Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What history can tell us about things to come

Written by  Bruce Kelly, Contributing Editor
In February 1882, Joseph Osgood allowed shortsightedness to steer him wrong. As newly-appointed chief engineer for the California Southern Railroad (which would later become part of the Santa Fe Railway), he was tasked with constructing a new rail line that would link the seaport city of San Diego with one—or both—of the transcontinental lines that were building their way toward Los Angeles.

Osgood’s choice for passage through the coastal mountains was Temecula Canyon, northeast of Oceanside, Calif. Local residents were quick to warn him that periods of heavy rain had been known to swell the canyon’s riverbed into a raging torrent. By simply grading above the high water marks that were etched in the sandstone walls, Osgood felt confident he could lay track beyond the reach of any conceivable flood.

Less than a year later, in January 1883, a storm that dumped three inches of rain in San Diego in a single day left the line through Temecula Canyon in shambles. Ties and bridge timbers were literally washed out to sea. It took eleven months to restore the route to service. The canyon was hit by more flooding in February 1884, so it was no surprise when work was begun in 1886 on an alternate route that would continue up the coast from Oceanside toward a more reliable connection with the Santa Fe main line. After two years of drought, heavy rains devastated Temecula Canyon again in February 1891. The Santa Fe was granted permission to abandon the canyon trackage in 1896. But the weather woes didn’t end there. Southern California endured cycles of drought and flood over the next several years, with most of the region’s reservoirs nearly empty by 1915. January 1916 changed all of that by delivering a straight week of heavy rain, which wiped out some two-dozen bridges on Santa Fe’s route to San Diego.

Fast forward to May 18, 2014. On ABC’s This Week, Governor Jerry Brown was interviewed on the subject of California’s wildfires and drought. When host George Stephanopoulos asked how the state was preparing to adapt to what appears to be a prolonged shift toward a dryer climate, both he and Brown launched into dialogue that had little to do with tangible solutions and instead heaped blame on political figures who, I’m quite sure, do not have their hands on the levers controlling heat or cold, drought or rain. Brown said, “It is true there’s virtually no Republican who accepts the science that virtually is unanimous.” The “science” Brown referred to was, of course, the notion of man-made global warming.

Relax. It’s not my intention to turn digital or print space at Railway Age into a climate change debate. But I will point out a few relevant items of news, science, and history that I feel could offer valuable insight for decision-makers in the rail industry.

To borrow a familiar phrase, the “inconvenient truth” about California—which Governor Brown was apparently ignoring—is that far worse periods of drought have hit the American Southwest in the past, long before any man-made factors could have been to blame. That fact has been known and documented for decades, and was reiterated through several prominent news outlets during the months leading up to Brown’s interview on ABC. In a February 2014 report, the Los Angeles Times noted, “A particularly dry stretch occurred between A.D. 900 and 1400 (during the Medieval Warm Period), with two 100-year droughts in California and the Southwest. Throughout the Southwest, archaeological remains show that flourishing civilizations all but disappeared as their agricultural bases withered.” And a January 2014 piece in the San Jose Mercury News said, “Through studies of tree rings, sediment, and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years—compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame.”

Not just California, but elsewhere on the planet, and much further in the past. One episode of “Alexander’s Lost World,” a documentary series recently airing on PBS, took a deeper look into the enormous climate change that dried up waterways and erased entire cities and empires in the Middle East and Asia some 4,000 years ago.

Today, for every report claiming the planet is now warming, there’s a report claiming the opposite. And just when we’re being told there’s a “consensus” on the matter, we read evidence of dissent and disagreement. Al Gore’s hockey stick chart falls into question; NOAA, NASA and other agencies revise their temperature records up or down; glacial and polar ice recedes in one part of the globe while it expands in another; big oil and industry are accused of distorting climate data to suit their agendas; environmentalists and anti-capitalists are accused of doing the same.

I’m no climate scientist, and I have no array of weather monitoring apparatus at my personal disposal. But based on all of the reporting, claims, and counterclaims I’ve seen, here’s what I can say:

Have parts of our planet been warming? Yes.

Have parts of our planet been cooling? Yes.

Wait…what?

Exactly.

So what does all of this mean for the business of building and running railways? Do we plan and purchase based on a few years or a couple decades of experience, coupled with computer modeling that has already proven, at least in some aspects, to be less than reliable? Or should the full range of historical record be considered in order to more wisely prepare for whatever climate extremes lie ahead?

There’s no question that government-mandated reductions in locomotive emissions are a benefit to the environment. Cleaner air is a no-brainer that we can all appreciate. But can Tier 3, 4, and so on have any meaningful effect on climate, especially considering the Earth’s reputation for much wilder temperature swings in the past, long before man-made mechanisms could have taken the blame?

I find it curious that the EPA describes Tier 3 as “part of a comprehensive approach to reducing the impacts of motor vehicles on air quality and public health,” but makes no mention of climate change within that context. Where EPA does discuss climate change, it acknowledges, “The historical record shows that the climate system varies naturally over a wide range of time scales. In general, climate changes prior to the industrial revolution in the 1700s can be explained by natural causes,” which EPA lists as solar output, volcanic eruptions, and “natural changes in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations.”

That’s right: EPA says natural changes have occurred in both climate and greenhouse gases. But, for some reason, they feel that could have only happened in the distant past. EPA says, “Research indicates that natural causes are very unlikely to explain most observed warming, especially warming since the mid-20th century. Rather, human activities can very likely explain most of that warming.”

Public policy that uses hypotheses preceded by such terms as “indicates” or “can very likely” as a reason to impose trillions of dollars in added expense upon a still-struggling economy is precarious policy, to say the least. It should be required to also take into account longer-term, empirical data.

Had there been a crystal ball decades ago, the Conrails and Burlington Northerns of the world, as well as their predecessors, might not have trimmed four-track corridors down to three, or two-track corridors down to one, and they might have also held on to a few of those seemingly useless secondary routes which they chose to abandon altogether. Today, those lost avenues of capacity could be worth their weight in gold. But there was some forward-thinking back in the day that’s coming around for a second look, such as BN’s Advanced Railroad Electronics System concept, which we now see being re-imagined as PTC, and locomotives fueled by LNG, which holds the potential for reducing operating costs as well as emissions.

Hindsight is still 20-20, though it’s sometimes skewed by differing lenses of political or social perspective. The shorter the view back, well, that’s called shortsightedness (Joseph Osgood and Temecula Canyon). But the farther into history we go when weighing decisions about the future, the sharper and better-informed those decisions can become. What we see coming at us never seems quite as certain as what’s already here and gone. And if change is constant, perhaps that goes for change in climate as well.

Some recommended historical reading:

Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways, by Christian Wolmar, dwells not just on the obvious armored rolling stock, troop trains, and mobile artillery involved in wartime railroading, but looks equally into the global strategizing that prompted construction of thousand of miles of new track into previously undeveloped territories. In fact, Wolmar echoes a belief held by many historians that the race between Britain, France, Germany, and Russia to build railways into the Middle East—at a time when coal was giving way to oil as the fuel that would drive air, land, and sea transport into the 20th century—was as much responsible for igniting World War I as anything else.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan, compares and contrasts nations and continents, pinpoints their respective resources, explains the advantage of abundant coastlines and seaports (the U.S.) vs. being largely land- or ice-locked (Russia), then puts all of that into motion from the earliest recorded history to modern times. The role of railways in maintaining domestic strength is frequently mentioned. In particular, China’s expansion of rail lines into neighboring countries, as well as its investment in railway construction into parts of the Middle East and Africa (where America is now in virtual retreat), are described as commercial wins for those regions, and certainly for China, but not without security and economic concerns for the U.S. and the rest of the West.