I was down by the Willamette River in Sellwood the other day, taking my daily walk, and I came across the only surviving example of Southern Pacific’s GS-4 locomotives, among the most powerful steam engines ever built. This is SP 4449, It is owned by the City of Portland and they take it out every Christmas and run excursion trains along the riverside. It is a pretty impressive piece of machinery.
The drive wheels are over 2 meters, as you can see, considerably taller than the engineer walking alongside them. The four cylinders in the foreground are each bigger than a large garbage can. It’s even more impressive when it pulls out.
Of course, steam is not the most efficient way to move stuff around. You are only getting about 15% of the energy of the burning fuel in the form of motive power – most of it is either creating waste heat that isn’t making steam, going out in impressive bursts of vented steam, or lost in friction of the enormous number of moving parts. Mostly by 1941, American railroads had switched over to diesel-electric setups or pure electric, which is the most efficient system for moving things on land. A steam locomotive is nonetheless about four times as efficient as a truck in terms of tonne-kilometers of load per liter of fuel consumed, and it can burn a wide variety of fuels that can’t be used efficiently to produce electricity. In 1941, America was going to war and needed all its oil and so the GS-4’s were originally designed to work on coal. After restoration in 1976, 4449 pulled the “American Freedom Train” during the Bicentennial celebrations, and has worked since pulling the occasional excursion train.
I understand from some of his stream-of-consciousness proclamations that the Id-in-chief (aka the Orange Tornado) is thinking about borrowing a whole bunch of money and building some infrastructure. Hard as it is for me to say this, I think it is a good idea and we should push it along. I have some suggestions for him, though, and the first one is to take some lessons from old SP 4449 “Daylight” and bring America back to rails.
Let’s talk about the money first, since even Mr. Six Bankruptcies has to be concerned about having the country go deeply enough into debt to build any serious infrastructure. Luckily, the US has an exceptionally good credit rating. The debt hawks on the right in Congress have repeatedly forecast that debt is about to tank the US economy or that we will soon be unable to pay our debts but in fact the market evaluates US government debt as one of the world’s safest investments. We are prohibited by the Constitution from renouncing or defaulting on any debts (the 14th Amendment, specifically), investors all know this, and so money is cheap and will be for some time. This is probably even true if Trump goes through with his plans to give an enormous tax cut to the rich. Investors will assume that the next administration will have to raise taxes. So we shouldn’t have any trouble coming up with the money to pay for a bunch of infrastructure projects.
Next we have the question of if it is advisable to do a bunch of building. Trump has argued, during the campaign, that it is, and I agree with him (gulp). Of course, his signature infrastructure project is the big, beautiful, impenetrable wall on the southern border that will solve the illegal immigration problem forever. It will do nothing of the sort, of course; most illegal immigrants got here on airplanes with perfectly valid visas, they just over-stayed or violated the terms of their visas. But leaving that aside until next week, the basic idea of creating jobs by starting up a bunch of construction programs is totally legitimate. We should have done it eight years ago, but of course the Republicans wouldn’t vote the funds for Obama to do it. By definition, everything he wanted to do was bad. But if it’s the Orange Wonder Boy who wants it, nothing is too good for him! And it will be a good thing for the republic if we can put millions of people to work on building projects.
And boy do we need infrastructure. Our highway system is falling apart. Our water and electricity infrastructure is in poor condition. We are in continual danger of massive blackouts. The Flint Michigan water crisis has gotten a lot of headlines but there are plenty of cities with the same problems. And then, having fixed our twentieth-century transportation and utility infrastructure, we need to start thinking about a twenty-first century system. And that’s where SP 4449 comes in to the story.
China has been spending trillions on a national high-speed rail system that uses a Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) system for some lines. They expect to link all major cities in the country with trains that will take a maximum of six hours for the longest trip – competitive in speed with jet passenger aircraft. I think we can do them one better by using vactrains, a system proposed over 40 years ago by Gerard O’Neill but increasingly realistic with developments in Maglev technology. You would have to build an airtight tunnel, either underground or on the surface. When the train was in operation, the tunnel would be depressurized to the equivalent of very high altitude, reducing the atmospheric drag that is the only impediment to a maglev train going as fast as it likes. You then accelerate up to an effective top speed of about 16,000 kilometers an hour – orbital velocity, which would take about 15 minutes at .5 g – and then decelerate at the end. The most efficient trips are long ones, of course, so stations would be hundreds of kilometers apart.
Between those major “hub” stations, linked by low-pressure maglev trains that take less than an hour to get from station to station, you have “spoke” lines carrying people with conventional high-speed technology. Then, from regional stations you could have light-rail or regional rail systems that would take people within walking or biking distance of their homes if they live in the city or suburbs. In rural areas, you would still need cars and trucks. If I wanted to go from my home in suburban Portland to my mother’s mountain cabin in western Virginia, I would walk, bike, or take an Uber car or taxi to the local transit station. From there, a light rail train (already in service at this writing) would take me to Portland’s Union Station downtown in half an hour or 45 minutes. There, I would board a high-speed train to a regional hub, either Seattle or San Francisco. Seattle is about 300 km from here, and San Francisco is almost 1000, so the trip using currently available high-speed technology would take 1-3 hours. From there, I would get into a low-pressure maglev train that would cross the country in about three hours, including time for deceleration and stops at intermediate hubs. If there was a direct run, I could easily be in Washington’s Union Station within an hour of departure from Seattle. Then, we reverse the steps, taking a high-speed train to a regional hub, say Winchester or Staunton, Virginia, and then local transportation up into the mountains. Most of the time and fuel would be spent in the first and last 20 kilometers or so of the trip. For somebody who lived near a hub station, it would be perfectly conceivable to go across the country for a business meeting.
And, it would be cheap; much cheaper than a plane flight. Airplanes are enormously expensive to operate in terms of fuel. The only reason we use them is because they are fast and our country is enormous. Aircraft infrastructure is also hugely expensive; the FAA has been holding off spending billions on a new computer and radar system because of cost and airports are fantastically expensive. Portland just renovated its (highly-regarded) airport at a cost of $98 million, and that was just for this year. They have another multi-million dollar project on tap for next year. And airplanes are really inefficient for moving cargo, but we still do a bunch of it because people expect their Amazon packages to arrive tomorrow. If Amazon et al could ship their stuff on maglev trains and get it there in a few hours I bet they would be standing in line to contribute to the construction expenses.
Building this system would not be cheap, of course. They depressurized tubes would cost millions of dollars a kilometer. Airtight would not be a problem, especially since you are already supplying them with plenty of electricity and setting up a few pumps every now and then to make sure they stay in near-vacuum would not be a problem. The power cost of moving and lifting a maglev train is relatively minimal, actually. The tube can’t turn very much if the objects it is containing are supposed to be able to move 16,000 km/h (although it can do a little bit, given that the trains are ushered along their way by magnetic fields). You would have to do a good bit of digging to get through mountains and a good bit of bridge-building to get over low places. All this building would require a lot of workers and use up a lot of resources that we would be buying from American manufacturers, which addresses the concerns of the Orange Wonder Boy and his followers.
And, now that his Idness has acknowledged that there is such a thing as climate change and humans have something to do with it, this would go a long way towards reducing the carbon output of our country. Moving somebody across the country in an electric train produces about a sixth as much carbon as moving them across the country in an airplane. And then, for those Trump supporters who get their news from an assortment of Russian propaganda and Macedonian scammers, fewer jet airliners means fewer chemtrails.
In other news, we had a nice Thanksgiving dinner.
This is the face of America today, like it or not. Most of these folks live within a few kilometers of me here in the suburbs. There’s Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and people of no religious preference at this table. And there was plenty of food.
And some fascist swine painted swastikas and racist comments on our local elementary school the weekend after the election. I find it horrifying that these clowns are striking so close to my home. I wonder if they are upset at the racial diversity of the school’s students? The slogans were mostly illegible by the time I saw them (school district employees have been hard at work with pressure-washers).
Happy Thanksgiving. Give thanks that we still have a country that is truly great. Most of the time.