industrial retooling

May 7, 2008

As I think about the need to come up with other plans for US transportation infrastructure to get us away from cars, I immediately think of pushing better rail infrastructure. With that in mind, what would be the complexities with getting the automotive industry to begin retooling their production lines and retraining their workers to produce train engines/train cars/etc? It seems like the skill set to construct a large metal box with many living-room-like accoutrement internally would be similar between automobile manufacturing and rail-car manufacturing. Additionally, in order to provide a large-scale rail infrastructure the US would require a simple MASSIVE number of engines and rail-cars in the next decade.

I’m sure there are difficult things with this idea, but it makes sense, conceptually, at least, to me.


7 Responses to “industrial retooling”

  1. Pete Zaitcev Says:

    This reminds me how Lileks wrote once:

    “The preferred model for a nice, controlled population is a dense city where your small apartment has a tiny fridge st0cked with bean curd molded into pleasant, food-like shapes. Trains take you to your job, which is either building trains, fixing trains, designing public service posters for trains, cleaning trains or writing software to operate trains. Once a week you’ll pull on your best taupe-hued hemp jumpsuit and take the train to the biweekly Culture Expo to hear something held up to enlightened ridicule (anything’s game, except Islam and Global Warming).”

  2. Seth Vidal Says:

    Ah yes, so much better to mock ideas than it is to try to come up with solutions to A LOT of people being out of jobs in the next 5 years and our transportation infrastructure breaking down.

  3. Robin Norwood Says:

    I’ve daydreamed a bit about what a fast and efficient rail system for the U.S. would be like. If you have about a billion dollars, let me know and we can make a go of it. One idea I had – does it even make sense any more to think of a train in terms of an engine pushing (or pulling) a line of cars? If you put most of the energy/engine bits in the track (like a maglev style system, or even like a roller-coaster track), you get the efficiency of larger-scale power systems, and you can do things like:

    o Send out cars as soon as they’re full. No need to wait for the 10:15 train, just hop in a train car and go.
    o Not worry as much about security – what’s the point of blowing up a train car if the best the terr’ist will do is kill the six people in the car with him and disable the train service for awhile?
    o Let people take their cars along on longer trips – stuff the family car in one of these things, ride to DC, and spend a couple of days there. (That’s if you even need a car there anymore).

    Seems like the time is ripe for this sort of thing, and I hope somebody makes a go of it.

  4. thruhike98 Says:

    This is an interesting idea. It makes sense – with US automakers struggling to produce vehicles as dependable/efficient as other automakers, even to the point of subsidizing gasoline:
    It seems this could be a better use of the resource.

    Something must change – living in an area with an almost four-hour rush hour has impressed this upon me.

  5. One of the big issues with changing to train systems is that you need to have larger ‘right’ of ways for trains. Trains do not turn like cars do so you have to work out long distances of what is going to be ‘train tracks’ and what is not. You have to also work out wider areas for the tracks to deal with multiple tracks and where ‘lanes’ are going to change. This doesn’t work to well for our urban sprawl as it has been designed with cars with relatively sharp turning (an 18 wheeler turns quicker than a train). This means that large areas of current housing etc have to be bought, torn down, and rebuilt as trains.

    The second issue is that you then have to change the work habits of the country considerably. Running your schedule by train means making changes to work habits which need to be worked out before hand. People are not going to work late if the last train is out of the station at 17:10. If the trains go down (which they will), that has effects where businesses aren’t producing, consuming, or servicing the producers and consumers… This means you have to build in lots of redundancy (multiple train lines via different routes, not mixing goods with people on all routes, etc).. which starts eating into any savings you get from trains.

    From a different Conservative, I look at strengthening the rail and road systems as a matter of national security and economics. Not being able to get people to and from work in a cost effective manner means that we are not able to globally compete and makes us more prone to doing stupid things that have long term losses for short term gains. But then again I have been told I am a “Conservative In Name Only” .

  6. loupgaroublond Says:

    I’m not sure trains are the solution. With a train, you are bound to where the tracks go, whereas we have far more roads currently. Also, use of the train is dictated by where the control team declares a train is headed, and how fast. While more chaotic, the road system is far more flexible. Inside population areas, much of the day to day stuff is dictated by the flexibility a road system gives them.

    On the other hand, for long distances, a train could be a reasonable solution. Replacing long distance highways with trains mainly for freight might be far more reasonable, if you consider freight as a separate system from people and commuters.

    Replacing airlines with trains also seems like a reasonable idea, but not at the expense of the road system, for reasons I stated above. This leaves us with two zones we have to worry about – intracity and commuter.

    Cities are a different beast, and probably the best solution is some combination of light rail, trolley, subway, bus, bike, and walkways. As long as the trains can connect directly to this system, and it’s easy to hop off an intercity train and get on a light rail, the system will work. Prague in my mind is one of the best examples of this.

    Commuters present a harder challenge. One of the challenges in living in the suburbs is that outside of the city, none of the mass transit systems are cost effective. Unless we can bring the cost down to 1%, the sprawl just doesn’t help. Unless you live near the train station, you have to drive there. Period. You need to drive to get groceries. Period. Last summer I had to walk a mile and half each way to get the train to NYC, and I can guarantee you I won’t ever try to repeat that experience in 100 degree weather.

    Trains won’t solve the idiocy that is suburban sprawl. The rest of the problem is solvable with a nice hybrid. Chances are, we’ll probably need those big 18 wheelers, but we may not need them to travel such long distances in the future.

  7. Jeff Ollie Says:

    To a certain extent, the re-expansion of passenger rail service is happening. If fact, there is a good chance that Amtrak will be adding service from Chicago – Quad Cities – Iowa City – Des Moines – Omaha. If such service were to actually start up, I would most likely use it for the infrequent trips I make to Chicago.

    Although I’m not an expert in manufacturing technology, I don’t think that a simple “retooling” of car manufacturing plants would work. Locomotives can be 70ft or more in length, 15ft high, and weigh almost half a million pounds EACH. Whereas cars are typically 10-15ft in length and weigh a few thousand pounds each.

    Otherwise, a resurgence in passenger rail would be way cool.

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