America's passenger rail system is a joke. Amtrak has consumed enormous subsidies with negligible economic impact on the nation and this administration wants to up the ante with even bigger subsidies for high speed rail.
However, America's freight railroad industry is the envy of the world. The average horsepower has increased by nearly three quarters while the fuel efficiency increased by nearly 40% in the past twenty years. US railroads have been investing billions in improved tracks, bridges and intermodal (trains-trucks-ships) capacity.
A recent The Economist, an article, High-Speed Railroading, brought to my attention that America's freight railroads are the world's best. Sadly, the Obama administration's love for high-speed passenger trains are likely to ruin this industry and its well-deserved reputation. America's rail-freight rates are the lowest among the supposed greatest rail nations and regions, such as Europe. Comparing rail-freight rates at purchasing-power parity, India, Russia, and China are also beaten by US rail-freight rates.
Now, the article goes on to show that because passenger traffic is uncommon in America compared to these other places that already have high-speed passenger trains, the US freight trains travel relatively uninterrupted. High speed passenger trains force the slower and longer freight trains to idle on sidings as they fly by. Idling uses more fuel and the constant starting and stopping increase the wear and tear on the brakes and engine which in turn increases costs. This reduces competitiveness of the freight railroad which moves more traffic onto the less-fuel efficient trucks. The freight trains now take longer to the get to their destinations, reducing the overall capacity per month of the freight system.
Here are a few myths about the advantages of high speed passenger rail:
With the plan to create high-speed passenger trains and then to force them onto the privately owned freight tracks, can only result in higher freight costs, lower transportation productivity and fewer advantages for our economy. The consumer demand for rail traffic is non-existent since consumers would rather get to their destinations faster or more flexibly by driving or flying.
Now tell me, why do we want high speed trains again?
The largely discredited implementation of [[cap and trade]] seems to have given way to a different approach in US law, which is the idea of the [[renewable portfolio standard]] (RPS). Like the standards established decades ago for ever tightening standards for the fleet-wide efficiencies of automotive companies aka [[Corporate Average Fuel Economy]], the RPS is a requirement for regulated power companies to produce some minimum percentage of energy via socially-preferred methods such as wind or solar.
The idea is to use regulation to wean the power companies to build and use the more environmental-friendly sources. Although implemented in 27 states, some worry that RPS is going to be a part of a federal energy bill (Son of Cap and Tax) that sets national standards on state regulatory initiatives that are supposedly more stringent (read most costly).It should come as no surprise that RPS has consequences - after several studies, RPS leads to consumer price increases of about 4% each year.
Interesting enough, it seems that the power companies are already managing their portfolio of generating assets. They are looking at cleaner energy sources in the future since the administrative or regulatory cost of using abundant and cheap coal are likely to increase anyways.
My worry is that by making privately owned companies do something that they are already doing anyways with a politically forceful gesture that translates inevitably into higher prices for consumers is a wasted effort in that the costs exceed the benefits. The same type of political push has been made by the government last year to force the car companies to build plug-in electric cars within some timeline. These companies were working their way towards that goal anyways, but with this regulatory pressure they will be encouraged to get there before the consumer is willing to pay for it.
In Massachusetts and probably elsewhere around the country, towns and cities are trying to do their part to make the world a 'greener' place. Although the role of municipal politics and local social action in green matters are not well defined beyond the 3Rs of post-consumer waste management, zoning and land use control and some disastrous anti-herbicide experiments on playing fields, some towns in central Massachusetts are stepping up the expectation and activism. Some towns are changing the energy conservation standards in the building codes, making them 20% stricter than required by the state.
Of course, I didn't know that towns could legislate building codes and interesting enough, building codes do change over time as new materials, methods and technologies become widely available and property owners, contractors and architects adjust accordingly.
However, the 20% tightening is actually a huge change for these people, especially during a recession. They will need to go through training to deliver on these standards. To make matters worse, the codes are changing in some towns spread throughout the region but not others, reducing competition for contractors and architects in those towns. The contractors and architects without the training will not be able to get those jobs in those towns, because they will not be qualified for such a job.
Another side-effect for this 20% increase is that in those particular towns, buildings will cost more to construct, since the contractors have to recoup their training expense and since the higher standards use more materials. Special doors, windows, more, higher quality insulation will be needed, which will cost more than the run-of-the-mill performance products.
Yes, the new building will cost less to operate and there will be less carbon-emissions because of these tougher standards. Do we really need to make it more costly to be a builder or to build a building in this state right now?