Category Archives: Technology

Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station

Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment

Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River

Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line

A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging

Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.

Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.

Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Can it handle a big one?

Photo of Huge ocean wave. Image by Ray Collins

Ocean Wave. Photo by Ray Collins

Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay sits like an open mouth, ready to swallow any hurricane that makes its way up the East Coast. Usually these northward trending hurricanes lose steam when they reach the colder waters off New England. Usually but not always. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 arrived over Rhode Island with a forward speed of 50 to 60 mph and wind speeds exceeding 120 mph. It carried with it an ocean swell that filled the bay to overflowing.

Map of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island

Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Openstreetmap.org

According to the National Weather Service (NWS-Boston), “The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The destructive power of the storm surge was felt throughout the coastal community. Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet.”

In 1954, Hurricane Carol produced a storm surge of more than 14 feet in Narragansett Bay. Downtown Providence was once again flooded, this time by 8 to 12 feet of water. All levels of government — local, State, and Federal — agreed that something had to be done to protect the low lying city center. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, completed in 1966, was the result.

Aerial photo of Downtown Providence and Providence River

Downtown Providence and the Providence River. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier is hidden behind the I-195 highway bridge. Image: providenceri.gov

All travellers on the I-195 Highway pass within feet of the Barrier as they drive across the eight-lane bridge over the Providence River. But those who want to look at the barrier and appreciate its design, leave the highway on the east side of the river, and make their way back to Bridge Street and its small riverside park (marked in yellow on the satellite view below)

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier and vicinity. Google Maps Image

The barrier is located a couple of hundred yards up stream from Fox Point, and just north of the I-195 Highway Bridge. It consists of a concrete wall built across the Providence River and earthen dikes that extend flood protection about a thousand feet over the land on each side of the river. Built into the river wall are three, 40 foot wide gates, each weighing  53 tons. Under normal weather conditions, the gates remain open so as not to impede the flow of the river. The gates are located at the eastern end of the river wall. They can be seen in the sattelite view above.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence, RI

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s three flood gates, looking down stream from park on Bridge Street. I-195 Hwy bridge in background. Providence RI. Image: Brown.edu

An essential component of the barrier system is the pumping station consisting of five massive 4500 H.P pumps, each as big as a grain elevator. When the flood gates are closed to keep a storm surge out, the entire flow of the river must be continuously pumped up and over the barrier. Otherwise the river would be held back, overflow its banks, and flood the city. The pumping station is housed in a building at the western end of the river wall (its roof is plainly visible in the satellite view). The five pumps, operating together, can lift 3.1 million gallons per minute and discharge the flow to the downstream side of the barrier.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence RI

View of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier from Bridge Street pocket park. Pumping Station at far right. Google Image

The barrier gates have been closed against storms several times since going into service in 1966. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the water crested at 9.5 feet. But the barrier has yet to experience a direct hit from a category 4 or 5 hurricane. As coastal flooding increases in the coming years, hurricane barriers of all kinds are going to be in the news.

North Carolina’s mobile Outer Banks and its new, immovable Bonner Bridge

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved in 1999. Image from International Chimney Corporation website

The iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse no longer sits on the ground on which it was built in 1870. Under threat from the encroaching sea, the 210 ft., 5,000 ton masonry structure was moved in 1999 about 2800 feet southwest from its original location. Masonry buildings, when shaken (during earthquakes, for example) tend to come apart along mortar lines, or even fall completely to pieces. So it isn’t easy to move them safely.

International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo NY and Expert House Movers of MD Inc., were awarded the moving contract. The job was carried out successfully; not a single brick was dislodged during the operation. The lighthouse is now about a third of a mile from tide water, distant enough, it’s hoped, to keep it safe from the sea until at least the end of this century. In recognition of the difficulties involved in moving the structure, the two company’s jointly won the American Society of Civil Engineers 40th Annual Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

The following map shows the location of the lighthouse before it had to be moved:

Map showing shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras NC

History of shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina (map also shows pre-1999 location of the lighthouse). Image: pubs.usgs.gov (paper 1177-B)

To visit the lighthouse up close, drive south from Bodie Island on Highway 12. The H. Bonner Bridge carries the road across Oregon Inlet, linking Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. The economic life of Hatteras Island depends on it. By early next year, the new Bonner Bridge will be ready to take over from the old one.

Aerial photo ofOregon Inlet and old H.Bonner Bridge, Outer Banks NC

Oregon Inlet and the old H. Bonner Bridge. Photo taken from above Pamlico Sound looking east towards the Atlantic. Image: usgs.gov

Built in 1963 with a life expectancy of 30 years, the old Bonner bridge is in danger of falling down. The new bridge (due to open for traffic early next year) is built to last 100 years according to the designers, HDR Inc., an engineering company based in Omaha, Nebraska. The bridge is built on shifting sand, so that longevity claim is based on the company’s confidence in their engineering abilities. Domenic Coletti, HDR design manager, quoted in the company’s website, said this:

To our knowledge, no one has previously designed and built a [bridge] foundation where piles had to be jetted and driven through nearly 140 feet of soil [sand] in a way that still provided adequate capacity [stability] after 84 feet of scour occurs.”

SCOUR is the anticipated tearing away of the sand around the support piles due to ocean currents in the inlet.

Photo of the old and the new H. Bonner Bridges, Outer Banks, North Carolina

The old and the new H. Bonner Bridges crossing the Oregon Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image from The Outer Banks Voice, 13/11/2018. Photo by Bob Moris

But consider this: although the new bridge may very well last 100 yeas, how many years will the inlet over which the bridge crosses remain in its present location?After all, storms have opened and closed numerous inlets along the Outer Banks since records began in the 16th century. A hurricane formed the Oregon Inlet in 1846. Another one could close it. The steady migration of the Outer Banks over time, may also cause problems. Here’s part of an October 16 email I sent to Pablo Hernandez, Resident Engineer, NCDOT, asking about that matter:

According to the US Geological Survey, the Outer Banks have historically migrated south at the rate of 60 to 70 feet per year, a process that sea level rise may speed up. This suggests that in 20 or 30 years, the Oregon Inlet may no longer be where it is now, thus leaving the new bridge without a function. I’m wondering what actions DOT plan to take to avoid such an outcome?”

No answer yet. My guess is that the Army Corps of Engineers will be kept busy dredging the channel for the indefinite future. What other solution is there? Unlike a lighthouse, a bridge can’t be moved. When Mr. Hernandez gets back to me I’ll update this post.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks showing location of Cape Hatteras lighthouse and Oregon Inlet. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

When will North Carolina’s loathsome CAFOs be shut down?

Much of North Carolina’s eastern half lies within the continent’s coastal plain. Rivers flowing from the Appalachian foothills onto the plain, slow down and become sluggish. That makes them prone to flooding, particularly during and after the storms and hurricanes that blow in from the Atlantic carrying heavy loads of rain. The widespread flooding caused by last September’s Hurricane Florence is a good example.

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This soggy, low-lying land is home to about 2,200 industrial pig farms. Known in the trade as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the waste (pig shit) from these factory farms is not treated in any way, rather it is flushed into open pits (called lagoons) and eventually sprayed onto surrounding land, or, in the event of flooding, distributed far from its source by way of creeks and rivers. Each year, about 18 million tons of liquid pig shit (laced with pharmaceutical residues) are released into the environment from the state’s more than nine million pigs.

Pig farm sheds and lagoons

Pig farm (CAFO) sheds and lagoons. Image: Sierra Club

Most of North Carolina’s pig farms are located in the southeastern part of the state, with the heaviest concentration centred in and around Duplin and Samson Counties. This has created a life-threatening pollution problem for the people living in the area.

Map of North Carolina showing distribution of hog farms on coastal plain

North Carolina showing distribution of CAFOs. Coastal plain lies east of the blue line. Map by Steve Wing, UNC-Chapel Hill

A recent study by J. Kravchenco and others, published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, October 2018 (vol.79 no 5 287-288), concerning health risks to humans living near pig farms, has this to say:

“North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/ED visits of LBW infants. . . . Among North Carolina communities, including both high-income and low-income communities, the lowest life expectancy was observed in southeastern North Carolina. . . . The residents living in close proximity to hog CAFOs . . . are chronically exposed to contaminants from land-applied wastes and their overland flows, leaking lagoons, and pit-buried carcasses, as well as airborne emissions, resulting in higher risks of certain diseases. In fact, previous survey-based studies of residential communities reported significant health risks for residents, including higher risks of bacterial infections, higher frequencies of symptoms of respiratory and neurological disorders, and depression.”

To say that CAFOs stink is an under statement. Here’s Elsie Herring, who lives in Wallace, Duplin Co., speaking about what it’s like when spraying starts at the pig farm near her home:

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.” — quote from The Guardian, May 2018

Why do the human inhabitants of the region put up with being rained on by animal faecal matter to the point of dying prematurely? No need to look further than North Carolina’s 2018 Farm Bill recently passed into law by the Republican controlled legislature. While the bill allows pollution from pig farms to continue unabated, it, in effect, prohibits citizens from challenging the polluters in court. The focus is on protecting the $2.9 billion industry and its owners from interference by the citizens. The citizens need for protection from the industry’s filthy practices is not even considered. Yuck! Living downwind from certain politicians can really stink. North Carolina’s hog industry is run by Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which was purchased by China’s WH Group in 2013.

Sufferers from pig farm pollution are not the only people that have it in for the industry. Animal rights groups are also out to get them. If the farm operators were discovered treating dogs the way they treat pigs, they’d be in court facing animal cruelty charges. It’s my guess, however, that the environment will prove to be the industry’s most powerful enemy. As our warming world generates larger, more violent hurricanes, industrial pig farming on a waterlogged coastal plain will become untenable. Will the industry be allowed to move its CAFOs to higher ground, where the politicians live? What do you think?

Map of the USA showing location of North Carolina

North Carolina in red

Light Rail Transit – the right choice for Norfolk VA

The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA

The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA. Image by Mega Anorak at Flickriver.com

It’s an eight minute ride on The Tide, from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center campus in Norfolk’s Ghent district to downtown Norfolk. The Tide is the city’s Light Rail Transit line. Opened in 2011, the line runs seven and a half miles from its western terminus at EVMC/Fort-Norfolk, through downtown Norfolk, to its eastern terminus at Newtown Road. From end to end, the ride takes 18 minutes, including brief stops at nine intermediate stations.

Map showing route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk BA

Route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk VA (termini marked in blue and circled))

The route to the east from Downtown Norfolk is far from scenic. It runs roughly parallel to Interstate-264, which means that the passing scene consists mostly of highway support structures  — underpasses, overpasses, level-crossings, and the like. Also on view are commercial buildings and parking lots. Many parking lots. Suburban residential areas along the the way appear like untamed nature by comparison. The ride is comfortable and entertaining. And it gives one an appreciation of the enormous amounts of concrete and blacktop used to sustain our automobile economy.

Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle

Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The Tide is presently equipped with nine Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicles. These are double-ended cars with operating controls at both ends and doors on both sides. The same vehicles are in use or on order at nine or ten other US cities.

Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle

Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image from Siemens website

According to the August 13, 2016 issue of the Virginia-Pilot, building the 7.4-mile line cost $318.5 (including $86 million in cost overruns). That year, weekday ridership had reached 4,800, and the operator, Hampton Roads Transit, declared the project a success. There’s been talk since then about extending the system into other parts of Norfolk and into Virginia Beach.

Investment in Light Rail Transit systems makes perfect sense. They are clean, quiet, safe, popular, and they do the job. But for Norfolk, the big question is this: Expand the transit system or Protect the city against the rising sea — which comes first?

The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station

The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station. Image by Jon Bell

 

The light at the end of the tunnel

My last post titled, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits’, elicited this question:

Is the tunnel as straight as the map suggests?

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC. Image from Draft Environmental Statement, June 30, 2017; Hudson Tunnel Project.

The answer is yes, it is in reality as straight as a die, at least in plan view. tunneling is a costly business; the least expensive way to dig a tunnel is to keep it absolutely straight. The following YouTube video created by Konstantin Gorakine titled, ‘Tunnel ride under Hudson River to Penn Station, NYC’, will convince you. It convinced me.

You’re a visitor and you want to experience ‘authentic’ New York City life. To the millions of people who live and/or work in the city, there’s nothing more ‘real’ than the daily commute. About one hundred thousand commuters pour into the city through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel every weekday. And that’s just one of the entry points. Get a feel for what it’s like; take the same train ride. But there’s no need to punish yourself; avoid the rush hours.

The NJ Transit train ride from Penn Station, NYC to Penn Station, Newark, NY, makes for an enjoyable excursion — about 20 minutes travel time, each way. If you leave at about 10:30 in the morning, you can be back by noon. Navigating Penn Station is an authentic New York experience in itself.

Map showing location of Penn Sta., NYC in relation to Penn Sta., Newark andNorth Bergen Tunnel portal

Map showing locations of Penn Sta.,NYC, North Bergen Tunnel portal, and Penn Sta., Newark, NJ