Bringing Siemens back to life?

The Economist has an interesting story on the re-inventionof engineering firm Siemens. One of the issues that has plagued the company (in addition to dishonest practices) concerned the company’s identity crisis. Was it going to be a consumer electronics company, or was it going to the route of a heavy industry?

The decision, under new leadership, is good news for advocates of high-speed rail and new wind energy:

The main purpose of all this has been to build Siemens’s presence in technically advanced infrastructure such as energy and transport, where the barriers to entry are high, or in areas such as health care and energy controls for buildings, where the company can bundle products and services together. This may sound like the tired and unconvincing justifications that conglomerates, including Siemens, have long trotted out for why they have disparate businesses. Yet Siemens does seem to be winning business with bundled offers. It can, for example, audit a company’s energy use and suggest improvements that will then pay for themselves out of savings. Many rivals already do this. But few offer to finance the capital spending and guarantee the energy savings, as Siemens does.

link: Siemens: A giant awakens | The Economist

The rolling stock for HSR or for electric freight engines don’t come from local, organic coops.

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The Impact Project’s Moving Forward Together Conference

When: October 22-23, 2010
Where: Carson Community Center, 801 E. Carson Street Carson, CA 90745

This is a national conference promoted by The Impact Project looking at how to improve the environmental health of whole freight process. Every year, they have some very good speakers, and you find out what is going on with the environmental impacts of freight.

Here’s a look at the Impact Project’s mission. You can cruise around the website and see some of the organization’s accomplishments as well!

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New METRANS Transcast with Dr. Eddy Van de Voorde now available

The following is a link to the METRANS website METRANS TransCast: Eddy Van de Voorde

where we have just posted our newest TransCast featuring Dr. Eddy Van de Voorde, University of Antwerp. In this TransCast, Host Mat Kaplan interviewed Dr. Van de Voorde during the METRANS National Urban Freight Conference in late October discussing transportation issues from an international perspective. Dr. Van de Voorde was the keynote speaker at the conference.

Eddy Van de Voorde teaches at the University of Antwerp (Faculty of Applied Economics). His work deals with Maritime Economics, Port Economics and Air Transport Economics. He is responsible for several new research projects, financed by a number of Belgian and international government institutions and private companies. Extensive research in the field of modeling in the sector of freight transport has resulted in a large number of international transport journals such as Maritime Policy and Management and Transportation Research E. He also is a Visiting Professor at several Belgian and foreign universities. In July 1998, he acted as Vice-President of the 8th World Conference on Transport Research (8th WCTR). In the period 1995-2001, he was Vice-Chairman of the international scientific committee of the WCTRS. Next to this, he acted as Vice-Chairman of the International Association of Maritime Economists (IAME) and Chairman of the Benelux Interuniversity Group of Transport Economists (BIVEC/GIBET).

Christmas Layoffs for Truckers in Houston

From ABC News:

Even though their last checks bounced, former employees consider themselves lucky because they were at least home in Houston when everything collapsed. Hundreds of other drivers are stranded at truck stops across the country.

See the full story here, along with the accompanying video.

I want to say that this is a just a fluke, but trucking and freight stats are indicators of economic health, too, along with housing. This is bad news, and not just for the people directly affected.

TransCast with Michael Onder

From Metrans, a USC research center, comes a new podcast on transportation:

Mike Onder is the team leader for truck size and weight and freight operations and technology in the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Freight Management and Operations. He has the responsibility for facilitating partnerships with the freight industry and government to collaborate on problems of mutual concern that may be overcome by technology innovation. Mike has served in several capacities with FHWA over the past 15 years, primarily focused on commercial vehicle operations and intermodal freight. He also served in executive and legislative capacities with the State of Florida, and also with the transportation industry in both managerial and technical capacities. Mike is a graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor’s degree in political science and economics, and a master’s degree in Business and Public Administration.

Truck Idling and Particulates

When I gave my job talk at USC, I discussed some of my research on how to get truckers to to shut off their engines. My colleagues have since told me they thought this was a dog of topic–it wasn’t a “big enough question”– but I made it entertaining so they hired me anyway based on the strength of my other work.

Well, it’s not a dog of a topic. Getting truckers and rail companies to shut off would alleviate PM2.5 hotspots in many locations, including parts of rust belt Pennsylvania. My friend Sacha sent this to me, as she found it at the American Academy of Sciences:

It was very much like Sacha to send me this little reminder that my work, though often treated like it’s uninteresting because it doesn’t have sexy, newspaper-ready sound bites, attempts to demonstrate how important seemingly small changes can be in the real-life environments that poor people occupy. Since my job talk, I’ve been somewhat embarrassed by the research on truck idling that we did–I’ve made excuses, etc–but forget that. I was right and the naysayers were wrong, and this work deserves more respect than it got.

Schweitzer, L., Brodrick, C-J, , and S. Spivey. 2008. “Truck Driver Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors: An Exploratory Analysis.”  Transportation Research Part D. 13 (3): 141-150.

Warren Buffett and trains

Berkshire Hathaway, Inc–Warren Buffett’s investment machine–recently announced plans to buy out Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp for $26 billion. The web has been in a flurry: clearly this means that a) the economy is getting better and/or b) railroads are the future.

Buffett is fanning the speculation with his comments:

“It’s an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States,” Buffett, who has been building up his rail holdings for several years, said in a statement. “I love these bets.”

Maybe this is just sour grapes, but I lost my shirt betting on Burlington Northern during the early 1990s; I’m less sanguine. While timing is important in markets, nothing about the existing economy suggests to me that Buffett is going to get back the 31.5 percent over closing that he spent to get it, and while rail freight operations are better than they were, they still aren’t great, and there are infrastructure bottlenecks that keep the US companies from growing anymore. Burlington Northern already does a lot of trailer on flatcar (TOFC) shipping, and while it may be possible to capture more of that comparatively profitable market, one of the key questions will be how much more.

Matt Kahn suggests that Buffett is betting not on railroads but on higher energy pricing through carbon taxes. One of the commenters notes that the coal-rail connection will look a lot different with carbon taxes than the rail looks alone. This point is also made by John Kemp at Reuters: the marginal boost to rail freight could be easily offset by a marginal hit down on coal. Does anybody besides me wonder how big a carbon tax would have to be in order to prompt major shifts? I’m thinking big-ish.

In the end, I rather agree with Andrew Leonard at Salon Buffett likes to play with trains. I think it’s rather more than that. I suspect that Buffett understands and takes seriously his role as a financial thought leader. He is almost 80 years old (good for him). He wants to use his position as a thought leader to inspire hope, as he knows that perceptions matter more than reality in many aspects of investments and markets, and so he is throwing his weight and resources behind what he thinks are meritorious businesses: land in a dying Midwest city, freight associated with a lower carbon footprint industry that has struggled to turn a consistent yield, etc. on the hope that a turnaround will make these undervalued assets more productive again.

Freight and Livability, reflections

Last week I participated in roundtable specifically requested by the Federal Highway Administration on freight and livability. “Livable communities” of one of the themes that has been intended to unify Federal programs into–whether intended or not–a cohesive set of ideas about urban policy. Not unlike many terms that describe the city, livability can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but when asked to give a definition, I argued essentially that livability means “a nice place to live.” In the big scheme of things, that is not really asking all that much of urban planning. After all, planners should be in the business of developing nice places.

The question they asked: are freight and livability mutually exclusive. Everybody else pretty much said “no”; I said “yes, pretty much.” The other folks on the panel are air quality people; it seems pretty clear that we have to, and we will, begin to clean up freight fuels to the point where, at least, we won’t making people sick. However, there is a significant nuisance aspect to freight shipping, and that’s where I rather held out. We would need a radical reshaping of the forms and structure of the freight industry to get rid of that nuisance factor, and nothing about the existing trajectory of the industry suggests this is going to happen. Current factors emphasize economies of scale rather than diversity of scope or small-scale distribution.

Freight rail destruction of wildlife and ill-advised political metaphors

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said with regard to health care reform that he’s “the cow on the tracks. You’re gonna have to stop that train to get this cow off the track to move forward.”

Um, yeah. That sometimes happens if you see the cow on the tracks with enough time to stop the train. Otherwise, these types of collisions are always rather one-sided, and not generally in favor of the cow.

See that V-shaped object on the front of this engine? This photo is a rather pronounced version of the object–called, in fact, a cow-catcher–which go on the front of engines specifically to deflect objects to one side or another of the track.

Freight rail destruction of wildlife is a serious issue, just like highway destruction of wildlife. This summary and bibliography give a nice introduction to the problem.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice

Several of my favorite Facebook Peeps posted links to this LA Times Story about East Yard Communities–the organization that inspired me to write my dissertation.

I always wonder about this with folks who advocate for shifting more freight to railroads as a means of improving the environment. First, rail freight generally has such a cost advantage if that if you can ship by rail, you already do. And second, it’s not like there aren’t emissions from rail freight. With the much cleaner diesel fuel standards, both trucks and trains should be better. But still.

A Link to East Yard Communities Website