Oil Spill in Iowa

Tank Cars spilled crude oil

A freight train carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to Oklahoma derailed on June 22nd near Doon, Iowa. Here are some details:

  • 32 tank cars derailed.
  • 14 of them are leaking.
  • The total volume of the spill is 230,000 gallons (for reference the capacity of a typial DOT-111 tank car is 34,500 gallons, so the total spill is equivalent to about 6 or 7 cars).
  • Much of the oil has been contained with booms, but some of it has entered the local river system.
  • The cause of the event is not known. Speculation is the floodwaters may have eroded the soil beneath the track.

Further information is available here and here.

Derailed and leaking crude oil tank cars Doon Iowa


Fox News Hyperloop Video

Fox News has just released a video to do with hyperloop. The video is upbeat in tone, suggesting that the technology is well advanced and that the general concept is practical. It does not, however, provide any new information.

They also discuss the regulatory environment: should a hyperloop be considered a train or an airplane? They seem to come down on the side of ‘airplane’ because the modules are actually flying along the tubes — there are no wheels or rails.

The Tunnel Option

Ashland is not the only locality that does not have the space for expansion of existing transportation systems. In fact, such problems are pretty much universal in any urban or suburban area.

Elon Musk’s response to this problem is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to build a network of tunnels below the surface infrastructure.

Now there is nothing original in his insight — after all, cities around the world have been building subway systems for decades. But what Musk is claiming is that he can build tunnels much more quickly and economically than has been possible in the past. Is he correct? Well, only time will tell. But, when we look at his Tesla electric cars we see that, regardless of whether his company will eventually be financially successful, his initiative has become a ‘forcing function’ for other, more traditional automobile companies, to develop electric cars.

Maybe something similar will happen to tunnel construction. Musk has put the companies that build tunnels on notice that there is a new type of competitor in town, and that they need to look at upping their game.

So what does this have to do with the proposed “high speed” rail project? Well, the natural solution to the problem of adding capacity to the existing railroad in the Ashland area is to go underground, i.e., to build a tunnel for the new trains, and to keep the existing tracks for slow freight trains and local passenger service.

The traditional response to this suggestion has been that building a tunnel would be much more expensive than adding new surface tracks. But maybe Musk’s challenge will prove that assumption to be wrong — maybe tunnel options will turn out to be not only environmentally friendly, but also be a more sound financial investment.

Here are three examples of new tunnel projects. The first is the City of Chicago, which has just announced that it will be working with Musk’s Boring Company to build a tunnel between downtown and O’Hare airport. Second, as we have previously reported, the State of Maryland is looking at a similar system to connect Baltimore with D.C. Finally, something similar is underway in Los Angeles. Projects such as these tell us that we should not summarily reject a tunnel option on the grounds that it is too expensive. Maybe it is, and — there again — maybe it isn’t.

Hyperloop Safety Study


Location of Hyperloop Conference, 2018
Kerckhoff Hall, UCLA

As we have discussed many times at this blog, the world of transportation technology is undergoing radical and wrenching changes. Almost daily there is news about electric cars, autonomous (driverless) vehicles, drones and even space rocket transportation.

One of the new technologies — and one that we have discussed frequently at this site — is hyperloop. This technology is still in the early development phase, but has the following essential features.

  • “Trains” travel along tubes from which the air has been removed. Hence, there is very little air resistance.
  • The “trains” are magnetically levitated — they do not actually touch anything — there are no tracks. Hence there is no wheel/rail friction loss.
  • The maglev system incorporates linear motors that propel the modules. Hence there are very few moving parts and so there are few internal friction losses.

But, before this new technology can be adopted for general use, we must address the two questions that engineers always ask when starting a new project. They are:

  1. Will it work? and
  2. Is it safe?

In order to address the second question we will be presenting a paper at the ‘LoopTransPort’ conference at the University of California in July of this year. The title of the paper is ‘Hyperloop Safety Study’. Details to do with the two day program are available here.

The theme of the paper is that the safety  challenges that the hyperloop industry is facing are similar to challenges faced at one time or another by other industries. These include the nuclear power industry, the offshore oil and gas industry and the chemical industries. In spite of the very different nature of the technologies between them, many lessons can be learned from these other industries. The reason for this is that safety is basically a management topic, not a technology issue. Therefore, the safety management practices developed in one industry can often be successfully used in another area.