Posts tagged ‘diesel’

What is Happening at the Japanese Nuclear Plants

This is the most helpful article I have found yet on the problems at earthquake-damaged nuclear plants.  As one can imagine, it is a lot more sensible than some of the garbage in the general media.

It cleared up one point of confusion I had - I was not sure why there was still heat generation after the control rods slammed down, killing the fission process.  But apparently there are a number of intermediate fission products created that continue to decay for several days, producing about 3% of the heat of the full fission process.  This heat is what boiled away the water in the reactor vessel once flow of cooling water stopped.  It is this boiling that led to the necessity to release steam (to reduce pressure in the reactor vessel).  It was this steam that was partially disassociated into hydrogen and oxygen, which led to the explosion.

One fact that has been lost in all the hype, and may continue to be lost, is that the earthquake alone (which was 7 times larger than the plant was designed for) was necessary but not sufficient to lead to the current problems.  Everything probably would have been fine had it not been for the tsunami knocking off all the diesel generators the plant used in an emergency to keep the colling pumps running.  Apparently the generators they rushed to the site later could not be used due to various incompatibilities, the type of real-world frustrating problem that will be immediately recognizable to any engineer who has a troubleshooting background.

Update: Unfortunately, the author may have been overly optimistic.  The author implied the pile would stop producing new heat after a few days, but that does not seem to be the case, particularly since spent fuel rods apparently have to be kept in water to keep them cool months or years after they were in service.  With the apparent rupture of the main presure vessel around the core, all bets would seem to be off in terms of containing the most harmful radioactive elements.

I did troubleshooting at a refinery for years, and almost every time the worst disasters were from improbable event and/or screwup after improbable event.   The human mind seems to be unable to really grasp just how screwed up things can get.  The novel Jurassic Park was as much about this problem as it was about dinosaurs.

Update #2: This is the piece that was missing from the earlier linked report:

The sharp deterioration came after a frantic day and night of rescue efforts focused largely on the No. 2 reactor. There, a malfunctioning valve prevented workers from manually venting the containment vessel to release pressure and allow fresh seawater to be injected into it. That meant that the extraordinary remedy emergency workers had jury-rigged to keep the nuclear fuel from overheating no longer worked.

As a result, the nuclear fuel in that reactor was exposed for many hours, increasing the risk of a breach of the container vessel and more dangerous emissions of radioactive particles.

By Tuesday morning, Tokyo Electric Power said that it had fixed the valve and resumed seawater injections, but that it had detected possible leaks in the containment vessel that prevented water from fully covering the fuel rods.

Update #3:  Things are slightly better.

Perfect the Enemy of the Good

For years, my observation has been that the perfect has been the enemy of the good in energy policy.   Now, I don't support the feds making energy policy at all, but given that they do, too often the government has ignored the 80/20 solution that would get most of the desired benefits for a fraction of the cost of alternatives being considered.

For example, in California, the state could have made a ton more progress reducing vehicle emissions had they  accepted a low emissions standard decades ago that allowed for things like compressed natural gas (CNG) as a vehicle fuel.  However, environmentalists insisted on zero emissions, and thus only electric vehicles passed muster, and the technology simply has not been there  (not to mention that at the margin, new electric vehicles in the state would at best be powered by natural gas and at worst by Arizona and Nevada coal plants, making the very concept of "zero-emissions" crazy).

I am thinking of this by looking at this chart from the EIA of CO2 emissions per BTU for various fuels (pounds per million BTU):

Coal (anthracite) 227
Coal (bituminous) 205
Coal (lignite) 215
Coal (subbituminous) 213
Diesel fuel & heating oil 161
Gasoline 156
Propane 139
Natural gas 117

Looking at this, and given the huge amounts of natural gas in this country, one might reasonably expect that a logical policy suggestion would be to try to provide incentives to substitute natural gas for coal and diesel fuel.  The technology exists right now, today, to produce electricity with gas and to power large vehicles with CNG  (and focusing on truck fleets eases the distribution issues with CNG).

But of course absolutely no one in the global warming movement is suggesting this (except for T. Boone Pickens, and he is involved in climate bills as a rent-seeker, not as an advocate).  You see, we want "renewable" energy, and natural gas does not fit.  Though for some reason ethanol does, despite the fact that ethanol probably creates more CO2 than it reduces.

No point here really, since I am not advocating any sort of energy policy.  But it reinforced to me why no one should claim as a justification for energy policy that somehow the system will be more efficient if a few smart people design it top-down, when one of the most obvious 80/20 solutions to Co2 reduction is not even considered.

Building Codes and Protectionism

I have written a lot about state licensing typically being more about protecting incumbents from competition than consumer protection.  This is a story in a similar vein, where plumbers worked to stop the approval of waterless urinals because they required, well, fewer plumbers to install.  In the end, there was a compromise -- the plumbers would support waterless urinals in the code, BUT the code would also say that water still had to be piped to the urinals that don't need water.  I kid you not.

This reminds me of when railroads were switching from steam locomotives to diesel.  The switch basically obsoleted the job of the fireman, who shoveled coal and kept the fire optimized in the boiler.  Faced with extinction, the fireman's union followed a gutsy strategy -- they demanded that diesel locomotives have two firemen instead of one!  You see where this is going.  Eventually, they compromised at one, so for years, decades even, useless firemen were paid to ride around on locomotives.

Duh

Of course this was going to happen.

An audit of solar-power generation from November 2009 to January 2010 found that some panel operators were paid for doing the "impossible" -- producing electricity from sunlight during the night, El Mundo reported today, citing a letter from Secretary of State for Energy Pedro Marin....

Preliminary evidence shows some solar stations may have run diesel-burning generators and sold the output as solar power, which earns several times more than electricity from fossil fuels, El Mundo said, citing unidentified people from the energy industry. The power grid received 4,500 megawatt-hours of power from midnight to 7 a.m. in the months audited, El Mundo said.

Electric current is electric current.  However, in a country like Germany, the price that utilities are required to pay for electric current varies based on its source.  While electricity from, say, a diesel generator gets 4-5 Euro cents per KwH, ground-based solar gets about 48 Euro cents per KwH.  This is a 10x greater price paid solely for absolutely identical power manufactured in a different way.  So of course there is going to be fraud as to the current's source.

More on Wind

I was having a back and forth with a reader about wind power and how much fossil fuel capacity must be kept on standby to support grid reliability with wind.  Here are some excerpts of what I wrote:

Forget all of the studies for a moment.  I used to operate power plants.  Any traditional capacity (fossil fuel, nuclear) except perhaps gas turbines takes on the order of a day or more to start up - if you don't take that long, the thermal stresses alone will blow the whole place up.  During the whole startup and shutdown, and through any "standby" time, the plant is burning fuel.   Since we don't have a good wind energy storage system, some percentage of wind capacity must be backed up with hot standby, because it can disappear in an instant. We are learning now, contrary to earlier assumptions, that wind speeds can be correlated pretty highly over wide geographies, meaning that spreading the wind turbines out does not necessarily do a lot to reduce the standby needs.  And since plant startups take time, even gas turbines take some time to get running, the percentage of wind power that required hot backup is pretty high -- I would love to find this percentage.

I found at least one source for such a percentage, which posits that for England, the percentage of hot backup needed is as high as 80%:  http://www.ref.org.uk/Files/ref.for.decc.28.10.09.i.pdf

I quote from page 6-7:

On any view, including the square root rule of thumb referred to above, the result, imposed for purposes of maintaining adequate response and reserve requirements, implies that a high degree of conventional (dispatchable) plant capacity is retained in the system to support wind generation. Thus, for 25 GW of installed wind capacity only 5 GW of conventional plant can be replaced leaving 20 GW in the role of standby capacity (also known as "Spare" or "Shadow Capacity").3

So 80% of the expected production from wind has to be backed up with hot spares burning fossil fuels.  They go on to say that the percentage of required spare capacity may be lower if the grid area is substantially larger, but not a lot lower.  I had not considered hydro power, but apparently that can be used to provide some quick response to wind production changes.  The report also talks about diesel generators for standby since they can be started up quickly, but these are seriously inefficient devices.  Despite the report's conclusion that the situation might be a bit better on the continent with a larger and more diverse grid, a report of the largest German utility seems to argue that German experience may actually be worse:

As wind power capacity rises, the lower availability of the wind farms determines the reliability of the system as a whole to an ever increasing extent. Consequently the greater reliability of traditional power stations becomes increasingly eclipsed.

As a result, the relative contribution of wind power to the guaranteed capacity of our supply system up to the year 2020 will fall continuously to around 4% (FIGURE 7). In concrete terms, this means that in 2020, with a forecast wind power capacity of over 48,000MW (Source: dena grid study), 2,000MW of traditional power production can be replaced by these wind farms.

It is hard to tell, because 48,000 MW is the nameplate capacity which is virtually meaningless, but my guess is that they are not doing better than 80%.

It's Time to Admit that CO2 Abatement is Going to be Freaking Expensive

I have to tell one of my favorite stories of chutzpah.  In the 1940's and 1950's, railroads were making the transition from steam engines to diesel engines.  One of the changes was that a diesel engine only needed a driver, it did not need a fireman as steam engines did to shovel coal and keep the boiler running well.   The unions of course saw this coming.  So what did they do?  They preemptively made the demand that diesel engines should have to have TWO fireman.  Railroads spent so much time fighting this insane proposal that it took them years to get the firemen per locomotive to the correct number (ie zero).

I am reminded of this story when I think of how the Obama administration has handled the issue of CO2 abatement.  Reasonable people understand that CO2 abatement will be horrifically expensive - it just will not be cheap in terms of cost or lost economic output and lost personal liberties to take the country back to a CO2 per capita it last had in the 19th century.     But rather than taking this on, the Obama administration preemtively attacked, saying that in fact Co2 abatement would lead to economic growth and job creation.  This was the broken windows fallacy on steroids, but the usual progressive illiterates and consumers of party talking points have run with it.

We are finally getting folks to start to address the true costs of CO2 abatement, and they are enormous.  People who push the precautionary principle try to say that even a small risk of climate catastrophe outweighs some minor abatement costs.  But does a small change of manmade warming outweigh a near certainty of enormous economic costs?

I have said for years that to really get to an 80% reduction target, gas prices would have to rise over $20 a gallon  (they are at $10 already in Europe and they are no where near the targets).  Some researchers looked at the gas price implications of more modest CO2 targets:

To meet the Obama administration's targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, some researchers say, Americans may have to experience a sobering reality: gas at $7 a gallon.

To reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the transportation sector 14 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, the cost of driving must simply increase, according to a forthcoming report by researchers at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

And this is with a straight tax, probably the most efficient way to hit the targets.  The study agreed that other intervenist approaches didn't seem to work as well as a straight tax:

In the modeling, it turned out that issuing tax credits could backfire, while taxes on fuel proved beneficial.

Help Me Out, My Organic Chemistry is Rusty...

The Thin Green Line passes on an editorial from today's SF Chronicle:

California should continue to lead the way in the fight against climate change by requiring cleaner-burning fuels in this state.

The state Air Resources Board is scheduled to vote today on whether to force refiners and distributors to reduce the "carbon intensity" of the transportation fuels they sell, starting in 2011. The so-called Low Carbon Fuel Standard represents a critical step toward this state's commitment to reduce overall emissions of heat-trapping gases by a third by 2020.
Passage of a California cleaner-fuels standard would intensify the pressure on Congress to make a national commitment to promote lower-carbon options to gasoline and diesel.

Holy moly, I never thought of this?  It's brilliant!  Let's just legislate that hydrocarbons should have less carbon!  And tell the refiners to figure it out.

In all seriousness, assuming this is not just insane (which may be a poor assumption in CA) I presume they have something in mind here.  Does anyone know what opportunity they see, because I sure don't.  Here is why I am confused:

Basically transportation fuels are made up various hydrocarbon chains.  The shortest is methane, CH4, then C2H6, then C3H8, etc.  As the chains get longer, the molecule gets heavier  (for example, CH4 is a gas at room temperatures; C3H8 is propane, which is a gas but a liquid under pressure in our BBQ tanks; C8H18 is octane and liquid at normal car operating temperatures.)

Motor fuel is a careful blend of many different molecules, and is actually frighteningly complex (the above just discusses straight chain forms, there are also rings and other shaped hydrocarbon molecules).  There are literally hundreds of specs it has to meet, and several present difficult tradeoffs that must be carefully balanced.  Trying to make one spec can easily put one out of another spec.  So this is an optimization equation with a lot of constraints.

All things being equal, decreasing the carbon intensity of fuel basically means making it lighter, with shorter molecules.  Why?  Well, look at the molecular equations.  Basically a straight chain hydrocarbon is C(x)H(2x+2).  Shorter molecules get a higher ratio of their BTU's from combustion of hydrogen vs. larger molecules get a higher ratio of their BTU's from carbon.

So, it is correct that burning propane in a car vs. currently formulated gasoline will be less carbon intensive, with only the teeny tiny problem that most cars today cannot burn propane.  Modern engines are carefully built to run most efficiently (valve design, cylinder pressure and size, air mixtures, fuel injection)  on a certain range of gasoline, and that range is moderately narrow.  And, besides the pure physics of engine design, lightening up motor fuels will create a variety of secondary problems -- for example, lighter fuels tend to have higher vapor pressures and volatility that can cause vapor lock in engines on warm days.  Another way to reduce carbon intensity is to go from ring molecules (e.g. benzine) to straight chains of the same size, but this creates other problems, for example in maintaining octane numbers.

And speaking of unintended consequences, my understanding is that environmentalists like diesel engines, because the best diesel technologies today are far more efficient than gasoline engines.  But diesel is a heavier, more "carbon intensive" fuel than gasoline.  So is the carbon dioxide emissions from a heavier fuel in an engine that is more efficient less or more than a typical gasoline engine?  Who knows, and the answer is probably "it depends" anyway.

Update: I think I have figured it out.  The California legislature is going to mandate changing the size of the 2p valance shell, allowing more hydrogen molecules per given carbon molecule.

Wow, I Was Wrong

Here-to-fore, I had generally accepted the meme that where Wal-mart moves in to small towns, smaller stores tend to fail due to the competition.  Unlike most who spread this meme, however, my response has generally been, "so?"  The number of people shoveling coal into steam boilers has decreased with the rise of diesel locomotives.  The number of people employed physically connecting phone calls with patch cords has fallen with the rise of automatic switching.  Technology and distribution systems change and morph over time. 

But I have to admit I appear to have been wrong -- the meme itself may not be true.  Via Mark Perry, who discusses this study in more depth.

Wm

Blaming A Collective Bargaining Issue on the Oil Companies

Everyone wants to blame their industry's poor economics on banks or the oil companies: (via a reader)

Truckers angry about the high price of fuel staged a rolling protest on
Tuesday, using their big rigs to slow traffic to a crawl on the New
Jersey Turnpike.

The protest was part of a loosely organized
nationwide effort by independent truckers to draw attention to the high
prices they face....

"The gas prices are too high," said one of them, Lamont Newberne, a
34-year-old trucker from Wilmington, N.C. "We don't make enough money
to pay our bills and take care of our family."

Newberne said a
typical run carrying produce from Lakeland, Fla., to the Hunt's Point
Market in The Bronx, N.Y., had cost $600 to $700 a year ago. It now
runs him $1,000...

"The oil company is the boss, what are we going to be able to do about
it?" said Rotenbarger, who was at a truck stop at Baldwin, Fla., about
20 miles west of Jacksonville. "The whole world economy is going to be
controlled by the oil companies. There's nothing we can do about it."

Well, we talked the other day about how oil industry profits, even at this historic high, amount to twenty cents of current gas and diesel prices.  But lets take a more direct comparison.  I looked at Google finance for ExxonMobil and Knight Transportation (a large trucker based here in Phoenix).  If you sum up sales and net income for 2006 and 2007, ExxonMobil earned 10.2% of sales.  During the same period, the trucker earned 9.9% of sales.  This is a statistical dead heat.  So it is kind of hard to say that trucking companies are suffering at the hand of oil companies when they earn the same profit margins.

So what might be the problem?  The article gives a big fat hint that it might not actually be an oil company problem:

Jimmy Lowry, 51, of St. Petersburg, Fla., and others said it costs
about $1 a mile to drive one of the big rigs, although some companies
are offering as little as 87 cents a mile. Diesel cost $4.03 a gallon
at the Jacksonville-area truck stop.

I would certainly be willing to believe that trucking companies are paying independent drivers a price per mile that hasn't kept up with fuel costs.   In particular, it may be that the independent truckers have the same problem that Bear Stearns had, ie their revenues are tied into long term contracts while their costs float short term.  I'd certainly be bargaining for either higher mileage rates or a new rate structure with a fuel surcharge.

An Environmental Plea

If the word "environmentalist" wasn't so corrupted, I would consider myself to be one.  For years, the main charity I have supported with my money and my advocacy has been private land trusts like The Nature Conservancy.  Just because I don't think that governments should quash individual rights to force people not to develop their own land does not mean that I don't think certain pieces of land are worth protecting from development.  But I do it the old-fashioned way -- I and others spend money to buy that land.  Here is more on why I (mostly) like  groups like the Nature Conservancy and here is a post wherein I lament the shift in charity from spending your money to achieve goals to spending money to lobby the government to force other people to achieve your goals.

Of course, my claim to be an environmentalist just because I, you know, spend my money and time on private conservation efforts would be laughed off because I take the wrong stand on certain litmus test environmental issues (e.g. global warming, of course).  In this world, someone who buys a silly and environmentally worthless $19.99 carbon offset has more environmental street-cred than I do.

So I guess it is nice, at least for once, to be in agreement with those "real" environmentalists:

The government's bid to make fuel consumption more environmentally
friendly will involve petrol and diesel being mandatory blended with
2.5pc biofuel from this April and the country's leading supermarket
chain is aiming to use twice this amount at over 300 of its petrol
stations.

But campaigners believe this is not the green alternative people think they are getting.

Jenn
Parkhouse from Norwich Friends of the Earth said: "From April, people
will have no choice but to contribute to the destruction of forests,
the eviction of small farmers and rising food prices which will mean
more hunger.

"More and more people now realise the need for a
strong movement to stop the destruction caused by the biofuel industry
and the legislation which encourages it."

Yeah, this is Going to Work

Via the New York Times:

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao
responded Wednesday to growing public anxiety about inflation by
announcing that China would freeze energy prices in the near term, even
as international crude oil futures have continued to surge....

Last November, China raised gasoline and diesel prices by almost 10
percent, partly to appease officials at state-owned refineries.
Refiners had complained that price controls were forcing them to
swallow the difference between higher prices for crude oil on the world
market and regulated consumer prices at home for refined products. So
refineries cut back production of gasoline and particularly diesel,
causing long lines at fuel stations around the country.

More on past Chinese problems from gas price caps.  Here is a picture of one such past gas line in China. 

China_gas2

    I got my driver's license in 1978, just in time to spend the first few months of my driving life sitting in gas lines with the family car, a result of a series of market distorting actions by the US government.

Meanwhile, I presume the French and Germans will see no problem with this approach:

The Economist says,
of the state of economics education in France and Germany, "I
desperately hope it's not really this bad." Unfortunately, I think it's
really that bad. When the 35 hour work week was proposed, I was talking
to someone in the French consulate who did economics and trade. "Aren't
you worried that this will raise employer's costs and lead to business
failures or higher unemployment?" I asked.

"That's just Anglo-saxon economics" was his rather stunning reply.  Apparently, in France, demand curves do not slope downwards.

Environmentalists and the Third World

While we can argue about the projected impacts of man-made global warming (my skeptics site here), it is almost certain than any solution that puts a real dent in CO2 production will bar from the middle class about a billion people who are just climbing out of subsistence poverty.  TJIC notes a particularly odious proposal by environmental groups to encourage human power over industrialization in the third world:

See, first world Volvo-driving environmentalists!  We can help
the Third World! All we need to do is build them human hamster wheels,
so that they can set their children to work pumping water, instead of
using nasty diesel pumps (like we do here in the First World, while our
children attend soccer practice or piano lessons).

Don't miss the really awful animation from the environmentalist's site.

Great Moments in Labor Relations

My previous post joking about potential union opposition to unmanned military aircraft reminded me of one of my favorite labor relations stories.   Until just the last few years, most railroads continued to pay a "fireman" to ride in the cab of their diesel locomotives, despite the fact that the role of the fireman to shovel coal into a steam boiler was totally obviated fifty years ago by diesel technology.  How this came about is an interesting story.

Railroads were the first heavy or large industry in this country.  For years, if you were to talk about "big business", you were really talking about railroads.  So it is not surprising that when the government succumbed to the pressure of interfering legislatively into the relationship between employer and employee, their first target was the railroad industry.  In a sense, the US has two bodies of labor law.  The first body of law is railroad labor law, and the second is the law that applies to every other industry. 

As much as we can complain about the labor law most of us operate under, it is nothing compared to the hash that the government made of railroad labor law.  From an early stage, details about work days and work rules that would normally be part of a private labor contract between a company and their union or employees were actually embodied in the law.  For example, back in the steam-engine era when trains moved fairly slowly, a full "day" for a train crew was defined by statute as 100 miles (about the distance a steam engine could go without taking on more water).  Once a train crew had traveled that distance, they were owed a days pay.  Other portions of the law gave the unions incredible power, such that the bargaining table at every negotiation with management was always tilted, by statute, in their favor.

Beginning in the late 1930's, but really gaining momentum in the late 1940's, railroads began to replace steam locomotives with diesel engines.  Diesel locomotives were more reliable, easier to maintain, easier to operate (no coal to shovel) and could go much longer distances without service (steam engines stopped frequently for more water).  As this transition occurred, railroad companies very reasonably sought to eliminate the position of "fireman" on diesel trains.  After all, without a boiler and coal to shovel, the fireman role was totally redundant on a diesel engine.  Railroad unions were nothing if not gutsy, and in response they argued that not only would they not accept elimination of the fireman position, but they campaigned for an addition of a second fireman on diesel engines.  Railroads found themselves in the position of actually having to fight a nearly successful effort to increase the number of firemen on crews.  As a result, they ended up accepting the fireman role, and generations of railroad men cruised about the country on engines for the next 40 years, doing virtually nothing for their pay.  Railroads were still fighting to eliminate the fireman in the 1990's.  In some cases, railroads were actually forced to pay "lonesome pay" to some engineers when the firemen were removed from their crew.  LOL.

Other labor statutes and work rules prevented full use of the diesel's capabilities.  For example, the 100 mile rule was now absurd - an inter-modal or other long-distance freight train could cover this in less than two hours.  But US law still insisted that railroad workers be paid a full days pay for 100 miles.  By 1990, after four decades of lobbying and negotiation, the 100 miles had been increased all the way to ... 108 miles.

This article from Regulation is a bit dated, but it still gives a good overview of some of the historical insanities in railroad labor.  An excerpt:

The rail unions deserve the labor equivalent of an Oscar for best sustained performance in reducing industrial efficiency. Restrictive work practices are legendary from firemen on diesel locomotives to train-limit laws. During the 1980s the railroads made minor progress against these practices, but they still have a long way to go. Some crews receive an extra day's pay every time they turn a locomotive around (yard and line haul crews have rigid separations of duties despite identical skills). Carriers are forced to employ three- to five-person crews, while nonunion carriers (Florida East Coast Railway and regional and short-line carriers) use two people. Crew members receive a full day's pay after a train moves 108 miles, even if the trip requires only a few hours. (The current three-member board appointed by Congress may impose a 130-mile rule by 1995.) Some union members have guaranteed lifetime incomes and must only work a few days per month. Some engineers receive "lonesome pay" for giving up the full-time company of a fireman. Until 1987, some Burlington Northern crews received "hazardous pay" for traveling through Indian territory in Montana. Management studies show that work forces could be cut in half, and according to some estimates, labor restrictions cost the industry some $4 billion a year. Despite union concessions on work rules, shippers continue to complain about the carriers' inability to achieve efficient and economical labor contracts. Overall, the RLA and its government-backed unions combine to double labor costs and therefore drive up freight rates from 20 to 25 percent, a very serious handicap in the competition with trucks and barges.

One railroad stood up to the union, and eventually won, but had to withstand a violent 11-year strike, all the while the taking continuous grief in the union-friendly press:

The Florida East Coast Railways, a line long known as "America's most efficient railroad," highlights the woeful labor inefficiencies of the major carriers. Its primary operation is transporting freight from Jacksonville to Miami. When Edward Ball took over the operation in 1961, the unions required the use of three five-man crews-each receiving a day's pay for each 100 miles traveled on the 366-mile trip. Ball failed to see the sense of this scheme and decided to try th change it. Union officials could not see the sense in any change and called a strike in 1963. The violence and vandalism that continued for eleven years demonstrated to other carriers the cost of defying the unions. The railway won, however. The company used two-man crews who were "cross-trained" and paid them a day's pay for eight hours' work rather than for 100 miles traveled. During the 1970s, the railroad's labor costs were 40 percent of total costs compared with 64 percent for all class I railroads, and Florida East Coast Railway earned the highest return of any class I railroad. In addition, the railway consistently won safety awards that fended off another pretext for government control and continues to retain customers while other railroads lose out to trucks.

Read the whole article.  If you have ever read Atlas Shrugged, you will find that a lot of the outrageous legislation in that story that seemed too stupid to be true actually have a basis in the history of US railroad law.  Even the "railroad unification act" that seems totally over-the-top toward the end of the book is based on actual railroad law after WWI:

The Transportation Act of 1920 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission complete control over pricing, issuance of securities, expenditure of proceeds, consolidations, and the construction, use, and abandonment of facilities. The act set up a Railway Labor Board to mediate disputes. Its "recapture" provision required a portion of a company's earnings in excess of an allowable "fair return" to be diverted to railroads with relatively low earnings. Except for the most routine administration, almost everything owners might do was subject to federal regulation or dictation.

More on the transition of steam to diesel here.  I am not very well versed on the subject, but apparently this specialized railroad labor law was later applied to airline pilots, with predictable results.  It is interesting that the two industries covered by the RLA (railroads and airlines) have both seen every major carrier in their industry bankrupted over the last 50 years.

Update:  I have been a fan of railroads for years.  One of my frustrations with my current house is a don't have room for a model railroad layout.  I had one back in St. Louis, where I had a basement, but there are not very many basements in Phoenix.  Here are some photos of that old layout, which was still under construction when I had to tear it down and move.

Rule of the Courts

This post in The Commons raises an issue that has concerned me for years.  Increasingly, activists are using the courts to achieve regulatory goals that legislatures and/or voters have rejected.  While I am still not sure there is constitutional justification for the degree of legislated regulation that exists in this country, there certainly is no basis for individual courts running whole industries (e.g. telecom, tobacco). 

State attorneys general and private plaintiffs lawyers are increasingly turning to the nation's courts to adopt regulatory measures that legislatures reject. Such "regulation by litigation" has been used against numerous unpopular industries in suits by government and private attorneys. The first set of cases sought to regulate and extract rents from the tobacco companies, but subsequent cases have been brought by both private lawyers and government agencies against gun makers, lead-paint producers, coal-burning utilities, diesel engine manufacturers, and many other industries. In each case, the aim is to extract rents and impose regulatory controls that could not be adopted through the legislative or administrative process.

Read the whole thing.