Friday, November 14, 2008

Retro-Transport: Trains, Zeppelins and Canal Barges

BOULDER, Colorado -- Several years of oil prices surging above $100 a barrel and concerns over the effect of human activity on the climate have indicated that our current transportation infrastructure is not sustainable. Serious changes are likely on the horizon for the automobile industry, but what about other aspects of transportation, like shipping and air travel?

Trucking, especially in the United States, will likely undergo some serious changes as companies turn to alternatives like rail and waterborne transport. The jet engine is truly a climate killer - will people be willing to sacrifice the speed and convenience of the jet airliner for an alternative, perhaps a reborn Zeppelin? What will a post-hydrocarbon transportation network look like? Will it really materialize in our lifetime?

Earlier I discussed the project in California to build a high-speed train system, so I thought I would add a couple other alternative transportation ideas to the conversation. The first item, from a recent issue of the New York Times, is about the potential rebirth of New York's Erie Canal. If speed is not a concern, canal transport is a cheap and clean way to move goods in certain areas if the old infrastructure is still in place, as it is in Upstate New York.

"Hints of a Comeback for Nation's First Superhighway"

The second item concerns a glamorous old conveyance that met a fiery end - the Zeppelin. The largest one ever built, the ill-fated Hindenburg, could carry 72 passengers from Berlin to New York in approximately three days - it is a far cry from the 500 passengers that can make the crossing in eight hours aboard a Boeing 747, but it also expends far less fuel. There are not yet any serious plans to reintroduce the airships for passenger travel; personally, I think I would enjoy a luxury transatlantic cruise aboard one of these floating behemoths, but I doubt it will ever occupy a major niche in the commercial air travel market again. Instead, the blimp's boosters argue it could be used for heavy-lift transport to remote areas with poor access to roads or even airstrips. As the Economist states, dirigibles could carry large components for construction of things like oil and gas pipelines, which often cross rather dodgy stretches of the planet, or transport military hardware when aircraft capacity is in short supply.

"Pipe in the sky"

If you have any other thoughts or articles about retro transportation alternatives, send them along, and I will include them in this ongoing discussion.

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