Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pondering the Ash Cloud

On the way back from the Flint Hills, I heard on the radio news that more than three-quarters of Europe's flights will be grounded tomorrow due to volcanic ash and that the problem may continue for "days or weeks." The newscast also said that "travel chaos" existed due to the groundings. And, that chaos exists even with Europe's enviable network of high speed passenger trains.

I wonder how many Americans realize exactly the same thing will (not "could," given enough time "will") happen here. A map of potentially active volcanoes in the U.S. is here. California's is below.

Alaska has the greatest number of volcanoes. Will travel chaos reign in the U.S. when one of these erupts? You betcha! Remember, the winds blow from west to east. So, the ash from any of these will cover most of the rest of the the U.S. (and, perhaps, parts of Canada and Mexico), grounding a tremendous number of flights.

While the U.S. has a great network of freight railroads, we simply do not have adequate passenger train

service. Ground U.S. planes and intercity travel in much of the nation grounds to a halt.  Period.

Think Interstate 55 between Chicago and St. Louis is crowded now? Ground the 30+ flights each day (making passengers travel by car) and the FedEx and UPS planes (putting that freight into trucks) and you have gridlock.

I have previously written about the recently released Waiting on a Train. It makes a compelling, non-romantic case for a major expansion of rail passenger service based on economics.

The volcanic ash crisis in Europe is yet another reason why the U.S. needs to move -- quickly -- toward a more intelligent and balanced transportation system. Otherwise, a more serious version of "travel chaos" will occur here when one of these volcanos lets loose.

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