Beating a path to high-speed rail’s front door – a feeder-rail path, that is!

Twenty days have passed since the historic and symbolic high-speed-rail groundbreaking (rail-signing, actually), and I realize that the completion of the building phase of America’s first bullet-train project is years away, but I can’t help but wonder even this early on how when the system is up and running, it will impact the California cities it will serve and traverse.

Never having ridden on a high-speed train before, I have no idea what traveling on one is like. With regard to the Golden State’s system, not all online cities will have stations. My understanding is that there will be between 24 and 26 stations statewide in all.

Being California’s will be an American first, it is understandable that many people would be unsure about what all building a high-speed rail line will entail. That said, expected should be concerns like what effect high speeds and train noise will have on cities and on those who will live and work nearby where trains will be zipping by. These issues, I trust, will no doubt be addressed like, for example, as in employing noise-dampening sound walls to help muffle train din. Then there are the more atypical concerns, such as what effect trains will have on local traffic and, in turn, what effect that will have on area air quality.

For any high-speed-train-served city, imagine an onrush of cars (and buses) descending on the passenger rail station in question competing for limited roadway and parking space, drivers scurrying about weaving in and out of traffic and around pedestrians in search of that hard-to-get-to spot to drop off or pick up high-speed passenger-train patrons. Conditions could potentially be too much to bear.

This is why I believe it is imperative to plan effectively in the here and now as a means to address expected “down-the-road” problems later on.

Good for those cities already having plans in place to deal with these and other issues. Those that don’t, well, I would ask why and for what are they waiting.

One good train deserves another

320px-Acela_Express_and_Metro-North_railcar[1]The most attractive aspect of train travel is its ability to get patrons to destinations sans the hassle often associated with roadway travel. Moreover, trains are almost always given the right-of-way, yielded to by all others and those attributes are what give trains an advantage.

To not capitalize on this advantage and employ trains in the urban and suburban settings to feed or shuttle riders to and from centrally located bullet-train depots, well, that, to me, is a missed opportunity. What I’m alluding to here are feeder-rail services.

So, how, exactly, does feeder-rail function? Easy. Tracks lain from outlying areas connect to high-speed train stations. Located along the lines and in between are stations to receive and discharge even greater numbers of passengers and such stations provide added accessibility to a broader population base. All outlying stations would have ample parking provisions so that vehicles could be left onsite and provisions for drop-offs and pick-ups could be facilitated with relative ease. Not a new concept by any means, but it does work and works well.

Those motorists and their passengers still insisting on motoring it to and from the main bullet-train stations directly could still do so; that option would still be available. But, by virtue of feeder-rail trains getting presumably significant numbers of passengers to and from center-city high-speed train stations, the result would be less automobile traffic descending upon and overwhelming roads in and around the latter stations in question.

And, what’s more, transit buses, taxis or car-sharing services could be utilized to transport those who prefer to have their main mobility needs met by urban feeder rail, whether they are headed to the main high-speed train stations or to other around-town locations along the line. All modes involved would articulate well with each other, the buses, taxis and shared-use vehicles to serve mainly in a “first-/last-mile” capacity. “Intermodalism” is the word I would use to describe this type of arrangement.

The end result is shorter jaunts made by less environmentally-friendly means with the longer portions of intra-urban trips reserved for the modes that are less damaging to the air and environment.

For those communities already with the feeder-rail program, more power to you. For those that aren’t, not to fret: there is time still to get on board.

Image above: Connor Harris

Large sources’ GHG data shows progress made, where it’s lacking

Bituminous coal
Bituminous coal

Since the focus this week has been overwhelmingly on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, I thought I would round out this week’s discussion covering U.S. GHG.

Going all the way back to Sept. 30th last year, published was the news release “EPA Releases Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data from Large Facilities.”

Why bring up this topic now? Not only do I feel this to be an important item, but it is highly relevant and adds much to what has so far been covered in Air Quality Matters this week.

“Today [Sept. 30, 2014], the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its fourth year of Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program data, detailing greenhouse gas pollution trends and emissions broken down by industrial sector, geographic region and individual facilities,” wrote the EPA in the release. “In 2013, reported emissions from large industrial facilities were 20 million metric tons higher than the prior year, or 0.6 percent, driven largely by an increase in coal use for power generation.”

Wait, did the environmental regulatory agency say U.S. GHG output was “20 million metric tons higher” than what was emitted a year earlier? It did.

The EPA also revealed that, nationwide, “[o]ver 8,000 large-emitters reported direct greenhouse gas emissions to the program in 2013, representing approximately 50 percent of total U.S. emissions.” Twenty-thirteen program data indicate:

  • More than 1,550 power plants released in excess of 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), this one stationary-source supply accounting for about 32 percent of all U.S. GHG-emissions output. This was 13 million metric tons higher than that vented in 2012 on account of increased coal use
  • The second-largest stationary source of GHG, natural gas and petroleum systems, reported releasing into the atmosphere 224 million metric tons of emissions, an actual improvement over the year before of 1 percent. From the same sources, the amount of methane emitted dropped 12 percent from two years earlier, the greatest improvement seen in natural-gas drilling involving hydraulic fracturing processes over this same two-year time period, which experienced a 73 percent reduction in the amount of methane released
  • From refineries – the third biggest stationary-sources contributor – GHG emissions rose a reported 1.6 percent above that emitted in 2012 – or 177 million metric tons
  • GHG emissions from the industrial and waste sectors saw a metric-tons-increase of 7 million, a 1-percent jump in 2013 over 2012

“The Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program is the only program that collects facility-level greenhouse gas data from major industrial sources across the United States, including power plants, oil and gas production and refining, iron and steel mills and landfills,” added the EPA in the release. “The program also collects data on the increasing production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) predominantly used in refrigeration and air conditioning.”

As Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program information becomes available, I plan to provide updates each year.

Motor-vehicle-pollutants portion rising?, falling?, what?!

Consult most news sources these days – this one included – when it comes to poor air quality, and what you’re likely to uncover is that more often than not in the blame-game, traffic – more specifically, tailpipe emissions – is named. Obviously, not the only source of pollutants, nevertheless, the portion of pollutants coming from traffic – and transportation, more universally – is sizable.

Falling gasoline prices: What effect is this having on both motor vehicle and public transit use and, by extension, what, if any, impact has the decline had and having on the quality of our air.

David Levinson in “Mount Transit, Mount Auto, Mount Next,” at the Transportationist Blog, clues us in.

“In the US, we have seen a great struggle play out in the twentieth century between what David Jones calls Mass Motorization and Mass Transit. The conflict between the modes continues to this day, and has become a morality play in the culture wars. While they mostly serve different markets, they compete for users, and roadspace, and funding, and the hearts and minds of travelers. They are competing on old turf though, …, both modes appear to be in decline, transit for decades, the decline of the auto-highway-system is just beginning.”

This is an interesting revelation, because what this tells me is pollution from both sources should be becoming less and less, that is, as long as the mode-split-relationship (and other influencing factors) has not significantly varied.

360px-CBX_Parkchester_6_jeh[1]To this, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Highway Policy Information, says what? In its “Highway Statistics Series,” compiled is statistical data on “State Motor-Vehicle Registrations2012” and tabulated in this is motor-vehicle-registration data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In the table’s far lower right-hand corner is the number: 253,639,386. This represents the total number of registered motor vehicles in the United States – as of 2012, of course.

Additionally, from the same “Highway Statistics Series,” presented is statistical data on “Net Volume (Gallons) Taxed (19612012).”

Based on the information presented, one could conclude from this that the amount of gasoline taxed is also representative of the amount sold.  If memory serves me correctly, we did not start seeing the cost of gasoline plummet precipitously until around Sept. 2014.

At any rate, the amount of gasoline taxed in 2012 was: 169.640 billion gallons. It is what it is.

Hydrogen_station_pump[1]But, then I noticed something interesting. The overall trend was positive between 1961 and 2007, taxed gallons going from 60.006 billion in 1961 to 177.394 billion in 2007. After the Great Recession hit just subsequent to this, the number of gallons of gasoline taxed dropped to 171.229 billion in 2008, dropping even more to 168.551 billion in 2009, rose again in 2010 to 171.101 billion, falling to 168.722 billion in 2011. Only if there are fewer less-fuel-efficient vehicles on the road coupled with greater use of cleaner-burning fuels and/or less traffic on the roads coupled with greater use of cleaner-burning fuels – along with the dip in the amount of gallons of gasoline taxed, am I able to conclude that emissions emanating from motor vehicles are also fewer. That’s a good sign even if the number of motor vehicles on America’s roadways experiences level or upward growth.

However, should any of the variables appreciably change in a negative direction, such as in more gas being sold/used, a return to former buying habits as in there being increased purchases of less-fuel-efficient vehicles made, and/or more on-road delay encountered, then it is presumed a rise in transportation-sector emissions would follow. Lower gasoline prices could result in any or all of that coming about.

Levinson, in his blog post, meanwhile, opined, “The economy and gas prices still fluctuate, and a boom year with low gas prices following a recession with high gas prices might very well temporarily bump traffic upward, but that is really short-term noise. In the absence of external events (technological shifts, demographic shifts, social shifts), the curve appears to have peaked. But over the longer term, a significant technological shift could profoundly change how people use the automobile. If there were only one possible significant technological or social shift, this might be predictable, but there are numerous technological and social shifts in play.”

Soybeanbus[1]On transit use, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reported, in 2013, a record 10.7 billion trips were made, the highest patronage numbers transit in America has seen in 57 years.

And added: “While vehicle miles traveled on roads (VMT) went up 0.3 percent, public transportation use in 2013 increased by 1.1 percent.”

The public transportation membership association went on to point out that from 1995 on, “transit ridership is up 37.2 percent, outpacing population growth, which is up 20.3 percent, and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is up 22.7 percent.”

All of which has an effect on the level of emissions pouring into the air from overland modes of transport.

N2O, HFC, PFC, SF6: Ce’s nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, respectively

No, I’m not writing in code. Nor is this a bunch of meaningless mumbo jumbo or nonsensical gibberish. What I’m talking about here are the greenhouse gases (GHG) of nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Aside from (N2O) which is the third most prevalent GHG behind carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), I’ve ordered the fluorinated gases this way based on both their survivability in the atmosphere and their global warming potentials (GWP) – that is, effectively from shortest- to longest-lived and from lowest to highest GWP. Add in CO2 and CH4 and the greenhouse-gases picture is complete.

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17[1]Interestingly, with the exception of N2O, the fluorinated gases (HFC, PFC and SF6), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from the “Overview of Greenhouse Gases” page on its Web site in particular, are synthetic – not naturally occurring gases – and result in the air from various industrial-related manufacturing processes.

Nitrous oxide emissions, on the other hand, are formed mainly through agriculturally- and industrially-related activities, according to EPA.

Nitrous oxide emissions (at 6%) and fluorinated gases (at 3%) combined with methane (at 9%) and carbon dioxide (at 82%), accounts for total (100%) U.S. GHG concentration amount.

So, let’s talk more about nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is not to be confused with oxides of nitrogen (NOx), the two, which people, can and do, get confused. NOx, although a gas, is not a greenhouse gas.

The good news is that N2O, as a pollutant emission, has remained relatively steady since 1990, holding constant at around 400 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e). Also, according to EPA, a five percent rise is projected from 2005 to 2020, attributed mainly to increased emissions from the agricultural sector. The bulk (75%) of non-naturally-occurring N2O is produced from agricultural activities with lesser percentages from industry/chemical production (6%), five percent each from stationary combustion sources, manure management and other, and from transportation (4%).

And, as for the fluorinated gases, they see heavy use in the manufacture of semi-conductors (semi-conductors are used extensively in the electronics field) and in refrigeration. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) replaced hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), both of which were damaging to the stratospheric ozone layer.

No matter the greenhouse gas, except for what occurs naturally and is outside the control of humans, excess GHG entering air or water or both, for example, should be reduced if not stopped completely. Essentially, the excess GHG we’re talking about is leftover or waste GHG. As long as any of or all six greenhouse gases – alone, in any combination involving two or more up to five in all, or all six collectively – can be found in the atmosphere other than that which is naturally occurring, and irrespective of whether there’s been a shift in climate or not, said shift (if there is one) being on account of the presence of GHG emissions in the air, I believe what is warranted most definitely, is cause for concern – what this three-part, climate-enemy (what “ce” in the title refers to) discussion, when you get right down to it, is about.

Whatever one’s view of any of the above, minimizing or completely eliminating waste or excess GHG in the air, that’s key which, incidentally, can be achieved in a variety of ways; such as, through better control (management) procedures and techniques and through technological means and improved technology.

Image above: NASA

Carbon dioxide: Climate enemy no. 2, uh, that’s according to whom now?

If you thought yesterday’s (Jan. 20, 2015) “Methane: Climate enemy no. 1. On EPA’s emissions-reductions watch list” post was something, there is more where that came from – that’d be today’s thread and today’s focus: carbon dioxide. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Moreover, my theme this year being waste, what better is there to converse on than the gas carbon dioxide as waste.

ShipTracks_MODIS_2005may11[1]Carbon dioxide (CO2), it gets a lot of attention. And now with today’s post, even more. So: why so much attention? In case you hadn’t already guessed, it’s the gas’ connection, perceived or actual, to climate change, a construct over which much controversy has surfaced and much debate has boiled over.

Okay, let’s review.

In “A polluted air/warming world connection? On this the jury is still out, apparently,” I offered: “So, a question I have is: if there is a growing belief that climate change is somewhat serious, serious or very serious in the eyes of an American majority, if this is true, then alone, is this enough to prompt Americans to make corresponding lifestyle or behavioral changes so as to try to lower individual carbon footprints?”

In the same blog I also asked: “So, how serious a threat is climate disruption, anyway? Or, is it a threat at all? If it is, and deemed either very serious or even serious, isn’t this precedent-setting enough in terms of our trying to get a handle on carbon dioxide releases, the [main] substance many are blaming for fueling climate disruption?”

What I know for a fact is that in 2012, the total U.S. metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released was equal to 6,526 million, and include in that carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases – hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

I also know that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is close to 400 parts per million. That is how abundant CO2 in the air is.

Meanwhile, what EPA has to say is that a global warming potential has been calculated for each of the greenhouse gases, done for the purpose of determining how efficient each GHG is in terms of its energy-absorption abilities in addition to determining their survivability (how long on average each will remain in the atmosphere).

In the U.S., of all of the GHG emissions, carbon dioxide appears to be playing the single greatest role as a driver of human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change, CO2 comprising 82 percent of total U.S. GHGs.

And, if you want to know what else, just as winter this year in my neck of the woods is a virtual carbon-copy of last year’s, as proof, in my back yard day lilies and irises are coming up; for days on end air-pollution-filled and sullen-looking skies have become a regular sight; and on top of this the drought the southwest is experiencing has not relented (which is now in its fourth year). And, it’s anyone’s guess what’s behind this. Can global warming be to blame? I mean, really, what else could it be?! What’s your take?

To learn more about carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas emission, its global warming potential, trend information, opportunities for effective mitigation, etc., go here.

Image above: NASA

Methane: Climate enemy no. 1. On EPA’s emissions-reductions watch list

The climate-change argument – whether it’s a hoax or whether it’s real – is far from settled. For some, they’re just not buying the whole warming-world premise. Others, meanwhile, will swear up-and-down climate change is real and human activity is what’s driving it.

Irrespective of how people feel about a changing climate, as for greenhouse gases, no question those are real – six of them in all, in fact: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), nitrous oxides (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFC) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). By far CO2 is the most pronounced of the grouping and, incidentally, is purported to be the principal contributing cause behind the global rise in temperature. Some claim that isn’t happening either.

In turning attention now to methane, as a greenhouse gas, compared to carbon dioxide, CH4’s ability to absorb and retain the sun’s heat is far, far greater making it way more effective as a heat sink.

GasDepositDiagram[1]Using the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) method as a way to extract oil from subsurface oil-shale deposits is one of the more common methods employed in reaching that end. Quite common at many a drilling site is the release of natural gas. The word “flaring” is applied to describe the process of the gas being lit on fire.

In one way related to the above, in the Jan. 14, 2015 news release: “FACT SHEET: Administration Takes Steps Forward on Climate Action Plan by Announcing Actions to Cut Methane Emissions,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced:

“The Obama Administration is committed to taking responsible steps to address climate change and help ensure a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations. As part of that effort, today, the Administration is announcing a new goal to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 – 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025, and a set of actions to put the U.S. on a path to achieve this ambitious goal.

“U.S. oil production is at the highest level in nearly 30 years, providing important energy security and economic benefits. The U.S. is also now the largest natural gas producer in the world, providing an abundant source of clean-burning fuel to power and heat American homes and businesses. Continuing to rely on these domestic energy resources is a critical element of the President’s energy strategy. At the same time, methane – the primary component of natural gas – is a potent greenhouse gas, with 25 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.”

EPA goes on to point out here, the pollutant methane (CH4) is not nearly as long-lasting in the atmosphere as is carbon dioxide (CO2).

Moreover, according to the federal regulatory agency, in 2012, methane accounted for almost a tenth of all GHGs in the U.S., almost three-tenths of which is from oil and natural gas production, conveyance and distribution. Oil- and gas-sector emissions since 1990 are down 16 percent, but over the next 10 years are projected to jump more than a quarter if further emissions-mitigating measures are not advanced.

“The steps announced today are also a sound economic and public health strategy because reducing methane emissions means capturing valuable fuel that is otherwise wasted and reducing other harmful pollutants – a win for public health and the economy,” the EPA in the release went on to state. “Achieving the Administration’s goal would save up to 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2025, enough to heat more than 2 million homes for a year and continue to support businesses that manufacture and sell cost-effective technologies to identify, quantify, and reduce methane emissions.”

What the program entails

Outlined in the release are methane emissions-reductions actions, such as:

  • Propose and Set Commonsense Standards for Methane and Ozone-Forming Emissions from New and Modified Sources
  • New Guidelines to Reduce Volatile Organic Compounds
  • Consider Enhancing Leak Detection and Emissions Reporting
  • Reduce Methane Emissions while Improving Pipeline Safety
  • Drive Technology to Reduce Natural Gas Losses and Improve Emissions Quantification
  • Modernize Natural Gas Transmission and Distribution Infrastructure
  • Release a Quadrennial Energy Review (QER)

“Fully attaining the Administration’s goal will require additional action, particularly with respect to existing sources of methane emissions. Several voluntary industry efforts to address these sources are underway, including EPA’s plans to expand on the successful Natural Gas STAR program by launching a new partnership in collaboration with key stakeholders later in 2015. EPA will work with DOE [Department of Energy], DOT [Department of Transportation], and leading companies, individually and through broader initiatives such as the One Future Initiative and the Downstream Initiative, to develop and verify robust commitments to reduce methane emissions. This new effort will encourage innovation, provide accountability and transparency, and track progress toward specific methane emission reduction activities and goals to reduce methane leakage across the natural gas value chain.”

Image of “Schematic geology of natural gas resources” above: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Post updated Jan. 20, 2015 at 4:44 p.m. P.S.T.

What a waste! You know; that ‘unused’ ignited gas tied to shale-oil-drilling?

Oil shale combustion
Oil shale combustion

Waste: It’s in the news again. This time, it has to do with vented, ignited natural gas from the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of oil in North Dakota’s Bakken oil shale region – gas literally going up in smoke and entering the air. This process; it goes by another name – flaring.

According to FairWarning staff writer Stuart Silverstein in “Crying Foul Over Flaring: Burning Off Natural Gas Called ‘Environmental Travesty,’” a FairWarning Reports piece, it is through this very flaring process that emissions of greenhouse gases coupled with poisonous compounds like benzene, are being released.

Naturally, I would want to know if the flaring going on all across the nation in conjunction with oil-fracking work, is not only excessive but even necessary.

Silverstein explains: “The drilling companies rushing to capture North Dakota’s rich oil reserves often wind up with unwanted natural gas. In other words, they literally have surplus energy to burn. So they do just that, torching vast amounts of the cheap gas — a practice that critics say is tremendously wasteful and a threat to the environment and public health.

“Drillers in recent years have burned off, or flared, about one-third of the natural gas produced in North Dakota. In 2012 alone, the state’s flaring wasted $1 billion in fuel and produced emissions equivalent to adding 1 million cars to the road, according to a report last year by Ceres, a Boston-based environmental group.

“The main reason: The oil is so much more lucrative than natural gas that the companies would rather invest in more wells than speed up construction of pipelines and other infrastructure to bring gas to market.”

Allowing burned-off gas to, yes, muck up the air is, in fact, sad commentary. That a potential source of added revenue is evaporating in the process, well, quite frankly, it’s insult to injury.

Silverstein furthermore emphasizes: “In 2013, [North Dakota] accounted for two-fifths of the estimated 260.4 billion cubic feet of gas flared or vented nationally. The percentage of gas produced in North Dakota that was discharged that way was 29.7 percent last year, versus 1.7 percent for Wyoming and 0.9 percent for Texas.” In the grand scheme of things, that’s considerable.

Can anything be done and, if so, what?

Capture of – and finding a use for – vented natural gas – what is being wasted in this case – would be ideal. One idea is to pipe it to property owners living nearby for their use. And the notion of constructing “mini” natural-gas-fired power plants doesn’t seem impractical.

But, a more practical resolution, however, would be to simply reduce the amount of flaring.

“North Dakota regulators, hit by mounting criticism that they are soft on drilling companies, in July issued a new policy aiming to reduce flaring,” Silverstein notes. “The goal is to cut the percentage of gas that is flared to no more than 10 percent by 2020. Levels are already on a downward trend, with the figure falling to 28 percent in August and 24 percent in September.”

GasDepositDiagram[1]But, with oil-well drilling expansion expected, as I understand it, an increase in the volume of flaring taking place could offset any gains made in this regard.

Adds Silverstein: “The [Western Organization of Resource Councils] complains that the 10 percent target for North Dakota far exceeds the current flaring rates of other energy-producing states.

“The group calls for North Dakota and other states to move toward the example of Alaska, which since 1971 has banned flaring except for emergencies and system tests.”

Then again, advanced and improved technologies to enable, according to Silverstein, water treatment, electricity generation and chemical conversion of gases, could all be part of a prescriptive approach in terms of natural-gas-waste elimination.

I would be quick to add that Alaska, it appears, has not only taken the lead but has set a fine example, if not having as well set a precedent in the process.

For more on fracking, see: “A ‘conditional’ go-ahead re fracking in California” here.

Image of “Schematic geology of natural gas resources” above: U.S. Energy Information Administration

U.S. high-speed rail: Good for the environment, good for the pocketbook

On Tues. Jan. 6th on an industrial patch of downtown Fresno property before an assemblage of around 700 celebrants, a jubilant bunch, joined by a cohort of radio, television and newspaper reporters, local, state and federal luminaries, spoke highly optimistically of California’s fast train system, the event’s keynote speaker being none other than Jerry Brown, California’s visionary governor. The momentous ceremony was capped off with a symbolic “rail-signing” groundbreaking marking the official start of America’s first true high-speed rail endeavor.

Spanning much of the state – from San Francisco to Los Angeles initially and with later extensions to both San Diego and Sacramento – in all an 800-mile passenger train transportation corridor, building, operating and maintaining this railroad won’t be cheap. The cost to construct? An eleven-figure sum: $68.4 billion. Payments will extend over a 14-year period, that amount taking inflation into account.

train-2-kandelMeanwhile, off to one side and within ear- and eye-shot of the attendant throng, protesters gathered, and in unison, no less, sounded a familiar rallying cry: “Water, not high-speed trains!” or something along these lines.

As for all who stand in opposition, many being fervent and steadfast critics, whose claims run the gamut: everything from Californians can ill-afford the train to it needing to be subsidized if it comes to fruition, I can assure you, that opposition could not be more wrong.

You all remember Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail carrier. In “Trains as an effective emissions-calming mechanism: There is strength in numbers,” I wrote: “… on Amtrak’s 457-mile Northeast Corridor connecting Boston and Washington, D.C., between Boston and the Big Apple (New York City), Amtrak enjoys 55 percent of the air vs. rail market and on the section between the latter and D.C., Amtrak’s air-rail market share is 75 percent.” Meanwhile, in “Making the grade – Part 1: American infrastructure report card: Rails,” I mentioned an annual Amtrak operating budget of $1.3 billion. Moreover, in “Tiffs: Sidelined ‘n’ singin’ the single-track blues,” pointed out was the national rail carrier’s strong ridership and ridership growth – 31.2 million boardings in 2012; in 2013, 1.3 percent more added to this for 31.6 million riders in all. But, in the 2013-’14 fiscal year (which, for Amtrak, began Oct. 1, 2013), a goodly proportion of its trains had experienced considerable delay – the carrier achieving an overall on-time performance rating of just 74 percent. (See: “Tiffs: Freight train interference on shared-use trackage and what can be done about it”). All of which makes a strong case for American high-speed trains.

Not only do I contend the California project is worth it, it will operate without subsidy. By extension, there is ample justification for high-speed-train-networks on a national scale. Though the most compelling reason for their being, I feel, besides bringing benefits like reduced emissions and decreased wear-and-tear compared to their gasoline-powered, road-based vehicle counterparts, is economics-based: such rail systems very often pencil out. In fact, some are known to be profit-makers.

To help lend credence, I have performed a cost analysis however simplistic it may be.

Using the California high-speed train’s own ridership projections, the current number, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, being 29.6 million yearly – the bare minimum and considering its estimated cost to construct (which also covers employees’ salaries, the cost for the infrastructure for the entire Los Angeles-to-San Francisco section, and rolling stock – the sets of trains including the prototypes – on top of that), all over a 14-year time frame, easily in a hundred years’ time the system pays for itself.

With a one-way ticket fare of $86 L.A. to S.F. and $50 from say Fresno to L.A., even if the average one-way ticket price turns out to cost the average of the L.A.-S.F. and Fresno-L.A. tickets which, in this case, is $68, and even if no round-trip tickets are purchased, at 29.6 million annual riders, the revenue generated from those ticket sales is $2,012,800,000. Multiply that times 100 years, and what is earned over that long a haul is $201.28 billion.

Of course there are an estimated 3,000 permanent-workers’ salaries to consider. I estimate an average yearly employee salary of $40,000. Multiplying those two together the product is $120 million. Extend that out over a 100-year time span, and what we’re talking about is an operating budget just for salaries alone at $12 billion. Factor in additional costs for electricity purchases and on-board food and concessions, say, $20 million per year or over a century $2 billion, if you add all that up what you end up with is expenses to the tune of $14 billion. Add another $6 billion for “above-and-beyond” expenses and all told, this works out to $20 billion. Unless I have miscalculated, what this means is a $181.28 billion profit margin.

Subtract from that $68.4 billion (the cost of construction) and at the end of the day that means being $112.88 billion in the black.

The actual results will vary. Nevertheless, the economics are there.

Even better is that these 220-mile-per-hour trains will be affordable, comfortable, convenient, efficient, environmentally friendly, reliable, highly competitive with aviation services (and a far improvement over roadway travel), punctual to a fault with the kind of regularity one could set their watch by, a system that could quite possibly pay itself off in a century’s time (and, presumably, in less time than that), and on top of this nary a need for a government subsidy, and you know what?! Much as the trains will one day themselves wheel through super-elevated curves, the hardware that will carry them, it, too, is something that can be banked on.

With regard to all of the above, high-speed rail just might be one of America’s best “investments” going.

California Valley soot siege needed like a hole in the ozone layer … Not!

There is this saying: “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day.” There were times during my childhood that this saying would be recited – the times that I recited this myself and times when I heard others do likewise. Notice I said “recited.”

I haven’t heard this expression for a long time and probably for good reason. Rare it is these days in the American Southwest when there is rain. California is now in its fourth year of drought.

Rain is important in California: The precipitation that falls as snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains supplies water to the Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area when the snow melts: area reservoirs’ supplies become replenished, ground water gets recharged through which there is the availability of water for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, irrigating farm crops, watering lawns, etc. Not having this precious resource, to put it bluntly, would be like being up the creek without a paddle.

Fireplace_Burning[1]Once again, at fault is that “Three-R” (ridiculously resilient ridge) weather pattern that, like last year at this same time, has parked itself over the U.S. southwest. High pressure is preventing any chance of rain from moving off of the Pacific Ocean and dumping that on the West’s semi-arid and arid landscape – which so desperately needs this. Might I mention also that the Midwest and Northeast are feeling the effects of another “Polar Vortex.” The southeast even isn’t being spared of winter’s chilling grip.

What I’m beginning to wonder is if this is going to become an annually recurring weather pattern. In “Blizzards, droughts, polar vortexes, other weather-related phenomena: So what gives?!” posted on Nov. 24, 2014 I inquired: “I ask: For what weather-wise this year exactly are we in store? A, excuse the expression, ‘carbon’-copy of last year’s ‘Triple-R’ (‘ridiculously resilient ridge’ or ‘RRR’) weather pattern if not more? My observation is this: conditions are playing out in the fall in this year in much the same way.”

Aerial view of San Francisco taken from space
Aerial view of San Francisco taken from space

It is rain that we need that we’re just not getting and wind added in, necessary to mix up the atmosphere enough to disperse pollutants that in some parts – like California’s San Francisco Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley regions – has become so concentrated in the air that it is unhealthful to breathe and which, unfortunately, has now stuck around for days and, in some cases, weeks. It is as if this pollution visible in our skies has come on with a vengeance.

To show just how bad the air has been this year so far, in the San Joaquin Valley, for particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5), every day since Jan. 1 there has been an exceedance. Measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3) and keeping in mind that the national 24-hour standard of health for PM 2.5 is 35 ug/m3, over the dozen days for which data is available, the low was 38.1 with a high of 99.3 ug/m3, the daily average being 67.025 ug/m3.

The Bay Area has similarly suffered, but not near as badly. Fine particulate matter exceedances were recorded on Jan. 3 (38.0 ug/m3), Jan. 6 (36.2 ug/m3) and Jan. 8 (41.4 ug/m3) or a daily average of 38.53 ug/m3. Notice the difference.

320px-Los_Angeles_Basin_JPLLandsat[1]Meanwhile, the South Coast Air Basin (southern California), has fared somewhat worse in this regard than the Bay Area but so much better than the San Joaquin Valley.

Case in point: The South Coast Air Basin, in this same 12-day span, has had seven such exceedances. South Coast Air Basin exceedances have ranged from a low of 38.0 ug/m3 to a high of 62.0 ug/m3 with a daily PM 2.5 average of 47.13 ug/m3.

According to weather forecasters, a low-pressure cell is not expected to arrive in state until Monday of next week. What that means for the rest of this week and Sunday of next, is no break in the Valley’s inversion layer that is enabling the dirty air principally below 1,000 feet in elevation to persist.

Folks here particularly should not rely on meteorology only to filter and clean the air. Instead, Valley residents can play and take a greater role in helping to keep this toxic air from first building up and therefore not allow it to reach the concentrations it has.


Middle images (both): NASA


California high-speed rail: groundbreaking and boon for the environment

Even before California Governor Jerry Brown sang the state high-speed-rail praises at a ceremonial groundbreaking held in downtown Fresno on Jan. 6th during his inaugural address as Governor in Sacramento a day earlier, he set a goal for half of all electrical production in California to come from renewable energy sources by 2030. It wasn’t just this: the Golden State’s top in-state government executive called for vehicle gasoline consumption in the nation’s most populated state in that same 15-year time span to be cut in half.

train-2-kandelBut, back on point, the ceremonial and symbolic groundbreaking marked the official beginning of construction of the state’s 800-mile total high-speed train network connecting Anaheim, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco through California’s heartland – the San Joaquin Valley.

In a Jan. 6th California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) press release, the Authority communicated: “Marking significant progress toward modernizing California’s transportation infrastructure, the California High-Speed Rail Authority today joined hundreds of supporters and government, student, community, transportation, business and labor leaders to break ground on the nation’s first high-speed rail system.”

Followed in the release were comments from federal, state and local dignitaries on hand giving speeches, such as the one below from California Governor Brown.

“‘What is important is the connection that we are rooted in our forebears and we are committed and linked to our descendants. And the high-speed rail links us from the past to the future, from the south to Fresno and north; this is truly a California project bringing us together today.’”

There were others, too, like this one from Authority Chairman Dan Richard.

“‘We now enter a period of sustained construction on the nation’s first high-speed rail system—for the next five years in the Central Valley and for a decade after that across California. This is an investment that will forever improve the way Californians commute, travel, and live. And today is also a celebration of the renewed spirit that built California.’”

And, on trains compared to cars and planes, although not in the Authority release but at the groundbreaking, federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chair Gina McCarthy cited benefits to the environment high-speed rail can bring.

Meanwhile, in an earlier EPA press release, Rail Authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales offered these words:

“‘The Authority is building high-speed rail using modern construction equipment that helps protect air quality and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Through this commitment to sustainable construction, we are building California’s high-speed rail system in an environmentally responsible manner.’”

The EPA in the Nov. 19, 2014 release went on to describe ways to enable sustainable construction.

“The EPA has adopted a comprehensive national program to reduce emissions from non-road diesel engines by integrating engine and fuel controls. Tier 4 refers to the most stringent EPA engine standards for non-road heavy-duty diesel engines. A Tier 4 designation is achieved via different methods such as clean and efficient exhaust systems, electronically controlled engines, and selective catalytic reductions to significantly reduce the levels of harmful pollutants such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx). By 2030, the annual benefits throughout the U.S. from using Tier 4 engines are estimated to reduce NOx, PM2.5, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 82 percent, 90 percent, and 99.7 percent, respectively.”

More specifically, and as it pertains to California high-speed rail construction and demolition work, the EPA in the release wrote: “The high-speed rail Tier 4 equipment is currently being used for demolition, drilling and viaduct work on Construction Package 1, a 29-mile route from Madera to Fresno. The route includes 12 grade separations, two viaducts, one tunnel and a new river crossing over the San Joaquin River. Construction is scheduled to conclude in 2018.”

“High-speed rail is committed to sustainability during construction, including net zero emissions. Contractors will offset 30,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent generated during construction from Madera to Fresno by planting thousands of new trees and embracing cleaner burning construction equipment. The Authority also funded $20 million in agricultural conservation easements and has an agreement with the San Joaquin [Valley] Air Pollution Control District to replace irrigation pumps, purchase clean school buses and retrofit truck engines.”

For more information on Tier 4 non-road diesel engines, go here.