You Can’t Get There from Here

If I told you you can’t get there from here, you’d probably laugh at me. If I insisted that you can’t, you’d probably, to humour me, pull out the road atlas and point out the route.

But wait a moment. What if you couldn’t drive?

We lived in Europe (in the Netherlands) for a year. Yes, we had the use of a car — walk out the door, slide behind the wheel, turn the key, go. But we also had a national public transit system (my Nationale Stripkaart, as it was called, could be used in any town or city transit system, not just my own, to pay the fare). The intercity rail system ran everywhere, frequently. High speed trains connected the country to others: I could get from The Hague to London, Brussels, Cologne, Paris as fast or faster than flying. Of course there was also an international hub airport, plus regional ones close to hand. Ferries plied the waters of the North Sea offshore going in multiple directions. Intercity buses were clean, comfortable, frequent. Should I go on?

The point is that the more you restrict how you can get somewhere, the more likely it is that suddenly “you can’t get there from here”.

Take my in-laws. They have a cottage in Haliburton, north of Toronto. It is a much-loved place: summers see them more up north than at home.

But there is no way to get there except driving. You can’t go by train (no line), bus (no service), or take one of those, or fly, to a place close by and then use a taxi (no taxi service).

My father-in-law is 82. One of these years, he’ll get to the point where his driver’s licence isn’t renewed — or he’ll take himself off the road for reasons of health. My mother-in-law doesn’t drive.

On that day, the cottage becomes a place where “you can’t get there from here”.

I got thinking about this because I had a conversation yesterday with a friend of mine who lives in the United States. He’d like to come visit Toronto and see me, but he’d prefer not to drive (too hard on him physically to spend that much time sitting). I’d suggested the train as an alternative, since he can see his local Amtrak station (at least he has one!) from his house.

I spent most of the day yesterday trying to find a set of connections that made sense. It’s an 856 km (535 mi) road journey, or about 10 hours in the car.

Well, the best I can do is a day and a third one way, with an overnight hotel stop. That would be crossing at Detroit-Windsor … which means a cab with the meter running going through the customs post (you have a choice, bridge or tunnel), or leaving the Amtrak station in Detroit, taking two Detroit city buses to the connection with a Windsor bus to go across the border through the tunnel, then to a hotel opposite the VIA station in Windsor and carry on in the morning.

It’s worse trying the Niagara crossing, because the cross-border train there operates once/day and you miss all the connections every time.

This is the same as going from The Hague to Munich, Germany — and a train would have done that in less than seven hours (although, to be fair, it would be about an hour faster to take the train to Amsterdam Airport and fly to Munich Airport, then take the train into Munich), although here the distance of 800+ km is where air travel should be part of the options.

For my friend, my next move is to look at him going up to Chicago by train, taking the CTA to the airport and flying the 90 minutes to Toronto simply as a point of comparison.

But North American railways aren’t just infrequent, poorly connected, and don’t go to a whole lot of places any more: they’re slow. My friend can drive to Chicago faster than the train will get there. (If he took an intercity bus, he’d take twice as long as the train to go 70-odd miles: over five hours travel time. Ridiculous!)

What we’ve done, as I think you can see from this tale, is create a situation where our only choice is to keep happy motoring alive. Which means we live in a society that must subordinate everything to keeping the petroleum products flowing and the roads and bridges in good repair.

We’re already there, of course. Piece by piece, the rest of the economy and the rest of our government services is being sacrificed to keeping things moving. What’s left of our capital stock is mostly going into energy exploration and development. We’re counterbalancing the high cost (energy return on investment [EROI] and energy return on energy invested [EROEI] alike) of shale oil, oil sands, deep water wells, and the like with interest rates and general returns that destroy pension funds and make commercial investment dicey. The employment numbers tell the rest of that story.

If we were smart, we’d be building alternatives, and quickly. While lovely high-speed rail networks like China’s, or Japan’s, or Europe’s would be nice, even regular, frequent, and back-to-the-age-of-steam speeds on regular rail is essential. If that means double-tracking to have passenger and freight traffic co-exist, then so be it. That rail is far more efficient than any other mode of transport than a canal barge in terms of fuel usage is just a very important side benefit.

In 1930 it took two and a half to three days to drive — and five to six hours to go by train — for a journey of 500 miles. How on earth did we get so slow and stupid?

For, if we don’t do this and soon, we are soon going to all be in the cottage trap. You won’t be able to get there from here (as roads decay, bridges aren’t fixed, gasoline gets too expensive for the cars we have, for once we hit a 1:1 EROEI (and we’re at an average of 2.5:1 now, falling fast, and substitutes like ethanol are already less than 1:1 [more energy goes into producing a barrel of ethanol than we get out of it when we do it with industrial-scale corn production]) the game is over and supply constrains.

Sigh. I had no idea it had gotten this bad, so quickly.

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2 Comments

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  1. William F. Spaulding 28/06/2012 — 21:46

    So much for advancement in transportation over the years.

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