Power Talk: Transportation


While it’s relatively easy to point out problems, I find it far more rewarding to focus on practical solutions. The following post is part of a longer series examining energy production, consumption and waste in Romania.

Obviously the above graphic is describing energy production, usages and wastage in the United States. I included it here because I don’t have a similar graphic for Romania.

I do have some numbers for Romania and they come from this government website, which I’ve transliterated below for your amusement and edification:

Sector % of Energy Used
Agriculture 1.3%
Industry 41.7%
Transportation 17.7%
Residential 32.1%
Other 7.2%

.
Again, like all government statistics, these numbers are slightly out of date. But you can see that roughly half of the energy consumed in Romania goes to industry, a third in homes and approximately a fifth in transportation.

If you can read (or at least understand) Romanian, I highly recommend you check on the link because there’s a ton of “hard” data there. I’ll certainly be referring to it over the coming weeks as I get into this topic in more depth.

Although industry is the largest slice of the energy consuming “pie”, today I’m going to focus on transportation. I’ll get to industry and the other sectors in later posts.

Transportation

According to the Romanian government, roughly 95% of all the energy used in the transportation sector is in the form of petroleum products. So how can Romania reduce its dependence on petroleum? And what can be done “realistically”, i.e. in the present, without waiting for wonder fuels or hydrogen cars and the like?

The Romanian government website doesn’t break it down like this but roughly speaking there are only two things being transported: people and goods (Rom: marfa).

People – Intra-urban

Without having any “hard” data in front of me, it would seem self-evident that the majority of people who are consuming energy in transporting themselves are doing it within a fairly short amount of distance. I’m talking about all of the millions of Romanians who go from one side of the same city to the other in order to get to work or school or something similar.

Yes, technically speaking, walking or bicycling does consume energy, in the form of food, but for the purposes of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and polluting the atmosphere, these forms of transportation are not a problem.

So seeing that aside, what we have left for intra-urban travel is:

  • Bus – petroleum powered
  • Bus – electricity powered (Rom: troleibuz)
  • Tram – electricity powered
  • Subway – electricity powered (Bucharest only)
  • Taxi – petroleum powered
  • Private automobile – petroleum powered

Romania is incredibly fortunate that it already has the infrastructure in place to have both electric-powered buses as well as trams. Why? Because they’re an order of magnitude more efficient than petroleum-powered vehicles. Why is this? Because in a petroleum-powered motor, a significant chunk of the energy (over 50%) isn’t used to move the vehicle but instead comes out as heat. Whereas in an electrical motor, all of the energy is used to move the vehicle and virtually no heat is generated.

Therefore although those electric-powered buses look the same on the outside as petroleum-powered buses, the electric ones are consuming far less energy.

The bad news, of course, is that a petroleum-powered bus is extremely inefficient. It is large, not aerodynamic in the slightest, often running empty (burning fuel with few passengers) and makes frequent stops and starts.

Even though a lot of people dislike the tram, and it does seem to be an incredibly heavy, rattling monster, it is a remarkably efficient form of transportation.

Still though, public transportation, especially when it’s widely used (i.e. crowded) is fairly efficient. One vehicle (bus or tram) is transporting a lot of people. Therefore the immediate short-term solution for intra-urban public transportation would be to electrify the routes (where possible) that petroleum-powered buses are used.

By far, the least efficient mode of intra-urban transportation is the private automobile, whether that’s a monster Jeep or else a tiny scooter. A gasoline-powered (Rom: benzina) vehicle – again – only converts roughly 30% of the energy into forward motion while the rest is wasted as heat. A diesel-powered (Rom: motorina) vehicle is slightly more efficient at 40% versus “only” 60% wasted as heat.

Even worse, over 90% of the forward motion of an automobile goes towards moving the vehicle itself, not the passenger. Take a look at the Dacia Logan for instance and you’ll see it weighs roughly 1100 kilograms. The driver, even if he is a hefty fellow, is going to clock in at about 100 kilograms, making the total weight of the vehicle 1200 kilograms. Clearly the motor in the car is mostly working to push the 1100 kilograms of its own weight, not the 100 kg man behind the wheel.

Compounding this problem is the fact that intra-urban automobile travel is “stop-and-go”, a lot of time spent at red lights, a lot of time circling around looking for parking, etc. Gas mileage (i.e. liters/km) is always poorer in intra-urban travel.

What can be done?

Obviously there are many “wonder” technologies of the future, such as all-electric cars, hydrogen cars, hybrid cars, etcetera. I’m not discounting these but I want to focus on immediate solutions that can be implemented quickly and (at least somewhat) realistically.

Intra-urban private automobile traffic has far more costs than simply its incredibly inefficient use of petroleum. It also clogs up the streets (and sidewalks), increasing the number of traffic lights and delays other types of vehicles need to wait for, and it adds wear and tear to the streets and requires more police presence (to regulate traffic and issue fines, etc).

In Romania it’s almost always non-critical as well. Public transportation networks are well-developed and just about everyone can get to their job or school or doctor with public transportation.

Amongst other cities, London has what they call a “Congestion Charge”. This means that anyone wanting to operate a private automobile within the city limits has to pay a fee. I certainly think this would go a long way to reducing both congestion as well as private automobile use in major Romanian cities. London charges 10 pounds per day but I think even a fee of 10 lei per day would do wonders in Romania.

And certainly for those people who can afford an all-electric vehicle (or perhaps a hydrogen-powered car in the future), this fee would be waived.

But what about taxis? I don’t have any hard numbers but it does seem that a significant portion of intra-urban automobile traffic is composed of taxis. Again, it’s the least efficient way to operate a petroleum-powered vehicle – a lot of stopping and starting, a lot of going only short distances (1-4km), a lot of sitting around (esp in colder months) with the motor running.

I think this is where huge improvements in the reduction of petroleum could be made, all in one fell swoop. Simply put, mandating that all taxi vehicles be of a type that does not consume petroleum would have a tremendous impact.

What am I referring to? Well there are a lot of options available, without waiting for wonder cars of the future.

Let’s look at golf carts for instance. There are millions of them around the world and they are a reliable technology. I’m referring here to the common version, the one that’s all electrical.

It seems that these vehicles can operate anywhere from 30 miles (48 km) to 50 miles (80 km) on a single charge. Clearly that range would be sufficient for a taxi driver in most Romanian cities for an entire day. And in some places people are already using “standard” golf carts as taxis already.

Yes, they are slower vehicles. And yes, they might require some modification to protect against inclement weather (snow, rain, etc). But this is an existing technology and golf carts can be purchased at reasonable prices. All it would take would be a single municipality legislating these (and banning petroleum-powered taxis) and I think the rest of the country would catch on in a hurry.

Additionally, one of the many benefits of golf carts (or all-electric vehicles) is that they are extremely quiet. Noise pollution from vehicles racing past people’s windows would be significantly reduced.

And last but not least, encouraging people to walk and/or bicycle would do wonders in terms of reducing energy consumption. Cluj-Napoca already has a program (UK: scheme) where they “rent” bicycles at no charge to anyone would a government ID. There’s no way to “force” people to walk/bike (nor should there be) but a few publicity advertisements encouraging these modes of transportation would be good.

And it’s also good exercise to walk/bike (or heck, even skateboard) as well, thus reducing medical expenses down the line.

Therefore, concerning reducing fuel consumption to transport people inside the same city, a few realistic and practical steps would be:

  • Electrify bus lines wherever possible
  • Implement a fee for private automobile use inside cities
  • Mandate that all taxis be electric vehicles
  • Increase/implement more free bike rental programs
  • Public advertising campaigns to urge people to walk/bike

People – Inter-urban

Again, I don’t have any hard numbers in front of me, but there are far fewer people traveling between cities as opposed to traveling within the same city. How do people accomplish this?

  • Airplane
  • Inter-city bus/van (Rom: autocar/minibuz)
  • Private automobile
  • Train

I don’t think there’s much that could be done to improve the fuel consumption in these areas at the moment. Most of the inter-city buses/vans that I see are quite full and are carrying their maximum passenger load.

Likewise, the airlines (including TAROM) seem to be operating fairly efficiently, as far as passenger load. Flying is definitely not an economical option (concerning fuel consumption) but it does have its usefulness.

I do note, however, that trains are far emptier than they were just a few years ago. I’ve ridden a lot of half-empty and nearly-empty trains around Romania. I’m sure some of this could be ameliorated by better scheduling (running only the trains people use) but I think the biggest factor is simply the cost. It’s cheaper (and faster) to go almost anywhere in Romania via bus/van than it is by train.

This is a real shame because trains are remarkably efficient (relatively speaking) modes of transportation for inter-city travel. But they have to have a full passenger load for this to be true. Otherwise all the fuel is going to pull the train down the tracks and not to move people.

Furthermore, the rail network in Romania is becoming deteriorated, leading to a lot of delays. People would be more inclined to ride trains if they arrived at their destinations more quickly.

Therefore, concerning reducing fuel consumption to transport people between cities, a few realistic and practical steps would be:

  • Increase subsidies to CFR to reduce ticket prices
  • Adjust train routes to improve passenger load
  • Invest in upgrading infrastructure to decrease transit times

Cargo – Intra-Urban

Cargo is currently being transported from one side of the same city to the other by:

  • Horse and wagon
  • Large truck (Rom: TIR)
  • Van/small truck
  • Scooter

I realize there’s a strong cultural bias against increasing the use of horses and wagons but nonetheless, it’s obvious that they consume zero petroleum at all. I’d really be interested in finding ways to encourage more use of horses and wagons precisely for this purpose.

Logistically speaking, this would require the construction of places to store the wagons when not in use, and to provide feed for the horses. It would also require the removal of any current bans on horse/wagon travel.

I don’t really see a lot of options in reducing the use of trucks/vans in the immediate future. Certainly in terms of fuel efficiency, the smaller vehicles (scooters) are better than large vehicles (trucks) but sometimes there’s just too much cargo for that to be practical.

In some cities (Denmark comes to mind), a lot of cargo is actually transported by bicycle. I have yet to see a single one in operation or for sale here in Romania. For smaller loads, clearly this would be an excellent alternative to petroleum-powered vehicles.

Therefore, concerning reducing fuel consumption to transport people inside the same city, a few realistic and practical steps would be:

  • Full legalization of the operation of horses/wagons
  • Construction of places to feed horses and stable them overnight
  • Sale and encouragement of use of cargo bicycles

Cargo – Inter-Urban

Clearly in a modern, bustling economy, a lot of goods are going to be shipped from one side of the country to the other. This includes everything from the mail to the bananas I eat for breakfast every morning.

Modes of transportation being used to move cargo:

  • Rail
  • Large trucks
  • Smaller trucks/vehicles
  • Airplane

Rail is an incredibly efficient way to move freight, whether it be corn or packages. According to the statistics I found, they are roughly four times more efficient than trucks. Much more on that here.

Again, Romania already has an extensive rail network in place. What would be required is expenditures in improving and upgrading the infrastructure. Right now the mania is to build exorbitantly expensive highways for automobiles but euro-for-euro I think upgrading the railway network would be a far better investment.

Furthermore, a lot of foreign firms are currently involved in building those highways because Romania doesn’t have a lot of people who are experienced in this field. But Romanians are well-versed in rail operations and have the capabilities to do this largely “in-house” without having to rely on foreign firms like Bechtel.

If the rail network were upgraded and could provide a fast, efficient way to transport cargo, I am confident the prices would easily be competitive with other modes (particularly truck).

Again, a train is at its most efficient when it’s hauling full containers of cargo, not running on empty. Therefore schedules and routes need to be fine-tuned to maximize loads per operation.

Therefore, concerning reducing fuel consumption to transport cargo betweencities, a few realistic and practical steps would be:

  • Reducing expenditures on constructing highways
  • Increase expenditures to upgrade and improve rail networks
  • Adjust routes to maximize loads

Conclusion

The issue at hand, when speaking of transportation, is to reduce petroleum consumption.

Certain modes of transportation, such as walking, biking and horses, consume zero non-renewable forms of energy whatsoever.

Other modes of transportations, particularly electric, are not “perfect” in the sense that they still require the manufacture of that electricity (whether from burning coal, nuclear power plants, etc). But in an apple-to-apple comparison, an electric motor is vastly more efficient than a petroleum-powered one.

And when it comes to petroleum-powered efficiency, rail is by far the most economical when properly operated.

Certainly there are “wonder” technologies coming down the pike in the future, as well as some that exist now, such as hydrogen-powered engines, mag-lev trains, and the like. My focus here today is more on what can be done now without massive expense or dramatic political change.

What I’ve outlined above would not only reduce petroleum usage, thus saving money, but also cut down on noise as well as air pollution. Furthermore, it would be an incredibly positive thing to do, and it would be publicized far and wide and make both tourists as well as Romanians excited.

Romania has a lot of petroleum resources but is currently dependent on imports. If petroleum consumption could be reduced just enough to avoid dependency on foreign imports, this would be a shot in the arm to the economy as well. Whether fighting in Libya or earthquakes in Japan or pirates in the Malacca Straights, volatility in oil prices could be completely avoided.

8 thoughts on “Power Talk: Transportation

  1. You should do a piece on train delays, for example how in 2010 or 2009 (I think) the chairman of Japan’s railways quit his job for 3 minutes of collective delay for the full year, while in the same year there was a collective delay of 5 years. Puts things in perspective, right?

    Also, the price is ridiculous – for the same amount of money you can make a round-trip with 4 people in your car, at a much higher average speed (the commercial average speed for trains in Romania is about 50km/h – 30mph). The only advantage in a train is that the would-have-been driver can drink :D

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  2. About electric taxis, in China (Shenzen, I think), many taxis are BYD-made electric taxis. BYD are coming up with some very efficient electric vehicles (including costs and range), as they were originally a battery maker (and still are).

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  3. I love your plan and it would be great to adopt it, but there is a major problem. You are suggesting something that will reduce petroleum consumption and make Romania more independent and everyone know that EU will not stand for that. That’s one, and using the locals to improve the trains….ha….Again, why would you give something like that to romanians and make them independent? The foreign firms that are doing that highway infrastructure have everything to win -> more petrol consumption, not employing the locals…you get the point ;)

    but it’s a good plan :)

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    1. “everyone know that EU will not stand for that” [citation needed]
      I don’t know that so your argument is now invalid

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  4. Just two things in here.

    First, on the public transportation options. Yes, you do have quite a valid point regarding trams/trolleys versus buses on the apparent running costs. However there’s a catch: trams are expensive to buy, you can get up to 10 buses for one tram. Especially when we’re talking large numbers (i.e. replacing the entire tram fleet), the costs are most probably impossible to cover via a town’s own budget. Then the next big issue is the electric infrastructure; a bus is much easier to run on an already-built road. For instance: Timişoara is looking to expand its trolley line to a nearby comună, but the costs to extend the infrastructure run at about 200k euro per kilometer, going up to 500k if one wants catenary wire. Similarly tram tracks and tram engines run at higher maintenance costs than those of buses.

    If you want a clear example, that’s why Constanţa gave up on its tram network altogether. Also that’s why cities like Reşiţa or even Cluj won’t be budged to invest in their tram infrastructure and that’s why they keep running 20+ years old vehicles. I’m not taking a defetist position there, after all keep in mind that Bucharest is currently manufacturing trams (RATB’s factory) and their price could go below the cheapest models available on the european market (2,000,000 euros). This could be a nice hit on the market, just like Dacia hit on the car market. Nonetheless, you’d have the time of your life trying to convince local administrations to think proactively :)

    Second issue is the train infrastructure. As you might be already aware, the network between Bucureşti and Constanţa has been in maintenance for quite a few years now, and still there’s no clear endpoint; meanwhile, trains in the area go as slow as 5km/h due to restrictions. There are many similar routes in the country where the train speed is restricted due to associated risks of collapsing tracks. There a whole chapter for future history books on the downfall of CFR :) point being that it’s been an ignored problem and right now massive amounts of maintenance would have to be done in order to at least get some decent timings via rail.

    Again, try convincing the government that they need to invest in something that will not yield visible results but in 4-5 years or more.

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  5. * Adjust train routes to improve passenger load

    I would also suggest a better schedule, especially for commuters. I have a bus leaving every quarter of hour, while trains are at best just 1 hour apart. That’s why I prefer buses, even though I pay a triple amount of money.

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  6. Yes, sure they are very good ideas and they could be implemented in a few years but no authority will rush to implement them if there is no money for them in the equation. That’s why romanians have little to no faith and respect for the authorities.

    Minister of transportation, u jelly? :)

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