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

Archive for the ‘Electrification’ Category

Internet Images of Old Trains

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“You can now head over to a new collection at Flickr and search through an archive of 2.6 million public domain images, all extracted from books, magazines and newspapers published over a 500 year period. Eventually this archive will grow to 14.6 million images.”
source: Open Culture

So, of course, the first thing I did on reading that was search for train pictures, and hit gold with the first try.

Image from page 188 of “Electric trains” (1910)

Westinghouse Motor-Coach Complete.{Heysham Branch of the Midland Railway.}

View of Train consisting of Siemens Motor-Coach and Two Trailers.

Liverpool Overhead Railway 1884
LNWR coaches with District Railway Electric Locomotives 1884
 Ramsay Condensing Turbine Electric Locomotive 1910

Basically the point of this exercise is to remind me to go look here next time I need an image.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 16, 2020 at 4:19 pm

What I have been reading

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A useful list from the Guardian “Ten common myths about bike lanes – and why they’re wrong” which uses mostly UK data. And it is about a month old, but I only saw it today. For local readers, the switch of the Downtown Vancouver Business Association from anti-bike lane to pro, simply based on the business data of the members should be proof enough. It was thought that the loss of parking would hurt retailers, but it turns out that the people who ride bikes have more disposable income than those who spend a lot on owning and using a car.

Also from the Guardian – from their Cities section – is a useful explanation of how people use public spaces, based on research in New York City by SWA Group – in a gallery with useful commentary on the left hand side.

You can read “Our Renewable Future” by Richard Henberg and David Fridley on line. It was published a couple of years ago and if you haven’t had a chance to look at it you should.

New Trains from Bombardier for London Overground

“SERVICES over London Overground’s Gospel Oak – Barking line are now exclusively operated by four-car class 710 Aventra EMUs after the legacy two-car DMUs were phased out. One month free travel will be offered between August 31 and October 1 as compensation for the late delivery of the new fleet.” from the International Railway Journal

This used to be mainly a freight line transferring trains from the docks at Tilbury to the rest of the country, in between which ran one of the few peripheral passenger services around London (as opposed to to and from the centre). In recent years these services have been greatly improved by taking them into the regional service provider rather than the national railway which had tended to neglect them. Even though I lived in East Ham for 18 years or so, there was never really much need for us to use this line, but as a train enthusiast I found reasons to, later on.

I quite like the way that people who were inconvenienced by the switch now get compensated. This is common in Europe – but almost unheard of here. Apparently Canada is going to make airlines do something similar. Of course no compensation is ever considered for those stuck by the Greyhound withdrawal – or the appalling unreliability of VIA rail.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 6, 2019 at 5:17 pm

“so it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit,”

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The title is a direct quote from Yves Desjardins-Siciliano who is the CEO of VIA Rail. The story comes from the Huffington Post citing the Financial Post and the Windsor Star. It sets out the case for a separate passenger only railway between Toronto and Montreal, which would significantly increase the speed and reliability of rail service but would not be as expensive a full blown High Speed Rail (HSR). Given the financial position of VIA, and the nature of the demand in the corridor, this proposal would be Good Enough. HSR is a good example of the best being the enemy of the good.  It has been studied extensively – I worked on one such study as a consultant back in the 1990’s – and so far nothing has been done in terms of improving VIA rail’s current service or winning people back to rail from short distance air or driving. It did surprise me, when I first came to Canada, that intercity buses were often faster than passenger trains.

It pains me a little that electrification is still seen as a dispensable option but actually I have to admit that a modern diesel electric locomotive  can be very energy efficient. I just happen to think that since Ontario has done such a good job of getting rid of its coal fired power stations, the greenhouse gas reduction argument should be given much more weight. There are also a couple of considerable advantages of an electric train. First, electric trains can climb much better than diesels: they don’t weigh nearly as much, as they don’t have to carry the generator or the fuel. So lines purpose built for modern electric trains can have steeper grades, and often that means they can be straighter, which also helps increase speeds. Secondly, the energy used in braking can be captured and returned to the power supply line for the the use of other trains. Regenerative braking captures a lot of the energy that is otherwise lost as heat. Electric trains can also decelerate and accelerate much better than diesels, so dealing with intermediate stops is not such an issue in overall travel time. I would hope that the design of intermediate stations would permit fast trains to pass stationary ones, so that even if it is not actual HSR, there could still be some non-stop service between the two major centres, to improve  competitiveness with air. However, given the way that the population is distributed across sprawling suburbs, centre to centre may not be the most important tool to attract traffic. Large Park and Ride lots, on the other hand, will be essential.

I have not seen any of the analysis that VIA has used to come up with the costs of its proposed separate line compared to a HSR, but there has to be a lot in common between the two. Land costs will be very similar, I think. It also seems sensible to eliminate level crossings – and to fence the entire line – just to increase safety.  You have to do that for HSR, but if those components were omitted for a conventional speed line that might explain some of the price difference.  While I am in favour of getting the costs down, this would seem to me to be very hard to defend when it comes to public consultation.



Written by Stephen Rees

November 5, 2015 at 8:20 am

Batteries included: Network Rail begins on-track trials of prototype battery-powered train

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‘What’s this got to do with transit in Metro Vancouver?’ you might be asking. Well, it’s a trial of a new technology that does actually have potential impact here.

Network Rail and its partners believe battery-powered trains could be used to bridge gaps in otherwise electrified parts of the network or be used on branch lines where it would not be cost effective to install overhead electrification equipment,

You can read the entire press release, if you are interested. A couple of important bits of information are missing: the weight of batteries and what they do to the power consumption of the train when it is running under the wires. The second bit there is probably one of the key determinants of whether this project goes on to production. There are many prototype tests: many of them have short lives or look very different by the time they get into production.

The technology is the interesting bit, because it does not necessarily need to be confined to trains. Vancouver has an extensive network of electric trolleybuses, but the wires do not always extend to useful destinations. It is very expensive to construct the overhead (back in 2004 I used to use the figure of $1m per kilometre for plain track – more for “special works” like switches and diamonds). So to add enough wire to get trolleybuses from say 41st at Crown to UBC is cost prohibitive.

The “new” trolleybuses – actually entering service at the end of 2006 – have much better batteries than the previous generation, but even so can only run at low speed and limited distances. And someone has to be stationed at each end of the gap to do the pole pulling. So battery power is for short distances and for temporary disruptions. Routes like the #7 Dunbar – Nanaimo have been running diesel buses under wires most of the way for at least a year by my observation. This new technology could see faster, longer operation on battery power for longer distances. This would both reduce the use of diesel – a worthy aim in itself – and cut costs. As long as someone comes up with a automated pole puller. Routes like the #9 could actually terminate somewhere useful, like Brentwood Mall, instead of the traditional loop at the city boundary. The #41 could run out to UBC electrically and use the wires for most of the route.

This is probably more likely than seeing CMBC put poles on hybrid buses to achieve the same objectives.

Translink 2135 on wb 9 Broadway Vancouver BC 2007_0108

In other news

The draconian changes in drunk driving rules in BC have worked to reduce collisions and casualties. No mention is made of why this change in legislation was controversial in this UBC study, so it does not come across as an evenhanded or even objective assessment of the policy change. Were the fears of the restaurant/pub operators justified? Are there any civil liberties concerns about the presumption of innocence lost at the “sobriety checkpoint” or the absence of due process when the police impose penalties without judicial oversight? Or is the unspoken rule any life saved is worth any cost?

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery

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Thanks to Sightline again for the link to an AP article in the Seattle Times. It is a very useful, non-technical review of the lack of progress in battery technology. “It’s why electric cars aren’t clogging the roads” which is a useful bit of reality check against the optimism expressed by the report I looked at yesterday.

As for the electric car industry, lithium ion batteries have proved to have two major drawbacks: They are costly, and they do not allow automobiles to go far enough between rechargings. A123, a maker of lithium ion batteries for electric cars, went bankrupt last year because of poor demand and high costs after receiving a $249 million federal grant.

I know I have covered this ground before, but it is worth re-stating. What we want is the comfort and convenience of the car without its environmental impact. It is based on the mistaken idea that if we could get rid of the internal combustion engine – or the fossil fuel it now runs on – all would be well. And that is not true. The problems we have due to cars include urban sprawl, health impacts from that as well as the direct impacts of vehicle collisions (even if we can bring ourselves to trust computers to drive the cars for us), huge economic dependency of both societies and individuals from over-investment in a movement device that spends nearly all of its time stationary,  congestion and delay. If every car was suddenly to become zero emission tomorrow, nearly all of the problems of motordom would remain to be solved.

 it has conflicting functions. Its primary job is to store energy. But it’s also supposed to discharge power, lots of it, quickly. Those two jobs are at odds with each other.

“If you want high storage, you can’t get high power,” said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. “People are expecting more than what’s possible.”

At this point I expected a diversion to fuel cells: mercifully that isn’t there – but again yesterday’s report was full of optimism about hydrogen. Which is not a fuel at all but simply a way of storing and transmitting electricity – and not a very good one at that. It is horrendously expensive and very inefficient – simply because hydrogen is the smallest molecule and thus extraordinarily hard to store.

#5 layover

That does not mean we cannot expand the use of electricity in transport – just that we will have to concentrate on technologies that we know work, even if they are not quite a perfect replacement for the convenience and mobility of the private car. What we need to convince ourselves about is that neither of those things is a project killer. We don’t actually need so much mobility if we only could redesign and retrofit our cities to be more accessible. If what we want was in easy reach by walking – or cycling – and both modes were safe and attractive – we will do a lot more of both, reducing both our carbon impacts and  the size of our waistlines. For longer journeys, fixed route public transportation that is unhampered by single occupant vehicles can be readily powered by very long extension cords – trolleybuses, streetcars and trains. As long as these have adequate priority the expense of grade separation can be avoided. Yes, private cars will be delayed. Good. That improves the case for modal shift and saves lives.

V9486 Hybrid

I also think that by now somebody ought to have taken the step of putting a set of lightweight trolleypoles on the roof of a hybrid bus – or shoving a hybrid power plant into a trolleybus. Then we in Vancouver could see extensions of trolleybus routes to useful destinations – and redeployment of diesel buses to the suburbs. So the #41 to UBC gets converted, the #9 extended to Brentwood – and the inner set of “express bus” wires along Hastings get used for SFU services instead of being an historical anomaly of earlier faster trolley bus service to the PNE.

For one group, the use of lightweight cheaper batteries is already paying off handsomely. In general I do not think that electric bikes are such a great idea. For better health outcomes alone, I favour human power as much as possible. But we have an aging population. When you are young, you have time but no money. In middle age you have money but no time. Then, just when you have money and time, your knees give out. That is when a power assisted pushbike makes all kinds of sense.

So we can indeed reduce the use of oil (and other fossil fuels) in transportation – and it doesn’t require any kind of technological advances. We already have “good enough” technologies which are getting better. Information technology has done a great deal to reduce much of the frustrations inherent in using transit, and for facilitating things like bike shares and car shares which could be so effective in increasing its range and effectiveness if only they were integrated properly.

Bike rack at Langara 49th

What is missing is not some whizzo battery – or personal rapid transit or a cheap fuel cell. It is political will and resources. And that has been the case for nearly all of the time I have been conscious of the issues – over fifty years! Conservatism – the power of the special interest group we refer to as “the elite” – the 1%. That is the root cause of the problem – however you decide to define the problem. Unaffordability of housing, traffic congestion, bad air quality, environmental impact, global warming. All of these issues are based on the incredible selfishness of a very small group of people. Many of who spend a great deal of time and money telling us how much they care about these issues but none of which ever seem to get solved. Even though the solutions have been staring us in the face all that time.

Are we reaching ‘peak car’?

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The Globe and Mail looks at some data, and talks to some people, most of whom I have a lot of time for. I think the US data cited is pretty clear that they reached peak car some time ago. It has also been happening here

Australian researcher Jeff Kenworthy has found that driving in the nation’s [Canada] five largest cities, combined, declined by 1.7 per cent per capita from 1995 to 2006.

I suspect that when the 2011 data becomes available that trend will be seen to have accelerated. It is a great pity that much of the data we really need was suppressed by this government’s decision to cancel the 10% “long form” data which included journey to work.

We can argue about the reasons – because understanding that is important if we are to deal with the future properly. Enita Elashs’ assertion “it’s not just a product of high unemployment or skyrocketing fuel prices, as the pattern began to show up years before the 2008 financial crisis” is especially silly. For most people, real incomes have been in steady decline, for the last twenty years. Taxes on the wealthy have been greatly reduced, and jobs have been exported to the extent that manufacturing is now unusual in North American cities – and many European ones too. That is why it is not just Wall Street that is being occupied and it is not just Greece that might go bust soon. The events of 2008 were simply the peak of a steadily growing crisis. At one time, it was possible for families to have one income, reasonable accommodation, a decent standard of living and the justified expectation that if dreadful things happened to them (ill health, injury, unemployment) there was indeed a social safety net. All that has now gone, household income no longer keeps pace with inflation and, while income tax has been reduced, many inescapable fees and charges are now imposed, most with little or no recognition of ability to pay.  At the same time consumption taxes have increased significantly. People cannot afford to live as they once did.

Small wonder, then, that people have had to cut back on those things that they can do without. And driving is turning out to be one of them. People have become very creative at reducing the need for trips, and many things are changing in our society that require people to travel. I no longer go to the bank, or the video store – and the cinema visit is also much less frequent than in my youth. We are also seeing some change in the way that space is arranged – not nearly enough yet, and it is not happening anything like fast enough but places like Vancouver are showing that it is possible to have a good life and not own a car. As my last posting showed, there is a growing movement of people who are finding that being carless is a key to increasing happiness – and they are positively evangelical about it.

I am much less convinced that we have hit “the Marchetti Wall – the psychological barrier against spending more than about an hour getting to work or coming home.” For many places, housing affordability (or rather the lack of it) means some people are going to travel for longer than an hour, and not all of them find that a chore. In other cities (not this metropolitan area of course) it is possible to have a comfortable, long distance commute. And that commute time can be relaxing, or useful (catching up on reading or even working) as the commuter chooses. Not those forced to drive themselves, of course, though many seem to be trying and are reluctant to give it up – as the depressing data on texting and cell phone use attests. But many railway companies historically made significant profits by developing long distance commuter markets. The provision of club cars on the Long Island railway, for instance. Or the Pullman cars that served kippers for breakfast to commuters from Brighton to London. Every time BR brought in a new electrification scheme, the speed of travel increased and the commute distance increased with it. Partly that was due to the policy then of “decanting” population from Greater London – which has only been reversed in recent years with the redevelopment of what had once been the docks and the arsenal.

I have the suspicion (but no data at all) that the children of the boomers (Generation Y) were also the first to actively learn to dislike car travel, because they were strapped into car seats as infants, forced to ride in the back and often with nothing to see. Quite unlike the view you get from the front of a double decker bus, for instance. There were strapped in for the daily commute to school too – not allowed to walk or ride their bikes, due to fear of strangers. No wonder they don’t like cars much to begin with, and then find the whole process of learning to drive really stressful because of the genuine dangers and increasing road rage and intolerance of other drivers. They get their freedom when they get a transit pass or a bike, or get away to college. But they cannot afford a car and their student fees (which have increased exponentially). It is hard enough to balance the coursework and the need to work to earn some income part time, without shelling out most of it to the oil companies and car finance sharks.

the threat of separating people from their wheels (or taxing their fuel use) has long been one of the green movement’s biggest stumbling blocks

But also one of the most necessary things that has to happen if we are to have any kind of future at all on this planet. People do not like the truth, and prefer the more convenient lies that have been spun their way by the elites. That is not going to work indefinitely – and indeed seems to be ending now. Most people now accept that global warming is real and that human use of fossil fuels is responsible for much of it: and those that choose not to believe that are being shown to be deluded or deliberately misled. More entrepreneurs are realizing that sticking to old methods is not going to bring increasing rewards. The big three US based auto makers were the ones needing the bailouts – and all have significantly changed their model mix as a result.

The really innovative companies are those who are looking at not just smaller or more efficient cars, but ways to provide mobility and access to goods and services that do not require car ownership. Because once an individual finds out that it is not necessary to own a car, they find all kinds of other ways to spend what is a larger disposable income. It still includes a lot of travel, but travel that is actually enjoyable. When cars were new on the the market, “going for a drive” was one of their main uses: and people like Robert Moses built parkways to encourage that. It is that element which has been greatly reduced and could feasibly be eliminated.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm

All revved up with no place to go

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Andrew Clark calls himself “Road Sage” – meaning he is a motoring columnist at the Globe and Mail. He follows the tradition of Jeremy Clarkson: nothing matters to him except cars – preferably fast cars. His piece on Friday was inspired by the story of a 19 year old, given a BMW M5S who wrote ““What’s the point of buying an M5,” he wrote, “to drive as a daily driver and feeling like u are 70 years old?” Except he didn’t buy it, and he went on to admit to driving at 140 km/hr in a residential area – for which he was successfully prosecuted. Clark mentions three reasons why that might be a good thing (“put aside” safety) but then says “I have to admit that “Vlad Max” was onto something”.

No, he wasn’t. There is no compelling reason why anyone needs to drive at more than 110 km/hr. The fact that the Germans still have autobahns with only advisory limits simply reflects the political clout of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche – and the fact that German politicians and others enjoy these status symbols too. Not that it is a Good Idea. Unsurprisingly, Clark ignores the main reason why speed limits get imposed. Not safety – even though collision severities increase with speed. Fuel consumption – which also increases (geometrically at high speeds) is the main reason. The US introduced a nationwide 55mph limit in response to the 1970s oil crisis. The fact that also lead to a reduction in deaths and severe injuries was a bonus – but not nearly enough to keep the limit at 55, once the immediate crisis of gasoline supplies was passed. A lot of attention was paid to air quality – especially in California, which other places needed to follow so that folk could breathe – but not much to fuel efficiency. Wasting fuel was one of the main things that got tackled once emissions standards were raised, since more effective combustion reduces tail pipe emissions – but most of that gain was devoted to higher performance, and hauling around ever bigger, more luxurious personal vehicles – many of which were light trucks to try and get around Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.

Clark simply ignores the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. It is the most pressing need in the world: the current floods in Pakistan being an indication of what global warming means to human beings, given that we clearly do not give a stuff about charismatic megafauna like polar bears.

What North America needs is a system like Germany’s Autobahn.

No mention of course of how that would be paid for. Taxes – or tolls? Not a hint. Just bad puns. OK, I will accept that it is a silly season story. And I do recognize that cars as objects are both interesting and indeed desirable. A lot of design effort – and marketing savvy – has gone into making cars as objects cultural icons. Just last night I was watching Hilary Kay going all gooey about an Aston Martin DB5 – one that was used in the early Bond films. (The original James Bond – in the book – drove a red label Bentley.) I am determined to get to the Steamworks Concours d’Elegance this year  – not least for the delightful people who love to show off and talk about their beloved cars.

1928 Bugatti Type 44 Roadster Vancouver BC 2006_0902

There is a real car culture – and for many the point of owning a car that goes far beyond “a daily driver” – and I do not expect anyone aged 19 to fully comprehend that. Apparently males do not fully mature until they are 25.

The fact that someone who writes about cars can ignore greenhouse gases is not surprising either. He depends for his living on the automotive industry – and as that Carjacked piece goes on about at some length, most of that requires the public to be persuaded not just to buy personal transportation – but to spend far more than is sensible, far too often to keep the whole system going. We have not yet abandoned the idea of economic growth, though we OECD countries clearly passed the practical limits of that some years ago. And that requires planned obsolescence – something the automotive industry invented. We could have cars that lasted much longer, or that could be upgraded like many PCs by parts replacement. Except that even there we mostly don’t.

What North America actually needs is more railways – especially electric railways – and ones that allow passenger trains priority over freight. This well known, existing technology can be implemented effectively, and will be much quicker than any  other plausible route to reducing internal air travel and quite a lot of driving of IC vehicles. The current US program for High Speed Rail is a very small step in the right direction. Not that Canada is even thinking about anything similar. BC of course is only spending money on more and faster roads. And one reason advanced for that is the pressure from people who influence the BC Liberals that it was necessary for them to drive faster on the Sea to SkyHighway. NOT that the road was unsafe: it wasn’t. It was just that there was no effective enforcement of the speed limit. Of course photo radar was unpopular – but that does not mean that it was a bad idea. Quite the opposite in fact, even in the incompetent way it was implemented in BC.

But you can bet that many people will pick up the idea that we need more and faster roads. After all that fits into what they have been sold. And also fits into the currently dominant denial that we face imminent annihilation if we do not change direction now.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2010 at 10:12 am