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President Putin prods hydrail ahead

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

By fiddling with his oil faucets and natural gas valves, Vladimir Putin may be having the same unintended acceleration effect on Europe’s diesel-to-hydrail transition that John L. Lewis had on the coal-to-diesel transition in the USA during the last century.

Recently I’ve heard two ambassadors from European countries explaining to American audiences what ails the EU’s economy. Putin’s delight in brandishing his oil and gas withholding leverage figures prominently. Casting diplomacy to the winds, one ambassador referred to Putin’s grasp of the situation using a homely metaphor having to do with seizing private body parts.

It’s been observed that Putin sees himself playing chess while President Obama is playing checkers. It won’t have escaped Putin’s notice that the forty Alstom HMU (Hydrail Multiple Unit) trains that Northern Germany will see by 2020 means the permanent loss of some fraction (not even a pawn’s worth) of his rail diesel export revenue.

He may not, however, have tumbled to the probability that those first forty hydrail trains amount to a rolling snowball at the top of an Alp.

Long ago, Europe honed railway electrification to a fine edge. But, ever since the end of steam, the trackage beyond the wire’s end has been diesel. If Europe had no fear of uncertain oil supplies or price manipulation, the high cost of maintaining wayside electrification plant might easliy have tipped the balance of the climate menace in diesel’s favor.

But North Germany’s superabundance of night-time wind turbine energy—readily expressed as hydrogen gas—is a natural hydrail fuel source. That means the track beyond the catenary will not always rely on Putin’s oil.

By making the rail diesel supply more problematic, he’s made the transition to hydrail less so.

When Vossloh, the high-tech German locomotive manufacturer, rolled-out their new D18 model, they made it “Future-Proof” by designing-in a hydrail prime-mover option. By so doing, they made their locomotive potentially Putin-proof as well.

In 2006 Vladimir Putin was in his second term as President and Mikhail Yefimovich Fradkov (later head of Russia’s Foreign Inteligence Service) was Prime Minister. That was the year that the Second International Hydrail Conference was convened in Herning, Denmark. “2IHC” was hosted by Danish scientists interested in using Jutland’s ample wind energy to re-power the diesel rail line from Vemb to Thyborøn, making it the world’s first hydrail passenger service.

In that more relaxed time, Ms. Sandy Kaiser, the US Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission (second only to the Ambassador) gave the opening speech at 2IHC.  Russian Railways sent a delegation of nine—by far the largest delegation ever sent to a Hydrail Conference. The proceedings were conducted in English and simultaneously translated into Russian.

A year later the Danish hydrail vision was eclipsed by the sunset of the world economy (not to say the dawn of the Great Recession). Iceland (founded by Danes) had been planning to achieve the world’s first zero-carbon national energy economy. But their sovereign wealth funds were invested heavily in bundled US mortgages adulterated with sub-prime funnymoney debt. Ironically, in Iceland’s fiscal crisis, Russia made them a big bail-out loan, sourced—one supposes—in oil revenues!

In the 1940’s, when most intercity passenger transportation was still by rail and rail was still powered by coal, United Mine Workers’ President John L. Lewis had the same rather personal grip on America that Putin (per the ambassador’s speech) has on Europe today. In the chaos that resulted, the painful grip was pried loose, in part, by converting some locomotives from coal to oil.

Very likely no hydrail intelligence at all percolated up to the former KGB pro and chess champ back in 2006. But Vladimir Putin might do well to note how the “United States versus John L Lewis” game eventually played out.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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