Sunday, February 28, 2010

Freight train mess in Chicago gets stimulus help

(Photo of freight trains passing through Chicago from Flickr and photographer Kumar McMillan)

Believe it or not, a freight train can take as long to get through Chicago as it does to go on to the West Coast. This railroad hub is so congested, with its 40,000 rail cars passing through each day, that trains usually travel at 9 mph or less. They have been known to take 36 hours to get through the area.

So it was good news to hear last week that the U.S. Department of Transportation was giving a $100 million recovery grant to improve the situation.

The money will be used to upgrade traffic control systems, switches and signals, build a bridge and otherwise facilitate trains in moving through one of the world’s busiest hubs. Only Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai see more freight train traffic. And estimates say rail traffic could almost double here in 20 years.

The DOT money is expected to attract an additional $62 million from non-federal sources. (I hope that doesn’t mean the state, because we know what kind of fiscal shape it is in.)

Back in 2003, following a 1999 winter storm that had trains backed up for 500 miles, a program called CREATE (Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) was agreed to by the city, the state and the 6 railroad companies that go through Chicago. CREATE hasn’t been able to do much so far, for lack of money. So, thank you, President Obama and Ray LaHood (Transportation Secretary, who happens to be from Illinois.)

Most of the $1.5 billion in announced TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants went for rail and public transit rather than highways.

Chicago is not the only region to get a large grant. Two other freight corridors got similar amounts – one in Tennessee and Alabama, the other in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. And there are many other small projects throughout the country.

More fuel-efficient
Freight train companies (if you’ve seen the recent ads) boast they can carry a ton of goods 436 miles on a gallon of gas. They also say by taking truck traffic off the road they can ease highway congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute says trains are 3 times as efficient as trucks.

Truckers argue they can move things faster and can go anywhere. Over the past 20 years freight has been moving from rail to trucks and planes. And trucking’s carbon footprint has grown.

Quebec and some European countries are subsidizing a move back from trucks to rail. And the White House has put a priority on rail – both passenger and freight.

The cost to complete all the CREATE projects planned for the Chicago area is estimated by DOT at about $3B, and last year it was running $2.6B short of its goal. The $162M won’t get them there, but it will be a start.

And it’s nice railroads are getting some respect.

Read more about the TIGER grants at DOT.

(Sources: ClimateWire, Medill Reports, U. S. Department of Transportation)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Provocative NASA study puts road traffic ahead of power plants as cause of climate change near-term

(Picture of auto traffic from Flickr and photographer Lynac)

A new study from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies says tailpipe emissions will cause the most global warming over the next decade. Next comes heating homes by burning wood and cow dung in poor countries. Third is methane from cows.

Electric power is further down the list, though it will be the prime source of warming by century’s end, the study predicts. The provocative study, by a team led by NASA’s Nadine Unger, was published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Policy implications
Does this mean we should turn away from fighting the coal industry and focus more on electric cars, high-speed rail and aid to third-world countries? Possibly. We may have a little more time than we thought to shut off coal – as far as global warming is concerned.

But this is just one study. It will need to be confirmed by others.

And the reason behind the findings is troubling. It all has to do with the release of aerosols that block the incoming sunlight and have a temporary cooling effect. Tailpipe emissions don’t have much of those, while coal-fired plants do. Some aerosols, such as sulfates and organic carbon, have a very short-term cooling effect (they are rained down in just a few days), while greenhouse gases stay aloft for decades.

Of course this is a double-edged sword. Aerosols have a known harmful effect on human health and on the environment. That’s why industrialized countries have been phasing them out.

A choice we don’t want to make
Do we have to choose between climate change and our health? Unger says, “no,” that we need to phase out unhealthy aerosols, but that an immediate focus on transportation will give us the biggest bang for our buck in the next decade.

A sound way to proceed is by attacking all sources – tailpipes, burning of wood and dung, cattle-produced methane AND power plants. If we can remove many of the sources of greenhouse gases, we won’t need unhealthy particles in the air to block out the sun.

To read about the study and see graphs go to NASA’s Web site.

See Q&A with Unger. (Caution: Don’t be biased by her picture. She’s a pretty blonde.)

If you want to read the study abstract.

(Sources: NASA, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Sunday, February 14, 2010

High-speed rail chugging along with stimulus $$

(Photo of inside of high-speed train in UK from Flickr and photographer Jon Curnow)

Can the U.S. develop a viable high-speed train system that will lure people out of their cars and reduce air travel, thus cutting down on CO2 emissions?

High-speed rail is the transportation priority for President Obama, and it recently won $8 billion in stimulus funds plus $2.5B from Congress (the president asked for $1B.) Obama is seeking another billion in his 2011 fiscal year budget.

That’s only a drop in the bucket. Requests for stimulus funds exceeded $50B, and a nationwide high-speed rail system would cost an estimated $600B. But hopefully the initial allocations will prime the pump for more federal, state and private money in the future, so some of the projects can reach fruition. The stimulus money was spread over half the states and 40% of congressional districts. So many officials will now have an interest in adding money as time goes on.

Maybe we can approach the level of many European countries and Japan, though they have a huge head start because of our powerful auto and oil interests. China, which is investing heavily in rail, just launched a link between Zhengzhou and Xi’an, with a top speed of 217mph. Europe and Japan high-speed trains reach speeds of about 220mph.

Where the money went
The bulk of the stimulus money went to California, Florida and the Midwest:
• California got $2.3B for a planned line linking San Diego, LA and San Francisco.
• Florida received $1.25B for a Tampa-Orlando run.
• The Midwest got $2.2B for initial steps for a network linking Chicago with Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis. The goal is to make those cities reachable in the same time it would take to drive or fly.

The remaining $2B in stimulus was divided among 20 other states for planning and upgrades, including $112 million for the high-speed Northwest Corridor connecting N.Y., Washington and Boston.

The California and Florida lines aim for speeds up to 150mph, while the Midwest network would reach 110. Regular passenger trains now go up to about 80mph.

Trains emit much less CO2 than planes and cars, anywhere from 3 and 10 times less, depending on the type of train (electric is best) and other conditions, says French company UIC. About 80% of high-speed trains in Europe are electric.

Advocacy groups in the U.S. include the
Midwest High Speed Rail Association,
Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, and the new U.S. Center for High-Speed Rail, which has set up a Web site for information sharing.

See map of corridors receiving stimulus money.

See earlier EarthlingAngst post explaining high-speed rail.

(Sources: ClimateWire, E&E TV, CNN, Greenwire, E&E Daily, Midwest High Speed Rail Association, Federal Rail Administration)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It’s the moisture, stupid, not the temperature

(Photo of Capitol Building in last week's snowstorm from Flickr and photographer eped1999)

Heavy snowstorms in the East are causing quite a tizzy. Climate skeptics are loving it and spreading doubt about the validity of global warming. Especially in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tweeted that “It’s going to keep snowing in D.C. until Al Gore cries ‘uncle.’”

And Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) daughter and grandchildren built an igloo on the National Mall, calling it “Al Gore’s new home.”

My, my, they certainly have it in for the former vice president.

But the truth is the heavy snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic states are completely consistent with global warming.

1. The temperature is changing SLOWLY, folks. Only 1.4 degrees F in the past 100 years. That’s enough to change weather patterns, but not enough to feel.
2. Precipitation is not the same as temperature. More concentrated precipitation as the Earth warms was predicted by climate scientists. Whether it’s in the form of rain and floods or snow depends on if it’s above or below freezing. And the rain or snow tends to get dumped in some places while others stay too dry.
3. Heavy rains and snows are the result of more moisture in the air, which is caused by warming land and oceans. Water vapor in the air is up 4% since 1970.
4. The East and Upper Midwest were predicted to see see the most precip, while the South and West, which have suffered droughts, get less.

A study in 2004 said there had been a 14% increase in heavy rain or snowstorms in the past 100 years, including a significant increase in the winter in the Northeast. Another study in 2006 found a decline in precipitation in the lower Midwest, South and California, but an increase in the upper Midwest and East between 1901 and 2000.

The 2009 U.S. Climate Impact Report found “Cold season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent. There will also be an increase in lake-effect snows. The ice cover on the Great Lakes has decreased 8.4% per decade since 1973, which leads to more evaporation and heavier storms.

So don’t let people get away with saying unusually heavy snows, like those last week and in December, mean there’s no such thing as global warming. More likely they are caused at least in part by global warming and will get worse in the future if Congress sits on its hands and hopes the threat has gone away so they don’t have to stand up to the oil and coal lobbies.

(Special thanks to Climate Progress for its research and commentary on this topic. To read in more detail, go to For the U.S. Climate Impact Report see The U.S. Global Change Research Program.)