Alna. The Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum’s engine 9-pulled 2-foot gauge train is a gem. Fun to drive with a lot more to teach than it looks. The lessons of history, for example.
Stationary steam engines of the early 19th century helped replace slaves as the main source of power. Mining, water pumping, spring plowing and crushing at the mine. Steam locomotives on steel rails gave birth to modern transport. Shipping and Trade. The fixed path of the rails helped create vibrant town centers and villages, a pattern of sustainable settlement still noticeable today.
But steam boilers on wheels were an inefficient way of harnessing the power of a coal fire. So, at the beginning of the 20th century, boilers began to move in power plants, and railroads began to rely on more efficient electric locomotion. Power plants could also have limited tailpipe emissions, a potential largely unrealized.
Steam power and railroads were among the positive developments of the industrial age. The discovery of oil, however, remains mixed. It led to neocolonial exploits. Many useful synthetic materials, including medicines, came from petroleum, but plastics have created a culture of throwaways and monumental waste and pollution. The internal combustion engine created road transport over long distances, but with a rolling friction of road vehicles ten times greater than that of steel wheels on rails. This reduced efficiency is offset by greater fuel consumption, resulting in waste and toxic emissions.
Open roads allow for scattered and unsustainable settlements and “development” that destroy nature, town centers and local businesses, creating unsightly road “strips” and shopping malls with acres of paved parking. With cars needed to access everything, not walking leads to obesity and health problems. Excessive paving creates heat islands, rainwater runoff and flooding. Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels is already manifesting itself in heat waves, melting glaciers, dried up rivers, droughts, deluges, floods, rising sea levels, food crises and water, etc.
The lethality of modern war machines, weapons and space races, neo-imperial wars of choice, inequality, exploitation – not to mention war wounds, destruction and ill health – would all be impossible without the internal combustion engine. A powerful war industry has transformed the manufacture of war into a “profit center”. Permanent deficit-financed wars are sold to the public as part of modern life.
But mistakes are learning opportunities. The same goes for challenging the status quo. The Founding Founders organized the United States explicitly on Enlightenment principles—that by applying knowledge and reasoning to the natural world, people can figure out how to order their society. It involves thinking citizens. Education without doctrine is therefore essential.
Innovation too. Solar and wind power can produce free green hydrogen by electrolyzing water. Harnessing hydrogen for its energy only emits water, completing a nature-friendly cycle. The new German hydrogen trains demonstrate this technology. Electric grid vulnerabilities can be mitigated by microgrids – think Culebra Island, Puerto Rico and Babcock Ranch, Florida!
Railways remain the most efficient means of shipping and land transport. With 1/10 the friction resistance of rubber tires on pavement, railroads carry the same weight using 1/10 the energy of cars and trucks and 1/12 of that of aviation. Building a rail line at $1-2 million per mile compares to a two-lane highway at $2-5 million/mile and an interstate highway at up to $10 million/mile. The roads require frequent repairs and surfacing. Road damage is related to the fourth power of vehicle load, so an 80,000-pound 18-wheeler loaded with cargo – 20 times heavier than a 4,000-pound passenger car – causes 160,000 times more damage to the road than the car. The damage caused by a single 18-wheeler is equivalent to that caused by 9,600 cars. Meanwhile, railroads provide years of service on tracks with many load-carrying factors greater than even multi-track roads, requiring minimal maintenance.
To help fight climate change, can we imagine a transport system adapted to distance? Up to a mile we would have to walk, up to 15 miles by bike, up to 30 miles by car in cheap low-end electric vehicles. Up to 80 km away, buses and electric or hydrogen delivery trucks could connect us to the nearest station. Up to 100 miles, light rail may be the best way to get around; beyond that, high-speed passenger trains and heavy freight trains are suitable. Hydrogen-powered ships and aviation complete the picture along with transoceanic transport.
To minimize errors, planning is essential. Planning isn’t “ism”, it’s what smart humans do (even squirrels!). We should all plan, based on research using the scientific method. Education should teach us to do this thoughtfully. Computers and Internet help. And when the results are credibly verified, truth and justice emerge as part of all valid solutions.
Engine 9, thanks for the interview and for the inspiration to learn.
(Paul Kando is co-founder of Midcoast Green Collaborative, which promotes environmental protection and economic development through energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)