Sunday, March 23, 2008

Nuclear Locomotives & Public Perception

A retired nuclear engineer from Sandia National Laboratories, no less, recently got a letter published in the Albuquerque Journal "Outlook" business section. We can't link you to the article here, but we will summarize. We won't name the engineer because it is not our intention to embarass him, just to point out some salient facts.

Mr. Retired Engineer wants to know why we don't just shift every bloomin' truckload off the highways and onto the rails. He has realized that the saving in crew costs and the savings in fuels would be tremendous.

Next, Mr. R.E. suggests that we pull the freight train with nuclear powered locomotives. (Then he goes a little off the deep end and suggests that the whole Navy should go nuclear and we should use nuclear powered desalination plants to provide fresh water.)

We are going to give Mr. R. E. the benefit of the doubt and assume he is a scientist and well educated. We are also going to assume that he is in the habit of applying logical thinking to problem solving.

With those assumptions, we can only conclude that Mr. R. E. looks at the railroad tracks in his neighborhood and assumes that, because trains are not flowing like trucks on the highway, the tracks are underutilized. This may be the case, but since he is in New Mexico and abreast of the BNSF Transcon, we can only assume that he is ignorant of what it takes in cost, manpower, maintenance and environmental impact to increase the capacity of our freight rail system. (The Transcon is always running at capacity.)

This is not a blog about Freight Rail, but this is true of Passenger Rail, too. The general public has no idea of the cost of increased capacity, or of the lead time necessary to create such capacity. This appears to be a problem with public perception in general and it applies to more than just railroads. (Think oil and gas and refineries.)

Then there are the nuclear locomotives. Mr. R. E., those of us in our 60s now all thought this would happen long ago. But there are a few problems, one of which is weight. Diesel power happens to be extraordinarily suited to the tractive force vs. engine weight equation. Yes, most diesels as they came from the factory will provide more tractive force with more weight and get better fuel economy. But weight increases track forces, track wear, and hence track maintenance.

Another problem with all of this is public inertia. The general public thinks "China Syndrome" and "Three Mile Island" when it thinks nuclear. The general public, thanks to the media, also thinks toxic hazardous material spill, death, and litigation when it thinks of railroads. That's why there is a movement afoot for cities to get railroads to build bypasses.

The NIMBYs control what happens next. Some of this goes back to the weight equation. So much radiation shielding would be required that weight would be prohibitive.

Only one way could be devised to nuke all locomotives. Build a land-based power plant and feed the power through standard catenary ala Northeast Corridor to electric locomotives. Voila! But see my comments re: costs below.

It's a real hoot to think of trying to drive a nuclear powered locomotive through any inhabited area, let alone also pulling a train full of potentially toxic materials through a heavily populated one. It's nice that Mr. R. E. still has the naive sense of the invincibility of science that probably brought him to become a research scientist.

Unfortunately, in the land of railroading, be it Freight or Passenger Rail, we have to get real. And reality is, we would have to quadruple the capacity of freight railroads, or pentuple it if we increase Amtrak routes, in order to even come close to carrying half the freight that highway trucks now carry. If we started now and spent TRILLIONS of dollars, it would take us at the very least a DECADE, and probably TWO DECADES to accomplish this. (Maybe three decades if we have to build new electric facilities, catenary and the locomotives to use it.) This writer and Mr. R. E. may not live to see it.

We are truly behind the eight ball. So you younger scientists out there, please come up with ideas that will work. But keep it real. And ABQ Journal editors, if you are reading this, please use your column inches for ideas that make sense.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -
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