Steel Rail Blues
- December 3, 2007 9:20 AM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.
The speed limit sign on the expressway said 100 kilometres per hour, my speedometer read 20. Once again last week I endured bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours at a time, trying to reach communities just outside Toronto that should have been a short commute. There were no accidents or snowstorms holding things up; this is the way it is every night. Road rage, pollution, a huge waste of time; when is this country going to return to its railroad heritage and begin moving people in clean, efficient, fast trains?
The big argument against high-speed trains in southern Ontario has been a lack of ridership to offset the large up-front cost of building a dedicated rail system.
Well, simply take a look at the urban sprawl and daily gridlock and you’ll see how that argument is wearing thin. The population is growing rapidly, forcing a lot of people to sit alone in a long line of slow moving vehicles that stretches all the way to the horizon.
It’s just plain silly.
There are several good reasons to change from rubber to rail. One of the big ones is the nature of the wheels themselves. Rubber tires are not round under the weight of a vehicle. They go a little flat on the bottom so they can grip the road and absorb some of the bumps. But this flexing and big footprint also produces a lot of friction, or rolling resistance, which the engine must constantly work against. Train wheels are made of hard steel and ride on hard steel rails. Because they don’t go flat on the bottom, the actual contact area between the wheel and the rail is incredibly small, about 30 times less than a rubber tire. So rolling resistance for a train is very low.
That’s how one engine can pull thousands of tons of cargo, or a lightweight electric train can run at aircraft speeds if the tracks are straight. Trains are the second most efficient form of transport. The only way to move more mass with less energy is by ship. This isn’t rocket science - it’s simple physics.
Southern Ontario is flat enough to build high-speed rail lines through existing corridors. If the trains were fast and frequent, there are lots of people who would be happy to make the trip to and from the city in minutes, instead of hours. Yet we continue to build more expressways, which instantly clog up before they’re even completed.
After wasting so many hours moving at the speed of a bicycle on what is supposed to be an expressway, my frustration was pushed even further when I finally got home and saw a television commercial showing an SUV speeding through city and country roads with no other vehicles in sight. What’s wrong with this picture?
- Bob McDonald
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