Thursday, June 21, 2007

Transportation in a Post-Hydrocarbon World

What will our transportation options look like when we have effectively run out of oil and our other hydrocarbon fuels? An illustrative look back (forward?) at the transportation history of one small town.

I was raised in a small, Canadian eastern Ontario town, the type of unremarkable place you don't really think of as having a history and would be forgiven for not caring whether it did or not. As it happens I believe it's history is a pretty good indicator of the types of transportation options that we may be forced to consider and cope with as we approach the end of our long slide down Hubbert's Peak as the oil and other hydrocarbon fuels gradually run down to negligible levels.

We have an unfortunate tendency to look at the way things are and think that is as they have always been. We rarely give any thought to how things evolved to where they are. I also think they will evolve as hydrocarbons diminish very much like running that past evolution in reverse. Between now and then we may come up with totally new options that never existed during that evolution to the present. Those differences, though, will be in detail. The nature of our post-hydrocarbon transportation evolution will very much mirror our pre-hydrocarbon transportation evolution.

The location of the town had long been a landing and portage site for native Canadians. The large rapids that existed there before the river was dammed were not navigable but the river was an important connector between Lake Ontario and the watershed and large system of lakes above the rapids. The first white men into the area came either by canoe like the natives or on foot along trails established by the natives through the extensive swamps that blanket the area or, at certain times of the year, on horseback.

Later, after a small settlement was established, a passable "road" (I use the term loosely) was developed from another town about twenty miles east. That rough road allowed wagons to get through to the small community to bring in supplies and materials and, eventually, take product out. Until that time any materials coming to the location arrived by horseback or canoe. The attraction in the area was Iron and the first small community built up around a small beehive iron foundry. When a significant body of iron was discovered the owner considered and began construction on a long canal that would cross over twenty miles of countryside to link the mine and foundry to the navigable Trent River to the southwest. The canal was abandoned, not for lack of feasibility but rather for lack of funds.

The next significant transportation development for the community was the establishment of a road running directly from the community south toward Belleville on the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. The key to this road was the building of a corduroy road that crossed the large swamps in order that wagons could use the road. Most corduroy roads, and these ones definitely, needed major work every spring as the winter freeze and spring thaw would cause the log bed to badly heave. At their best corduroy roads were hell to travel in a wagon but the alternative was a much longer roundabout trip on alternative roads that were only marginally better.

In time, as the Victorian railroad age progressed, a small railway was developed linking the community with the large town of Peterborough, about thirty miles to the west. From there there were other railway connections to Toronto to the west and Kingston and Montreal to the east. That small railway never was a profit making enterprise and changed hands several times before finally being absorbed by one of the large railway companies which eventually took the prudent step of shutting it down.

In the meantime, however, a small spur line into the community was established from Belleville to the south, a spur line that was still functional and in use during my childhood. It was not iron behind this spur line (The small iron mining and foundry operation had failed by this time), however, but rather lumber. A large saw mill had been established in the community for processing the timber cut from the extensive forests around and north of the community. The river running through the community was used to deliver the logs to the mill. The railway was used to take the lumber from there to market.

Over the years a number of wooden bridges had been constructed across the shallows in the river about a half mile below the rapids for a road link to Peterborough to the west. Each of those had eventually been washed away in spring flooding. Finally, last century, a higher level concrete and steel bridge was built across the river (by this time the river was dammed and no longer subject to the major flooding it had once been prone to) and that bridge still stands today.

In 1948 a much larger body of iron was discovered southeast of the town. This became the economic mainstay of the community for the next thirty five years. This was a large open-pit mining operation. The raw ore was processed on site and turned into crude pig iron which was shipped by train on a new rail line built into the mine site. That line linked to a port facility on Lake Ontario from where the pig iron was shipped across Lake Ontario to upstate New York and then by rail to a steel processing facility in Pennsylvania. The rail line into the mine was closed down with the closure of the mine.

Over the years the crude roads into and through the community became paved highways, one of them part of the trans-Canada highway system. The community has intermittently also been served by highway bus services but in recent years even that service has declined. The nearest public transportation service connections are now either south in Belleville or west in Peterborough.

Being a tourist area there have long been well-established dock and landing facilities in the town, many of the lake cottagers preferring to come to town by boat down the river.

As we slide down the far side of Hubbert's Peak many of those past transportation options will probably be investigated again. Although the rail lines no longer come to the community the beds on which those lines were laid are still in place, as are the railway bridges crossing lakes and streams at various points. The portage trails, though obscured under community development, are still there and the river could once again become an important corridor. The current highways, once they begin to seriously deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, could be re-established as unpaved roads and trails. Everything old could become new again.

Most communities will have had a transportation evolution of a similar nature. This evolution is the clearest indicator of what is possible again as we get well past peak oil.


eboy said...

Hi Richard

Where do you live. Is It Marmora?

I live North of Stirling on a farm in the Country.

Since Marmora was the great iron mine of the area.

All efforts towards public transportation of rail and water should be enthusiastically promoted
because of their increased efficiency.

Engineer Poet who has a blog in his article titled "sustainable" promotes a fascinating energy solution.

In short his idea is to use biomass. But but we all know that ethanol offers a very poor e.r.o.e.i. (energy return on energy invested) Bio-diesal is better but this is because the diesal engine is almost twice as efficient as the i.c.e.(internal combustion engine)

So instead of using biomass to make ethanol as a primary product carborize the biomass. Use the heat and energy to drive d.c.f.c.'s direct carbon fuel cells (some are touted as being some 80% efficient!)to produce electricity to feed to the grid.

The by-product is charcoal which is stable. And take the off gas stream send it through greenhouses to grow algea, this would capture the CO2 and then use that to make ethanol.

His presentation addresses the criticism that there wouldn't be enough bio-mass. And suggests that we run towards p.h.e.v.'s plug in hybrid electric vehicles. Electric motors are much more efficient than i.c.e.'s.

This elegant proposal solves 3 main problems. 1 energy self sufficiency.
2 Clean and renewable therefore less to the environment. 3 Would offer an agricultural policy that would provide incomes and opportunity for farmers.

What do you think?

Richard Embleton said...

I am talking about Marmora, but do not currently live there. I grew up there, currently live in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto.

Essentially I reject any use of bio-mass to produce fuels (see my article "Ethanol/bio-diesel vs food" at ). We currently have an increasingly serious shortage of global food production (relative to our current population). The global emergency food grain reserves have now been reduced to a critical 53 days. Any use of bio-mass to produce fuel or diversion of arable land to the production of bio-mass to produce fuel is only going to worsen an already critical situation. Sooner or later, and hopefully sooner, we have to accept the reality that we must reduce our energy consumption and start working on the preparation of a sustainable society. How many lives in the third world is it worth to hve a weekly fill for an SUV gas tank?
Richard Embleton, OBSY

Richard Embleton said...

To Robin (eboy);

I rejected your last comment (too long and does not pertain to this article) but would like to discuss it offline by e-mail. Please contact me at

Richard Embleton