Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trains Reign; Trucks Suck

I have always loved trains.  But then, I am an engineer. I always loved seeing the train switching yards around my home town, and seeing them along the highway on vacations. Our Kindergarten class actually took a train trip and I recall being amazed (and a bit scared) as we passed over the High Level Bridge.

Growing up a bit, my Dad helped haul a 4x8 plywood sheet down into the basement to sit on trestles for my Lionel H-O railroad set, and saving up to go to Moro Craft to buy the very coolest thing - crossing lights that flashed when the train went by.

I took a year off between high school and university, armed with an International Student ID, an International Youth Hostel and the fabled Eurail pass, spent a few months traversing Europe exclusively by foot and by train. I took my son across Canada on the Via Rail train, a great way to see Canada.

Train travel is so much better than air or car or bus. Trains travel at human speed, or soul-speed as William Gibson explains in Pattern Recognition. But more importantly these days, trains are more efficient for moving goods than trucks, for a couple of reasons.

First, once a train is rolling, it takes much less energy than a truck, because of something called "rolling resistance" which is much lower for steel wheels on tracks than for rubber tires on asphalt. Second, when train rights of way are built, they are expensive because they have a low grade, that is - not many hills. So while it takes more energy and time to build a railway bed compared to a highway, every train that runs on that track saves energy, while on the highway, every truck and car has to use extra gas to climb the hills.

It is a shame to see so many tracks being removed and replaced by roads, and to see overgrown urban tracks fall into disuse and disrepair.  There used to be a very nice and inexpensive trip from Vancouver to Whistler, until the cars they used became so old it was cheaper to blow one up for an episode of the X-files.

I hope trains make a comeback.  Maybe it's time the economics will make this viable again.