The movement of people away from rural areas and into the cities has meant that food has to travel longer distances between the people who grow it and the people who eat it. The evolution from lots of small manufacturing companies to only a few mega-companies (in each industry) has caused a similar increase in distance as between where products are manufactured and where they are sold/consumed/used.
We can no longer obtain everything we need in our lives, ourselves, by walking or driving to the actual sources of the things we need and buying them directly. We are reliant on other people, sometimes far away, transporting them to retail outlets conveniently close to us, and if those people stopped transporting the things we need, we’d not be able to go get them ourselves any more, because the distances are way too great.
Our ‘advanced’ economy also means that, in general, we are using more and more manufactured or processed or complicated things in our lives, rather than living primarily off items and objects produced locally. Even if we could buy something we need locally, the chances are that the person who makes the thing we need is, himself, dependent on some raw material or essential ingredient that comes from far away.
We all sort of know this instinctively, but have you ever worked out what it actually means. Here’s an interesting report about the nation’s rail system, and in particular, the table on page 6 is astonishing. Without considering the distance the freight has to be moved, if you divide the total freight moved around the nation each year by the country’s population, for the last twenty years the answer has been a fairly consistent figure of 40 tons of freight is transported, each year, for each person living in the US.
This figure includes all sorts of things that we probably don’t even think about – the movement of fuel to power stations to create the electricity we use, for example, and not just stuff that needs to be moved to us for our consumption, but also the movement of stuff made by us, which is necessary for us to remain in employment. It includes the domestic portion of goods being exported and also the domestic portion of goods being imported.
Our point is simply this. Think about the magnitude of 40 tons of goods per person per year. That’s almost a ton per week. It is 220 lbs of materials of all different sorts, sizes and shapes, moved every day of the year, for each person in the country. Some items are moved short distances only, others are moved from one side of the country to the other.
Now ask yourself – what would happen if something interfered with our nation’s transportation system, making it difficult for all this material to be efficiently moved every day (34.2 million tons every day)? The answer, while unclear, is certainly not a positive one.
Now ask yourself the next question – is our nation’s transportation system a robust and secure system that can withstand occasional outages and service losses, or is it precariously balanced and vulnerable?
There are essentially five forms of freight hauling in the US. Rail moves 39.5% of the total ton miles, followed by trucking (28.6%), pipelines (19.6%) and water (12.0%). Air carries a mere 0.3% of total ton miles.
So air freight is an insignificant source of freight movements to start with. Water freight is not something that can be appreciably grown – the few navigable rivers suitable for commercial barge freight are already being used for those purposes, and due to the slow speed of water traffic, it can only be used for some types of freight.
Pipelines show a surprisingly large percentage of total freight moved, but they are clearly only suited for some sorts of products – ie liquids and gases. Pipelines are used to move bulk supplies of oil and gas around the country, but aren’t practical for just about anything else.
This leaves us with rail and trucking for just about everything else. To a certain extent, it is fair to say that if there’s a reasonable sealed road, you can operate a truck on it, at least short-term (assuming there are no height, width, or loading restrictions). In theory, the same is true of rail freight – if there’s a rail line, you can operate trains on it.
But let’s think some more about rail, which carries 39.5% of all freight (compared to trucking, which carries much less – 28.6%). Rail is clearly a critical part of our freight system, and its importance is growing. After decades of decline , about fifteen years ago rail freight experienced a turnaround, and has been steadily growing its share of long haul freight subsequently, in particular because it is such a cost-effective means of transportation.
First, a freight railroad needs high quality track for the very heavy trains to move over. You can’t resurrect a stretch of abandoned rusting track, unevenly now misaligned, and with rotten cross-ties, and start operating freight trains over it immediately. You’d probably need to upgrade the rail to a heavier type of rail, you’d need to redo the track ballast (and possibly even the underlying track bed) and the ties, and the signaling too, before you could start running trains. There’s nothing impossible about doing that, but it for sure would take time.
Our nation does not have many railroads these days. While there are about 140,000 miles of railroad track in total, much of this is on spurs, and there is not the same level of interconnected redundancy that there is with surface roads (of which there are 2.7 million miles of paved road plus plenty more unsealed road).
Have a look at this map (which only shows the major lines rather than minor spurs) then look at your state and count the number of ways trains can enter/exit your state. If you live in WA, you have five paths, if you live in ID, you have six (or less – problems at key points inside the state could eliminate multiple paths in and out), if you are in MT, you have nine (or less), and so on.
The relatively small number of main railroads is exacerbated by ‘choke points’ on their routes – either tunnels or bridges. In both cases, the loss of a tunnel or bridge would close a rail route for potentially many months or even years.
Okay, so maybe if a group of terrorists worked really hard, they could destroy 100 or 200 key bridges and tunnels that would bring the nation’s long distance rail traffic to almost a complete halt. You can understand that, and you will probably also discount the likelihood of that occurring.
But there’s another entire level of vulnerability that you’re probably not even thinking of. One of the big differences between rail and road traffic is that whereas road traffic is ‘self guided’, rail traffic has to be guided all the way. The drivers of cars and trucks always know which side of the road to drive on, and rely on maps, GPS, and road signs to know where to turn to get to their destination.
Not so for rail. Each train relies on a network of signals to tell it when it is safe to proceed or when it must stop and wait (even though the train’s driver might not know the reason for the delay or the rationale behind the ‘all clear/proceed’ signal), and every train relies on each switch that it crosses being set correctly, so that it is always switched onto the right track.
Signaling is an essential part of the safe and efficient operation of a rail system. Most accidents (and nearly all of the preventable ones) that occur on a rail network are based on signaling failures.
Guess what. Much/most of this control is managed by automated systems and computers these days. If the computerized controllers were infected with a malicious bug, they might start switching east-bound trains onto tracks currently being used by west-bound trains, creating massive head-on collisions. If the two oncoming trains were also controlled and timed so that the collisions would occur in cities, and if one train had inflammable or explosive materials, and the other train poisonous materials, the effects could be catastrophic.
In addition to setting switches incorrectly, a computer attack on railroad controllers could also misreport their status to the humans who do keep an overall supervisory level of control over their railroads. They might think that a switch was set to ‘straight ahead’ whereas in reality the switch was set to ‘divert’. Or maybe a switch could wait until one second before the train arrived at it to then switch over, at which point it would be too late for any override or other human response.
Of course, a switch that flicked over halfway through a train passing over it would simply derail the train and block the track for however long it takes to clear it. It doesn’t necessarily take a railroad long to respond to and clear a single incident, but what if every train get derailed – how long to solve all those problems?
More benignly, the control systems could simply set all signals at stop. The rail system would be paralyzed, and a return to manual control would massively reduce the volume of freight which could be transported. Much of our rail system is single track – one track is shared alternately by trains traveling in opposite directions, a situation which requires careful sequencing and control.
Our point is this – there are some single points of vulnerability and failure that could essentially zero out our rail system if they were to fail. And it isn’t just us hypothesizing about this – read this report where the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, specially refers to the vulnerability of railroads to computer/cyber attack. Indeed, he talks about our nation being at risk of a cyber-Pearl Harbor.
Let’s think things through a little bit more. If our rail system fails, we have only one fall-back option to replace the trains – truck based shipping. But we don’t have the trucks available to suddenly handle a 150% increase in freight. For every ten trucks on the road now, we’d need to add another 15 – where will they all come from? And also, what would happen to our already congested roads? If they suddenly had to handle 2.5 times the number of trucks there already are, what do you think will happen to congestion and travel times?
Even if we could miraculously get the extra trucks needed, the impact on our economy would be enormous. Trucked freight costs five to ten times more than railed freight (per ton/mile).
Oh – and when we said, above, that road transportation is self guided, we’re only half right about that. Think about driving anywhere – sure, you’ll follow street signs and use common sense, but there’s something else you’ll come across sooner or later. Traffic lights. As you know, even the failure of one single traffic signal can screw up traffic for blocks and blocks, and even if a policeman manually directs traffic, he never seems to do as good a job as a traffic light does automatically.
All traffic lights are computer controlled. Some are semi-independent, controlled on a fixed/demand driven process by the traffic around them, others are moderated by central computer systems, but all of them use computer controllers. What happens if they stop operating, or if they start misbehaving? At best, you’ll have gridlock across the nation. At worst, if traffic lights start going green in all directions at once, you’ll have accidents galore.
So, to circle back to our opening point. We all rely on the safe and efficient transportation of 40 tons of freight a year to support our lives and our lifestyles. And while those 40 tons of freight comprise a massive variety of different products and modes of transport, both in your local area and elsewhere in the country, with a chain of dependencies that we can’t even start to guess at, the uncomfortable reality is that just a very few failures in a limited number of key parts of the national transportation system could cause the entire system to come falling down.
Add to that the ‘just in time’ delivery system which relies on the ability of goods to always arrive where they are needed, at the time they are needed, and with little or no reserve supplies kept anywhere, and the net result could be that a failure of the transportation system 1500 miles away from you ends up with life threatening shortages of essential items in your area, too.
Being reliant on the proper movement of 40 tons of stuff a year is a huge dependency, and one we can do little to directly control. Are you worried about this? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is. Don’t you think you should be, too?