Posted August 1, 2017
Mount Washington is New England’s highest peak, rising to 6,289 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, about three hours north of the state capital at Concord. The summit offers breathtaking views in all directions – on a clear day you can see the Atlantic Ocean from up there. Yet, getting there is at least as exhilarating as arriving. That’s where energy comes in.
If you’re eager, experienced and fit, you can hike all the way up in four hours or so. Some of the gear that hikers need is made with or from petroleum, which we touched on in the West Virginia chapter of this series. For a climb like Mount Washington, you need stuff that’s lightweight yet durable and water resistant. You also can drive up or be driven to the summit. Again, energy.
There’s also the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
The legendary railway uses a system of ladder-like bars between the track’s rails that are engaged by the teeth of the engine’s cog wheel. The locomotive pushes a single passenger car up the mountain along a three-mile-long, winding path of steels, then descends in reverse.
Either way, it’s steep. Because of the railway’s 37.4 percent grade, passengers in the front and back of the coach find themselves sitting at a 13-foot difference in elevation. The Cog Railway, too, is an energy experience.
The Cog’s early locomotives relied on coal-fired steam engines to chug to the top. Today, petroleum-derived fuel is the main mover of more than 350,000 visitors a year to the summit. In addition to a pair of steam locomotives, the railway’s current fleet includes six locomotives using 18 gallons of diesel-based fuel, or about 1 ton of coal per trip. The trains run up to 30 trips a day. The “locomotives increase business due to their reliability and advanced computer diagnostic and control features,” says Wayne Presby, the railway’s president.
Reaching Across America
While the Mount Washington Cog Railway only takes passengers on a scenic route up and down one mountain, there are railroads all over the country that serve as critical transportation infrastructure for everything from long-haul passenger service to delivering goods. Energy keeps them moving.
The history of railroads in America dates to the 1820’s, with the nation reaching about 9,021 miles of track by 1850. And with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, Americans had the use of nearly 53,000 miles of track.
Today, the U.S. freight rail network, a massive railroad system for the transportation of goods, is a $60 billion industry consisting of 140,000 rail miles and providing 166,000 jobs. Ninety percent of rail freight is bulk commodities, such as agriculture and energy products, automobiles and components, food, metals, paper and pulp. It takes a lot of diesel to move these trains. For example, CSX Corporation used 487.5 million gallons of fuel in 2015 and Norfolk Southern used almost 480 million gallons of diesel and biodiesel in 2013.
While freight far outweighs passenger service in the United States, passenger trains are still providing important public transportation and using energy in the process. Amtrak carried approximately 31.3 million customers in 2016 and used 66 million gallons of diesel fuel. This equals an average of 85,700 passengers a day on more than 300 trains traveling more than 21,300 miles of track. U.S. trains, both passenger and freight, traveled 532 million miles in 2015. That is equivalent to 2,227 trips to the moon.
To operate for long distances, these locomotives must store a massive amount of fuel in their tanks. Most commercial diesel locomotives carry about 5,000 gallons (a bit more than the 100 gallons The Cog locomotives hold). Commercial locomotives also carry 300 gallons of cooling water and 250 gallons of lubricating oil for the diesel engine.
Diesel Takes Over
Diesel locomotives largely replaced coal-fired steam locomotives by 1940, allowing commuting and transporting goods to become much more efficient, creating substantial savings and less maintenance. This is because diesel locomotives are able to run faster than steam locomotives and work longer. They are also more fuel-efficient and do not require frequent stops for coal or water.
The extensive maintenance needed for early steam locomotives, which were largely responsible for the first 100 years of rail service in the United States, meant they were only available about 35 percent of the time. By comparison, writes Jeff Nilsson, modern diesel locomotives are operable 95 percent of the time.
New Hampshire’s Cog Railway is a small, yet colorful, part of America’s rail transportation network. Since July 3, 1869, visitors to Mount Washington have enjoyed the three-hour roundtrip ride to the summit. That’s nearly 150 years cog-chugging along one of the country’s most scenic routes. Interestingly, Granite State legislators laughed at inventor Sylvester Marsh when he first proposed building his cog railway. He “might as well build a railway to the Moon,” they said. A century and a half later, energy has had a big hand in making what once seemed impossible, possible – and Marsh and the railway’s patrons have the last laugh.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.