Monday, February 18, 2013

Contingency Plans

The recent near disaster on board the cruise ship Carnival Triumph got me thinking about transportation policy.  (The cruise was neither a Triumph nor a Carnival.)  In previous posts, I've discussed transportation policy as a government function.  For many, many years, federal and state governments have decided what transportation projects get the nod and what ones don't.  However, every major transportation company (Southwest Airlines or Union Pacific, for two examples) should have its own transportation policy.  I'm sure that most actually do.  What the near disaster makes me ask about policy is, "What are your disaster contingencies?"

Nowadays, disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and are mostly defined by the media.  A good definition seems to be anything that puts a great number of lives, or a great dollar amount of property at risk.  For the purposes of this discussion, I would like to suggest that a good definition of disaster is a major disruption in the scheduling, forwarding, and delivering of freight and passengers.

I'll get back to the Carnival Triumph in a minute, though only tangentially.  This is, after all, a railroad-focused blog.  But I would like to take these transportation policy risks from the bottom (of the river) up and demonstrate how our neglect of redundancy in transportation policy puts America at risk.

A river barge hits a bridge.  It may be a highway bridge, a railroad bridge, or (call the environmentalists) a pipeline bridge.  It could be a bridge that carries all three.  River traffic is disrupted for days, maybe weeks, while spilled fuel is cleaned up.  Do we have alternate waterways?  You know we do not.  The likelihood that there is any other mode of transportation capable of moving the barge commodities safely during the outage is small.  Probably the railroad can reroute trains, truckers and travelers can drive another highway, and there may even be a redundant pipeline.

An Amtrak train is wrecked.  I mean thoroughly wrecked.  God forbid it results in loss of life, but in any case there is major loss of passenger equipment.  Amtrak schedules have to be fixed, equipment has to be borrowed from other routes.  A general degradation of the entire system occurs.  There's just not enough passenger equipment, inspected for safety and in good repair, that Amtrak can just field another trainset.  No redundancy.

A giant cruise ship is crippled.  There apparently aren't enough other cruise ships not already on their schedules to send one to offload passengers from the crippled ship from an environment that will become sheer hell for most of them before the crippled ship gets towed to port.  Or maybe there's no mechanism to get them onto another ship.  I don't know.  It seems like there should be.  We have enough engineering students in America to make this happen.

Airlines are grounded due to a terrorist threat.  Or, alternately, the air traffic control system suffers a major glitch and has to be shut down.  Do we have a contingency plan?  Can all those thousands of passengers count on the railroads to put on more trains?  No.  Can they all take a bus?  I think not.  How about driving?  Major traffic jams in major metro areas.

For passenger rail, there should be long-term plans for new tracks, trains, and modern signaling systems to make it all work.  Years ago, these plans should have been implemented so that, today, we would be on our way to true HSR and true independence of passenger rail from the freight system.  Nobody foresaw that Amtrak would be having record years, nor did they see that at the same time as there is record demand for passenger rail there would be record freight delivery by rail.  I don't know why not.  Rail has for as long as I can remember been the most efficient and energy friendly way to move freight and passengers in terms of energy used per passenger-mile or per ton-mile.  Yet it is still thought of as a dinosaur.  That's because government has become the curator of a museum instead of the owner of a modern transportation system.

Privatize Amtrak?  Now may be the time.  Build more rail right of way?  Yes.  Let the NIMBYs be damned!  Plan for the future?  Definitely.  Stop making risk a dirty word?  Most important of all.  And let's stop building things with projected useful life, and start building things to last!  We could surely better handle "disaster" if we did.

Rant over.

© 2013 - C. A. Turek -