As the Oil Age Ends, A Return of the Canal and Rail Age?

Includes: CSX, KOL, PKOL
by: Gregor Macdonald

The world’s largest train ferry worked for over 50 years taking both passenger trains and freight trains to respective landings at Benicia and Port Costa, across the Carquinez Straight. This was in fact the route chosen by the Central Pacific RR Company during the 1879-1930 period, as part of the transcontinental railroad. The Solano, extra wide at 116 feet, and measuring 424 feet in length, could make the passage in just 9 minutes. That’s quite impressive considering tides, the heavy load, and the total distance between the two docks: one mile. The photo below shows the Solano coming into land at what appears to be the Port Costa dock:

The problem of conveyance deals with a rather large set of engineering and energy challenges that we in The Oil Age have mostly forgotten. In a recent email exchange with a contact at a large, multinational infrastructure company I found myself writing the following: We have lost touch with the hurdles faced by our not-too-distant forbears who, in a world of wood and coal, found waterway transport a kind of miracle. What kind of a nut, for example, would blast through all that granite in upstate NY to build a canal? A nut who did not have oil, that’s who.

As the Oil Age is now set to end, and as the world transitions back to Coal and other forms of electrical power generation, a key concept to think about is the matter of rolling resistance. Those CSX Railroad (NASDAQ:CSX) commercials you may have seen on television (opens to wmv video file), for example, are essentially highlighting the greater efficiency trains have, over trucks. But of course, in the taxonomy of efficient conveyance, water transportation is close to the top. For a quick and general comparison, the standard mileage per gallon of gasoline to move one ton of freight is often cited as follows: Trucks: 155; Railroads: 413; Ships/Barges: 576.

Since we’re getting rather 19th Century here, I thought I’d key you into a favorite publication of my fellow energy analyst Chris Nelder, titled Low-Tech Magazine. In their December issue they had a comprehensive piece on trolley canal boats, and cited fuel efficiency for electrified barges that exceeded diesel powered barges by four times. I’m neither going to vouch for that claim or try to work out the math, but the general concept is intriguing: combining the low friction of water conveyance with the efficient power of electricity is compelling:

The installation at the Bourgogne canal gave great satisfaction and it was the first electrical boat propulsion system to be operated on a practical, commercial basis. Moreover, it was a zero-emissions transport system: the electricity was generated on both sides of the track by means of turbines placed at the cascades of two successive locks, having a fall of 7.5 metres (24.5 feet). Apart from the ecological advantage, the use of renewable electricity made that the line was working at almost no cost.

–Kris De Decker, Low Tech Magazine, December 2009

There seems to be a natural assumption that our current energy transition most certainly implies the world is poised to go forward, to a new set of energy and transport solutions. I’m less convinced about that view. In last week’s post titled San Francisco Water and Rail, I identified the Bay Area with its legacy railbeds, multiple water-landings, and the Straight that probes deeply into agricultural lands, as a region uniquely equipped to weather the decline of liquid fuels. A world of solid fuels, meanwhile, is the one you see depicted in the photographs above. And, its worth considering how humanity coped in such a world as we struggle through the gauntlet of peak oil.

Photographs: The Solano, via the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. | Canal Bourgogne, via Low Tech Magazine.