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Transportation Technology

Can the Auto Industry Retool Itself To Build Rails? 897

knapper_tech writes "The scope of the auto industry troubles continues to increase in magnitude. The call to retool and develop new vehicles has been made several times already, but with all of the challenges from labor prices and foreign competition, how exactly can the industry retool itself to be more competitive? In light of superior competition facing losses, there doesn't seem to be enough room in the industry moving forward. In the context of finding a new place in the auto industry, the future isn't bright. Calls for no disorderly collapse of the cash-strapped big three and a reluctant congress can only point to an underlying lack of direction. However, consider two other standing economic challenges. The airlines have continued to struggle due to fuel prices and heightened security. Consumers backed off of SUV's due to high fuel prices, and while those prices have eased in the face of global recession, the trend will pick up again with growth in China and India leading the fight for resources. In short, things are moving less, and the industries that support the movement are in need of developing new products while consumers are in need of a cheaper method of transportation." Read on for the rest of knapper_tech's thoughts.
knapper_tech continues:
"Looking abroad, it's clear the US has far less invested in local and regional rail systems. With regard to high-speed rail systems, the US is conspicuously behind. France's TGV is moving people at 574km/h. China operates the world's first commercial maglev line while the famous Japanese Shinkasen goes without mentioning. In the US there is only one line in operation between DC and Boston with a few more planned as a result of the 2008 election in California.

The traditional barrier to implementation of rail systems is the initial investment costs, but in the context of economic stimulus, such investment sinks are actually desirable. The auto industry has clearly taken note with proposals from companies like Caterpillar for huge new infrastructure projects.

A friend who recently bought a house observed that real-estate prices are on the rise nearer to city centers, where the fallout of mortgage problems and expensive, time-consuming drives from the suburbs can be avoided. Recalling the huge number of urban revitalization plans and efforts to increase the viability of older city centers, it seems as though many municipal governments would also be in line to gain from the added density of rail systems and increased activity they can support in downtown areas.

Putting it all together, it seems like now would be a good time to direct the industrial capacity of the automotive and supporting industries to developing local and regional, high-speed rail systems to provide a more efficient and effective infrastructure basis for US cities while essentially creating a new market where competition from foreign car manufacturers will not be a problem. At the same time, a huge labor force would be required. The task would call for engineers for development, factory workers for manufacturing, operators, and maintenance workers. Caterpillar still gets to sell construction equipment. The inevitable stream of stores popping up around stations would provide new commercial areas. Last-mile bus and taxi services would also have a new place. The list goes on.

Besides the savings in fuel, the US could also gain international prestige and possibly help lead China and India away from our mistakes, helping to stem the rising demand for oil globally and avoiding the attendant international tension. Climate change is yet another win in this scenario.

It seems like we're not exactly headed in that direction, and I'm curious to see what Slashdot readers think of all this. What pieces need to be in place to make the investments pay off? What are additional resources that are required? Can the industries really make such a change of direction? Do we have everything we need in the US? How would such systems work out long term? Would the initial investments be able to pick up fast enough to stimulate the economy?"
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Can the Auto Industry Retool Itself To Build Rails?

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  • by LeadfootCA ( 622446 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @09:43PM (#26238189)
    GM used to make locomotives via its Electro-Motive Division (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electro-Motive_Diesel [wikipedia.org]). They sold the division back in 2005, and I don't see them reentering that market anytime soon, since General Electric now dominates it.
  • by etymxris ( 121288 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @09:53PM (#26238265)

    The rail industry regularly repairs/replaces cars and rails. They are in a better position to lay down new infrastructure. They already have the plans all laid out for new infrastructure, and it would be a viable investment for them if they had a little financial help from the government--the amount of financial help needed being much less than has been allocated to various industry loans.

    And this is just for freight rails. We can start looking at passenger rails again when Amtrak starts making a profit.

  • by hilather ( 1079603 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @10:08PM (#26238375)
    The auto industry has been pushing their weight around for years to prevent hybrids and alternative power for vehicles. Obviously they were unwilling to change their ways and try to help the environment. Hopefully new companies will emerge that will be more open to innovation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 26, 2008 @10:09PM (#26238377)

    In the US there is only one line in operation between DC and Boston with a few more planned as a result of the 2008 election in California.

    California's high-speed rail system isn't expected to be completed for at least another 21 years with the first operational segment not going live until sometime between 2019 and 2021, and at a cost of somewhere between $45 billion and $81 billion, depending on whose estimates you use. If $20 from every ticket were used to repay the construction costs using the lower figure, and if the ridership were at the upper end of the estimates (95 million per year), it would take about 23 years to repay. Other estimates suggest as few as 23 million riders per year, and if the upper cost estimate were used, it would take 176 years to repay the costs. Odds are that it will come in somewhere in between, but that's a very wide range with which to contend.

    Aside from that, judging by the list of potential stops [wikipedia.org], there won't be time to get the train up to anything resembling "high speed" for the most commonly-used stops.

  • Re:Right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by gorehog ( 534288 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @10:10PM (#26238387)

    We have a national standard rail type. It has been in use since the mid 1800's. The size of the rails, the width between them, the specification for the ties between the rails, the grade of bend, this is all well known and established engineering. It worked so smoothly that before there were telegraphs steam locomotives could run from one company's tracks to another all the way across the country. Except in a few cases for things like trollies, subways, mines, and certain special gear tooth railways.

    Moreover, some of the most important cultural stories in the USA are about planning railroads. Which towns would survive? Which would die? Which would thrive? Who's farm would be destroyed? All of this was once done and settled until Reagan killed the railroads.

  • Re:SUVs (Score:4, Informative)

    by DDLKermit007 ( 911046 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @10:30PM (#26238537)
    Then how do countries like Japan get their materials around? I think in all my journeys with that country I can count on one hand how many trucks I saw like we see everywhere in the US. Instead they use the far less fashionable box-trucks to get things that last mile. They are used for work, and can carry a whole hell of allot more with allot less waste.
  • by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @10:53PM (#26238681) Homepage

    Seriously, Detroit and SE MI used to have trains, cable cars, etc. But they were killed off so that everyone would buy a car.

    Myth. Become informed. [1134.org]

  • Re:SUVs (Score:3, Informative)

    by ta bu shi da yu ( 687699 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @11:11PM (#26238797) Homepage

    Try reading. He's saying that he doesn't personally need a truck. In fact, he's saying that most people don't need a truck. And this is true. He's not saying (and for that matter I didn't say) that trucks are not necessary. But I can assure you, I personally don't need a truck. If I do, I'll hire one or get someone to deliver what I need.

  • Re:SUVs (Score:3, Informative)

    by El Torico ( 732160 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @11:15PM (#26238815)

    OK, it's flamebait, but this one can't go unanswered -
    What about the casting flaw in the cylinder heads of Saturns?
    Or the clutch assembly and slave cylinder of Jeep YJ models?

    You can argue that these are an insufficient number of examples. For a more complete picture, you can download all of the manufacturer recalls and complaints from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and compare.

    Are you going to do some work to back up your position or are you just going to continue to act like an ass?

  • Re:SUVs (Score:3, Informative)

    by NeilTheStupidHead ( 963719 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @11:37PM (#26238949) Journal

    Further some of us simply can't fit into the common compact car, that is certainly poor engineering because I'm only a hair over 6' tall, but highlights that one size doesn't fit all.

    There are many compacts that aren't built for tall people, but I'm 6'5" and comfortably drive a Chevy Aveo. There are affordable, fuel-effecient vehicles out there for uncommonly large people.

  • Keep building cars (Score:3, Informative)

    by vrmlguy ( 120854 ) <samwyse&gmail,com> on Friday December 26, 2008 @11:52PM (#26239051) Homepage Journal

    Mass transit is neither cost-effective nor green. Per passenger-mile, it costs more to operate and generates more green-house gases than private automobiles. But don't believe me. Check out what the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, The Atlantic, and others have to say about it.

    http://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/re/2004/c/pages/light_rail.html [stlouisfed.org]

    Based solely on dollar cost, the annual light-rail subsidies could instead be used to buy an environmentally friendly hybrid Toyota Prius every five years for each poor rider and even to pay annual maintenance costs of $6,000. Increases in pollution would be minimal with the hybrid vehicle, and 7,700 new vehicles on the roadway would result in only a 0.5 percent increase in traffic congestion.3 And there would still be funds left overâ"about $49 million per year. These funds could be given to all other MetroLink riders (amounting to roughly $1,045 per person per year) and be used for cab fare, bus fare, etc.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/197910/197910 [theatlantic.com]

    The received wisdom on this topic is easily stated: 1. It is self-evident that public transportation is vastly more energy-efficient than automobiles; 2. It is self-evident that investing money to improve transit facilities will attract many more passengers. Therefore, the national energy policy ought to give major attention to building new transit systems and revitalizing old ones. Unfortunately, both of these "self-evident" premises turn out to be false.

    http://www.templetons.com/brad/transit-myth.html [templetons.com]

    Particularly disturbing were the numbers for some of the worst transit systems, including the light rail in San Jose, which I sometimes ride. That system takes twice as much energy per passenger than private cars do. It's not even the worst -- that's Cleveland, which also is part of a grid more dependent on fossil fuels than San Jose.

    http://www.gregburch.net/cars/plans.html [gregburch.net]

    From a purely utilitarian point of view, it would be cheaper to simply buy compact cars for the poorest of the poor, or even subsidize some kind of taxi cab service for poor people. But that idea is too "way out there" - much stranger than ripping up our cities for years and years while the planners implement their expensive dreams.

  • Re:SUVs (Score:3, Informative)

    by mrraven ( 129238 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @11:57PM (#26239081)

    Everyone THINKS they are an above average driver but only empirical data tells you what cars are actually safer given a normal distribution of drivers, driving them. Data trumps personal anecdotes of people who self evaluate, get it? Read the Gladwell article which has those statistics and get back to me, m'K?

  • Re:SUVs (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sleepy ( 4551 ) on Friday December 26, 2008 @11:57PM (#26239085) Homepage

    >The Big 3 have labor costs about three times higher than other auto makers in America.

    You're quoting a lie that's been well-debunked:
    http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/do_auto_workers_really_make_more_than.html [factcheck.org]

    Health care costs are certainly hurting Detroit, but that's because they're competing against nations which benefit from "socialized medicine".

  • Re:SUVs (Score:2, Informative)

    by JustNilt ( 984644 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @12:01AM (#26239097) Homepage

    I can see that. That wouldn't be a problem for me to accept. It's just that I also happen to see trucks as being much better built and ultimately safer to drive.

    Agreed but it's also the ability to drive away from an accident that I love. I drive a full size pickup built in '89. It's got just shy of 200k miles on it now and in the last couple of decades, it's been in 3 accidents (considering the hours I tend to be on the road, 3 accidents is rather low, according to my insurance agent). One was an "oh shit" black ice incident at, luckily, 25 MPH or so that made it slide into a semi truck on a side road. Drove away from that one just fine with just a bent front bumper. Both of the other 2 have been rear end collisions. One was in the snow when an idiot was follwoing too close but there was no damage to my truck. The last was while I was stopped at a stoplight just off a freeway exit and the other guy was doing 35 or 40. His car was pretty much totaled but my truck only got a dent in the rear bumper. So many other vehicles would have just been totally unable to be driven at all.

    Granted, this is anecdotal but I still think if I were driving anything smaller, it would have been replaced at least twice by now. There's something to be said for being able to drive away from an accident when the other guy totals his car. Now, if only we'd get willing to do something about the asshat drivers on the road, but that's a different topic.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @12:26AM (#26239233) Homepage

    Unknown to most of the people who've commented so far, freight rail in the US is making a big comeback. [camsys.com] US rail traffic in ton-miles has doubled since 1980. LA opened the Alameda Corridor [acta.org] a few years ago, with three tracks in a trench, like a freeway, across LA from the port to connections to the rest of the US. Most major railroads are upgrading capacity. The work often isn't highly visible, because the upgrades are heavier rail, better ballast, better signaling systems, better locomotives, and better rolling stock. But it's happening.

    Chicago is the bottleneck in the US rail system. A deal is about to close under which Canadian National will take over U.S. Steel's old railroad [wsj.com] and upgrade it to route traffic around downtown Chicago. Suburban residents are bitching.

  • Re:Right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday December 27, 2008 @12:55AM (#26239411) Homepage

    We used to have a massive rail infrastructure in the USA. The neo-con revolution killed it when Reagan made the point of gutting social infrastructure.

    Here in the real world, the railroads died in the 40's and 50's when faced with the triple problem of a) rebuilding infrastructure worn out in WWI, b) increasing competition from cars and trucks, and c) the costs of switching from the [hideously] expensive to operate steam locomotive to the much [much] cheaper diesel.
    Even so, 90% of the now vanished portions of the rail infrastructure were dedicated to freight - serving plants now closed with the production sent overseas. And on top of that, the passenger rail system was always a loss leader for the railroads - an advertisement for their freight services. One of the first big industrial bailouts in the US was when the government bought the passenger lines, mostly due to public nostalgia, and welded them into Amtrack.

  • Re:SUVs (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 27, 2008 @01:44AM (#26239657)
    And as for better built I'd say the average American V8 is very, very lucky to make it to 175,000 miles where as OHC Japanese 4 bangers OFTEN make it to 250,000 and Mercedes diesels and Volvos to 350,000.
    Look up Toyota's sludge problem with their inline fours and V6 engines. These engines aren't averaging 250,000 miles, and the inline fours went into two generations of Camrys and Celicas, as well as the 2nd generation MR2 Spyder.

    As for the "average" American V8, there are a good number of V8s that have greater than 175k on the clock. Check out any cab or Police Interceptor: they have Ford modular V8s under the hood.

    As for the reliability of a V8, yes it has more moving parts than a V6, but that's a bit simplistic. Chevy small block V8s are OHV which are lighter and have fewer moving parts than an OHC V8 of comparable size. Look up the dry weight of an LS1 vs a Ford modular. Or look at the dry weight of a M60 V8: its 447 lbs. The dressed weight of an LS1 is 457 lbs (automatic trans). And the M60/M62s were notoriously unreliable thanks to Nikasil cylinder sleeves.

    I completely agree with you that we need to switched to more efficient modes of transportation, but slandering an "American V8" because you believe its inefficient, poorly designed or simply "American" is contrary to evidence. The small block V8 (along with Honda's terrific CVCC inline four) made it onto Ward's 10 Best Engines of the 20th Century.
  • Amtrak is basically a rural subsidy, linking together far-flung towns across thousands of miles of track, stopping frequently, because serving those towns is its main point, and the main reason that, politically, it hasn't been killed off yet.

    Britain's rail system, by contrast, serves a densely populated, geographically miniscule island, more akin to creating a regional-scale system like Acela than a continental-scale system like Amtrak.

  • by frank_adrian314159 ( 469671 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @01:53AM (#26239709) Homepage

    A pension is ALWAYS a gamble on the part of the pensioner.

    No. A pension is supposed to be a legal obligation on the company to fund the pension in an actuarily sound manner so as not to be a gamble - that's why they're so expensive. In fact, this is so much true that the government insures pensions. You might look up PBGC and the laws that define it and that deal with management of defined-benefit retirement plans. And, you better pray that the automakers pull through - if not, you and the rest of us taxpayers are on the hook for those pensions(via the PBGC).

  • by QuasiEvil ( 74356 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @02:33AM (#26239865)

    Uh, fail. While I can't speak for the reliability of VRE's locomotive fleet (when I've seen it, it seems to be running rather well), but their oldest power are the F40s, built in the early 1980s and with a lot of miles on them. The rest - the RP39-2Cs and GP40PH-2s - are all recent rebuilds. Sure the frames and shells used in the rebuilt are from the late 1960s, but they've essentially been overhauled from the ground up with new innards, making for an almost new locomotive.

    If they're having reliability issues, then it's either a maintenance problem or an inherent design flaw, but not a result of them being "from the 1950s"

  • by tsa ( 15680 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @03:05AM (#26239989) Homepage

    It's 'you're', not 'your'.

  • by Bertie ( 87778 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @05:24AM (#26240429)

    Unless recumbent bikes are massively more efficient than conventional designs, that sounds optimistic. I do a fair amount of cycling and I can personally attest that averaging 30km/h on a good road bike is pretty hard work, and to raise that average speed by another 10km/h is extremely tough and requires a very high level of fitness as well as a nifty bike.

    And I don't know what your commute's like, but my 35km ride into work (in central London) is a mixture of open roads and urban shuffling and I can't get my time down below an hour and a half. Maybe if I took crazy liberties with traffic lights I could get a few minutes off that, but I quite like being alive, thanks very much.

    As for parking problems, I often struggle for space on the bike racks at work, and have more than once found that someone's accidentally buckled one of my wheels when getting their bike out of the rack. These unexpected expenses can get kinda pricey. And punctures are a real bore. You'll be getting a lot of them.

    So yeah, bikes are great and all, but be realistic in your expectations.

  • Re:Right. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Bjorn_Redtail ( 848817 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @05:26AM (#26240437)
    For the record, GM used to own EMD, which is currently the #2 manufacturer of Diesel-Electric locomotives in North America. They sold it off to a holding company a couple of years ago (2005, I think).

    For the record, there are companies that will re-engine existing locomotives with Caterpillar engines. For a while, one even manufactured its own locomotive to compete with the big two of the business (EMD and GE).
  • Re:Right. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Spliffster ( 755587 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @06:14AM (#26240593) Homepage Journal

    ... and have stops every 10 - 15 miles, with stops lasting no more than 1 minute and have multiple trains so that a train came by a stop every 30 minutes, (maybe get it down to every 15 minutes), then we could have a very functional non car based economy.

    You would love my country, make it "stops every 5 miles" and "a train every 15 minutes" plus a good bus network connection train stations with the area around it.

    Although nearly every household here in switzerland owns 2 cars most people use public transport to go to work. Most of the goods are transported by train, not trucks.

    This, however, has only been possible because politics has worked toward that goal for decades.

  • by Ex-MislTech ( 557759 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @07:55AM (#26240847)

    Education works if the ppl want to learn.

    In the US public education system some students have to
    deal with thugs that roam the campuses that are part of some
    gangsta lifestyle.

    Send the thugs to thug school.

    Here in the US we spend more than any other nation per capita
    on Education and we are ranked like 16th in the world.

    If you consider that the US auto factory workers on average
    have at best a high school education then that is the best
    you can hope for in that person.

    Throwing more money at this problem will only get more of the
    same results we got the last time we threw money at it.

  • by RustinHWright ( 1304191 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @01:24PM (#26242449) Homepage Journal

    You must have cornered the market on tinfoil in order to create that hat.
    Oh, really? Then let's see you refute his positions. They all look entirely reasonable to me. But what would I know? I'm just a former econ major from a family of policy geeks who has actually researched all of these points.

  • Re:SUVs (Score:2, Informative)

    by MobiusPoint ( 1394977 ) on Saturday December 27, 2008 @09:22PM (#26245787)

    At that point, the added weight of an SUV makes them a lot safer.

    I think I'll just drive a tank. Much heavier and safer. Also, I'd never get pulled over.

If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments. -- Earl Wilson