The Ergosphere
Friday, October 14, 2005

Best thing SinceSlicedBread

This is an expansion of my proposal at SinceSlicedBread.  Bleg:  Please go there, make an account and comment.  I need your support.

This concept would deal a severe blow to OPEC, be a death warrant for the oil companies and force a redistribution of their economic and political power to the electric utilities and the American people as businesses, families and individuals.  The conversion of the American economy away from oil was stifled in the 1980's; this proposal would jump-start and then supercharge this long-overdue change.

The bare essentials of the 9-point program (verbatim from SSB):

  1. TAX OIL AND GAS.  Rebate taxes on chemical producers to keep jobs here.
  2. REBATE FUEL TAXES VIA WAGES.  Pay it back as deductibles on FICA, etc.
  3. ALLOWANCES FOR AREA.  Cold/rural gets more, nobody freezes or gets priced out.
  4. UPGRADE insulation/furnaces in buildings, update building codes.
  5. PROMOTE PLUG-IN HYBRID VEHICLES.  Every car should go the first 20+ miles/day on electricity alone, no gasoline.  It will pay and cut pollution too.
  6. LAY ELECTRIFIED RAIL.  Electrify railroads (again).  Put rail down highway medians with power wires overhead, put all the semis on it.  Make freight oil-free.
  7. COGENERATE ELECTRICITY from fuel burned for heat.
  8. MARKETS IN EVERYTHING.  Let everyone make & sell electricity, not just utilities.
  9. NO MORE SUBSIDIES for ethanol/hydrogen/biodiesel/wind.  Not needed.

These individual points need more explanation than SinceSlicedBread's length limit allows, so I'm elucidating them here:

1.  Tax oil and gas.

It may seem silly to tax fuel when it's already shot up so much in the last year, but today's prices are severely hurting the working poor while the rich barely notice.  65% of all oil revenue flows out of the country, so it makes sense to raise prices enough to get even wealthier people to change their buying decisions.  This also yields money for offsets to ease the pain at the bottom.

It will also make change in the auto industry.  Detroit isn't going to build lots of partly-electric SUV's unless people would buy them.  $4/gallon fuel would probably be enough to make that happen.  If they guzzle wind power while schlepping the kids to soccer, they stop being noisy, polluting and beneficial to Al Qaeda.

Chemical producers sell to a world market, and should not be put at a disadvantage.  They should be exempted from the taxes on oil and gas; if any taxes are levied, they should be on the products (foreign or domestic) when sold in the USA and not on their raw materials.  (link)

2.  Rebate fuel taxes via wages

If you burn 500 gallons of gasoline a year, a $1/gallon gasoline tax will cost you $500.  A tax of $5 per million BTU of gas will cost the average gas-heated household roughly $250.  Giving every wage-earner a FICA exemption on the first $10,000/year would pay them $1530, or more than enough to pay the extra taxes.  The bonus is, they could use it to buy more efficient vehicles, insulate the house, install CF bulbs or move closer to work too.  Anything they do that cuts the need for imported fuel will save money, and that money will tend to stay in the USA and make jobs.  (link)

3.  Allowances for area

Rural areas and cold climates will have higher added costs from the taxes.  There need to be offsets until new vehicles and upgraded structures have worked their way through.  (link)

4.  Upgrade insulation/furnaces, update building codes

For at least 20 years we've known how to make ultra-efficient furnaces, furnaces which cogenerate electricity, buildings which need next to no heat, and other advances over today's typical practices.  It's time to fix existing buildings (if they can be made affordable), and update building codes so that sloppy, leaky buildings are no longer considered acceptable.  We've got a lot of ground to cover, and we've run out of time; a lot of builders will spend the next few years tightening up structures instead of building new ones, but that keeps builders employed even if the housing market tanks.  These high energy prices are hurting the economy; we'll need some recession-proof jobs, I think.  (link)

5.  Promote plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Electricity is already so cheap compared to gasoline that it would take over if people could only get it everywhere they park.  Tax breaks are barely needed, if at all.  The promotion of plug-ins will come in other forms, which make it easier to use and manage.  I am specifically thinking of:

Getting electricity at home should just mean plugging in a cord, whether home is a mansion or an apartment.  Buying electricity anywhere else should be as easy, and anonymous, as getting a calling card at the 7-11.

Running cars on electricity means that they can get energy from something other than oil.  That something could be coal, nuclear, wind, solar panels on the roof, cogenerating furnaces... literally anything that makes electricity would provide "fuel".  Just about every cent spent on it would stay in the USA, making jobs and investment.  The potential savings are enormous:  some calculate up to 85% reduction in gasoline requirements.  That would be 7.7 million barrels per day at 2004 rates, or most of the output of Saudi Arabia.  Most of the Gulf Coast refineries would be excess capacity, so we'd be hurricane-proofed again without moving a thing.  (link)

6.  Lay electrified rail.

Rail is more efficient than rubber tires on pavement, so if we want to save energy we should move everything we can to rail.  Not necessarily out of trucks, mind you, but the trucks themselves should be able to get onto rails.  Rails could be laid down highway medians to get the big semis and cars out of the same lanes, which would also prevent the semis from slowing traffic and reduce the number and severity of accidents.  Old rail rights-of-way in and out of cities could be revived, creating new and uncongested truck routes.

Most or all rail, both truck-bypass and freight, should be electrified.  Overhead wires would supply power to run trucks and trains.  Diesel fuel accounts for nearly a third of US motor fuel consumption and about 20% of all petroleum products supplied, so taking a big chunk out of that would slice imports a lot.  It would slice import costs even more, due to depression of the world price.  If diesel demand could be cut by 75%, the total savings (diesel plus gasoline) would just about equal Saudi Arabia's output.  If trucks become all-electric and use batteries for their runs between deliveries and the rails (where they recharge while driving), on-road savings could approach 100%.  Pollution and noise would plummet.  (link)

Reference for semis-that-run-on-rails:  Blade Runner Update (read this, seriously)

7.  Cogenerate electricity.

If all of this stuff is going to run on electricity instead of petroleum, the electricity has to come from somewhere.  The total energy of electricity required is going to be a lot smaller than the oil displaced (even truck diesels are only about 40% efficient at best, while electric motors are around 90%) but it's considerable.

It will pay to get lots of this electricity via cogeneration.  Just about any process which burns fuel to make heat and doesn't need an open flame (grills, stoves) is a candidate for conversion to cogeneration.  Steam boilers, gas and oil furnaces, water heaters, and many industrial processes could make electricity as part and parcel of their other operations.  The effective efficiency (extra fuel burned per unit of electricity) can be over 80%.  Some of the oil not burned in vehicles will be needed to make up the difference, but the overall savings will be huge.

Despite lots of cogenerators, wind turbines and everything else, there are bound to be times when electric generation falls short.  We can burn oil for these occasions if we have nothing else.  GE gas turbines are as much as 40% efficient and combined-cycle plants hit well over 50%; burning oil in stationary turbines would be at least twice (maybe three times) as efficient as burning it in gasoline engines, even in hybrids.  If you only need them when the wind is calm and the sun isn't shining, you won't need them all that much anyway.

If all else fails and there really is no electricity to spare for charging, the plug-in hybrids can fall back to being like regular hybrids.  (link)

8.  Markets in everything.

In a nation where all the basements might hold cogenerators and every roof might have solar panels, just about anyone could have electricity to sell sometimes.  People should be able to get a fair price for what they have, where "fair" is determined by who's buying:  buyers and sellers should be able to deal on a scale of days to minutes, with the utility managing reliability and taking only a cut for transmission.  The price someone pays to charge their car at work should be close to the price they're being paid for the electricity made by the Honda in their home boiler, chugging away to re-heat the water tank from their morning shower.  Electricity should be cheap when the wind farm outside of town is cranking on a temperate day, and all the misers should buy the cheap electricity to make ice for the summer's heat waves so they can sit out the dog days with only small fans blowing and count their savings.  And why shouldn't we all be misers, and let our computers do the dealing and counting for us?  We can all save, by better use of what we have.  (link)

9.  No more subsidies

One thing that is absent from this proposal is subsidies for alternative energy.  This is deliberate; if petroleum fuel costs an extra dollar per gallon, this gives the alternatives a cost advantage of the same amount for everything above the fuel involved in making them.  This rewards real energy production and eliminates differential tax subsidy, e.g. taxing the diesel used as road fuel but not the diesel used to cultivate corn for ethanol.

This appears likely to promote biodiesel from waste grease (large cost advantage), not be so good for biodiesel from virgin oil, and kill ethanol from corn (1.34:1 EROEI cuts its cost advantage from 52¢/gallon with current subsidies down to about 25¢/gallon after the fuel for cultivation and distillation are taken out).  Taxes on natural gas will make wind power pay all the better ($5/million BTU costs an extra 3.5¢/kWh to a generator using 7000 BTU/kWh, more than twice the wind production tax credit), and also prompt generators to get the most out of coal, nuclear and everything else domestic.  All projects with good rate of energy return would be promoted, and that's good for both the country and the environment.  (link)


My little 173-word blurb for SinceSlicedBread has grown to over 1900 words here.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; it was a very abbreviated synopsis of a much bigger concept (or set of concepts).  I could go on further, but I think this is enough for a broad overview and real detailed analysis should go in separate posts.  If I do this, I'll add hyperlinks both out of this and back to the individual sections.

Analytical readers, tell you what:  if you want to expand on these things in your own blogs, I'll link to solid analyses that aren't my own.  And if I win anything from SinceSlicedBread, the beer and pizza are on me when I come to town.


I can't think of anything that needs footnotes, but if anyone brings up something that needs that kind of clarification I'll put it here. 
Links to SinceSlicedBread are broken.
That's because the node there didn't exist yet; I had to create the post here to get the URL to enter there, then make the post there and get the URL to edit back into the entry here.

You jumped in during the very short window between.
E-P, I like everything you've got here, especially the promotion of plug-in hybrids and electrified rail. Both require new infrastructure but the plug-in stations for hybrids seem more easily achievable than new rail lines/electrification. We have already made our choice about how we are going to transport goods across country and unfortunately we didnt choose rail (which is about 14 times more efficient than transport by road). Our cities are already built around a road transport network, not rail. It would take substaintial urban replanning and redevelopment to get rail into and out of our cities to allow transport via rail, not to mention the massive undertaking of electrifying the rails. None of this is to say we shouldnt do it - the gains could be huge, 14 times more efficient transport of goods and services is nothing to laugh at and if it comes from electric motors, thats even more efficient - its just going to be hard.

I agree that we don't need any subsidies for alternative transport fuels if we raise gas taxes. We really should be disinsenting the things we don't want people to use, not incenting the things we do want them to use. However, if we want to prevent all the new electricity we will need from coming from coal steam plants (and I think we should want to prevent that) then we are going to need some incentives for alternatives or disincentives for coal steam (I'd say just make it illegal to make coal steam plants and only permit IGCC plants with or w/out sequestration).

I also like the idea of using surplus oil for supplemental energy generation (when the wind isnt blowing etc.). It would be a much better utilization of this resource (especially with cogen) and as long as we are using a small fraction of what we used to use, I suppose thats fine. Also, maybe car companies could parlay their expertise in small ICE engines into designing oil-fired home cogen engines to provide power for the plug-in hybrid and heat and power for the house when the wind isnt blowing/sun isnt shining (for those roof-top thin-film PVs on everyone's house ... hey, we're dreaming; why not do it right!).

Where are the zinc-air cars though, E-P?
Everyone:  Thanks for the comments, in both places.

Nathan, I figure that if we don't fix the problem sometime soon, we're going to become a surveillance society by default.  If we let efficiency get tied to surveillance, we're screwed.

Watthead:  There's only so much you can work into the 175 word limit (you wouldn't believe how much I editted to get even that much into it, and I had all of 2 words left).  And (to be blunt) after filling in the huge sweeps of the synopsis... I didn't even think of zinc-air stuff.  I might not have included it if I had, because people pasting the URL to come over from SinceSlicedBread (they don't allow hotlinks) deserve to be illuminated rather than overwhelmed the first time they come here.

The big deal with rail is rights-of-way.  The beauty of putting rail down freeway medians and running Bladerunner-style dual-mode trucks on it is that we already own the right of way, and the effort required to add rail is probably on the order of road reconstruction.  In Michigan, this seems to get done every 15 years or anyway; rail might be more resistant to weather than pavement and could last longer, and removing the weight of trucks from the pavement would extend its life also.

Electrifying rail means adding poles next to the tracks and suspending wires roughly over the midline.  I don't see huge costs there either; compared to rights-of-way, they look cheap.  Do you have info on this?

I think the real interesting things are going to come about where the rail and road traffic streams split and merge.  But it's late, and I'm going to leave that for another day.
Very good ideas, and Since Sliced Bread was a great find. Good luck!

I agree with Nathan that too many people already have ways to be tracked electronically, and even if the anonymous payments panned out, it wouldn't make much of a difference in privacy issues. I understand your point that privacy issues need to start somewhere.

Watthead, if the trucks were loaded on rails for travel between cities, the trucks would be able to make local deliveries, thus enabling the current urban road infrastructure to be used mostly intact.
Rather than being "loaded on to" rail, I figured the trucks would look something like this and just drive on and off themselves.  They'd be their own "train".

Automatic cruise control would be a possibility, allowing a truck to drive onto a rail spur somewhere and drive off somewhere else with no human intervention between.  Imagine the truck covering miles while the driver sleeps or watches videos.

BTW, Jaqui:  Congratulations!
The truck idea is one that will save energy on several counts, particularly the costs of re-laying the road bed to repair truck transport damage. Pavement damage goes up with (IIRC) the 5th power of axle weight. Allowing mass freight transport on the public roads amounts to a huge subsidy, one that business has exploited to the detriment of rail. Removing that subsidy (in stages) would be a good first step: charge truck operators for the damage they do, maybe even require insurance to cover economic losses due to accidents.

It would be interesting to see if an "adaptor bogey" could be created that trucks would be able to use during the transition. Perhaps drive-on for the front of the truck, leaving the drive wheels in contact with the rail, and jack the trailer wheels, something your local "depot" operator could do in, say, 30-60 seconds. You could even provide a powered adaptor bogey to allow non-hybrid trucks to be powered by the rail electric lines.

It should be feasible, though probably non-trivial, to equip the rail-mode trucks with speed and interval regulation. Automated track switching and monitoring would have to be upgraded to deal with the higher rail traffic frequency. Current wireless and computing capabilities should be up to the job. (Bonus: lay excess optical fibre network along the rail lines with the new track. Sell excess wireless capacity.) You would need sidings for acceleration and exits, and likely need more over/underpasses since level crossings would be busier.

A big selling point could be overall improvements in speed. If the trucks can do a steady 140km/h on the rails while the driver snoozes you get a speed and a safety improvement.
"It would be interesting to see if an "adaptor bogey" could be created that trucks would be able to use during the transition."

You didn't click through the Blade Runner link, did you?  You build it into the truck.  Semi tractors are replaced on a fairly short schedule (they get a lot of miles) so this could work its way in very quickly.

"A big selling point could be overall improvements in speed. If the trucks can do a steady 140km/h on the rails while the driver snoozes you get a speed and a safety improvement."

I don't think 90 MPH is going to be either desirable or necessary, and not just due to safety considerations.  Energy requirements rise as the square of speed.  A truck that cruises at 55 MPH all night will cover 550 miles between 10 PM and 8 AM, and another 495 miles by 5 PM; a truck driven at 70 MPH can only go 980 miles in a 14-hour day, and will lose 52% more energy to air drag while going 65 miles less.

Yahoo! Maps says it's about 1240 miles between Chicago and Orlando.  A trucker picking up a load of produce just about anywhere in Florida in the afternoon could hop on a highway-associated rail network in the afternoon, and be in Chicago the next afternoon even at a paltry 55 MPH.  That's good enough for the next decade or two, I think.
Really surprised to see no mention of zinc after all your fine work on it.

Also, your tax policy confuses me. If high gas prices are hurting the poor, taxing gas and oil means hurting the poor more. You say you'll negate the tax by giving every wage-earner a FICA deduction, but this doesn't help the unemployed, those on Social Security, pensions, savings, or other forms of fixed income. While the elderly and disabled would be paying higher prices, those who are working would seem to have no reason to change their gas buying habits because you've given them a stipend to make up for the increased price. If the stipend is more than their price increase, you may in effect be subsidizing the purchase of more gas and oil.

Further, won't pumping equal amounts of money to every wage earner just inflate the money supply and increase prices? And are you suggesting we make up the FICA shortfall with gas and oil taxes? Help me understand why it doesn't make more sense to mandate higher MPG requirements, and to give tax breaks for building and buying hybrid vehicles and upgrading buildings and furnaces, if your goal is to get people to use less gas and oil. If you've done the numbers on your tax proposal, I'd enjoy seeing them.

I also think asking for "digital anonymous cash" is a bit like rubbing the lamp and asking the genie for three more wishes. That's a whole different debate that derails the subject. I'd drop that as well.

Much of the rest is well said, esp. cogeneration, promoting plug-in hybrids and enhancing our existing rail system. Personally, I'd like to see us move beyond outlets to create a safe contact system that only requires you to tap your bumper to a surface to begin charging.
Again, Dan, I used 173 words out of the 175-word limit.  It was hard enough to get 9 points in, and I didn't feel like confusing people with an idea that might work great but is utterly unfamiliar to them and requires a great deal of explaining.  If they come here and want to read about what zinc might let us do, that's about all I think I can hope for.

"If high gas prices are hurting the poor, taxing gas and oil means hurting the poor more."

Quite the opposite.  Consider the redistributive effect; SS/FICA is the most regressive tax levied on wages, while the working poor can't spend very much money on fuel because they don't have much to spend.  A rich guy might have a 13-MPG Durango and drive it 25,000 miles a year; a dollar a gallon would ding him for $1923 a year directly, plus increased costs for goods.  The poor guy driving 15,000 miles a year in a 28-MPG Escort pays only another $536.  After a $1530 exemption the Durango driver would be about $400 out of pocket, while the poor Escort driver would be almost a grand to the good.

Fuel prices would also prompt shippers to economize.  Why don't semi-trailers have inflatable boat-tails to cut their drag?  If semis could go from 7 MPG up to 10, that would more than offset the difference between fuel at $3/gallon and $4.  (We'd probably need a Federal rule exempting the inflatable sections from state length limits, but that's one of many non-tax, non-technical details that need fixing.)

"... why it doesn't make more sense to mandate higher MPG requirements... ?"

Because it doesn't work.  We saw plenty of growth in petroleum consumption despite CAFE standards, all because miles-travelled actually got CHEAPER.  Nobody cuts down on cheap stuff.  Few people bother to look for reasons to use less cheap stuff.

Keeping fuel at the same old price doesn't give anyone a reason to change their driving habits or other decisions.  CAFE regulations are counterproductive in at least one way:  they drive up the cost of new vehicles and give people no reason (and no money) to scrap their old, polluting guzzlers.  There's actually a disincentive to do so.

To change this, you've got to reverse the economics.  The only way you can do that is to make fuel cost more.

Conventional hybrids are on the margin at current fuel prices, and plug-in hybrid conversions are way too expensive to be worthwhile at only $3/gallon; similar arguments apply to natural gas.  Yet we can't wait for fuel prices to go up before we do something about it.  The cars and buildings made today are going to be around for a long time, and they need to be suitable for a future with a lot of uncertainties in it.

That's why the taxes would work.  By increasing the benefit from a given savings effort, they get people to economize and to switch.  They make all such efforts pay better, and that's the key:  what gets rewarded gets done.

"Help me understand why it doesn't make more sense ... to give tax breaks for building and buying hybrid vehicles and upgrading buildings and furnaces, if your goal is to get people to use less gas and oil."

There are a lot more ways to avoid burning fuel than there are to get a tax credit.  If someone gets a tax break to buy a hybrid that saves 1/3 of their fuel, you'll save 1/3 at most; they might drive more.  If natural gas costs the same, they might not bother to insulate.  But if they pay more in fuel taxes, they might decide they have better things to do with their money and time than driving, or they might decide that shrink-wrap on the windows and a setback thermostat are just the thing to add to the free-after-taxes layer of blown-in in the attic.

What gets rewarded gets done.  Make all savings pay, and people will find lots of ways to save.
"I would make the tax rebate an income tax credit, rather than a FICA credit. You get the same effect - by eliminating the regressive element of a gas tax - without complicating FICA."

Except that the income tax has a rather large zero-bracket amount and personal deductions, so it would mean adding a negative income tax bracket.  You'd also have the problem that income tax credits require paperwork to pay in advance (like the EITC); a simple deductible on FICA would be much simpler, requiring only a paper transfer between the fuel-tax account and the FICA account to make it even.
Ah, that is one sweet truck, er, train. I should have followed the link earlier, but there was alot to digest at once. It looks like a feasible idea and I try the slow speed reasoning on my husband, but he doesn't seem to care.

And thank you :D

Dan, I like the idea of the bumper charging. Very cool!

A tangent, but possibly helpful: Aysemmtrical Information has a proposed tax plan that includes a negative income tax.
Norfolk Southern already offers a service using cars known as RoadRailers, which have both conventional wheels and railroad bogies. For the rail portion of the journey, they are pulled by conventional locomotives on ordinary rail right-of-ways. No special equipment is required for the road-to-rail transition and vice versa.

Observe that if individual rail vehicles are autonomous, headways will have to be longer than for trains--much shorter if automated than if totally manual, but still not a matter of a few feet as with cars in a train. Also, a train saves driver manpower, whereas this approach does not, unless there are facilities for totally automated travel over long distances, with the driver picked up at the end.

Big advantage, of course, is shorter and more predictable delivery schedules, since vehicles need not wait for assembly into a train.
US business obviously finds it worthwhile to spend the labor (as well as the fuel).  The fuel is becoming increasingly pricey, so any measure which cuts requirements will rack up more savings over time.

If the trucks-on-rails allow operation on autopilot, the truck can cover distance while the driver is otherwise occupied or even asleep.  Being able to cover several hundred miles during a sleep period would be a huge increase in labor productivity.

Automated trucks might also allow "trains of convenience", where a short train with dining and sleeping facilities is followed by a bunch of trucks on autopilot.  A further refinement is (as you noted) drivers take trucks to a rail siding and drop them off, they travel as part of a "train of convenience" to another rail siding, and a local driver picks up the truck and drives it to the final destination.
Semi tractors are replaced on a fairly short schedule (they get a lot of miles) so this could work its way in very quickly.

I did have a look at the site, I was just thinking about roll-out and replacement times. If the turn-over is indeed high then, yes, an interim solution would be too much.

Energy requirements rise as the square of speed.

True only for the first truck in the tightly controlled, train-like convoy. The v^2 is pressure drag. I remember Dad getting ~35 mpg in the 70's in a V8 Chevy Caprice station wagon by drafting behind a truck all the way across the U.S. mid-west. :) Dumb thing to do in a car. Key energy saver in a train.

Truck-trains with sleeper cars are trying to get off the ground here in Canada and in Europe. A few run every day in Switzerland for the long haul from Germany to Italy. Two factors work against it here. Firstly, "just in time" manufacturing relies on cheap, government subsized, truck transport to eliminate inventory. Seondly, scheduling (at least here in Canada) has been unreliable so that the other trucks have not been able to trust it. The scheduling is getting better. I'm not sure that the savings in "just in time" are offset by the increased fragility of the system, I suppose time will tell.
Until you get to the point of losing the driver, the truck-on-rails looks fairly robust to me; if you have any kind of breakdown or blockage on the rail line, the truck can simply drive around it.
Bubba, I'm glad you asked that.

My claim is for energy at the wheels, so let's work through with typical efficiencies.

Gasoline:  20460 BTU/lbm and 6.167 lbm/gallon is 126,200 BTU/gallon or 36.96 kWh/gallon.  At $2.80/gallon and 17% conversion efficiency, gasoline costs 44.5¢/kWh at the wheels.

Electricity:  At 12.5¢/kWh and 73% combined charger, battery and motor efficiency, electricity costs 17.1¢/kWh at the wheels.  That's less than 40% as much as gasoline.

If you're only charging at night you can probably get a much lower off-peak rate for the car, making the comparison even more lopsided in favor of electricity.  You'd need prices around 32¢/kWh at the wall to get close to the cost of $2.80/gallon gasoline, so small differences in price or efficiency don't change this conclusion.
These comments mesh quite nicely with my GRINT conception (Grid of Renewable Integrated Networked Technology)- outlined at, available as a free word document.
I'd suggest that truck-on-train for long distance, as is already done in Europe, is a better option than road/rail trucks - remove weight and complexity, don't add 'em. I would think that autonomous rail vehicles would make the rail network much less efficient due to head times and signalling problems. And trucks-on-trains has been around since the second world war - absolutely nothing new or strange to go wrong.

Also, why move the tractor units around the country? European ferry shipping carries a lot of trailers on their own - saves shipping the tractor. Load the trailer on a train at point A, send it to point B, a local (hopefully diesel-electric!) tractor picks it up to deliver it over the last few miles.

That also means that existing roads around the city edge aren't wasted completely.
You've got good points there, and trailer-on-train is probably more efficient (in energy and labor) than the alternative.

But that's not the only consideration.  There's a burden of coördinating the arrival of the trailer with the availability of a flatcar.  There have to be enough loads going to a common destination to be worth it, and they are going to travel at the convenience of the train; time-sensitive loads need not apply.  At the other end you have to coördinate the arrival of the flatcar with a tractor to pick up the trailer and drive the final leg.

Using conventional trains also requires connection to the existing rail network.  There's a lot of current and potential rail that isn't usable with conventional trains:  rail segments laid in freeway medians, short lines now broken from the major routes by abandonment and development of urban rights-of-way, and so forth.

A rail-capable truck has a bunch of advantages:
1.  It can hop on and off rail as required; discontinuous systems are only a minor issue.
2.  It can operate on its own schedule, so long as the rail lines are not blocked by other traffic.  Rail laid down freeway medians would not be blocked by e.g. coal trains.
3.  It requires a much smaller coördination burden, making it suitable for even single loads.

I'm sure we'll have a place for all kinds.
Why is it that nobody -- and I mean nobody -- can see the affect that high carbon taxes would have on governments?

THIS MONEY WILL GET SPENT! This is a bad, bad, bad idea, akin to paying for health care by way of cigarette taxes.
It can't get spent if they have to give it right back in another way; that's the whole point of the FICA deductible.
I believe that is a problem that an energy system cannot be expected to solve.

Open season on vandals, on the other hand....  No society can long survive when those bent on destroying it have free rein, and I'm astonished at the deference to their "situation" shown by Britain.
I know it is less grandiose, still how about electric short-haul tractors?

The diesel over-the-road tractor hauls the freight to a terminal outside of the urban destination, where it disconnects from the trailer. A battery powered tractor then connects to the trailer and completes the shipment of the load to the destination.

Yes, coordination is required, and in this day of GPS it would seemed that skilled dispatching would reduces issues brought about by switching trailers.

This approach still reduces fuel consumption, air pollution and noise.
I did calculate something on zinc-air cells to run a semi last month.
It can't get spent if they have to give it right back in another way; that's the whole point of the FICA deductible.

Still not getting it.

The problem with "eliminating" the income tax with some other tax is that the other tax will get enacted, too, but the income tax won't get removed along the way. The way to avoid this problem is to not enact the tax in the first place. Or, why is Congress busying itself with the elimination of the second mortgage interest deduction?
E-P, you keep mentioning the truck-train being able to jump off the tracks and drive around obstructions whenever it needs to. How do you picture this working? Are you assuming that there are roads adjascent to all rail lines because while this may be the case for some portion of rail, it certainly isnt true for all. Are the trucks going to off-road it around the obstacle? I'm not sure that this is possible in many situations (think of rail lines running along riverbeds, up mountain passes etc.) and if it isnt, we've still got the scheduling and coordination problem of significantly more traffic (i.e. lost more invididual drivers) on the rail system.

If we begin laying track down medians of highways, this idea might work. However, that itself presents some difficulty as it would probably require a LOT of infrastructure to be rebuilt, i.e. overpasses that use the median area for support, bridges etc. This is why it's so hard to add another lane to congested highways. It seems like you could just add them in the median and construct a concrete divider between the two directions but it isnt that simple. You have to rebuild bridges and overpasses etc.

Anyway, I think this is a promising idea, I'm just not completely clear on how you picture it being implemented. It could be done but it wouldn't necessarily be as easy as you make it sound.
Rob, if petroleum is disappearing a petroleum tax has rollbacks built into it by virtue of geology.  Congress might as well give it all back to the public (and would have to, to avoid enormous hardship) because it's going to be sliding almost from the first; that's the whole point of the tax.

Jessie:  I figured that the trucks would hop off at a regular off-ramp or grade crossing, drive along the road like trucks, and hop back on at the next convenient on-ramp or grade crossing.  You're certainly not going to drive a loaded semi through a wet drainage ditch, but opportunities for entrance and egress aren't exactly rare in most parts of the country.  At worst, emergency ramps (allowing very low speeds) could be placed every few miles.  Even if you had to back up two miles to get away from a blockage, that wouldn't take very long at speeds as low as ten miles per hour.

"laying track down medians of highways... itself presents some difficulty as it would probably require a LOT of infrastructure to be rebuilt, i.e. overpasses that use the median area for support, bridges etc."

Most of the freeway I'm familiar with has a reasonably wide shoulder space even on the inside beneath bridges; police cars routinely loiter there to catch speeders.  Adding another lane's worth of track there instead of shoulder wouldn't require the bridges to be rebuilt.

I would not be surprised if there are some areas where current infrastructure isn't compatible with a rail lane; the current construction mess on the east side of Toledo is an excellent example.  (If you haven't driven through it, don't ask.)  The alternatives there are to build a dedicated bypass for the rail "lanes" (expensive), put the trucks back on the road for that segment (foregoes the congestion and safety benefits), or convert a lane of pavement to rail.
For reference, fuel in the UK is already taxed up to about $6/US gallon (£1/litre). This is about as far as it can go without riots.
"Most of the freeway I'm familiar with has a reasonably wide shoulder space even on the inside beneath bridges; police cars routinely loiter there to catch speeders. Adding another lane's worth of track there instead of shoulder wouldn't require the bridges to be rebuilt."

In the Portland, OR metro area, most of our highways are getting frustratingly overcrowded. The city is outgrowing its infrastructure and around here at least, it isn't easy to add another lane to a highway. There are wide medians for most of the stretches of the highway but various constrictions (bridges the highway goes over, overpasses it goes under, hills its dug into during grades etc.) make it hard to add a lane and would similarly make it hard to add more lanes for rail. Metro area highways (i.e. commuter routes) are worse than the Interstate routes outside of the city but these highways still go through constrictions at times which would make adding rail difficult.

Again, it could be done, just like we do add lanes to releave congestion (eventually) but, at least on the highways I'm familiar with, it would involve more than simply laying down the tracks. You first have to make room for them...
Mr. Clay, will people riot if oil goes to $150/barrel and the pump price follows?

Jesse, it may not be feasible or desirable to provide anything other than a bypass around Portland, then.  Then again, if space is at such a premium it might be worth routing the traffic overhead, as I-80 is over Wallace, ID.  Trucks on elevated tracks would be above e.g. noise walls, but if they were rolling under electric power they might be less intrusive than they are now.
It would decrease congestion a lot; slow vehicles like semis are one of the biggest causes of traffic backups.

Some cities, like Chicago and New York, have RR tracks running through town.  Some of these have been abandoned.  Moving truck traffic (including garbage trucks and the like) to rail for cross-town or out of town trips would get traffic off the roads and eliminate the waste from stop-and-go driving of the trucks in traffic.
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