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“To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes.”

So sayeth what is commonly referred to as the "commerce clause" of the United States Constitution. It's a law so powerful that Wisconsin was forced to end it's ban on double trailers after Consolidated Freightways sued, arguing that Wisconsin's ban interfered with interstate commerce as protected by the "commerce clause" of the Constitution. The courts agreed, and Wisconsin had to open their roads to the double trailers that while legal in surrounding states, couldn't cross Wisconsin.

The Commerce Clause has also been applied to civil rights in Heart of Atlanta Motel vs. United States, a case involving a motel located near two major Interstate Highways that refused to rent accommodation to black customers. The courts decided that because the motel was critical to interstate commerce, and it had to obey the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So a whole half century later, Indiana's bigots, in drag as religious fanatics, have the conservative legislature and governor falling all over themselves to pass a bill that they think will allow them to get even with all those gay folks that can finally enjoy the blessings of marriage. Yup, Indiana has officially authorized and pretty much encouraged any bigoted innkeeper to refuse a couple retired lesbian "snowbirds" headed south a room in the middle of a lake effect blizzard on Christmas eve. And being that Indiana is in the way if you're trying to cross the top part of the country, those bigots are sitting pretty smug, figuring you'll have a tough time boycotting them while they push their "values" into your life.

Now if you're in the biz of transporting stuff, Indiana can be hard to avoid. For truckers and railroaders, the only alternatives between the major hub of Chicago and the east coast are way out of the way via the upper peninsula of Michigan or Kentucky. Same with the railroads, with the Indianapolis suburb of Beech Grove being home to a major Amtrak maintainence base. Even airfreight is affected, with much of the parcel volume going through UPS's Louisville hub being trucked to and fro  through Indiana. Thus those Indiana bigots figure we're so dependent on them that they're boycott proof.

Truck drivers, towboat crews, and train crews all need to stop for food and rest, in fact the rest is required by law and can't always wait 'til you exit Indiana. And despite the Interstate and mainline rail routings you'd expect, a lot of trucking and railroading is done on or along two lane highways with nothing but small towns along the route in the middle of the night. If you're in Indianapolis or on the Interstate there's plenty of other restaurants and motels if one refuses you service, In Kentland, Plymouth, Vincennes, or North Vernon at 3 am your choices for food or a room are a lot more limited.

Some of Indiana's bigots will no doubt take advantage of that local monopoly on late night rural food and rest, as backward restaurant and motel managers deny service to truck drivers, railroad crews, and the occasional airline or towboat crew that they perceive to be gay or otherwise in conflict with their prejudiced world view. Union stewards will be contacted, ultimatums will be issued, and if that doesn't bring the bigots around the Teamsters, ALPA, UTU, UPS, Amtrak, CSX, NS, and a bunch of other progressive unions and transportation enterprises will be persuading the courts to throw Indiana's "religious rights" law into the legal junkyard.

Add that to the growing boycott of Indiana- San Francisco has already put Indiana off limits to city employees on city business and others cities will follow- And the upcoming police convention and next year's Work Truck Show will be poorly attended if they don't move. And despite being lick split in the middle of the upper right part of the continent and within a days haul of a mere hundred million people or so, nobody is going to expand or build a new transportation hub in Indiana while this stupid law is on the books.

Indiana, you shouldn't a gone there!

Discuss

(from my Gearhead Grrrl blog )

If you've been following the press of late, you've noted the considerable angst generated by the unit oil trains that seem to be taking over the land. The "Chicken Little Caucus" has been running around so mindlessly predicting imminent immolation that they might as well have had they're heads cut off. Their allies the "deep environmentalists" who've grown out of eco-terrorist groups like Earth First to run mainstream environmental groups are partners in this crime against science, egging them on in hopes they can confine all the oil in the ground, the trillion or so people that would starve as a result of such "cold turkey" measures be damned. With their pet politicians and legions of Facebook followers, they've built their fortifications on the left side of the canyon. On the right side Koch funded contingents of the Flat Earth Society, south Florida real estate hacks, and big oil have built their own fortifications, determined to ignore global warming until the oceans rise and drown them.

With both sides secure in their poor excuses for "science" and so far apart ideologically, not even the instant explosion  of a  for real 100+ car unit train of crude spiked with some particularly nervous lighter gases is going to move them from their worlds apart positions. None the less, I've spent the last few days braving the abyss, studying up on blast zones, derailment dynamics, and remote fire sensing tied to reverse 911 and social media alerting systems. Then it hit me: "A recent report prepared by several state agencies shows that about 3.3 million barrels of crude oil cross Minnesota every day. About 80 percent of that oil is being transported by pipeline. The rest moves by train." Thanks to Minnesota Public Radio for that strategic snippet.

So the unit oil trains are essentiality "peakers", very profitably hauling the overflows the pipelines can't handle. Reduce crude oil consumption by 20% and the oil trains disappear, or haul ethanol or biodiesel instead. Actually, the repurposed oil trains would be making shorter hauls of those biofuels, because unlike dead dinosaur derived fuels which are concentrated in a few  oilfields, biomass is just about all over the planet. And the switchover would be relatively painless- most gas engined cars and trucks on the road can adapt to up to 30% ethanol, and up here in the frozen north of Minnesota many fleets are running on 20% biodiesel winter and summer. And unlike dead dino fuels, biofuels are darn near carbon neutral- the soy beans, rapeseed, corn, etc. they're made from consume carbon as they grow.

That's just the beginning... Bring on the energy conservation! Drag the gas guzzler tax threshold up to 10 liters/100 kilometers (24 MPG), with exception for bona fide occupational need for one of the full size pickups that baby boomers so love. Scania has a production truck that get's 10 MPG at 40 METRIC tons, why are our 10% lighter 'merican trucks stuck at 6 MPG? And IIRC, BNSF is competing with UP to be the country's if not the world's 2nd biggest consumer of diesel fuel behind the U.S. Navy, and doesn't corporate parent Berkshire Hathaway own a big electric power company with a huge renewable capacity too? BNSF's 4 track "raceway" across Illinois ought to provide an adequate ROI to justify electrification. And for the branch lines, between natural gas which BNSF is now experimenting with and the stronger than 20% biodiesel blends a buyer BNSF's size can get would have even the pipelines suckin' air!

And if we can find "adaptive reuses" for containers, DOT111's should be no problem...

Discuss

You can still get from here to there, but you'd best not be in a hurry...

The schedule of what was once one of Amtrak's most timely trains, the legendary Empire Builder, has become a joke. Last "peak season", both UPS and FedEx were lucky to get deliveries made by New Years. Midwest states have raised truck weight limits on main roads, only to have trucks forced to haul reduced loads due to deteriorating bridges and secondary roads. After switching much of it's intermodal freight from Union Pacific to BNSF because UP was too congested, BNSF is now so congested that they've dropped much of their expedited service because they couldn't keep their own schedule. And fly right over this terrestrial transport mess? Sure, if you ever get through the airport, and your luggage should be catch up with you in a day or two. It gets worse... Out here in the rural midwest, we've still got grain on the ground from last years harvest, 'cause the elevators are full. And with the drought disappearing, we've got another record crop on the way. We've looked at those piles of last years corn and more in the fields all summer, and now we're starting to talk about it in a worried way. The recession is giving way to an economic recovery, but our transportation system hasn't recovered from decades of disinvestment.

We've got GPS and radar and all, how did we get into this nationwide traffic jam? Railroads haul the biggest chunk of our freight, and after overbuilding that drove many to bankruptcy, they've been tearing up tracks and pruning their networks since the depression until recently. And while tracks have been improved, almost no new rail routes have been built in nearly a century.

Our roads are even more ragged, with our system of US highways laid out near a century ago with little additions since, save for adding a few lanes. The Interstate System was laid out in the 1930s, finally funded in the 50s, and largely completed in the 60s and 70s... Our population has doubled since then. The routes chosen reflected mail volumes back in the planning stages of the system, and no longer reflect actual needs for highways.

Ain't moving any better and certainly not faster on the water, with our depression era locks and dams limiting the volume of freight that can be moved by this greenest mode to depression levels. But for a few dredging projects to accommodate new Panamax ships, our harbors are as old and obsolete or older. Pipelines? Good luck getting permits to build anything beyond a small water main. Same with our airports, many of them sited in the original aviation boom of the 1920s and now caged by the urban areas that grew up around them.

So while the rest of the world is building high speed passenger trains and superports with autonomous vehicles that can move 40 ton containers, why are we stuck in traffic jams, sidings, port ques, and overcrowded airports? Let's look at my home state, Minnesota, where both parties have formed a strange coalition to make sure not much of any new transportation assets get built. How? The republicans don't want to pay for transportation infrastructure, and especially not passenger rail... Even if they're largely federally funded and all the state has to cough up is a 20% to 50% match. Yep, we even have a republican governor wannabe, Marty Seifert, who wants to raid the state's "rainy day fund" to the tune of 150 million dollars to patch the roads. This is the same Marty Seifert who as a state house majority leader asked the republican governor to refuse federal highway funds because he didn't want to raise gas taxes to raise the 20% state match. Sorry Marty, but our transportation backlog is so big that we'll need billions not millions to catch up, and are you going to rob the kids or the seniors to "balance" the budget during the next economic downturn? The other half of this coalition for transportation constipation is the urban democrats who think highways are an evil force that allows two million people to escape the barely hundred square miles of the core cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul for the suburbs. Add in global warming and the perceived threat of incineration brought on by those lengthy ten mile commutes to and between suburbs, and this bloc of metro democrats has blindly joined with the republicans to ensure that no more lane miles get built nowhere, with the exception of a ten mile or so light rail line every decade or so.

With our same old highways jammed, shippers increasingly have been hauling their freight straight to the railroad tracks. Thus intermodal freight volume hardly even slumped during the recession, and with the recovery we're seeing a new intermodal volume record practically every week. 'Twas great while the railroads had surplus capacity to sell, and it's been nice to have BNSF and the other railroads to serve as an alternate route... But that alternate route's getting all jammed up too. In many cases it ain't the railroad's fault- BNSF is pouring half their profit, five billion dollars, into upgrading their tracks and trains this year. But as the transportation safety valve for much of the western two thirds of the country, BNSF is still struggling as more and more grain, intermodal freight, and now crude oil too move from congested highways and pipelines to it's tracks.

As a candidate I've been talking to some of the farm groups, and they're looking for alternate routes for their products too... One even asked if I'd support allowing South Dakota sized 70+ ton double trailer grain rigs in Minnesota. Maybe on 4 lane highways, but we've got so many restricted bridges that there can't be many viable routes. And where are they going to find all these trailers and qualified drivers in the midst of the worsening driver (pay) shortage? From what I'm hearing, the proposed destination for all these convoys of grain are the Great Lakes ports at Duluth and Superior and the Mississippi ports at Red Wing and Winona. Lotta grain that'll move, with the Soo locks limiting ships to 600 feet... Heck, some of the billionaires yachts are getting that big! Worse yet, the over a dozen Mississippi locks can't fit more than a few barges of a 15 barge tow at a time.

So where is all this transportation constipation taking us, long term? Look around the world and you'll find all too many examples of countries with vast resources, human and otherwise, that remain undeveloped and their people impoverished due to lack of functional transportation. Unless we bite the bullet and invest in transportation again, that's our future... A poorer America where high transportation costs drive up the price of everything and drive good jobs elsewhere.

Discuss

Unless you've been hibernating these last few weeks, you no doubt repeatedly saw the image of a runaway Walmart truck and a minibus with extensive side impact damage. That would have been just local news for one cycle, were it not for the presence of a couple well known comedians in the minibus, one of whom lost his life and the other was quite badly injured. The State Troopers are on the case, and quickly determined that the driver hadn't slept in at least 24 hours, and probably fell asleep at the wheel. Now conjure up again the image of that truck... Isn't there about a four feet of cab behind the front seats, with no windows? Yup, that Walmart truck was equipped with a sleeper cab, and there's a bed back there that the driver could have crashed out on and gotten some much needed sleep...

If Walmart would let him. Now if Walmart had their logistical act together, in a densely populated place like the northeast their delivery runs would be so short they wouldn't even need sleeper cabs- Schedule the driver for a regular shift, said driver comes in and works a shift, goes home and gets some rest, and comes back wide awake to do another shift. Driver sleepy anyways? Pull over and take a nap, it does wonders. In my four decades in the trucking business, that's pretty much the way it worked for me. 'Cept for my first long haul trucking job back in the 70s, a 3000 mile round trip from Minneapolis to New Hampshire and back with two drivers in a very uncomfortable truck. The theory was that we two drivers would switch off between sleeping in the bunk and driving, but that International cabover rode so bad we often had to park for a couple hours so we could get decent sleep. After two months of that nonsense, I quit.

Because we had a healthy economy and strong unions then, I quickly found a union job at Hostess. And while most of the driving was at night, we didn't have much problem with drivers falling asleep, because we had a union contract that meant you had a steady schedule so you  could sleep all day, knowing you would be working that night. Heck, even the "extra board" driver knew their next week's schedule by thursday before. Still nodding of in the small hours in the morning? That same union contract gave you two 15 minute breaks in your 8 hour day, plus an unpaid half hour lunch that you could extend if you're sleepy, and a third 15 minute break after 9 hours work, and you could take those breaks at any time and any combination you want. So on a night run starting at 9 pm you might save up your breaks until you've made your last deliveries at 2 am, then take an hour nap and use your last 15 minute break to grab breakfast on the run. Or if you're wide awake, enjoy a leisurely hour long sit down breakfast. And some nights you needed those breaks... One night amidst the boredom of I-90 I pulled into the rest area for an hour's nap. Got back on the road, still felt sleepy, so I pulled over at the next rest area and slept another hour.

UPS and the Postal Service pretty much followed the same safety system- regular scheduled runs, even for the temps, 8 to at most 12 hour shifts followed by time off at home, and an hour a shift of break time in case you're still sleepy despite all of the above. And as a result, all of the above companies had enviable safety records and you didn't see their trucks in the news much.

Unfortunately, trucking today seems to be following a different business model... They try to drive costs to the bone and profits up by minimizing labor costs. Instead of scheduling drivers and maybe having them waiting the odd few minutes for a load, they wait until a truck is loaded and ready and then call a driver. Said hapless driver may have been off for days and already awake all day when that call comes at midnight, just as they're drowsy and heading for bed. Tell the dispatcher "no", and he'll likely get fired. So he drinks some strong coffee and comes to work, only to find that the he has to finish loading the trailer and fuel the tractor before hitting the road. And the dispatcher still expects him to drive 600 miles and make a dozen deliveries in 14 hours despite the delays,  so our hapless driver doesn't even log himself "on duty" until 4 am. Finally hitting the open and empty road and beyond the din and activity of the loading dock, our driver pulls over for a quick nap before nodding off. And exactly 5 minutes after setting the parking brake, a loud buzzer goes of and his dispatcher's voice screams from the satellite communications device- "Why are you stopped?".

With that kind of jungle capitalism business model, it's no wonder even my local small market TV stations have featured a "truck accident de jour" for the past week or so. Couple pig truck rollovers and a beer truck rollover, with no major injuries other than to the cargo, and there was probably no shortage of volunteers to clean up the beer truck carnage. Odds are, enough truck accidents and there'll be significant human carnage, as happened last week with the Walmart truck and a few weeks back with a Fed Ex truck in California. And it's no surprise that truck accident rates are rising, while car accident rates are dropping.

Meanwhile, Fed Ex has the nerve to ask Congress to legalize even bigger trucks... Memo to the trucking industry: Don't even THINK of asking for permission to run even bigger and heavier trucks until you get your accident rate down!

Discuss

T'is the season, as potholes, road construction, and income taxes conspire to unleash a perfect storm on our finances. And of those income taxes due tomorrow… Very little will go to even patching our national collection of potholes we call “infrastructure”.

Building roads, railroads, waterways, and even lowly pedestrian and bike trails can get damn expensive- even a simple repaving of a rural 2 lane can push a million $$$ a mile, a new urban light rail line or rebuilding an urban freeway can run $100,000,000 a mile. And a new urban freeway? Nobody even dares propose one anymore! And building and major rebuilding is the better funded part of our transportation infrastructure- 80% federal funded for major highways and 50% for transit.

But the dark side of transportation funding is maintenance, and the fed’s funding disappears with the orange barrels when the shiny new road or rails are finished. Then it gets progressively ugly, as underfunded state and local governments have to absorb the increasing costs of potholes, cracks, storm damage, and just plain wear. To give you an example, my home state of Minnesota just announced this year’s projects, and even with over a billion dollars in spending we’re getting little new lane-miles… Almost all the funding is going to repaving cratered roads and fixing bridges before they collapse. For example, a 25 mile long segment of US 14 near me that looks to have been built in the 1940s will get repaved, one bridge repaired, and built up with fill on a drained lake bottom where it keeps flooding. No paved shoulders, no bike/pedestrian trail, no safety improvements like turn lanes and more gently graded embankments, and no money to permanently move the road out of the wetland where it never belonged to begin with.

And those income tax dollars you’re paying? On the federal side, almost none will go to transportation. In some states, a little seeps into transportation funding via programs like Local Government Aid, whereby the state shares some of it’s revenue to small towns like mine and we invest some of it back into our city streets. That’ll fund patching a few potholes, but no way could we afford even repaving without a property tax assessment! And some of the wealthier cities don’t get that funding at all, despite the fact that just the cities of Minneapolis and St.Paul have as many lane-miles of streets to maintain as Minnesota has Interstate lane-miles. In fact, the vast majority of roads receive no federal or state funding whatsoever.

About now a tea party denizen in the back row is loudly reminding us that he “pays taxes”… So let’s take a look at those taxes we pay that are pretty much dedicated to transportation infrastructure. Heck, even motorcyclists pay taxes, and here in Minnesota the bit over 6% sales tax you pay on a new $15,000 motorcycle will result in a $1000 or so donation to the state’ transportation trust fund. You’ll be dropping another $50 or so every year to renew your registration, over 20 year expected life of that motorcycle that’s another $1000 or so. YMMV, but the average motorcycle gets 40 MPG and gets ridden 2000 miles a year, consuming 50 gallons of gas. YMMV on this too, but the average state and federal gas tax is about 50 cents a gallon, so our motorcyclist is contributing another $500 for a total of $2500 over twenty years to ride 40,000 miles, about 6 cents a mile. Now I’ve searched high and low for the cost of the wear and tear a vehicle does to the roads, and  the best number I can find is around a nickel per mile per ton of weight. At not even a half ton of weight soaking wet, our motorcyclist is paying for three times the costs he imposes on our transportation infrastructure!

But sometimes it snows in Minnesota, so some of us need cars. So we buy a $30,000 car and drop $2000 of sales tax into the transportation trust fund, spend another $2000 licensing it for it’s 20 year life, and the average car gets around 20 MPG real world so after 20 years we’ve driven 200,000 miles and bought 10,000 gallons of gas making a further contribution of $5000, for a grand tax total of around $9000. But our average car weights 2 tons and wears the roads to the tune of a dime a mile, causing $20,000 in cost over it’s lifetime and paying not even half it’s road costs.

It goes downhill fast from here… That teabagger in the back looks like he’s gonna stroke out or have a coronary, so better give him some attention. He of course drives a big ol’ $40,000 new pickup that gets 10 MPG, cruising 30,000 miles a year between his exurban minimansion, the social security office, hospital, bank , and his fishin’ hole. it’s been mighty patriotic of him to contribute $2500 every 10 years in sales taxes because he’s wearin’ the damn things out so quick, and the $1500 a year he’s contributing in gas taxes helps mightily too, as well as the $3000 or so he’s paying to register it ’til it rolls into  the junkyard. That all adds up to a bit over $20,000 or 7 cents or so a mile. Problem is, he’s overloaded his big ol’ pickup to 4 tons at least, so it’s wearin’ and tearin’ up the roads to the tune of 20 cents a mile. Teabagger’s not takin’ this well, just a minute while we find the AED and call 911…

So much for the toy trucks, how’s ’bout the real big rigs? So let’s say one of my neighboring family farms has had a good year, so they invest $200,000 in a new tractor-trailer rig. That produces a 12% $24,000 federal excise tax contribution to the Fed’s Highway trust fund, and another $13,000 or so sales tax contribution to the state’s. On top of that they’re paying over $2000 a year in Federal Highway Use Tax and state registration, even with the discount the state gives them for farm use. And at 6 MPG, they’d be a big contributor via the fuel taxes, ‘cept they have 100 or so tillable acres in their section and the elevator’s only 10 miles away. So over the new rig’s life, it’ll contribute $37,000 in taxes before it rolls off the lot, and another $40,000 in registration fees over 20 years. But even with 200 bushel an acre corn, that thousand bushel trailer will only make 20 round trips to the elevator a year, and even with the odd trips to pickup inputs and shuttle tractors on the lowboy, they’ll be lucky to cover 6000 miles a year, burn 1000 gallons of diesel, and pay $600 in fuel taxes. Over 20 years their pride and joy of a rig will cover 120,000 miles and contribute around $90,000 to the maintenance of the main roads. And running empty on the way back from the elevator, it’ll weigh on average 30 tons and wear the roads to the tune of $1.50 a mile, or $180,000 over it’s lifetime, and contribute barely half that.

But compared to the trucking company that serves the packinghouse up the street from the elevator, our family farmers are model citizens. The big trucking company has hundreds of trucks, and they get big discounts and buys them in another state with no sales tax, so they contribute maybe $18,000 when they get a deeply discounted new truck for $150,000. They pay about the same $2000 annual registration as our family farmers, but they put two drivers in the rig and it never rests, covering 200,000 miles a year. In five years it’s pretty much worn out, having contributed $28,000 to the highway trust funds and $100,000 in fuel taxes, paying a mere 13 cents a mile for the wear and tear it’s caused. But it’s always loaded to the 40 ton legal limit as well as moving, causing $2 per mile in wear and tear in the roads. Over 5 years this always loaded and rollin’ tax scofflaw has cost us all the better part of a million dollars in subsidy to cover the huge gap between it’s measly tax payments and the wear and tear it wreaks upon the roads.

Meanwhile, the railroads are pretty much payin’ for their own tracks and way, and if the airlines manage to avoid bankruptcy for a while they’ll do likewise. The barges on our big rivers pretty much get a free ride, but the costs aren’t that huge and the Corps does some useful stuff like flood control and conservation with their sliver of the federal budget too. But big trucks runnin’ day and night… They’re living off the taxpayers, and making them pay their fair share would shift vast amounts of freight to greener modes like rail, saving precious fuel and reducing global warming.

And those walkers, bicyclists, and motorcyclists? Look out for them, they’re payin’ more than their fair share!

Discuss

Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 05:52 PM PST

The Costco Effect...

by GearheadGrrrl

You've probably heard of the "Walmart effect", where the kinder and gentler Walmart of at least a decade ago used it's massive buying power to lower prices for consumers. Since then Walmart has driven enough competitors out of the market and saturated said market to the point that it's prices are no longer a bargain. Instead, Walmart's massive buying power has been turned on workers and suppliers, driving down wages and working conditions, with the savings sent directly to Sam Walton's (who's probably turning in his grave) billionaire brats. And determined to dominate every market as well as traditional department store stuff, Walmart has now pushed competitors aside to become the nations largest retailer of just about everything.

Costco is different... While Walmart insists on carrying everything the Main Street local stores carry 24 hours a day (thanksgiving included), Costco does pallet scale retailing of mass market merchandise. While Walmart tries to carry a dozen models of bicycles and every cheap accessory, At Costco you'll maybe find two models of bicycle and maybe a helmet and light. This is the secret of the "Costco effect"- Costco gives you the benefit of their enormous buying power for mass market items like a bicycle, and when you need a tire or maybe a better seat you'll shop your local bicycle shop for those items. And by not plopping down a store in every neighborhood, whether the neighborhood wants it or not, Costco gives you reason to shop local stores when it's not worth the trip to their often more distant stores.

To illustrate the workings of the "Costco effect", let me describe my purchases of this month. For a start, I'm 70 miles from the nearest Costco and before that one opened in October I was 150 miles away from the nearest Costco... Thus my "Costco runs" are now weekly affairs at most, and before the new Costco opened monthly. I've done the usual grocery shopping, buying 6 and 8 packs of canned goods at Costco and perishables at my local grocery store. I've also been upgrading my tools and shop equipment, that effort absorbing 'round $600 this month. I've been needing a new cordless drill for a while, and as I work a lot in concrete I need the most powerful one I can get with a hammer function. Costco has a good deal on a 20 volt Dewalt hammer drill and impact driver combo for $200, which was Home Depot's black friday "sale" price for the same item. That's an excellent deal for all but the most extreme uses, but I needed the more powerful Milwaukee with bigger batteries... Which I bought from the local hardware store for $300. Been looking for a small tool set to carry in the cars and sidecars, and Costco had the best deal with an American made Craftsman set for $100, now marked down to $80... 'bout the same price as the Chinese made Craftsman sets at Sears. I supplemented that set with a few bigger wrenches I had laying around, and sets of hex and torx sockets made by Lisle, a small Iowa tool manufacturer. I was still looking for a better floor jack and Costco had one for $100 that goes down as low as 4" to get under my cars and up to 18" to get the car up where it's easier on my back to work on. Shopped local, but anything equivalent was at least $150. My "local" Costco didn't have the jack in stock yet, but I was in the big cities last week and bought one at the Costco there... My back is much happier now! Didn't shop any on thanksgiving... Costco was closed, so why bother. But friday I bought some more sockets to supplement the ones in the set from Costco from regional hardware store Mac's, wasted time at Sears tool department where the only American made Craftsman tool sets started at $400 on sale and the farmers were hoarding them up, and then had a lunch and bought some canned goods and a warm comfy hoodie at Costco. Today, rode back to the local hardware store for an easier on the back snow shovel Costco don't carry.

So folks, that's the "Costco effect"- How Costco saves consumers dollars on mass market merchandise in major markets, while leaving opportunities for small local businesses to cater to our needs for specialty merchandise. Add in the living wages that Costco pays that allows Costco employees to funnel more dollars back into the economy, and we have a "Costco effect" that benefits workers, consumers, and businesses of all sizes instead of funneling wealth to the few like Walmart does!

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Fri Nov 22, 2013 at 03:19 PM PST

Gearhead Grrrl's Gift Guide...

by GearheadGrrrl

(complete post with pix and more available at my blog. .

Ya, I know, it's early... Holiday shopping has no business beginning until at least the majority of the thanksgiving turkey has been consumed, a good sleep had, and a full leisurely breakfast and maybe lunch enjoyed too. Then we should go forth unto the corridors of retail commerce... And maybe browse a bit. But in the latest front in the race to the bottom, the retailers are doing there best to extend the holiday shopping season back to at least valentine's day, and lest some truly stupid and magnificently useless gifts be bought in the next weeks by and for gearheads, I'd best crank this years gearhead's gift guide out. And fear not, the annual gearhead turkey roast will be coming next week, assuming I can find an oven big enough to roast GM's latest supersized pickups... I've been shopping the Hostess surplus auctions and still haven't found anything big enough!

The golden rule of gearhead gift gathering is "gift to others as you would gift to yourself". Now this doesn't mean you should rush out to buy your SO or other close relative a small machine shop in the expectation that they'll frequently invite you over to demonstrate it's use. It means you should give the kind of quality you'd want for yourself. There's a reason for such fussiness... For example, tools are used to move hard metal parts, and thus have to be made of at least tough a materials. Tough metalurgy and dimensional accuracy are not qualities found in "tools" made in third world elementary schools/factories... Thus you want gifts made in a democracy and preferably guaranteed for life.

Ok, lets set off on our gearhead's shopping spree... Our first acquisition is often free, and free is good. No matter what kind of wheeled or even unwheeled stuff you own, there seems to be an online support group. For example, one of the best is www.airheads.org , a community of owners of the old BMW "airhead" motorcycles. For a modest annual membership fee you can join and receive their excellent monthly magazine, and for free you can read through the knowledge base at the website and join the e-mail list, which is a cornucopia of everything from tech advice from the gurus to buying advice to social gathering site. Another great example of an online support community is www.tdiclub. com , where VW diesel cars are discussed at length. Again, quality is important, so avoid the sites overrun with ads or off topic teabagger trolls. Just saunter over to the giftee's computer and set a bookmark for the relevant online communities.

But sometimes, you just gotta have hard copy...

ImageBack in the bad ol' days some of the guys (usually the older managers) would, dumbfounded by my miniscule tech knowledge, ask me "How do you know that". Well, I read the manual, which those "know it alls" generally hadn't. I shouldn't let such gearhead secrets out, but service manuals are just cookbooks for heavy metal concoctions... Follow the instructions and most likely even a newbie can fix pretty complicated stuff. On the left we've got the Hayne's manual for the BMW F series twins, around $30 IIRC. Then VW's factory manual, about $100 'cept when it's on sale, and sadly not available for newer than 2010 models. Next up is a labor of love by some very dedicated Moto Guzzi technicians, spiral bound but worth every cent of it's $60 or so price. On the far right we've got a well used Hayne's manual for the BMW airhead, Hayne's manuals are written from the DIYers point of view and the only better value is free. And speaking of free, I've also got a service manual for my Guzzi Quota and a bunch of guides to airhead repair on a thumb drive and a BMW F800 manual on CD, but had to pay for that one. And the background is my brothers Yamaha XS650, unridden since the 80s, and I should buy him a manual for it... Not that I mind it gracing my living room.But sometimes, you gotta repair the rider...Image

'Taint no ordinary bike, that's an American made folding Bike Friday. Easy to mount even for stiff old folks like me, and fits most any trunk or rack. And all this goodness will get you riding a whole lot more, and they're custom built and start at less than a thousand at www.bikefriday.com .

But even bicyclists who've sworn off internal combustion need tools, and for around $100 Costco will get you off to a good start with the made in America Craftsman set I wrote about a couple posts back. BTW, if your looking for American made Craftsman tools you'll much more likely to find them at Costco than the "mother ship", Sears. Amazing how stupid Sears is getting by substituting Chinese tools for the American made brand they took near a century to build, while even bottomfeeder big box Menard's is carrying some American made tools. There's some other good deals in tools at Costco too- I drooled over the Danmar portable twin post hoist they've marked down to $2000, but the post's 300 pound weight didn't sound that portable and my 8' tall garage would stunt their usefulness anyways. So I bought their $100 low clearance/high lift jack instead... Rodger, it's the one I showed you when we made the "Costco run" for tech weekend supplies.

Kinda cold ridin' this time o' year, dark too...

ImageThanks to Aerostitch, you can be seen in the dark by the blind, and warm and comfy too. Even if you've just gotten your new custom made leathers after waiting for years, surf on over to www.aerostitch.com and check out their cornucopia of stuff. A whole selection of motorcycling togs, camping gear, tools, and enough books to build a small library too. And versatile enough to work just as well behind a dogsled team as on a bike... What's not to like! And to give you an excuse to visit Duluth, the San Francisco of the north, you get 10% off for shopping at their very much brick 'n' mortar store!

So I'll leave you with this incomplete shopping list, but you get the general gist: Give quality, give versatility, and gift as much as you can afford!

Oooops, forgot the "big ticket" item...

DSC_1620

Ya, I know it should be crimsom red like in the ads Mercedes and such run this time of year. But unlike that pricey Daimler product, this one could actually save you some $$$... If you live in a moderate climate a sidecar can haul lawnmowers, kids, SO's, a cartload from Costco, etc. year round, and you might be able to go "carless". And sure as hell beats a rental Prius for parades!

Discuss

Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 05:51 PM PST

Busted Logistics=Bankruptcy?

by GearheadGrrrl

Ran across this interesting story here on Walmart's logistics problems today: http://www.dailykos.com/...

When most of us think of logistics snafus, we think of empty store shelves. If only it were so simple... Logistics is the science of the river like flow of goods, screw it up and you can have droughts, and worse yet floods. And at the WalMart in question, both empty shelves and overflowing back rooms at the same time!

And that story of Walmart's busted logistics brought back memories of twice bankrupt Hostess Brands. Now back in the late 70s Hostess' logistics were state of the art... Basicly the old timers remembered previous year's sales for a given date and market, made an educated guess of how much to bake and whether to schedule an extra truck and driver, and they generally got it about right. "About right" was less than double digit percentages of bread returned stale, but they had thrift stores to take care of that. Empty shelves were considered a big success, even though empty shelves meant we'd run out of bread and maybe missed some sales.

By the early 80s our Hostess bakery had a minicomputer and soon an IBM PC, and I was doing stats for my grad school classes on a glorified calculator. After having done some multivariate correlation stats, I dreamed of putting Hostess new computers to work... Pour in a bunch of previous years sales stats, current trends, etc.. and I could predict snack cake sales for fishing opener weekend with a lot more accuracy. Promotions like the Beefsteak Bread debacle that had us making extra truck trips just to haul out the stale bread? Just use past promotional sales as a baseline, then use realtime data from the supermarket scanners to update production and delivery plans. But we didn't have real time scanner data in the 80s, and the computers got wasted on billing, payroll, and designing shelf displays.

Now you'd think eventually all that data would have been sliced and diced, and by the dawn of the new century we'd have been scheduling production and deliveries with all that lovely big data. But Nooo... Since the 1950s Hostess had spent more money distributing bread than baking it, and after closing dozens of local bakeries those logistics costs rose even more. I remember doing the numbers on a bakery they closed and sold- The revenue from the sale was eaten up in but two years by additional transportation costs to bring bread from surviving bakeries hundreds of miles away.

Now around the time of their first bankruptcy Hostess dreamed up a logistics scheme called "path to market". While it had elements of what I'd dreamed of in the 1980s like demand responsive production and delivery, it was more an attempt to bust the delivery driver's union than improve logistics. The Teamster drivers saw it for what it was, and the only place it was implemented was in the Memphis area where the delivery drivers were represented by the baker's union. It didn't work there, the executive who promoted it was hired by Hostess Cake's new owners where she's still pushing it, and from what I'm hearing of Hostess' empty shelves around the country, it's not working now either. Meanwhile, Hostess drivers burned up fuel and dollars driving around the country with half full  trucks right up to the shutdown because Hostess management didn't know any better. You can make a slim profit hauling semi trailer loads of bread a couple hundred miles, but not hauling half  loads 500 miles and more.

Like Hostess, WalMart was once known for it's logistics genius. Walmart had their own dedicated fleet of trucks, built up a dedicated cadre of drivers by paying above average wages and benefits, built state of the art warehouses, and every bar code that crossed the scanner signaled the system to make and ship another one. That's no longer exactly the case, as numerous media articles in less than the last year have testified. On the road and in the stores, you can see the difference in the details... WalMart trailers pulled by the lowball carrier Du Jour, and empty shelves that were once perpetually stocked.  And you can see a common thread- Shifting of work from well paid career professionals to lowball carriers that let a load sit for days because they won't pay enough to attract and keep qualified drivers. The same logistics lunacy is taking hold at the Postal Service, which is keeping on the clock carriers and customers waiting 'til noon for mail while management thinks they're saving money replacing morning opening and afternoon closing truck trips  with just one mid day truck.

Fortunately, someone still knows logistics... UPS. To give an example, one night during holiday peak season our sorting center lost all power to the sorting machinery around midnight. Within a few minutes UPS's career building maintenance techs figured out that repairs would take hours, so a contingency plan was quickly put to work. Drivers headed to the down sorting center were diverted to the metro areas other two centers, and everyone with a CDL got into a truck and hauled the unsorted parcels at the center to the other centers. And like everything UPS, they did it to the point of overkill- I was one of the last drivers dispatched to the other center, and by then there weren't any loads left. But UPS didn't cheap out, and sent me "TO" (tractor only) to the other center. UPS wasn't dumb... After a cup of coffee the other center found me a couple trailers that needed to get to the intermodal yard by the 4 am or so cutoff to make the next train.

Yup, that's the secret... While UPS and other successful businesses are "overstaffing" with "overqualified" workers, Hostess and now WalMart are running so fashionably "lean" that they can barely survive a day when nothin' goes wrong... And when things go wrong (as they always will) they crash. Will WalMart be the next big bankruptcy? Wouldn't surprise me at all...

(crossposted from my  Gearhead Grrrl blog )

Discuss

My last post on over at my GearheadGrrrl blog about gearhead lefties got me thinking... Clearly the "need for speed" and in general tinker and tweak  anything that moves or at least has moving parts is a powerful enough instinct to overcome  all the lectures and chastisements that "speed kills", and any social pressure to drive  slow in hopes of conserving energy, protecting the environment, stopping global warming, and probably saving whales and smaller critters too. Drive the speed limit on any highway and you'll have even Priuses with Sierra Club stickers on the back window passing you. Heck,, even the lefty role models are modeling this "bad" behavior- Bill Clinton's got a classic Mustang and far lefty forum founder Kos himself of www.dailykos.com drives a WRX. The need for speed extends down to all ranks of the left too- Gabby Giffords and a few dem legislators ride BMW airheads, and NoDak lefty political commentator and retired legislator Joel Heitkamp rides a Harley the 80 mile roundtrip to his radio gig in Fargo when weather allows. And this ain't nothin' new... Back in the 70s noted lesbian-femiinist write Rita Mae Brown, author of "Rubyfruit Jungle", bought a BMW and drove it like a BMW should be- fast. She paid little heed to the demands of dim-bulb feminists that she slow down more than a mite. And at the memorial service for South Dakota democratic senator George McGovern, friends reveled tales of George's 90 MPH and faster drives across the state.

So if even lefties can't be guilted, chided, lectured, and politically corrected to slow down, the "need for speed" must be a powerful instinct. And indeed it is- Before we had motor vehicles we were racing horses, sailing ships, bicycles, etc.. Given the steam engine, we raced steamboats and trains. And today... Re race everything from riding mowers to tractor trailer rigs! Why? Well, if you're a medium sized mammal who is outweighted by a factor of as much as ten compared to buffalo, horses, cattle, and assorted hungry carnivores, a bit of speed is essential to survival, especially when complemented by our human agility and intelligence.

So does this mean that we're doomed to waste energy and lives in blind pursuit of wind in the face and triple digit speeds? Actually, our need for speed drives technology that improves efficiency... Those little bumps on the roof of a Prius right above the driver and passenger's heads that allow a lower roofline and less wind resistance first appeared on an Italian Abarth sports car in the 1950s. Catalog the tech trickery of the best hybrid, electric, and alternative vehicles of today and you'll find almost every one was developed for high performance cars in the quest for speed. Consider for a moment that the BMW 5 series turbodiesel can turn the same 13 second quarter miles that the legendary "supercars" did in the 1960s... On 1/3 the fuel with 1/100 the emissions!

Our "need for speed" may also explain why electric cars and even hybrids have only taken a sliver of the marketplace. What if the Volt and Prius had been programmed for performance as well as economy, and introduced as lightweight fat tired two seat roadsters instead of emaciated economy sedans? If the rapidly orphaned Pontiac Fiero had been given GM's best Euro-market turbodiesel instead that wheezing  four out of a Chevy II, it'd probably still be selling like hotcakes and be the halo car of a vibrant Pontiac Division.  And what if the Ford Escape Hybrid had been developed into a full fledged off road racer, with a couple hundred extra electric horsepower dispatched to all four wheels on command?

So yes, utilizing the potential of our hardwired "need for speed" instead of squelching it is the way to a cleaner, greener, and faster future!

Discuss

Been shopping for a new car lately, was a decade and 124,000 miles ago when I paid $17,000 including taxes for an '03 VW Golf TDI diesel. During that decade millions of workers lost their jobs and wages stagnated, and one would think new vehicle prices would have at least kept to the rate of inflation. Electronics have dropped in price while adding features, the housing market is a bargain hunter's paradise if you've got cash or good credit, and about the only thing that's gotten pricier is food, fuel, and vehicles.

Why?

Well, I'm still tick'd about all the unwanted gadgetry I was forced to buy with that 2003 Golf TDI- I can wind windows up and down myself quite well, thank you. And those ten or so speakers are kind of a waste in an upholstered tin can anyway. But I still was allowed to shift for myself and there were even knobs on the quite excellent radio. Good luck finding a manual transmission today, and the radios are hiding behind video game like displays... Should I really have to go through menus at 75 MPH just to switch from MPR to KBEM Jazz 88? Sure it's got bluetooth, but I don't mix driving and business. And at every dealership I find cars similarly packed and prices jacked with useless gadgets, pushing even a so-called economy car into the $20k and beyond price range.

Good thing I'm not replacing my 1998 Ranger, which Ford conveniently discontinued. In it's place Ford proffers $30k F150s that get worse mileage and don't haul enough more than the Ranger to matter. Maybe $25k for a 2 wheel drive if you can find a truck only dealer like Boyer in an aging industrial zone, and these "he man" trucks only come with automatics. Want to take an end run around this lunacy by buying a 30 MPG compact car and a trailer to haul your tools and stuff? Most of the automakers have banned trailer towing with their cars and will void the warranty if you try. Ain't much better if you need a big truck for work, what with GM leaving that market and Ford all but abandoning it, leaving you to try to bargain with International and Daimler. Need a really big truck? There's only four suppliers left, and there's little chance to shop for the engine and transmission of your choice everywhere... Your stuck with the truck manufacturer's engine or maybe Cummins.

So you decide to fix up your old vehicle and hang on to it awhile longer... "Cept Volvo seems to be discontinuing parts for Mack trucks built as recently as 7 years ago, VW has no printed manuals anymore and charges $35 a day to view them online, and those manuals assume you have the manufacturers multi thousand dollar diagnostic system that works on nothing else to do diagnosis.

Now if we were all earning living wages and later enjoying our old age pensions this'd be no problem... We'd just buy a new vehicle every few years like we did to the tune of twenty million a year like we used to and pay the dealer to fix it. But wages for new hire union autoworkers have been beaten down into the $14-15 an hour range, and at the nonunion plants in the south starting pay is only $11-12 an hour and don't expect any raises. And it's all downhill from there, with wages at supplier plants often less than $10 an hour, while many construction workers who used to buy a profitable new pickup every year are still unemployed.

So the math is pretty simple: low wage workers simply can't spare a year's wages to buy a new car, bein' as they gotta pay rent and buy food and such too. Yet the deluded automakers dream of twenty million vehicles a year sales, which given that there are over 200 million licensed drivers in the U.S. would only require said drivers to buy a new one every decade or so. But all but the top earning 20% of those drivers are paid too little to afford new cars, and the lowest paid 20% or so are leaving the auto market entirely for transit and bicycles.

Henry Ford, Soichiro Honda, Alec Issigonis, Hans Ledwinka and Nikola Tesla have left the industry. Heck, they probably couldn't even get into an MBA program these days and wouldn't last a day on the assembly line, probably get fired for unauthorized improving of the product. So we're left with lumbering and blundering corporations, led by MBA "whiz kids" who couldn't balance a family budget... Never mind figure out why the workers they underpay aren't buying their overpriced products.

Maybe we need another "sit down strike" to save their sorry MBA asses... And ours!

(crossposted from my Gearhead Grrrl blog )

Continue Reading

( crossposted from my Gearhead Grrrl blog )

Back in the 80s when railroads were going bankrupt left and right, Ed Burkhardt got a heck of a deal on a Canadian Pacific line from Chicago to the Saint paul and some assorted branch lines. CP had just overbid on the remains of the Milwaukee Road, needed cash fast to pay for the railroad they expected to be overbid for, and Ed Burkhardt was in the right place at the right time.

But when it came to actually running the railroad he named the Wisconsin Central, Ed Burkhardt couldn’t do anything right. The IT system and paperwork were so hopeless that dispatchers asked train crews to creep by railcars parked in the sidings and read of the cars numbers… They had no idea what all railcars were on their line and what waylaid cargos they contained! For weeks on end, railcars and cargo rolled up and down the railroad, sometimes passing their actual destination multiple times. And those were slow trains of lost cars, pulled by a fleet of cast off locomotives so unreliable that they’d be sent out with twice as many locomotives as needed, in hopes enough would keep running to make it home.

Eventually Ed Burkhardt’s Wisconsin Central became a reliably mediocre railroad, well suited to low value cargo that was in no hurry to go nowhere. Then in 1996, after regular garden variety derailments and such, Wisconsin Central managed to pile up a few cars of quite flammable HazMat it a small Wisconsin town. The blaze was so intense that firefighters had to retreat and watch the fire burn out while over two thousand residents were evacuated for two weeks. Wisconsin Central paid out 27 million in damages, and a couple years later Ed Burkhardt cashed out, selling his joke of a railroad to Canadian National.

Now at this point a sane man would have figured out railroading wasn’t his calling and retire, but Ed Burkhardt and his backers went and bought some more railroads. Railroading, properly done, is a “hands on” business, to the point that the better railroads like CP send their dispatchers out to ride on the tracks they’ll be dispatching and a BNSF executive lost his life a few years back when a wayward truck hit the locomotive he was riding in. But Ed Burkhardt bought railroads in Maine and Quebec, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Eastern Europe… And is trying to run them all from an office in the suburbs in Chicago! And run it was, just like the Wisconsin Central, with a continuing perverse legacy of deferred maintainence and derailments. And just to juice the profits a bit more, they cut the crew to one and ran even longer unit trains of anything that paid, hazmat included!

So a couple days back a train on Ed Burkhardt’s MM&A Railroad in Quebec has one of it’s five locomotives catch fire… Yup, still running locomotives so unreliable that they send out twice as many as needed to move the train. The local fire service dealt with that, and the sole crew member considered his train parked and headed to a hotel for the night. Now parking a train is no minor endeavor- even if they’re just parking a piece of lightweight maintainence equipment on the siding in my little town, the BNSF crews will set both the air brakes and handbrakes, set a block called a “derail” on the track to keep anything from moving just in case, and padlock the switch so it can’t be miss thrown. With a train near a mile long and all by himself, the MM&A engineer would have had to walk nearly a mile with a heavy derail while setting handbrakes, then walk back near another mile to catch a cab to his hotel. I suspect a few of those steps may have been missed. Real railroads don’t leave trainloads of HazMat in the middle of nowhere, they hate to even park ‘em in their railyards where they can keep an eye on them.

Ed Burkhardt’s rail “empire’ is now effectively bankrupt, the damages from this tragedy far exceeding the value of the assets. Now you’d think Ed would finally ‘fess up that he’d screwed up as an opening plea in a possible felony prosecution. But no, Ed’s blaming everybody but himself and his joke of a railroad empire. Other day he hinted at sabotage, then his excuse was that someone shut off the fire damaged locomotive… If the brakes were set properly, that shouldn’t matter. Today Ed claims that it wasn’t the crude oil in his runaway train that fueled the inferno, it was four cars of propane that his train of crude hit whilst racing out of control that burned. And how did Ed divine this knowledge? A railfan along the tracks informed him… Yup, nearly two decades experience at mismanaging a railroad, and Ed Burkhardt still doesn’t know what railcars are on his joke of a railroad!

It’s the same in the pipeline biz… Some operators will go years without spilling a drop, and that drop will be cleaned up before EPA even gets started on the paperwork. Others buy a rusty old pipeline, up the pressure to make more profit, ignore the leaks, and lawyer up when the big spill happens. Same thing in trucking- I’ve been following the saga online of a manager recently hired to keep a fly by night trucking company from getting shut down by the DOT… My bet is the company wants him to get them just organized enough to avoid gettin’ shut down, then they’ll lay him off. And even after amassing a bad enough safety record to get shut down, these chameleon fly by night trucking operations seem to re-emerge with the same unsafe trucks and drivers under a new name… And the same corporate customers looking for the cheapest rates!

So the solution isn’t to plug the pipeline or derail the railroad… Heck, there’s idiots out there that could burn down a town with solar power and drop a wind turbine on a helpless crowd. The solution is to kick the cowboys, gypos, fly by night operators, and clowns that shouldn’t be entrusted with a tricycle out of the transportation industry… Let the professionals that follow best practices and don’t care if they charge the lowest rates take their place.  

Discuss

Out in the middle of the Dakotahs is a brand spankin' new monster of a beef processing plant, Dakota Beef Packers. Like a lot of monster food industry plays in South Dakota, it was financed by wealthy Koreans in return for citizenship, which may explain a few things. It's a mile out of the nearest town, Aberdeen, which despite having three Super 8s ain't all that big a town... Super 8 was founded there. The plant does appear to be right next store to Aberdeen's sewage treatment plant, which says something about Dakota Beef's logistics priorities. And while they picked a convenient place to dump their crap, they're over a mile from a major highway on county roads. A couple miles to the north is U.S. 12, four laned with federal funds (South Dakota is good at that game) all the way east to I-29, another fine Dakota pork barrel project.

So clearly Dakota Beef has hung their future on trucking and highways to move 1500 head of cattle a day and the resulting marketable products in and out by highway. Today those roads for over a hundred miles in every direction are ice and snow covered, and this is a good day for truckin' in the Dakotas- the roads haven't been closed (yet). It's been like that for the last couple months since normal winter returned to the northern plains, with the roads barely getting cleared and dried before the weekly blizzard turns them to highway hell again.

Now as every old timer up here knows, winter runs into the spring road breakup season, when the frozen roadbeds melt and truck load limits are dropped in response. Dakota Beef is over a mile down county roads, and Brown County just dropped weight limits on virtually every road in the county from 10 to 6 short tons. That means that the trucks running in and out of Dakota Beef will have to run with reduced loads, and more trucks at more expense will be needed to supply Northern Beef and keep it from getting constipated with it's own products. Worst case will be the outbound trucks, with the loaded weight of a standard 5 axle rig reduced from 40 tons to 30, cutting payloads by about 40%. When your nearest major market is 300 miles away and you're 1500 miles from either coast, those reduced loads eat up any profits.

Now not even a mile from Dakota Beef is a lightly used rail line, fact it looks to be just across the next quarter section. Couple miles north up that rail line is the old Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension, now owned and very well maintained by BNSF. BNSF even runs daily intermodal trains to the west coast and Chicago, and they've plenty of capacity to spare. Hustle up a bunch of refrigerated containers, a 4 axle container chassis and 4 axle semi tractor  to deal with the 6 ton load limits, get a similar 8 axle fleet of cattle hauling rigs to keep the plant supplied, maybe even see if they could convince BNSF to haul cattle again... Dakota Beef could keep their business running profitably regardless of weather and road conditions. But then again, maybe Dakota Beef's Korean investors aren't really in business to make a profit, given the previous bankruptcies at the Korean funded Veblen mega dairies in the same state.

Meanwhile, despite the right wingers repeatedly reminding us that nobody rides long distance passenger trains, Amtrak again broke ridership records in 2012. Amtrak did that despite essentially no investment in new rolling stock in over a decade, and their legendary flagship trains like the Empire Builder are getting on forty years old. Amtrak would have probably filled even more seats if they had the seats to fill- with a three decades old fleet, these trains spend a lot of time in the shop. And remember the right winger's rantings about hundreds of dollar per passenger subsidies? Well, passenger fares are now covering 88% of the cost of Amtrak's long distance trains, a figure no other transit service can match. In fact, the short haul passenger trains and light rail that liberals love require far higher subsidies- fares on new billion dollar light rail lines often barely cover the debt service.

So I look out the window at again drifted over Minnesota 23, and with the winds gusting over 40 MPH the rest of the day it's won't get any better. Alongside it BNSF's underutilized  Marshall Sub's smooth continuous welded rail is overmaintained and sees maybe a dozen trains a day... Rails to the rescue!

Discuss
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