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Are Railways in Peril?

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National Rail Networks :: A Look Back in Time

The world’s first national rail networks were constructed in Britain, with the first inter-city line connecting the industrial midland city Manchester with the port of Liverpool in 1830.

So, are you wondering, which country forged a national rail network next?  France? Sweden, the United States?

It was Egypt. The Egyptian rail system connected ports on the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea until the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. Egypt’s rolling stock is still on track.  A recent issue of Future Rail magazine reports on Egypt’s recent purchase of 1,300 new carriages.

 

U.S.A.

In the 21st century some countries like the United States of America are not keeping up a commitment to passenger rail systems.

That’s a shame because rail travel offers faster, more efficient and ecologically favorable long distance travel than commercial airlines or private vehicles. Assuming, of course, the nation-state or region maintains and supports its railway systems.

A close look at an inventory of Amtrak rolling stock looks like an old used carriage auction block.  Check out the fancy Amtrak advertising videos promising sleek, fast locomotives in the northeast corridor of the country, the most reliable profit center. Don’t wait in line or online for a ticket because it’s fantasy at this point. Why aren’t the U.S. leaders embarrassed by their poor showing compared to the lightning speed trains of Japan, France, Germany and other European countries?

USA Civil War Era Rail Lines

Compare the dense network of railways in Northern states with sparse unconnected railways in the South. Image: etc.usf.edu

Back in the mists of time, the northern states of the U.S. had established a robust network of rail lines that connected with existing waterway transport and ports before the American Civil War.  The southern states also built railways, but the lines dead-headed inland rather than featuring radiating lines that used hubs to interconnect with other railways.  The absence of a connected rail network in the south was a factor in  defeat.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law on July 1, 1862.  This progressive action authorized construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  American continental railroads, built by immigrant laborers, usually under cruel and dangerous conditions, were instrumental in opening the western wilderness to travel and trade.

 

FRANCE

I’ve spent more time and kilometers riding the SNCF railway system in France than any other country.  My first rail trip there was in 1966 on the boat-train from Calais (or was it Boulogne?) to Paris.  The wider-gauge British trains left passengers at the ferry dock and after the Channel crossing, you’d walk to the French carriages for outward bound destinations.  In the past I would ink my train travel routes on a map of France but the lines crossed and recrossed over the years to the point of obliterating the journeys and connections.

 

French rail network in the 19th c.

Image from Wikipedia.

France built short rail lines to serve the mining industry. Agricultural communities resisted rail development arguing it would infringe on France’s well-organized transport network of canals and other waterways.  Construction of long distance rail systems for commercial and consumer use started after 1842 with a network that could move goods for long distances overland.

RUSSIA

Russia, with distances far greater than the U.S.,  opened a single railway line from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1851. With more land distance than the U.S. to cover, and few or no western and southern ports, Russia understood the value of connecting the capital and to ports in the Far East. Russia opened the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1916, though portions of the railway were functioning as early as 1903.

MEXICO

My experience with Mexico’s Railway Network  is limited. During the early 1980’s, possibly 1981, my friend Don Tito and I boarded the Mexican railway by taking a Greyhound or Trailways bus from San Diego to El Centro, California and walking across the frontier to a train station in Mexico. I should consult a travel diary from that year to report the distances and ticket cost. I do not recall seeing a border wall at that time. The Pacific and Southwest Railway Museum in Campo, California owns carriages and locomotives of the San Diego and Arizona Railway that resemble the historic rolling stock we rode south through Mexico in 1981.

planetware.com-mexico-long-distance-routes-by-road-rail-and-ferry-map.jpg

We boarded the Mexican long distance train at a town just steps across the border that took us all the way south to Mazatlan, a gritty seaport opposite the tip of Baja.  I do not need to see again.  The train ride took two days and nights.  Or maybe it just seemed that long. It slowed to a long halt at towns so locals boarded to sell tamales, soft drinks and chiclets out of plastic buckets lined with heated towels to keep the food warm.

Source-_Alamy stock_north-america-mexico-guanajuato-state-guanajuato-woman-buying-hot-CYKCD0

Decades later, I lived in Mexico City and wanted to explore the country by train, but during the 1990s, the government had consolidated or terminated most passenger rail systems. Apart from a couple of tourist trains that run limited, scenic routes and a commuter rail system serving the capital city, Mexico’s passenger rail service is a distant memory.

Occasionally, proposals arise to create new passenger rail lines or high-speed rail links between major cities. But proposals are not reality.  Until some future date, the inter-city express bus service is adequate, sometimes stellar, but environmentally inefficient.

Ride on, rail enthusiasts!

 

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Rail Link from China to Germany :: Silk Road Revived

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Update: China’s Grand Project, The Economist August 5, 2017 p. 49-50.

In 2013, Zhengzhou, a business and logistics center in Central China, became the starting point for rail transport service to Hamburg, Germany and other European ports.  The trip is a 6,436 mile (10,214-kilometer) run taking 15 to 18 days — twice as fast as shipping goods by sea.

China manufactures products for the world.  We all know that.  And it imports tons of materials and mineral resources. Trade connections between China and the major markets of Europe and North America are essential for global economic prosperity.

No one can overlook the importance of railroad infrastructure and the challenges of distance in historical economic advancement. If a country can’t get its goods to a robust marketplace with money, the economy doesn’t grow. Ship, truck and airplane transport are all part of the modern trade and transport equation, but rail is often the cheapest way to ship goods overland.

 

China was slow to build its rail system, but it is now third largest in the world.  During the past few decades, China has made lightening strides to improve its rail networks for passengers and freight. Some analysts believe the extensive new rail infrastructure may have been built too fast, given the problems along the Beijing to Tibet line.

The Mag-Lev rail connecter from Shanghai airport to the city’s terrific subway is a marvel, priced for tourists from the western hemisphere and wealthy Chinese. I also traveled on other Chinese railroads promoted as high speed, which were not.

Why Ship by Rail? Why Now?

Global Shipping Routes by GPS. Map: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/smart-takes/infographic-global-shipping-routes-mapped-using-gps-data/3605

Global Shipping Routes by GPS.
Map: Smart Planet.com

Maritime routes from Central China to Northern Europe go through the Suez Canal, because despite global warming and climate change, shipping on a great circle route over the North Pole isn’t a viable option yet. According to the information graphic, the China to Northern Europe sea route is one of the heaviest travelled routes in the world. It also goes right through pirate zone near the Horn of Africa. The Suez Canal and eastern Mediterranean, last time I checked, have issues of potential instability.

20130802_chinazug_karte

Rail link between China and Germany.
Map: DB Schenker

This land route from China to Northern Europe saves potentially 80 % of the cost compared with air shipments, and it’s about $489 cheaper on average, compared with road transportation. DB Schenker manages the transportation and logistics.

Nicknamed the New Silk Road, the route goes through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland. Zhengzhou International Inland Port Development Co Ltd is responsible for cooperating with partner rail companies in each country.

Variables affecting international rail transport include:
1) Rail loading gauge — how much weight can be tolerated on given carriers and track.
2) Track gauge — the width between the tracks.

There is broad gauge, standard or international gauge and narrow gauge. Further complicated by an array of different widths for broad gauge.

Loading gauges, couplings, container markings, and much more are encoded by the International Union of Railways, an organization created in 1922 to standardize rail transport industry practices. There are 82 active members including from Europe, Russia, China, Kazakhstan and others. The U.S. is an associate member.

With a route that travels through five or more countries, there are challenges along the route. The railroad containers have to be shifted by crane twice:

  • From Chinese rolling stock to the Russian style broad gauge line at the Kazakhstan-China border at Alashankou, in northeastern China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
  • Second transfer to standard gauge at the Polish-Belarusian border.

US Customers

Hewlett Packard was an early customer of the new rail connection. They booked the route for a major shipment of H-P computers manufactured in China destined to ship from Holland across the Atlantic Ocean to the US.

Here is a video of train route that the H-P computers traveled to Rotterdam, including crane transfer of containers from one railway track to a different gauge rail track.

I’m looking forward to the day passenger trains run the route!

Written by patwa

02/10/2013 at 1:29 am

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