Infrastructure (Planes, Trains and…..)

One of several items the Biden Administration has been able to pass is a big infrastructure package, decades overdue. (His predecessor held Infrastructure Weeks, but got nothing done). Perhaps Mitch McConnell supported it because of a crumbling bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky which is slated to be rebuilt. Doesn’t matter.

Recently, we needed to journey to Washington, DC to resolve a medical issue. Our adult kids forbad us from driving from our home in Virginia Beach “up there”; at 83, I arguably shouldn’t be driving, let alone several hours over interstates. So, they sent us up there on trains.

It’s been, literally, decades since we had last been on trains. Our route ran from Norfolk to Alexandria, then continued north to Boston, with five stops along the way. The ride up was pleasant, the return trip, not so much. While we boarded in Norfolk as the start of the route at about 6AM, everything was on time. The return, however, probably originated in Boston, on an extremely hot day. By the time we boarded in Alexandria the train was already two hours late.

It may seem like nitpicking, but the stations were ancient and in need of refurbishment. The AMTRAK employees were polite and helpful, both in the station and onboard. They were undermanned. On the return trip, our tickets weren’t even checked. The delays were probably caused by tracks being overheated (it was a hot day), but one wonders how bad it would be when climate change reaches an end point (if ever). Since trains are probably the oldest method of intercity travel, they are, arguably, most in need of rehabilitation. With Amtrak Joe in the White House, hopes are high!

I haven’t flown recently, but from what I hear, our airports, control systems, and aircraft are also in need of modernization. Being a very large country, we were probably the first in the world to develop intercity air travel. After decades of neglect it shows.

In the 1930’s, Lt. CoL Dwight Eisenhower was ordered to move some equipment and vehicles from the West Coast to the East Coast. The trip, over miles of old U.S. highways, took a ridiculously long time, much longer than Ike had planned. He became President, and fathered the interstate highway system. I well remember taking a cross country trip in the summer of 1961 with a friend, from New York City to Los Angeles. We went on the same roads the future president had traveled as an Army officer, except for completed portions of Interstates. You would go a ways on an Interstate, only to be led back onto the old roads. Miles and miles of Ike’s roads are in drastic need of repairs, not to mention widening (the U.S. population has increased 2.5 times since then).

Money has (finally) been allocated to repair numerous crumbling bridges and highways. However, the nation’s information highways are also in need of repair. Broadband needs to be expanded, particularity in “flyover country”, between both coasts. If only for our kids; if you think the pandemics are over, I’ve a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. And, how about our electrical grid? Perhaps even Texas might be persuaded to join the rest of the country?

We are transitioning from fossil fuels, or so I hope. Apparently, electric cars will be common on our roadways by midcentury. I hope we’ll have enough charging stations by then. This, in turn, will require a massive increase in electric power generation, there being no such thing, to my knowledge, as a free lunch. Waiting in the wings? Power derived from fusion, from an almost inexhaustable source of cheap material, such as water.

A short physics lesson. We are all familiar with nuclear power plants (think Three Mile Island, Chernobyl). These plants generate power from fission. Heavy radioactive elements (radium, uranium, for example) are caused to split into lighter ones, releasing lots of energy. On the other hand, if two much lighter elements (such as tritium, a “heavy” form of hydrogen) can be made to merge (fusion), even greater amounts of energy result. This is the source of the sun’s energy, as well as that of the hydrogen bomb. Unfortunately, bringing about fusion in a controlled process is an engineering challenge which has eluded humankind for decades.

What’ll it be? Fission or fusion? If the engineering challenges can be worked out, fusion is the way to go. Products of fission reactions are radioactive, some of them for centuries. This presents storage and disposal problems we have never really solved. Fusion reactions, by contrast, produce light elements, for the most part, harmless. All we have to do is get it going

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