Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

COAL UNDER FIRE: A Railway Age Special Report

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Some times things get into my in box that I suspect the sender would not really want me to see if they knew who I was. Simply because I subscribe to an email news alert from this publisher, I got the following “Railway Age Advertiser Alert” about an upcoming feature in this magazine.

Powerful interests want to fractionalize the use of a friendly fuel that is vital to rail profitability. The public interest will be the real loser. Long-term investments in new and upgraded rail infrastructure and depots will depend on how mandatory carbon reductions hit electric utilities, and chemical, steel,and car manufacturers. In many ways, this attack on coal is more serious than re-regulation, and more urgent. Those with a vested, direct interest in coal transportation—railroads, railcar manufacturers, and component suppliers—as well as all suppliers who have a stake in a strong level of rail capital investment, are encouraged to support Railway Age’s special report.

“Friendly fuel” – friendly to whom? Burning coal is one of the biggest problems the world faces, since so many countries are dependent on coal fired power stations, which will take a great deal of time and investment to replace. As a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide they are one of the biggest single sources greenhouse gas emissions. And despite plenty of posturing – and commitments of lots of money – there is no proven, commercially viable and safe method of carbon capture and sequestration. Even though in recent years there has been a steady increase in the legislated requirements on the pollution emitted from smoke stacks, this has by no means eliminated the serious toxic emissions which contribute to ill health of humans, other animals and ecosystems in general. “Clean coal” is an oxymoron.

Long coal train approaching Union Stn Kansas City

But that does not worry Simmons-Boardman Publishing: they are concerned only about their bottom line and of those “with a vested, direct interest in coal transportation”. This is an important insight into the corporate hive mind. Only private sector profits matter – even if the pursuit of those profits threatens the future of our species – and indeed of life on earth as we now know it. This is more than “the age of stupid”. This is the result of a philosophy that says that only private sector wealth creation matters and abandons all sense of moral responsibility. If other “persons” behave like corporations, they are either treated for mental illness or criminality. We expect far more of humans as individuals than we do of their collectives – at least as long as they are shareholders and directors of profitable concerns.

What is really sad about this is that railways are themselves much less polluting than other modes of transport. In terms of energy use per ton mile, trains are far more efficient than trucks. The same is true of passenger transport: a passenger travelling by train has a lower carbon footprint than someone driving most popular North American “cars” (many of which are actually trucks, of course). A diesel electric locomotive is one of the most effective ways of turning a barrel of crude oil into motive power, because diesel fuel is relatively less refined than gasoline, and there are fewer transmission losses when the generator is but a few feet from the electric motor. Of course, electrified railways are even better, especially when the electricity comes from renewable resources. But railways make huge profits from hauling coal – and the demands of the generators are huge. Trains take five days to travel from the Powder River basin to Atlanta. Each train – over 100 cars long – carries enough coal to keep the generators in one power station running for less than half a day. The company needs a fleet of of 30 trains to keep the plant working day and night. And that’s just for one plant in one city. A typical coal-fired plant emits 3.7 million tons of CO2 annually, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (source).

Actually the one thing I do like about that quote is that opponents of coal burning are deemed to be “powerful interests”. If only that were true!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 28, 2009 at 7:42 am

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