LETTER TO THE EDITOR: There should be an alternative to transport goods, people

Monday, July 23, 2012 | 3:39 p.m. CDT

My wife and I attended the League of Women-sponsored candidate forum at the Columbia Public Library recently. I appreciated the question and discussion about Interstate 70. It encourages me to share our experience from July 3 as we drove home from Columbus, Ohio.

During times when she was driving, I counted vehicles in the eastbound lane in Ohio between Columbus and Dayton, in Indiana between Indianapolis and Terre Haute and in Illinois between Effingham and St. Louis. The counting time/distance was determined by the space on the scrap paper where I listed the numbers (sorry… not very scientific). I counted the big semi-trucks (18-wheelers), and then I counted all other vehicles, including campers, buses, sedans, pickups, motorcycles, etc. 

The Ohio count was 69 trucks and 119 other vehicles. In Indiana there were 59 trucks and 120 other vehicles, and in Illinois there were 77 trucks and 193 other vehicles. The total was 205 trucks and 432 other vehicles, or about 2.1 other vehicles for every big truck. I was amazed. I would have guessed at least 5 other vehicles for every truck. 

I think we need to look at I-70 from a larger perspective. The purpose of transportation is to move people and products from one place to another, and the important question is: How do we do it most efficiently at the least cost to earth’s resources and in a manner that is sustainable into the future? Surely if we can send people into space, we can devise a more efficient system of transporting produce across this vast country than one truck at a time.

Fortunately, there are other options. Rail and water are much more efficient means of transporting freight. Rail and buses are also more efficient for transporting people. In recent years there has been a growing trend to give tax write-offs to encourage all kinds of industry and development projects in Columbia and around the state. What if we gave tax write-offs to rail and bus companies to encourage their developing more and better transportation services? Instead of spending huge tax investments on a bigger and better I-70 for still more trucks and cars, by encouraging rail and bus transit we have fewer vehicles on the highway, improve the safety and pleasure of highway travel, and have much more efficient use of earth’s limited resources.

Cleo Kottwitz is a Columbia resident.

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Michael Williams July 23, 2012 | 6:12 p.m.

"Rail and water are much more efficient means of transporting freight."

Depends upon what you mean by "efficient", doesn't it?

After all, I'm pretty sure you would NOT agree that rail and water are "efficient" with respect to time.

Business folks are pretty savvy. I'm pretty sure they have already recognized that cost savings/mile accrued from rail and water for many types of freight are seriously eroded, if not eliminated entirely, by costs associated with the need for more inventory...such as the interest on loans necessary to cover that inventory.

Here's an example. I can load a truck with goods in Chicago this afternoon and have those goods at a loading dock in KCMO the next morning...and ready for sale by that afternoon. That's a 24 hour turnaround. I can take out a loan for that inventory, then pay it back with interest as soon as the inventory is sold.

Ship by rail? The wholesaler has to deliver my goods to a rail port, find a boxcar headed to KCMO, load it, wait for a train for form, wait for the train to leave, put up with numerous stops in between..hooking and unhooking cars...and wait many days before my goods arrive and are ready for sale. That means I have to support costs for inventory well beyond 24 hours plus the time required to sell it; instead, I have to support an enhanced inventory for a much longer time, probably weeks.

I don't even want to THINK about water transport.

Rail/water work for bulk goods...not the stuff of rapid turnover.

Unless, of course, you as a consumer want to foot the bill with increased prices.

Do you?

PS: Well, you DID want taxpayers to support it, so I guess my question is moot. You...yourself...don't, at least in an easily recognizable form such as opening your wallet and paying for it. You'd rather it be hidden in your taxes (or, more likely, somebody else's taxes) where the money really doesn't exist.

(Report Comment)
Cole Kennedy July 23, 2012 | 6:38 p.m.

Mr. Williams,

Please let me know when you find a means of transport more efficient for intercontinental trade than oceangoing freight.

But seeing as that is irrelevant to Missouri, please do some research on how rail is less efficient than freight trucks. They carry more freight and people, travel with a right of way unhindered by traffic, and use less fuel relative to distance and cargo.

And if you couldn't tell, I absolutely agree we need to spend much more on building up rail connections, both for people and freight, across Missouri.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 23, 2012 | 7:01 p.m.

Cole: It's true that "They carry more freight and people, travel with a right of way unhindered by traffic, and use less fuel relative to distance and cargo." I never said otherwise and I even alluded to those facts at one point.

But apparently you did not read my missive, so I'll restate the point:

Rail and especially water (rivers or port-to-port ships) are notoriously time inefficient. Time inefficiency causes inventory problems which causes cash problems. Do you understand how this impacts business?

"Slow" is not good. Unless you, other consumers, or taxpayers are willing to pay for it.

PS: Let's convert the KATY back to high-speed freight and make STL a deep-water port! What would you say to that? Agree?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 23, 2012 | 7:57 p.m.

Air freight is the fastest mode of commercial transportation. Expensive, but sometimes worth it.

Motor freight firms pay fuel taxes and certain use taxes but do not own the highways they operate on.

Railroads pay corporate taxes, but DO own (build and maintain) their own right-of-ways.

Barge traffic is highly subsidized by the federal government, which has built and maintains the navigation systems. Some barge routes are seasonal only. Barging is slow, but if you aren't in a hurry for the material it's the least expensive mode.

Rail is efficient IF it's long distance and particularly if the entire cargo is the same. Under those circumstances it is at least as fast as trucks and uses considerably less fuel per ton hauled. What makes rail traffic less efficient is short runs and mixed cargoes. This is reflected in the fact that the most profitable railroads are those in the Western United States: UP, BNSF, SP, etc.

There is actually a curriculum in Rail[road] Logistics at one UM System campus. We'd sign you up, but unfortunately our campus is capped for enrollment.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 23, 2012 | 8:00 p.m.

Michael - In this conversation, so far, you are the only one to have mentioned "business".

The others appear only interested in transportation as regarding, freight, people and "efficient use of earth’s limited resources". Is something wrong here?

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks July 23, 2012 | 8:23 p.m.

Cleo I know you said write offs to increase other modes of transportation but do you consider a subsidy a write off?
Amtrak 2011 Subsidies: $563 million in operating subsidy and the $1 billion to cover capital investment and interest payments, you get a figure of $1.563 billion. This amount is for Amtrak as a whole, not just the long-distance journeys.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 23, 2012 | 8:25 p.m.

Michael, I can give another example from my college warehouse job. I worked at a floral wholesaler in Columbia, receiving weekly shipments from South America (through Miami), California, and occasionally overnight orders via FedEx if memory serves for tropical flowers.

The flowers from South America were of course flown into the country (and checked for drugs with a stick-like probe of some sort), then trucked to us along a standard route that the distribution company used. I don't recall how the California flowers were shipped, but I believe it was air freight in an insulated box. Greenery was received by semi on Sundays; I recall several half-days being present in the warehouse waiting for them to show up and unload.

The non-perishable items that we sold to retail florists came in on semi as well. I'm guessing that the smaller loads were not practical enough to ship via rail as most orders we received were one to a few pallets; and of course there's no rail depot that would serve a smallish warehouse in Columbia in a manner that makes financial sense.

The orders we sent out to customers were in even smaller quantities. We had various courier services to deliver orders to retailers three times per day in Columbia, and once a day to various parts of the state, either same-day or overnight. None of those orders would appear as a semi to the casual observer, but they were on the road nonetheless. As someone who worked in the industry and also puts in decent amounts of windshield time, there are couriers and shipment companies on the road that are not in semis.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 23, 2012 | 8:46 p.m.

"What makes rail traffic less efficient is short runs and mixed cargoes."


The writer of this article would have been spot-on if he had said (as did Ellis), "Rail is efficient IF it's long distance and particularly if the entire cargo is the same."

But, he didn't.

Instead, he lumped all freight into

But not all freight is created equal. The Old Un has different requirements than HyVee, local florists, and the research reactor. I should hope so, anyway.

Thanks to all who mentioned air-freight. It, of course, is absolutely required when you need it RIGHT NOW or the freight is perishable! And couriers/smaller trucks work for smaller, faster loads as well on a more localized level.

In chemistry, the rate-limiting step in any set of reactions is the slowest step. All reaction sequences are timed by this one step.

Same thing rail and water. Loading and waiting for built trains are time killers even if you have a 30000 mph bullet train that also has to stop in Peoria, StL, Wright City, Warrenton, Kingdom City, Columbia, Sedalia, Warrensburg, and Lee's Summit to detach rail cars for the local stores.

I inven-tory is similar to supposi-tory. It's related to "business", but not the kind you'd think.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 23, 2012 | 9:20 p.m.

The mention of bullet train reminds me of a piece I read about Chinese. They also seemed to consider freight and "people" in their needs for transportation. The country had a slow aged rail system for passengers. Big problem with moving freight. They built fast rail for passengers and put their freight on the slower rail. Passengers could not afford to pay amount necessary to sustain the fast rail. Now they have slow moving freight and the passengers, for the most part have no long range, transportation.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 23, 2012 | 11:19 p.m.

Michael, I think some people would be surprised by the amount of air freight that once went through Columbia's airport. And I say once since I don't have any recent experience after TWA/TWE went away. I worked a bit for the family courier company after graduating from college and really really hated having to go to the airport for an evening pickup of air freight since the odds were back in the day that the flight would be cancelled or late in arriving. I can't count the number of times I got out there and found out the plane wasn't there yet, or hadn't even left the ground in St. Louis. At least I was friendly enough with the staff that they would let me use their phones instead of feeding the pay phones!

It's surprising how much freight I did see though. IBM had a decent number of parts coming in. I occassionally saw someone from the eye bank picking up a presumed cornea or lens. I picked up Ike Skelton's delayed luggage one time, although I didn't make the delivery to him. I've delivered heart valves and veins to the University Hospital, and medical samples from there went out daily. I got real friendly with the older couple on Broadway who we purchased dry ice from for those medical packages.

I shake my head at those people, no matter their politicial leanings, that think they can impose economic order.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 24, 2012 | 6:41 a.m.

All forms of commercial transportation have their pluses and minuses, and some are far better suited to transporting certain items than others. I've seen drill core samples transported by air from Venezuela to Houston (to clear customs) and then to Wichita, then loaded on a commercial motor truck and taken to Missouri for processing. Why Wichita? Because the plane was a Learjet and needed to have service work done. Upon landing in Wichita the pilot phoned my home and not my office. My wife spoke no Spanish, and his English was poor.)

You don't transport many drill core samples on a Learjet, but if you're in a hurry to get test results...

Among other bulk cargoes barges carry is Portland cement. I've always found that humorous: what would you have if the barge sprung a leak?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 24, 2012 | 9:17 a.m.

Ellis: A mining friend from AZ once sent me a shined-up slab cut from a deep core. 70 oz Au/ton assay.

Yes, I said OZ, not grams.

The thing just oozed yellow.

Good gawd! I'd air-freight it for assay in a real hurry once I saw what came out of the borehole.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 24, 2012 | 12:37 p.m.

Michael Williams:

I'd also hurry an assay on something like an ore suspected of containing gold, platinum, uranium or maybe even copper, but these cores contained clay. Still, they'd fiddled and farted around with the drilling to the point where a major decision needed to be made, and we lacked the information to make that decision. :)

There's more to the story, whether you want to hear it or not. When the motor carrier delivered the cores, there was a bill of lading but no evidence of customs documents. The pilot, still in Wichita, was tracked down. He said he and the folks at Houston Airport were good friends and nobody ever bothers to look inside the aircraft! Our top management notified their top management that this wasn't acceptable practice. I was left with the task of talking with the motor carrier. That poor guy damned near had a heart attack! He envisioned his license suspended or revoked. The pilot couldn't understand what the fuss was about.

#@$%&* Venezuelans!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 24, 2012 | 1:04 p.m.


Clay? CLAY?

I mighta known...only an engineer would get all a-twitter about clay.


PS: Pilots seldom worry about fusses. However, once-upon-a-time I was watching one of those old Constellation airplanes at the downtown KCMO airport running up his engines for a try at the air. One of the lower engine covers on the right wing fell off....clunk!....right on the runway.
Cleanup on aisle 4.

He mighta fussed over that.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 24, 2012 | 6:03 p.m.

@ Michael Williams:

If you re-read my post you'll note that the Venezuelans putzed around getting the job done until air freight was necessary. Ocean freight would normally have been fine.

The Learjet belonged to a wealthy Venezuelan family (related to the then president of Venezuela, who was not the present one); it's primary use seems to have been junkets to Miami when family members required medical attention or to either Miami, Houston or Dallas on occasional shopping sprees by female family members. Life was hard.

The Constellation had Pratt & Whitney piston engines. When the planes sat overnight under the right weather conditions, starting each engine in the morning released a brief torrent of very black exhaust. This didn't inspire confidence in those who didn't know the smoke was not an indication of engine problems. :) MATS (Military Air Transport Service), operated by the Air Force, used Super Constellations. They were identical to the civilian version except all seats faced to the rear.

(Report Comment)

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