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Out-of-the-Box Ideas for High Speed Rail

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High Speed Rail, which generally means trains running faster than 110 MPH, is hot again these days.  There's money in the economic stimulus package, the beginnings of a plan in California, and just this week, a five-part series on National Public Radio.

I am a big fan of the idea. Personally, I would love to be able to hop on a train in Minneapolis and be in Chicago three hours later without the hassle of airports.  Or, even better, an overnight sleeper to San Francisco (currently a two-day trip by rail). For me, this would be a service worth paying a premium over an airline ticket, given how miserable air travel is these days.

But....the cost of actually building and operating a single high speed rail line will be substantial; and the cost of building a national network of superfast trains will be astronomical--though no more astronomical than the cost of other national infrastructure like the interstate highway system, power grid, or airspace system.

Fans of fast trains hope that once one regional network is built, the benefits will be so obvious that other regions will demand their own networks, eventually creating a national system.  Opponents charge (probably correctly) that high speed passenger rail service will inevitably operate at a loss and require government subsidies (though the highway and airspace systems also require considerable government care and feeding).

Public Rails and Private Trains

Government is good at building gigantic infrastructure projects, but not at figuring out how to make the most efficient use of the infrastructure once built.  Competitive markets, on the other hand, are great at figuring out what customers want, but no private enterprise could possibly afford to build a high speed rail network--and forget about the idea of two competing sets of tracks.

My idea is to have government build and maintain the high speed rail lines, but private companies own and operate the trains.  Any company which could meet appropriate technical requirements would be allowed to operate high speed trains and pay a fee for the privilege.

This is similar to the way the highways and airspace systems work today, where government builds and maintains the infrastructure but private companies set schedules, pricing, and routes.  It's almost the exact opposite of how Amtrak currently works, since Amtrak has a quasi-governmental monopoly on interstate passenger rail, but has to negotiate with private companies to use most of the tracks its trains run on.

There would be technical issues to work out--for example, traffic control, and how to allocate the most desirable time slots on heavily-traveled routes.  But we have decades of experience solving similar problems in the national airspace system.

In exchange for solving these (minor) issues, a high-speed rail system would gain several advantages:

  1. Taxpayers would not have to pay for the trains, just the tracks.  This might not sound like big savings, but over the lifetime of the system it's substantial.
  2. The government would be out of the business of setting fares and routes, and the free market can figure out how to deliver service at the lowest price.
  3. Riders would have the choice of several different services--for example, a cheap train with lots of stops and crowded cars, or a more expensive and comfortable train.
  4. This would create space for innovative new services--for example, same-day freight service--which a government-run system would never attempt.
  5. With competing services and innovation, the odds are much greater that the high speed line would be used at maximum capacity, increasing the economic benefit and the system's ability to pay for itself.

Personally, I've never understood why railroads have to own and maintain their own tracks.  The public-private hybrid we use for other transportation modes seems to work much better, and were it not for the historical accident of how the railroads were built in the first place 150 years ago, I don't see why anyone would follow that model today.

Wasps' Nest

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Scooter, my oldest son, is the kind of person who just has to know what will happen when he throws a rock at a wasps' nest.

Then, he needs to repeat the experiment to make sure the same thing happens each time.

August is the time of year when the wasps' nests get to be about football size and utterly irresistible as a target for small thrown objects.  Last summer, there was one in the crabapple tree in the front yard, about six feet off the ground.  Scooter got stung a couple of times, and his face swelled up for days after.  Nevertheless, the next day he was at it again, chucking rocks and sticks despite the painful lesson of the day before.

The wasps are generally beneficial since they eat all kinds of damaging bugs and caterpillars, so I prefer a "live and let live" strategy when dealing with them.  When they get too close to where the kids are playing, however, something has to give.  Once discovered, the kids can't be trusted to leave the nest alone, and I don't want to have them scared to play in our own yard.

Last summer, we were fortunate to have a run of cool weather, so I was able to cut down the nest on a 50-degree morning (they have trouble flying when it gets that cool).  Within hours, some other critter had discovered the tasty morsels inside and ripped the nest apart to eat the wasps and their larvae.

This year, the kids discovered a nest in a tree near their new tree-fort.  It's not clear whether Scooter intentionally threw stuff at it, or just happened to hit the nest when chucking things at his brother, but either way the wasps got good and angry.  Scooter go stung about a half-dozen times during his mad dash to the house, while one of his brothers was smart enough to retreat before being stung at all.

The other twin, however, was in the treehouse and got pinned down by angry wasps.  The poor kid was stuck for several minutes while the insects repeatedly stung him.  I tried to get to him to help, but inadvertently walked right under the nest and got chased away when I got stung 8-10 times in just a few seconds.  I also lost my glasses in the yard and have yet to find them.

My son did manage to climb safely down and run to the house, leaving his shoes behind. For several hours, wasps were seen harassing the abandoned shoes, apparently thinking that they represented a continued threat. Needless to say, this nest cannot remain.

This nest is much higher up than the one from last summer, and the weather looks unlikely to get down to 50 for several weeks.  So this evening I plan to empty a can of insecticide into the nest and once again remind all three kids that when you see a wasps' nest, leave it alone.

A Year of Recumbent Triking

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I've been riding my recumbent trike (aka The Dorkmobile) for a little over a year and 1,500 miles now, and even convinced my brother to buy one.

Lately I've noticed more and more recumbents, including trikes, on the roads and trails. So in case you're thinking of riding one, here are some of my experiences so far.

General Impressions

Riding a recumbent trike is surprisingly different from a traditional bike, and takes some getting used to. You are low to the ground, don't lean into turns the same way, and use different muscles to pedal.

I like to describe it as pedaling a lawn chair, though the sensation of motion is more like a go-cart than anything else. If you're transitioning from a traditional bike, expect it to feel weird for the first hundred miles or so. You will have to learn to brake evenly with both hands (to avoid brake steer), and going really fast (30+MPH) feels unstable at first even though it isn't.

Pros

The biggest advantage of the trike is comfort. I can ride all day with no ill effects other than a little muscle soreness; on a traditional bike, my shoulders, wrists, and butt would be killing me after just a few miles.

I also find the trike a lot more fun than a regular bike. The low-to-the-ground position gives a great impression of speed, and the machine is unusual enough to get regular comments (and compliments) on the trail.

Between the comfort and the fun, I find that I'm riding a lot more on the trike than I ever rode my bike. I never tracked my bike riding very closely, but the 1,500 trike miles in the past year is probably close to my entire lifetime bike miles.

Cons

I didn't appreciate this until after a thousand miles or so, but adding a third wheel at least doubles the mechanical complexity of a trike over a traditional bike. Two front wheels means that steering is accomplished through a bunch of mechanical linkages; and the very long chainline means extra gears and the opportunity for the chain to oscillate wildly if it isn't tensioned properly.

The trike also has a much bigger footprint than a bike, which makes it harder to store and transport.  There are few trike racks made for cars, so I've usually wound up strapping it to the roof (which works really well as long as you only need to carry one trike).  It takes up the space of two or three bicycles in the garage.

The third wheel also adds some drag, so the trike will not be quite as fast as a bicycle.  If you care about speed, this is probably not for you.

Safety

A trike has many of the same safety considerations as a bicycle, but also some differences. Just as with a bike, when riding on roads visibility to cars is a really big deal. Big flags and lots of flashing lights are a good idea.  I have a flashing light mounted on my flag pole, which puts it near eye level for drivers.  I've not had much difficult being seen.

Another issue is that with the low posture of a trike, sometimes seeing around cars is a problem--for example, when I'm stopped at an intersection and a car pulls up next to me a little too far.  On a traditional bike, I would be able to see over the car's hood, but on my trike my eye level is about at the top of the car's wheel.  This isn't normally a safety issue, since the car usually knows I'm there, but it is annoying because I can't go until the car stop blocking my view.

The trike does have a huge safety advantage when it comes to stability.  Three wheels and a low center of gravity means that a trike is very hard to flip, whereas a bike can wipeout on even a small patch of slippery or loose ground.  If you do flip, there isn't very far to fall.  I've flipped my trike twice, and both were essentially non-events: get up, brush myself off, and continue.

(In case you're wondering, the recipe for flipping a trike is to turn from a road onto a sidewalk carelessly.  If you take the turn too fast and cut the inside of the corner, the inside front wheel will bump up on the curb and your momentum will flip you right onto your side.)

Conclusion

A recumbent trike is not for everyone.  It is more expensive and someone more maintenance-prone, and also a little slower than a bike.

But for me, it has been worth it.  I ride a lot more often, and a lot further, than I ever did on a bike, just because it is so much fun.  If you're thinking about a trike, I suggest that you give it a good long test ride.  If you're grinning so much that you have to pick the bugs out of your teeth afterwards, then there's your answer.

500 Miles

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I crossed 500 miles under pedal power in 2009 not long ago, as well as logging a week over 100 miles.  That's a nice milestone on the way to my goal for the year of 2,000 miles, but I'm starting to think that might be a bit out of reach.

Last year I logged about 900 miles but that was a partial season since I didn't get the trike until mid-June.  I figured that with diligence, I should be able to double that number for 2009 (hence the 2,000 mile goal), but I didn't consider the cumulative effects of vacations, wacky summer schedules, and some downtime for mechanical problems.

Sadly, the weather this week is supposed to be absolutely perfect for trike-riding, but the kids' summer schedules are probably going to limit the number of days I can actually ride to work.  We're in the crazy part of the summer now, when all three kids have one summer program or another and we have to drive them all over creation every day.

Our Geothermal Adventure (Chapter 3)

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Our new geothermal heat pump system is installed and operational (you can read about our initial research, and the decision to go ahead). All that remains at this point is to clean up the mess.

We have replaced our traditional furnaces, air conditioners, and water heater with a new system consisting of two geothermal heat pumps, a backup gas-fired furnace, a hot water storage tank, and a gas-fired on-demand hot water heater. The geothermal heat pumps both heat and cool the house using the soil under our yard as a gigantic heat sink (which is several times as efficient as a traditional furnace or air conditioner), and use waste heat to heat the water in the hot water storage tank. The on-demand hot water heater kicks in if the water in the tank isn't hot enough, and the gas-fired backup furnace is used on really cold days or when the power company turns off the heat pumps to manage the power grid in the winter.

First, a Rude Surprise

Recall that there are three financial incentives for installing this system:

  • A $150/ton rebate from our electric company, Xcel energy, for new geothermal systems
  • A "dual-fuel" electric rate which gives us cheaper electricity for the geothermal system if we have a gas backup and let the power company shut off the geothermal to manage the power grid, and
  • A 30% federal tax credit

Of these, the $150/ton geothermal rebate from Xcel is relatively small (heat pump capacity, like air conditioner capacity, is measured in "tons." Our system is six tons total).  The dual-fuel rate is the one which really makes the system work financially, since that makes the geothermal significantly cheaper to operate than natural gas, even in years when natural gas is cheap.

We calculated that, given the cost of replacing our old furnaces (which had to be done anyway) and taking advantage of all the financial incentives, the geothermal system would pay for itself in about nine years.  That's not bad, considering that the heat pumps have a ten-year warranty and the loop field (the underground heat exchange wells which account for about half the project cost) should last pretty much forever.

Shortly after we committed to the project and paid for 50% of the system up front, we heard from our tax advisors that we might not actually be able to take advantage of the full geothermal tax credit. The problem is that the tax credit is nonrefundable, meaning that if it reduces your tax liability below zero then you don't get the difference back.  At the time we were planning the system, it was still unclear if the credit would be refundable or not; and now that it's not, we don't know if we will have enough tax liability in 2009 to get the full value of the incentive.

We re-ran the numbers without the federal tax credit, and it turns out that without it the system will pay for itself in 18 years instead of nine.  That's not great, but it's not terrible either, especially considering the nonfinancial benefits (helping the environment, etc.).

The System

The system we had installed is one of the more complicated (and therefore more expensive) residential geothermal systems out there.  We had to work around two major limitations in our home: an addition with a completely separate furnace and air conditioner (and no practical way to tie the ductwork together into a single system), and a relatively cramped utility room. Our system consists of:

  1. The geothermal loop field, which is six parallel wells drilled to a depth of 180 feet in the front yard, each with a loop of pipe filled with antifreeze solution.  A buried manifold connects the six loops to a pair of pipes which go underneath the garage into the utility room.
  2. A 2-ton heat pump for the addition, which uses antifreeze pumped through the loop field as a heat source or sink and an air conditioning-style compressor to heat or cool air. Some waste heat is pumped into the hot water storage tank through a pair of water pipes.
  3. A 4-ton heat pump for the main house, which pumps its refrigerant through a heat exchanger in the gas backup furnace to heat or cool the house. It also pumps waste heat into the hot water storage tank.
  4. A gas backup furnace, which also serves as the forced air blower for the main part of the house.
  5. A hot water storage tank, which is warmed up to about 110 degrees when the heat pumps are running (and stays cold when they're not).
  6. An on-demand hot water heater, which runs when the hot water in the storage tank isn't hot enough.
  7. A motley assortment of pipes, pumps, wires, fuseboxes, relays, etc.

Together, all this gear replaces everything which had been in our mechanical room except the water softener.  It looks like the inside of Captain Nemo's submarine.

The Installation

The project took about two weeks to complete, though 90% of the work was finished in the first week.  Drilling the loop field and replacing our old mechanical systems happened in parallel, with our new hot water heater and gas backup furnace operational after the first full day of work.  This meant that we wouldn't have to be without heat or hot water, though fortunately the weather has been nice enough that the heat hasn't been necessary.

In order to be fully operational, after the equipment was in place and the loop field completed, the loop field had to be connected to the heat pumps and filled (it took about 125 gallons of an antifreeze mixture.  I'm told this fluid should never have to be replaced, unless the system has to be drained for some reason).  Then we had to wait for Xcel Energy to install a second electric meter, since the "dual fuel" rate requires that the geothermal system be separately metered from the rest of the house.

Once all that was done, we ran into a series of minor problems: the wrong part for a control relay, a burned out switch, and finally, after everything was running properly, the technicians accidentally left one of the heat pumps in a test mode, requiring another visit to reset it for normal functioning.

All told, the installation went about as well as can be expected for a project of this magnitude.

Living with Geothermal

The weather has been very pleasant lately, and we haven't used our new system much yet. It was a little cool the first evening the geothermal was on, so we ran it for a few hours to take the chill off.

Some things take getting used to in transitioning from traditional heat and air conditioning to geothermal. The biggest change is that unlike a gas furnace, which normally cycles on and off, a geothermal system is most efficient when it operates continuously in its lowest stage.

That means that it no longer makes sense to turn the heat down at night and when we're not at home during the day.  We had saved a significant amount on our heating bill by turning the heat way down at night, but now that strategy will actually cost us money by forcing the geothermal system to run in a less efficient mode to catch up--or worse, the system might switch to the gas backup furnace, negating the efficiency of geothermal entirely.

Getting the most out of geothermal will mean making only very gradual changes to the temperature in the house.  The name of the game is to try to keep it running in the lowest stage possible, and avoid running the gas backup at all.  We'll have to experiment with it when we get into the next heating season to see what works, but I'm guessing that we can turn down the heat modestly during the work week, as long as we are careful to raise it only gradually on the weekend.  The wood stove will be helpful, since it will give us a way to add more heating capacity without losing the benefit of the geothermal.

Vacuum Extraction Coffee Maker

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Our trusty Braun coffee maker (a wedding present from almost 16 years ago) recently died. I wanted to replace it with something which wouldn't die on us after a year or two, so the cheap $20 Mr. Coffee from Target was out.

I've heard people rave about vacuum extraction coffee makers, so I decided to investigate....and bit. For $75 (including shipping from Amazon), I picked up a Bodum Santos 34-ounce vacuum extraction coffee maker.

This is an entirely different way of making coffee from the usual automatic drip.  There are two chambers, a lower one which you fill with water, and an upper one filled with coffee grounds.  You boil the water in the lower chamber, which forces it up through a tube into the upper chamber where the hot water and grounds mix.  Then you remove it from the heat, and as the steam in the lower chamber cools it sucks the coffee back into the lower chamber through a filter.

As soon as I got the box this afternoon, I brewed a pot of decaf (it being past my usual hour for stimulants).  Following the advice of many people online, I preheated the water in the microwave to save time on the stove (a good idea).  And by golly, even though I don't consider myself a coffee geek, I really can taste the difference from our old drip coffee maker.  It has a much stronger coffee flavor with less bitterness.

Plus, it's fun to watch.

So the scorecard for the vacuum extraction coffee maker is:

Advantages:

  • Fun to watch
  • Simple: nothing electrical and no moving parts
  • No replaceable filters, and easy to clean
  • Brews a fine cuppa joe

Disadvantages:

  • Fussier than a drip coffee maker
  • More expensive than Mr. Coffee (though not more expensive than a high-quality coffee maker).
  • Makes a smaller pot than a large coffee maker

Optimistic Sign #10: Sold!

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The cul-de-sac we live on has about a dozen homes, and it's an amazingly stable neighborhood. More that half the homes have been owned by the same people for ten years or longer.  Two or three of the houses are still in the hands of the original owners (most of the houses having been built about 25 years ago).

For the past two years, there has been at least one house for sale at all times, and for several months during 2008 there were three houses on the market at the same time. It used to be something of a rarity to have even one house on the market, and the last time there were two for sale at once was 12 years ago, when we bought ours.

This weekend, the last house on our block sold. For the first time in a couple years, there are no houses for sale on our block.

Optimistic Sign #9: Sunday Paper

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Today's Sunday paper was the thickest I can recall since Thanksgiving.  Since most of the heft of the Sunday paper is advertising supplements and circulars, this is a strong indication that advertisers are coming back.

Target took out a huge full-color spread in the middle of the A-section, at least four full pages and maybe more.

This is an especially good sign given how hard newspapers have been hit in this downturn.  If advertising dollars are truly up, it comes not a moment too soon for them.

Optimistic Sign #8: Traffic

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I've noticed in the past few weeks that morning rush hour traffic has been getting worse.

Now, my commute is not very long (less than ten miles), and the traffic on the particular highways I drive has never been that bad to begin with.  If traffic jams really are getting worse generally (and not just for me), then this is a sign of an improving economy.  More traffic at rush hour means more people going to jobs, which means more people employed.

10%

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Today I reached 200 miles on my trike for 2009.  The goal is 2,000 miles for the year, so I'm 10% of the way there.

2,000 miles will be a push, so making this milestone by the end of April is a good start.