differences in the two systems relate to the overall control of the brakes rather then any fundamental differences in the brakes themselves.

Both systems consist of apparatus that maintains air pressure in a pipe that runs fron one end of the train to the other. This pipe is called the "Brake Pipe" (unsurprisingly). Pressure is maintained in this pipe by compressor(s) on the locomotive(s) hauling, embedded in, or pushing the train. The level of pressure in this pipe is controlled by the driver (or "engineer") by means of a hand-operated valve (called the "Driver's brake valve" in the UK).

Each locomotive and vehicle is equipped with friction brakes, either using discs and pads the same as you would find on a motor car only much larger, or brake blocks acting directly on the wheel treads. These brakes are operated by cylinders similar to the hydraulic cylinders you would find on a motor car, but a lot larger and operated by compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid. Admitting compressed air to the brake cylinders to increase the pressure within them puts the brakes on, and reducing the pressure takes them off again.

Now here's the "Graduable brake" bit....

On board each locomotive and freight vehicle (car) is another piece of kit (the "distributor") that monitors the pressure in the Brake Pipe and admits compressed air to the brake cylinders.

When the Brake Pipe pressure is at 5 bar (72.5 lb/in2) the distributor senses that the brakes need to be released fully (the "running" position), and the air pressure in the brake cylinders is vented to atmosphere.

When the Brake Pipe pressure is reduced to about 3.35 bar (48.5 lb/in2) the distributors sense that a full braking effort is required, and sufficient air is admitted to the brake cylinders to fully apply the brakes.

It follows that if the pressure in the Brake Pipe falls to zero, then the distributor will sense that the brakes are to be fully applied the same as at 3.35 bar. This is a safety feature that means that if the train breaks, say as a result of coupling failure, the Brake Pipe will be ruptured, the pressure in it will fall to zero, and the brakes will be applied throughout the whole train immediately, bringing the bits of it to a stand. The Brake Pipe connections between the vehicles automatically part when in tension so as to ensure that the Brake Pipe is vented. If you're near a freight line (or passenger line for that matter) have a look between the cars and you will see flexible hoses with red-coloured thingys in the middle. That's them.

For a Brake Pipe pressure between 5 bar and 3.35 bar the air pressure applied to the brake cylinders will be in proportion ie if the pressure is half way between 5 bar and 3.35 bar (4.175 bar) then the pressure in the brake cylinders should be approximately half the designed brake cylinder maximum pressure. The driver's brake valve controls this Brake Pipe pressure.

Each distributor is connected to a compressed air cylinder on the vehicle (the "brake reservoir"). The distributor is able to charge this reservoir with 5 bar compressed air from the brake pipe, so theoretically the vehicle should always have sufficient air to apply the brakes. In practice, the brake system can be enhanced with a second pipe running the length of the train (the "Main Air Pipe") that has air supplied direct from compressors on the locomotive at a higher pressure of 6.9 bar (100 lb/in2). The higher pressure in the brake reservoir means that the air can be admitted more quickly to the brake cylinders. It does not mean that the brakes normally work at a higher pressure - the distributor takes care of that - it makes the operation more efficient.

There are limits to train length using a graduable brake. This is because the Brake Pipe is itself an air reservoir and becomes too large to fill efficiently over long distances. This leads to difficulties controlling the pressure in the Brake Pipe throughout its length. The practical train length limit for a heavy freight train in Europe or the UK (ie with 102 tonne cars on 4 axles each) is about 750m. Because of brake dynamics and the weight of the vehicles the maximum speed of such a train is 60 mile/h (about 95 km/h). I have simulated the forces developed when this speed is exceeded, and they are quite frightening.

The Triple Valve system, however, gets around the length limits by replacing the distributors on the vehicles with devices that sense a reduction or increase in the Brake Pipe pressure, and immediately operate the brakes to suit. This of course comes with a reduction in ultimate control of the brakes as in the graduable system, but is deemed sufficient for the conditions in which the operation takes place. This is why longer trains are to be found in America than Europe. It's nothing to do with the power of the locomotives or the number of them, or even that the USA is bigger! :<))

All the above is an attempt to describe a system that controls a train brake to the "maximum efficiency" ie the operation is safe, effective, and does not result in damage to the train or to people.

The ideal freight train brake will seek to reduce the speed of each vehicle in the train by the same amount at all times during the braking procedure. The optimum result would be if the couplings between the vehicles are never compressed or in tension at any point under braking. This would lead to zero damage to the train and its locomotives and cargo. Such an optimum is generally unobtainable in the real world, and none of us should be surprised by that, but all vehicles used are designed to brake at the same rate if possible.

Any pressure reduction in the Brake Pipe will take time to propogate down the train. This will result in compression forces at the front initially, but the idea is not to make these forces too large. There are a few devices that ensure this outcome, the most prominent of which is that the distributors only admit compressed air into the brake cylinders in a controlled manner. From memory, the maximum speed of brake cylinder fill for a heavy wagon is between 9 and 15 seconds to 95% of full pressure. The release time is longer (again from memory) 18 to 30 seconds maximum pressure to 0.345 bar (5 lb/in2). Freight train driving is thus a considerable art! The extended filling and emptying times help smooth the application of the brakes and make it less likely that unacceptably high forces are experienced.

As for passenger trains, the brake equipment and philosophy is remarkably similar! The differences are that the vehicles are lighter (35 tonnes odd versus 102 tonnes), the speeds are higher (up to 125 mile/h on conventional railways, not TGVs), two-pipe brakes (see above) are exclusively employed, and the distributors on the vehicles admit and exhaust air from the brake cylinders faster, but not instantaneously. The forces between the vehicles are still ideally kept at a minimum for the same reasons as for freight trains.

The main advantage of an electrically controlled brake on freight trains would be a more even reduction in speed of each vehicle in the train. It would be theoretically possible to go a long way in reducing inter-vehicle forces in this manner. I would guard against attempting to increase the braking rate of the train as a whole, as it would lead to very high forces if some of the equipment were to malfunction, and you run up against adhesion limits (coefficient of friction between wheel and rail). It's just not worth it from a safety point of view, and it is only marginally beneficial to overall railway operations, as the main barrier to passenger and heavy freight co-existence is speed differential and track costs. It's far better to separate freight and passenger trains altogether. Installation of electronics and automotive-style equipment on railway freight vehicles is also hazardous in my view - hazardous for the equipment itself! The wheel-rail vibrations are the worst of all transport environments, and the general dust, dirt and general bashing about would not be beneficial.

And yes, the locomotive brake and caboose (or brake van) indeed used to be a method of operating freight trains. These trains were "unfitted" ie the vehicles (apart from the locomotive and brake van of course) had no running brakes at all. These trains were restricted in the UK to low speeds (30 mile/h from memory) and steep descending gradients were a challenge!

whoo whoo!


Installation of electronics and automotive-style equipment on railway freight vehicles is also hazardous in my view - hazardous for the equipment itself! The wheel-rail vibrations are the worst of all transport environments, and the general dust, dirt and general bashing about would not be beneficial.

I'm given to understand that the absolute worst environment is inside a diesel-electric loco, because the electrical hash from the switching is enormous and even induced currents from nearby conductors can be significant.

Speaking as someone who's worked on automotive and aircraft electronics systems, I doubt very much that rail cars are anything close to the worst environment.  The cabin of a car that can be heat-soaked in desert sun is the most grueling thermal environment outside of an engine compartment, and tire-pressure monitors have to take the same abuse as the wheel.  Believe me, between automotive and mil-spec practices, we can build systems that will work just fine on rail cars (especially if a certain fraction can be failed and still allow the train to run).

Place holder, please do not respond yet.

A variety of points.

I am aware of the energy efficiency of diesel Amtrak as currently operating (I compared pax-miles/gallon of Southwest Airlines to Amtrak outside electrified NEC; low 50s for SW, about 80 for diesel Amtrak) and rarely do I mention Amtrak. I do not "throw rocks' at diesel Amtrak, or contradict Amtrak supporters, but I never promote it as a significant part of a solution.

Amtrak today is optimized for political support, not energy efficiency or transportation. Just reality.

Commuter Rail (by definition <100 mile routes) is part of Urban Rail. The indirect energy savings of Urban Rail, by changes in Urban form, normally exceed the direct energy savings. Commuter Rail changes Urban form less than other types of Urban Rail.

Regional Rail (100 to 300 or 500 miles) is a sweet spot for Amtrak expansion IMHO.

More later,


Place holder.

Amtrak itself is a place holder -- it's all we have, and we are grateful for it. So much better if it were given pride of place, and actually taken seriously as a viable means of transportation.

I am battling a stomach virus (or it is having it's way with me :-( So I was editing and expanding my remarks as best as I could. That is why I requested no responses.

For general freight (i.e containers), the best rail mode is long (say 150 cars) doublestack containers. Good aerodynamics, high % payload, low % structural weight.

Best case (150x2 containers), a diesel electric loco is 9x as efficient as 18 wheel trucks.

But the world is not ideal at all times, so I use 8x #. Converting to electric is 2.5x as energy efficient (end use BTUs) as diesel on rural plains. 3x in mountains or urban areas (stop/slow & go). ROUGHLY 20 BTUs of diesel (for trucks) to 1 BTU of electricity for electrified trains.

I am skeptical, as in unconvinced, about long distance diesel Amtrak. Stationary, grid connected restaurants & hotels are inherently more energy efficient than their rolling counterparts. Trips that require sleepers (fewer pax/car, especially East of the Mississippi) cannot be as efficient as coach travel.

I have proposed (mainly unpublished) a cross-continent semi-HSR network (say 14,000 miles) for both pax and express medium density freight (fruits & veggies would be a main source). Express freight at 90 to 100 mph (special cars that could operate on regular tracks) like SBB (SwissRail) and pax at 110 to 125 mph.

Some links would be justified by freight (only one trans-continental semi-HSR link through El Paso), others by passengers. Ed Tennyson calculated 14 to 18 pax trains/day between San Antonio & Houston but only two pax trains (subsidy required) between El Paso & San Antonio.

Intercity passenger trains require Urban Rail feeders. The NorthEast Corridor (NEC) succeeds because NYC has very good subways, DC, Boston & Philly have good systems and Baltimore has two Urban Rail lines.

San Francisco can anchor it's end of the CA HSR line, but LA cannot (IMHO). Build the "Subway to the Sea" (LA Union Passenger Terminal to Santa Monica) and many UCLA students, etc. etc. etc. will take CA HSR. But not today.

As noted before, the MAJORITY of Urban Rail energy savings come from changes in the Urban form.

PS: Auto travel kills 40,000+ and inflicts several hundred thousand life altering injuries each and every year. IMVHO injury toll is worse than death toll. Reducing obesity (and related diabetes, heart disease, etc.) from walkable neighborhoods is a VERY important and overlooked value of Urban Rail.

Urban Rail saves lives, autos (EV or not) kill & maim !

Feel free to comment now.


# A valid argument can be made that "real world" is 7x, not 8x.

Stationary, grid connected restaurants & hotels are inherently more energy efficient than their rolling counterparts.

This begs the question of how much food prep is done off the train, and if the train itself is electrified.

Trips that require sleepers (fewer pax/car, especially East of the Mississippi) cannot be as efficient as coach travel.

I'm not sure that's the proper comparision.  The time saved by remaining in motion while sleeping cannot be discounted.  If you need to be somewhere in the morning for a meeting, and you can't leave work early the previous day, without sleeper cars the choice comes down to aircraft.  If the sleeper car is more efficient than an airplane, it's a win.

The time saved by remaining in motion while sleeping cannot be discounted

Neither can a good night's sleep.

If the sleeper car is more efficient than an airplane, it's a win.

With diesel Amtrak, for longer distances (say 500+ miles), sleeper trains, with their associated dining cars, are NOT more efficient than flying (say Southwest). The pax-mile average fuel economy is increased by the coach passengers that are also coming along on the train.


I always used to hear that the ratio was more like 9:1 -- this from transportation engineers. In any case, it is not too hard to figure that 100 people in a train car, using superefficient steel-on-steel wheels, no stop lights and regenerative braking, is rather more efficient than having 100 people in 90 4000 lb automobiles.

I would guess these figures are highly skewed by low passenger count on Amtrak.

Remember, the length of a train is variable. When a train is used often, it can have ten full cars. When it is hardly used, it has four.

We don't think about the other efficiencies of trains, such as that most services are within walking distance of the house, and that commuting distances are shorter in terms of miles.

This is a fascinating exchange-- for me at least, since I am not an engineer and I love to ride on trains.

It seems to me that once again, the "data" appear to be as much a function of ideological and political bias as derived from "objective" research. And therefore, any decisions made in the future about the transportation network will be political decisions -- we can't count on Congress or our industrial executives (increasingly they are the same) making decisions based on physics and chemistry, but rather on sociology and psychology -- i.e., politics.

So once again, I think it is time for TOD to consider being more politically involved. Reason alone will not carry the day. The Madoff story alone is proof of that.

I work for Belgium's national railways.
My christmas gift to the oildrum is a small taste of how things work on Belgian rail.
Belgium is a small country, reasonably fertile land, densely populated (10 million and a half or so). We inherited a quite intensive rail network, the remains of which resemble a star trying to become a spiderweb, with Brussels in the middle. 95% of traffic goes through or to and from Brussels.
The following numbers come from the 2006 year report.
I'm sorry I couldn't find anything clear about energy use or efficiency.
They claim to be 40 % more efficient than cars, for a mean occupation of 1,4 people per car, and equivalent occupation for the train. Vague.
Passenger numbers have been growing steadily over the past few years, between 4% and 9% (!) each year. they are investing heavily in double-decker trains, trying to keep up with demand.
In 2006, there were 187,5 million travelers (one way trips), there were 8521 million travelers per kilometer (can anyone deduce anything meaningful from that number?).
Passengers paid €522.6 million, the state paid €826.1 million.
Public railways do not make money, but they are indispensable, to get people to their jobs.
Most of the people we move are workers or students, few businessmen. In the summer we deliver hordes of tourists to the sea, the forests, and rail traffic between European countries is still high.
For conductors, a highly visible phenomenon is freeloading. It takes many forms, isn't very frequent, but it sure is growing. Poverty showing it's ugly face.
Prices vary between less than 10 and 20 €cent per kilometer. The pricing system is unclear: you can buy single, weekly, monthly an yearly tickets, there are ten trip vouchers for adults, for under-25's, for less than 15 kilometers. Prices can jump twofold or more at border crossings. Most state bureaucrats, and a lot of corporate ones, don't pay a cent towards their travel. Journalists and policemen in uniform travel free, military get a 75% reduction, veterans go free, families with more than three kids pay half price, pensioners pay a fixed €4 return ticket, but after 9 o'clock and not in tourist season.
Which makes it hard to determine a fair price for travel.
The cost (for 2006) is €1348.7 million for Belgium, but.
But TPTB, having decided that markets should be free, split the Belgian railways in three, two of which remain in one holding company. Infrastucture and Passenger travel are separate companies under one holding, cargo was sold off cheap. Thalys, Eurostar and ICE, the belgian passenger company and several cargo companies buy rail time from the infrastructure company. And I do not know how much the infrastructure company makes, nor for how much it is subsidized, if so.
One of the biggest problems is, that the drive towards efficiency and optimizing is making the system fragile.
Every day at every depot there should be at least two drivers and two conductors sitting around twiddling their fingers, waiting to fill in for an emergency. When the extras are used up, and something happens, parts of the system break up. This causes small but felt catastrophes for hundreds of thousands of people. Engineers like more extra's (and it is nice to be paid for watching tv). Accountants would like to optimize us all to hell.
Now, at €826 million, the government is paying for 60 percent of the cost of personal travel in Belgium. It is paying more through job-linked state bureaucrat train cards. Business pays quite a bit of train travel, and ordinary belgians don't really pay that much.
It looks like a money sink, but it greases our economy.
We are getting close to moving a million people every day. To their jobs, their schools, their homes, their families, their vacations. A lot of the vacationers on the train do not have the wherewithall to pay for a car, gasoline and parking space.
Now for the other side of transportation. Belgium is car heaven. A lozenge of about 360-something kilometers by 280-something, criss-crossed by grand 6-lane autobahn. And 4-lane and 3-lane and 2-lane and 1-lane roads, all macadamed or cemented for car and tractor use.
5 million cars, 375 thousand motor bikes. We have had major and growing congestion in and around cities since the 1980ies. Air quality in city centers is bad to worse than bad.
And boy do Belgians love their cars. You'd think they were American, if you didn't know better. SUV's, benzes, porsches, souped up subarus, golf audi renault citroen fiat and peugeot, all of them and more are all over the place. Poles come to work here by car. Frenchmen drive through Belgium to get weed in Dutch coffee shops. Food is delivered mostly by truck to supermarkets, some open markets remain. Except for some white and quite a few blue collar workers, most business is done by car or truck, leaving us quite unprepared for delivery problems.
As I earn my living on the railroad, I should hope it survives the coming troubles.

One of the biggest problems is that the drive towards efficiency and optimizing is making the system fragile.

I agree. This is just another form of the just in time economy. Somehow, we need to be building for resilience and endurance.

Electrified rail is both more efficient, more resilient and long lasting (more endurance). A rare case of no trade-offs.

Best Hopes for Seeing the Light,


All this talk of efficiencies - but it is affordability that counts. If something is affordable, if people have the money to do it, they will, witness the absurdity of space tourism, quite affordable to some.

Aircraft are at the bottom for efficiency but just about everyone is traveling worldwide simply to say, "I've been there and done that" There is no other form of transportation that can get people so far in such a short time and tourism is, I understand, the biggest industry in the world (per The Economist). I can't tell you the number of times I've overheard in public others talking of their foreign travel, just as casually as years ago they might have mentioned a car trip to a neighboring state. My favorite example is of a table of elderly people in a restaurant sharing photos of foreign trips and getting confused about what photo related to what trip.

My brother-in-law is off to see Antarctica. He has previously visited Africa and South America. He will be gone a few days and on his return will be able to say he has been there with some photos to prove it. If this isn't discretionary, I don't know what is. With all the issues confronting us regarding the planet and the reputation of air travel for burning up fuel at a tremendous rate, he did not hesitate to go, I doubt it entered his mind, and I see no evidence that others are altering flight plans either.

So now every man is Magellan, doing in hours what he did over a period of years. Per the efficiency discussion, I wonder how many BTU it required to get his wind-powered wooden ship around the world compared to a modern flight over the same route.

We humans think short term; we think of immediate cost. That is the problem we have to face - the enemy is us and evolution has made us this way. Desire directs us and reason acts to rationalize desire. We are creatures who want it (whatever it may be) now.

I love reading TOD and have learned so much from the intelligent discussion here, but I often think that those of us reading and contributing are in a different world from those who are burning up fuel as if there were no tomorrow. The huge jump in gas price had quite an effect, only then did folks start driving less because it meant immediate financial pain.

What happens with our thinking, specifically related to controlling ourselves, will determine the future much more, I believe, than what we do in industry. The economy has hobbled us, temporarily, but wasn't John Q. Public happy to continue consuming with abandon until this collapse struck? Contributions on TOD dealing with human psychology are at least as important as those about engineering challenges.

My concern is that our psychology is our destiny and that no matter what things we come up with technologically we will be unable to avoid consumption to the point of our own destruction, the only hope being that the financial cost of consumption will rise so high that we will be preserved in spite of ourselves - "The Earth can't afford it" being translated to what we all understand - "I can't afford it".

"our psychology is our destiny..." AMEN!

And until we-the-species are willing to restrict our consumption, further technological improvements will merely ratchet up the game (Jevon's Paradox), enabling further increases in both population and per-capita consumption, thus making the ultimate adjustment (or collapse) all the more traumatic.

Which is why I say: "Civilization is the presence of enlightened self-restraint".

Hans Noeldner

I found these papers, by D S Lawyer (USA) of interest. He reads Russian.

home page:


Includes Rail vs. Auto Energy Efficiency


His conclusion:

The very low rolling resistance of a steel wheel on a rail is partially canceled out by the high weight of passenger trains. The higher weight also means more energy used for accelerating and climbing grades although some of this could be recovered by coasting and regenerative braking. Aerodynamic drag is low for a train at moderate speed but increases rapidly (with the square of the speed). Thus one may say that passenger trains are potentially energy efficient, but in actual practice such trains turn out to be little more energy-efficient than the automobile. What institution changes are needed to realize the potential of rail's inherent energy-efficiency are not clear. Neither private ownership nor government monopoly has been very efficient in providing passenger service.

--I did like the last sentence!

Switzerland is the champion rail user in Europe. - An average of 47 train trips per year per person! World: only the Japanese take the train more often. In traveller kms it is first in the world - more than 2,000 kms pp py.

Roughly, 17% - 20% of traveller kms. are done by train, tram, trolley.

The remaining traveller kms are basically fossil fuel and two or 4 wheels.

LITRA, french

The above is for movement within the country. If we look at the total travel/movement of Swiss residents, we see they travel a lot, on average pp 19,000 kms a year! Half way around the earth!

45% of the kms are for leisure purposes, 20% work/school commutes, plus 8% at work, shopping 10%, the rest ‘other’.

55% of these ‘total’ traveller kms are done by car, 18% by plane, 20% by public transport (which adds together bus and rail/tram/etc, but is actually mostly electric.)

Gvmt.stats, french

Not too encouraging...

Addendum. It seems to me that leisure kms. have risen for several general and obvious reasons, considering the last 50 years: the rise in cars/individual transport, the democratization of air travel, its gradual lowering cost, the development of tourism. All of these rest on ‘growth’, higher revenues (or if one likes less needed for basics like food), the rise of technology, also in the home (washing machine) and most crucially, more free time, which is also dependent on higher specialization, efficiency, communication, etc. That is all a well-known story.

One economic factor: Leisure activities take up space - golf course, gym, multiplex cinema, large museum, even mall, etc. and for that reason are built where real estate is cheap. The users or customers contribute to the cost with their travel (almost always by car.) In Switz. quite a bit of leisure activity takes place in ‘nature’ - again travel is needed, though here it can/is often reached by train.

One transport factor: While individual FF transport has grown more rapidly that public transport, as everywhere, use for different purposes has shifted. Public transport has grown tremendously; naturally so in dense areas for regular, predictable movement along main axes, or from periphery to hub, etc. This means that for regular, usual trips, such as a commute to work, or a town-town trip public transport is sometimes the best alternative, and is often at least possible. Not so for reaching some place where only some 100s or 1000s or even more gather.

One cultural factor: The rise of individualism and doing one’s own thing when one likes. In the 1950-60s leisure activities in CH were much more both communal and local - games playing such as cards, dancing, music, clubs of various sorts - debates, sewing bees, model airplanes, fan clubs - giant parties or meets, agri festivals, etc. involving getting ppl already in spatial proximity together.

Others were based on ‘nature’ (walk, picnic, cross country skiing, etc.) easily reachable by train - nature is all around one needn’t go far. Much leisure activity was unpaid work (the Swiss are the world champions of associative, club, community work, or even real work, unpaid) which was also locally anchored. The Swiss stats. for leisure/unpaid ‘work’ or ‘useful activities’ are very muddled and impossible to sort out.

Bit by bit, these kinds of communal activities diminished, in favor of emulation of the rich, who take individual decisions on the spot. James, call Mario or Sep or Seb or whatever his name is to get the plane ready! and physical activity became ‘sports’ that require infrastructure (piste skiing, huge ice rinks, golf, gym, long list) and thus travel.

Here's an interesting article on energy and CO2 for rail, cars, planes.
The article says that high speed trains take 1/3 the energy per p-m of airplanes and cars. A mag-lev train is as fast as an airplane for a 400 mile trip.

The construction cost of

1. mag lev in the US ~$100million/km
2. proposed california high speed (steel wheel) ~$80m/km (est. 100 million riders per year on 1100 mile system)
3. 8 lane highway ~$50m/km

Super Trains made the cover of the latest issue of Popular Mechanics. As populations swell, oil prices rise, and car and air traffic become increasingly impractical, more people are looking to mass transportation as a solution.

Light rail and subways work great for short trips in and around a city. However, the U.S. still doesn't offer a viable alternative to airplanes for high-speed, longer distance journeys (excluding, perhaps, the Acela). And air travel is still relatively inexpensive (not counting the huge environmental costs associated with flying).

There are two technologies currently in use for high-speed rail: the steel-wheel bullet trains, capable of about 200mph, and the maglev trains, which can run at about 300mph. Steel-wheel trains are powered by overhead electrical lines, and run on tracks. The maglev trains use magnetic force to make the train cars float above the tracks, eliminating mechanical friction.

There are steel-wheel trains running throughout Europe and Asia, as well as a couple of shorter lines working with maglev technology (like the 20-mile route between Shanghai and Pudong International Airport).

In the U.S., where mass transit in general and trains in particular are woefully underfunded, the mission to get practical, efficient transportation will face the same old stumbling blocks. We've built a sprawling society that covets individual space more than anything: even if it means sitting in our cars in gridlock and each wasting 40 hours per year stuck in traffic, poisoning our air, and making our planet uninhabitable.

There are eleven existing U.S. railway lines currently upgrading to high-speed steel-wheel rail: in southern California, the Pacific northwest, Texas, Chicago, and throughout the eastern seaboard. They'll each face political and financial battles along the way, but it's great news that high-speed trains are finally being recognized as our best travel option for medium-distance trips.

Comparison of a 400-mile trip, from Popular Mechanics:

High-Speed Rail
Travel time: 2 hours, 54 minutes (maglev); 4 hours, 35 minutes (steel-wheel)
Energy used per passenger mile: 1180 Btu* (maglev); 1200 Btu (steel-wheel)
CO2 emissions per passenger mile: 0.47 pounds (maglev); 0.48 pounds (steel-wheel)

Amtrak (Diesel)
Travel time: 7 hours, 5 minutes
Energy used per passenger mile: 2709 Btu
CO2 emissions per passenger mile: 0.46 pounds

Travel time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including 1-hour check-in time)
Energy used per passenger mile: 3264 Btu
CO2 emissions per passenger mile: 1.06 pounds
Travel time: 7 hours, 6 minutes
Energy used per passenger mile: 3445 Btu
CO2 emissions per passenger mile: 0.77 pounds


Why does rail cost $80M/km? That seems exceedingly high, especially compared to an 8-lane highway. How much is "cheap" commuter rail?

I recall when the interstate came through by my house, circa '70. At $1M per mile it was considered "expensive" by the locals.

You'll have to ask Ah-nold.
In China, a MegLev train costs $25M/km.
This is rather interesting.
You know the Central Pacific was built by cheap Chinese coolies.
The Union Pacific was built by cheap Irish labor.
The Panama canal was built by cheap Caribean laborers.
The pyramids were built by cheap Israelite slaves.

Maybe a vast army of imported cheap labor(millions of Africans or Asians or Mexicans) can rebuild the new high tech rail infrastructure?

Or FWOS ? Unemployment at 18% will drop labor costs.

To be fair, Germany gave China the Maglev floating stock, China just built the tracks & stations.


France plans to build 1,500 km of tram lines for 22 billion euros in the next decade. At $1.12/euro (PPP) that is a bit over $26 million/mile (my calcs while still a bit ill).

Built to a very high aesthetic standard (This *IS* France !) in dense urban environments.

The US costs are higher, IMHO, due to "Rationing by Queue". The process here is NOT designed to build, but to delay building, Urban Rail.

Best Hopes for Efficiency through Large Volumes,


BTW: $700 billion / $26,280,000/mile = 26,636 miles of Light Rail

A note I received from Prof Peter Newman - Professor of Sustaianability at Curtin University from Prof Jeff Kenworthy on US Cities

From: Jeff Kenworthy
Sent: Sun 12/28/2008 12:42 AM
To: Peter Newman
Subject: Re: Rail efficiencies

Hi Peter

The data I have on transit for 2005 in the US for my cities, which is complete, suggest that the consumption per passenger km is

Bus: 3.1 MJ/passenger km
Metro: 0.7 MJ/passenger km
LRT: 0.7 MJ/passenger km
Suburban rail (commuter rail) 1.3 MJ/passenger km

The car data which is not complete for all cities suggests so far 2.8 MJ/passenger km.

So US urban buses are indeed more energy consumptive per passenger km than cars by about 10%, but not as much as the Table 2.12 in the OilDrum article suggests (about 20%). However, this is no reason to suggest cars over buses to save energy in passenger transport as it overlooks the transit leverage effect.

Urban rail modes are 75% more energy efficient in US cities than cars, and commuter rail is about 54% more efficient. So the numbers in the article I think are overstating the energy consumption of rail modes relative to cars. I wish that US sources would stop using this ridiculous BTU/passenger mile unit in their energy data. I have not converted those to MJ/pass, but I think the argument here is more the comparative modal values.

Hope this helps.

Happy New Year.


Ridiculous units aside there is a huge difference between
your source's numbers and DOT/Popular Mechanics.

1 MJ/passenger-kilometer=948 BTU/p-m x 1 mile/1.6 kilometers
so the conversion would be 592.5 BTU/p-km.

therefore 2.8 MJ/passenger kilometer = 1659 Btu per passenger mile
or if 1.5 passengers per vehicle per Table =2488 Btu per vehicle mile, which is 48 miles per gallon for cars which really looks wrong.

The Table gives 5514 Btu per vehicle mile which for gasoline(~120,000 Btu/gal) is 21.76 mpg which looks correct.

And the Table at 3512 Btu/p-m agrees with the 3445 Btu/p-m of the Popular Mechanics article for cars on a 400 mile trip.

.7 MJ/p-km leads to 414 Btu-p-m so using 30 people(!) per vehicle leads to 12432 Btu per vehicle mile or ~9.7 miles per gallon for a tram where as the EERE got 3 to 4.5 miles per gallon equivalent for hybrid electric trolleys( with regenerative breaking). It is fairly obvious that a trolley bus that on-board creates electricity from fuel is more efficient then overhead wires that bring electricity from a distant central power station is.


Of course, commuter trams running on routes all day long should average less than 30 people per vehicle/car.

BTW, a school bus gets about 8 miles per gallon and has around 40 kids on board which would
be .63 MJ/passenger-kilometer.

Hail to the Bus Driver Man!

...it overlooks the transit leverage effect

I assume you mean Transit Orientated Development, the changes in Urban form resulting from Urban Rail. There is no known TOD effect from buses in developed nations.


The energy use figures provided by DOE for rail transport may be the average for USA, but I am sure that, in many cases, the energy efficiency of railway transport is much better. As an example I'll provide you the figures for the Bilbao Subway. Bilbao, my hometown, is a 1 million habitants town in the North of Spain. The town design is quite different to the American “suburb” style, we live quite packed in a narrow valley along the Nervion river. The subway is modern design, just 12 years old. The Bilbao Metropolitan has just two lines with a total of 39 km and 36 stations, with an average distance of 1,08 km between stations and an average speed of 34 km/hour. This speed is similar to the average for cars moving on the surface.

The Bilbao Subway used a total of 70.0 GWh of electricity in 2007, including vehicles (49,0 GWh) and infrastructures (21,0 GWh). The total number of passenger-km was 543,5 million. The total use of electricity was then 0,129 kWh/pass-km, including stations lighting, escalators, HVAC, etc. In Brittish units, (3412 Btu/kWh and 1,609 km/mile), and considering a factor of 2 for converting electricity to primary energy, the use of primary energy in the Bilbao Metropolitan is around 1,400 Btu/pass-km.

This is less than half of the figures reported by DOE for energy use in railway transport in the USA.

The subway works fine and avoids thousands of hours of wasted time in traffic jams. Today, it is WITHOUT DOUBT a good way for saving energy in our country. And I am sure that in the future, when the efficiency of cars improves, the subway will still be much more efficent than cars.

Now that the technology bubble has burst and we know we are not living in the world of the "Jetsons" with unlimited energy and resources but rather in a world of constraints - the same constraints that have always been round since time immortal - we come to realize that rail is the truely long term, sustainable medium to long range transport option for people and cargo over land. This is especially true of electrified rail that does not depend on limited, heavily polluting fossil fuels.

I personally have always liked the railroad and trains and prefered them to most modes of land transport. I was very much dissapointed to see many miles of rail ripped up and sold off during the past quarter century. I knew down deep inside that this was an unfortunate loss to our transport infrastructure.

As the cost of air transport and interstate trucking becomes untenable in the future it will be good to see a revival of rail. It is more efficient and as other posts point out there is lots of room for improvement. As society and industry come to realize the importance and viability of rail in the post peak era we look forward to seeing more investment into research and development of more efficient railroad engines and rail systems.

In our vast land the railway opened the frontier to interstate transport. In the future we will certainly come to depend on our railway system more than today, especially as global warming and oil depletion issues become more pressing.


Daniel Draffen

Hi folks,

In her last book "Dark Age Ahead", Jane Jacobs highlights how public transport was destroyed by 'motor' concerns:

...led by General Motors' Bus Division... [T]he consortium bought electric streetcar lines, demolished them, and replaced them with buses, then resold the lines, tying up the sales with contracts that specified future supplies of buses, oil and tires. In the 1930's, with this tactic perfected, scores of transit systems were bought by General Motors subsidiary called National City Lines. To Depression-stricken cities, the ready money from selling transit systems was irresistible. An electric streetcar was more economical to maintain than a bus and lasted three times as long as a bus, so the reconstituted systems were extravagant. (2004:P38-9)

However, Jacobs also points out that light rail efficiencies tail off as population density declines, and as is shown in link in the post above by Laurence Aurbach "Energy Use and Pollution of Travel Modes"; context is also key - showing the huge discrepancy between full bus use and empty bus use. While the Brazilian city of Curitiba has shown what can be done with a bus-rapid transit system, as this link shows they are now considering building an LTR.

The Integrated system in Lyon, France works very well (last tried it in late 2005) - it includes metro, tram, bus and bicycles (from hire points distributed around the city - though these unfortunately are subject to abuse). Similarly London would work if they sorted out the systemic and geographic bottle necks and dumb politics. And that is the key, a need for context specific integrated transport systems - not the one size/policy fits all approach of current thinking. Things like Electric Trolley buses use a combination of techniques to provide innovative solutions to rapid transport systems.

Of course, until a proper 'carbon economy' based on activity related energy use is put in place to record the energy use and carbon emissions of all activity in an economy, such as what actually costs what - steel and concrete for rail versus steel, concrete and tar for roads etc, we shall I think be in the dark for some time yet.


Ed Tennyson served as staff technical adviser to the prosecution of GM for restraint of trade (via control of National City Lines and destruction of streetcars). He may be the last living participant of that trial.

GM lost, and paid a fine of $5,000.

Best Hopes to an end of the GM culture,


From $5000 fine to $17Billion bailout - not a bad investment...


While I cannot recall the source at present, I am quite sure I have seen credible data within the last five years which indicated that Bullet Trains in Japan were no more energy-efficient on a passenger-mile basis than airplanes.

The credibility of a writer asking for hard numbers on things is not helped by statements like this. "I read someplace..." I expect from some drunk guy at a party, not in a TOD article.

There are a couple of things to remember about transport efficiencies "per passenger mile".

The first is that any vehicle can almost double its PPM efficiency simply by doubling its passengers - it's a bit less than double, since with non-human powered vehicles, most of the motive force goes to moving the vehicle itself. So if a car gets 25MPG and has just the driver, it uses 0.04 gallons PPM; but if the car takes a single passenger, it now gets 0.02 gallons PPM; if it takes three passengers, it gets 0.01 gallons PPM.

Likewise with trains. I don't know the loading factor for Amtrak overall, but your article didn't mention it, either. And it's an important factor. Is each carriage carrying 10 passengers? 20? 100?

As we've found here in Melbourne, Australia, public transport operators (whether government or corporate) are rather slow to realise a very basic business truth: if you provide a pleasant, reliable and frequent service, people will use it. If your service is unpleasant, unreliable and infrequent, people will avoid it. Price has surprisingly little effect; if you have to wait 30-60 minutes at a lonely bus stop in the dark and rain with no timetable to tell you exactly when it's coming, it doesn't matter if it's cheap or even free, you won't use it if you have any choice.

Americans will be able to tell us: is Amtrak a pleasant, reliable and frequent service? Is it well-patronised, or do people avoid it? Could they physically fit more people on it?

Another aspect is that not all energy use is equal in terms of financial or environmental cost. If I put my washing in the electric dryer, someone must generate electricity for me to do it, I have to pay for that, and wind must blow or coal must be burned for it to happen. Whereas if I hang my washing out in the sun, it dries at no cost but the few minutes for me to hang it up. Of course energy was used, but at no financial or environmental cost.

So in looking at different types of transport and their energy use, we have to consider whether their costs are equal, and if they could be changed.

For example, an electric train may use just 20% less energy than an aircraft, but the train does not care where the electricity comes from. If it comes from a coal-fired station with a poorly-patronised train, then the train travel will probably be worse than air travel for resource use and environmental damage (at least for journeys under 1,000km or so). If it comes from a gas-fired station, train travel looks much better. From wind, better still.

Whereas it doesn't seem possible to substantially change the fuel source of air travel.

Thirdly, there are things other than energy PPM which need to be considered, even assuming all fuels were equal. This is things like the various costs of roads. So even if buses produce as much pollution and use as much energy as cars, it can be much better to have 25 people in one bus rather than in 18 or so cars - less roads are needed since 1 bus takes up less space than 18 cars, less maintenance on existing roads, less lethal accidents because of less volume of traffic, and so on.

Just listing the energy use PPM isn't enough.