Ice Roads

Ice road near Salekhard, Russia.

Ice road near Salekhard, Russia.

Engineering is all about meeting the needs of society using the resources that are available. I recently heard of one very interesting example of a transportation system that was designed for a society with very specific resources and challenges – Siberian “ice roads.”

My father recently visited Salekhard, a town near the Arctic Circle in Siberia. Salekhard’s transportation system faces unique challenges due to its remoteness and its long, cold winters. Although roads made of typical paving materials are used within the town itself, it is not feasible to construct and maintain roads to the many remote villages that surround it. The solution: “зимники,” (pronounced “ZEEM-neek”) or “ice roads.”

Siberian “ice roads” are simply paths cutting through the snow and ice of the Siberian tundra that allow cars and trucks to drive through an area that would otherwise be impassible by automobiles. Although they are somewhat (but only slightly) maintained, these “roads” are by no means a walk in the park. They are extremely rough on a vehicle’s suspension, and the route is very poorly defined. In fact, it is advised that drivers only travel on an ice road at night, when their vehicle’s headlights cast shadows over the uneven road surface, helping them to stay on the actual road and not drift off on to the unmaintained tundra that surrounds it. Unfortunately, if a vehicle does drift off the road or break down in another way, the traveler(s) must wait in the subzero temperatures until a vehicle capable of assisting them happens to pass by. Due to remoteness of the area, this could be on the order of several hours.

“Ice roads” are not unique to Siberia. Many northern countries, including Canada, Estonia, the Scandinavian countries, and even the US, have their own ice roads. However, the terminology most often used by English speakers differs slightly from that used by Russians. While the “ice roads” of Siberia do include some river crossings, such as the road crossing the Ob River near Salekhard, they are primarily used to cross land (tundra). In common English usage, the term “winter road” is used to describe this type of path, while “ice road” specifically refers to a road built on a body of water that is frozen-over, such as a lake or river.

This water-crossing type of ice road owes its development largely to Canada’s Northwest Territories, where the landscape is dotted with many lakes of a variety of sizes. In the 1930’s, thriving mining operations in this remote northern region led truckers to create roads across frozen lakes to shorten the transport time of goods to and from these mining towns. This type of road soon gained traction (despite the ice) both in northern Canada and other arctic and subarctic regions of the world.

Although ice roads over water are inherently dangerous, they are fairly well understood and maintained, making them reasonably safe for the experienced ice road truck driver. Various rules designed to prevent road failure are in place on such routes. While the specifics of these rules differ from place to place, they share many common features. For example, on many roads, driving is only allowed during that day. Perhaps the most important of these rules limit the speed at which truckers may drive. Although one might that think these speed limits are in place to ensure proper traction between trucks’ tires and road-ice, they are actually intended to prevent the buildup of a pressure wave in the lake water that could damage the road.

One of the most famous ice roads, the “Road of Life” to Leningrad, provided that city a vital link to unoccupied Russian territory during the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi forces during WWII. This road across Lake Ladoga was used to transport food, medicine, and munitions into the city, and women, children, and the elderly out of it. This makeshift supply route served as the city’s lifeblood for the several year siege, being reconstructed by the determined Soviets each winter. Eventually, even rail-road tracks were laid on the ice in order to allow trains to cross the frozen lake.

The very existence of ice rods can teach the transportation engineer several very important lessons. Ice roads demonstrate the necessity of transportation for even the most inaccessible of locations. They also show mankind’s determination and willingness to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to obtain this vital asset. Ice roads should challenge transportation engineers to produce better solutions by demonstrating that even the most challenging transportation problems can be overcome with determination and ingenuity.


Should Transportation Systems Be Public Or Private?

In light of the recent sequester in Washington, I thought it might be interesting to think a little about the relationship between transportation systems and public policy. To what extent should the government manage and fund the design, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems? In one sense, it is a very philosophical topic, but it is also inescapably tied to the practical.

Let’s be clear right up front. I think many people, myself included, often fall into believing the idea that “private transportation system” means “cars” while “public transportation system” means “trains and subways.” This is not correct. For example, although the cars themselves are privately owned, the interstate highway system is most definitely a public roadway network, while much of the tracks that make up the Northeast Corridor are owned by the private, albeit heavily subsidized, company Amtrak.

The very nature of Amtrak as a publically-funded, for-profit corporation brings to light another interesting fact related to our topic – namely that in the vast majority of cases, transportation systems are not strictly “public” or “private,” but rather some combination of the two. The question, then, is truly not, “Should the government be involved in the transportation sector?”, but rather, “To what extent should the government be involved in the transportation sector?” What role should the government play? What should be its responsibilities? Hard to definitively answer – but interesting to think about.

The question of public vs. private is especially interesting due to recent events in Washington. Congress, along with the American people as a whole, is very much divided on the issue of the role of government, especially in the areas of economic and fiscal policy. As alluded to above, the recent standoff between conservatives and liberals regarding government spending and taxation lead to the budget cuts known as the sequester. In addition, as one ASCE blogger points out, “Congress will need to pass another continuing resolution (CR) before March 27 to keep the federal government funded.” Although this bill will almost certainly be passed, it is unclear what provisions it will contain with regard to new or maintained government spending on transportation. On top of all this, the federal government is expected to reach its debt ceiling (again!) by May of this year.

What does all of this have to do with transportation systems? Very simply, it takes a lot of money to construct and maintain a transportation system. At this point in time, the US federal government does not have a lot of money to spend on, well, anything really.

So we’re confronted with this problem, and several solutions present themselves.

  • Option 1: Enlarge the role of the federal government. Increase centralized planning, raise taxes, and encourage certain modes of transportation over others as a way to shape the future of the transportation system.
  • Option 2: Give the states more power over their respective transportation systems. (Note: This is similar to our current system.) Or, go even further and give more power to local authorities.
  • Option 3: Privatize the transportation system. Encourage companies to construct new infrastructure or take over responsibility for existing infrastructure using financial incentives or by decreasing existing regulations.
  • Option 4: Push Public-Private Partnerships. Invest in the development of a publically-subsidized, privately-run transportation system. The degree of privatization can vary to meet the needs of the area.

Each of these options has pro’s and con’s. In general, they are tied to the two extremes of entirely public vs. fully private.

An entirely public system gets its strength from its centralization. The government has (at least the potential for) more capital than private firms, and can therefore invest in large projects designed to meet future needs. In addition, it can more easily obtain the land needed for a project through the use of eminent domain. The government can also plan a uniform system for a large area, and is more able to plan around needs, rather than practically limiting constraints.

Despite all of its advantages, public systems have their fair share of problems. Government-managed programs are notoriously slow and not especially cost-effective. Because of the high levels of bureaucracy often present in government projects and the lack of financial pressure, there is often a lack of challenging, defined goals, insightful and revolutionary ideas, and visionary leadership. In a sense, too much oversight breeds a lack of effective oversight.

Private systems have their own challenges and drawbacks. Transportation systems, by their nature, call for extensive organizational and technological unity. If a transportation system is too decentralized, without any major players, it cannot adequately perform its primary function of effectively moving people and goods from point to point. For example, think of medieval Germany, where a trip up the Rhine involved stopping every few miles to pay a toll to some feudal lord (robber baron) in return for the right to pass through his section of river. Or, consider the many cases in which two transportation systems are geographically very close, but not connected due to poor planning and a lack of oversight. Increased financial concerns also mean that private companies may be hesitant to take on projects that are necessary to society, but may not be able to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining or profitable. In addition, critics suggest that lack of government oversight may result in the endangerment of public welfare due to the implementation of cost-cutting measures.

Despite these drawbacks, private systems have a host of advantages over public ones. A private company’s efficiency in managing financial resources, manpower, and project time-scales is probably the greatest advantage of such an enterprise over its public counterpart. In addition, although the government has vast resources available to it for large-scale planning, private firms are generally more in-tune to the actual needs of society because they closely monitor the market, which is a rather good indicator of society’s needs and/or wants. While the government may have “experts” that can make recommendations (be they good or not) about what will be good for society as a whole and in the long run, for-profit companies do an excellent job at determining what society wants, and meeting that desire. Plus, as an added bonus, taxes decrease.

In many cases, the best option is to blend the two extremes of public and private. The exact organization can be determined on a case-by-case basis in order to maximize the benefits of each, while avoiding the drawbacks. Public-Private Partnerships may take a variety of forms. The system organization used perhaps most commonly in the US features government-subsidized companies responsible for system maintenance and operation. For example, many train, subway, and bus systems are operated by heavily-subsidized for-profit companies. However, in other cases, political opposition prevents the implementation of such systems. For example, efforts to turn control of the Pennsylvania Turnpike over to a private company failed when it was revealed that the company being considered (because it had the most competitive bid) was foreign-based.

All told, the question of public vs. private is not an easy one. Many complex factors are involved, both practical and philosophical. However, it is a question that demands an answer one way or another. If no answer is intentionally and specifically given by society, the government, and private companies, the result will be the continuation of the status quo. Fortunately, in our society, we as citizens and consumers have a say in deciding the future of our transportation system. So, if you want to change something, work to make it happen.






Budget Airlines – How do they do it?

EasyJet and Ryanair are two of the largest European low-cost airlines.


In my opinion, one of the more interesting trends in modern transportation systems is the emergence of the budget airline as an effective and reliable means of transportation. Passenger airlines have been around for decades, but these companies have typically marketed themselves as the providers of a luxury service that includes novelties such as complementary meals served by flight attendants. Only recently has the low-cost business model truly taken hold, with companies such as Southwest and JetBlue in the US and Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe. It has been so effective, in fact, that many large, “traditional” carriers have, with mixed success, tried their hand at the establishment of low-cost subsidiary airlines.

When it comes to the success of the low-cost airline business model, the question “How do they do it?” inevitably comes to mind. The answer: In a nutshell, by cutting costs.

Before I delve into explaining how these companies do cut costs, I’d like to offer the assurance that this cost-cutting business strategy in no way implies that low cost airlines are unsafe. Budget airlines, like any airline, must comply with national and international safety standards. In fact, for reasons to be explained later, many low-cost airlines have fleets primarily composed of fairly new planes.

How then do these airlines cut costs? Budget airlines utilize a variety of cost-cutting techniques in order to provide lower fares to their customers. Although some of these techniques are directly visible to the customer, many of them are behind-the-scenes and deal with internal company workings. Here are a few examples of cost-saving techniques that budget airlines use:

  • Perhaps the most obvious way in which low-cost airlines save money is by eliminating “luxury” customer services, such as complimentary in-flight food services. Exactly what services are cut varies from carrier to carrier. Many budget airlines have only economy class seating (more seats = more revenue), and allow seat reservation only at an additional charge. The uniformly arranged cabin operates on a first-come, first-served basis. This simplification reduces the number of personnel required to clean a plane and eliminates the need for expensive ticket-booking software. In addition, budget airlines often place strict limits on passenger baggage. This allows them to speed up the loading process and charge for extra bags/weight.
  • Another major way that budget airlines save money is by cutting labor costs. This can be done by training employees to perform multiple tasks. For example, a flight attendant may help to clean the plane after a flight, or a pilot may help load baggage.
  • Low-cost carriers can also save money by only selling tickets to customers directly through their website or ticket counter, instead of through travel agents and third-party websites. This technique of “avoiding the middleman” allows airlines to earn the sale price (less tax) of a ticket without some portion of the sale price going to another party.
  • Because fuel represents a large portion of an airline’s operating cost, airlines employ several techniques to reduce their fuel costs and fuel-associated costs. For example, because longer flights require more fuel, budget airlines typically fly short, direct flights rather than long flights with many connections that require passengers to transfer planes en-route. Because the price of jet fuel fluctuates greatly, low-cost airlines also speculate on the price of fuel. When the price of fuel is low, an airline may enter an agreement with a fuel provider to “lock in” a certain price for a specified length of time, wagering on the expectation that fuel prices will rise over that period of time. Airlines Budget airlines have typically had great success saving money in these ways.
  • Budget airlines also choose flight routes that save them money. This often means flying to secondary airports rather than a city’s main airport. Secondary airports typically charge carriers a smaller fee for using their facilities, even if they are no further from the city than the main airport. (This airport fee can also be reduced by scheduling flights at off-peak hours, such as the early morning.) In addition, as explained above, low-cost airlines also typically offer primarily point to point service, rather than having a main hub that serves as a transfer point for a large number of flights. This decreases the miles flown (think gas) while maximizing the number of flights offered. In addition, by limiting the number of connections, budget airlines reduce the frequency of compounded flight delays. This reduced “turn time” allows low-cost carriers to schedule more flights per day, which earns them additional revenue. (The lack of complementary food service and the cross-training of staff also decrease “turn time.”)
  • One of the most effective techniques that budget airlines use in order to cut costs is the utilization of a homogeneous fleet of fairly new airplanes. In the airline industry, maintenance is an especially costly necessity. In fact, many engine companies make no money (or even take a loss) on the sale of a new engine, but generate the majority of their revenue through the maintenance and repair of aging engines. For this reason, it is in the best interest of airlines to decrease their maintenance costs as much as possible. By having only one or a few types of planes in their fleet, budget airlines can avoid buying and stockpiling costly spare parts for numerous plane models. Low-cost airlines typically purchase new planes and resell their “old” planes after only several years of heavy use. The large amount of flight time that these planes have seen (due to quick “turn time”) and the moderate resale value of the planes make up for the cost of constantly purchasing new planes. An additional benefit to using only one type of plane is that budget airlines only need to train their pilots and maintenance crews to operate and repair one type of plane. (Some low-cost airlines even train their own staff.) This saves on labor costs, and increases “turn time.”

The advent of the budget airline may herald a new era of global transportation. In the 19th century, the steam locomotive revolutionized the way people thought about transportation by making it possible for many poor and middle class people to move great distances. This fundamental change in the world’s notion of a transportation system helped to restructure society itself. In many ways, the automobile had the same effect a century later. Will the airplane be the revolutionary technology of the 21st century? If the plane becomes easily accessible to vast numbers of people who could previously not afford air travel, one can only guess what effect it will have. It will challenge not only our ideas about transportation, but also our concept of the world itself.






Eulogy for a Fallen Giant

The main waiting area of the old NY Penn Station

If you’ve ever taken the train into New York City, there’s a good chance you arrived in New York Penn Station. Pennsylvania Station is a major hub of the city’s public transportation system and one of the busiest and most important train stations in the city.

Initially named for its affiliation with the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Penn Station is one of more than half-a-dozen Penn Stations across the Northeast of the US. When it was originally built in 1910, Penn Station was a symbol of modern transportation systems and social progress. Along with Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station provided a major intercity rail connection in Manhattan.

However, despite the long and important history of this train station, the Penn Station you see today is a mere shadow of the one that stood there a half century ago. The original Penn Station, which stood from its completion in 1910 until it was removed in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden and an office building, was the largest train station ever built, encompassing a full two city blocks. A masterpiece of neoclassical architecture, the Penn Station of old featured a grand waiting room with a 150 ft. vaulted ceiling that soared overhead, Romanesque colonnades that lined the exterior of the building, and platforms lined with decorative ironwork. It was a powerful symbol of the union between modern technology and ancient glory, and it served as a monument to display the wealth and power of the great city of New York. However, its life proved to be far shorter than anyone in 1910 could have ever expected.

Decorative ironwork in the old NY Penn Station

In the early 1960’s, rail traffic was declining due to the advent of the interstate highway system and commercial air travel. In response to its bleak outlook for the future, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to sell the ground level section of the property and its associated airspace. The tracks and platforms, which were primarily housed underground, would continue to serve their original purpose, and have remained active to this day. Although there were some efforts to stop the demolition of Penn Station, the population of New York City remained largely quiet. After all, who would ever even think of tearing down such a magnificent building?

But razed it was. The grand hall… gone. The sculptures… trash. The ironwork… scrap metal. All that remains of the grand edifice, barring the platforms themselves, are a single staircase, an iron entryway, and a few other small remnants of the old building scattered within and around the new station. Fortunately, some of the sculptures and clocks were salvaged, and are now on display in museums, universities, other train stations, and elsewhere.

The old NY Penn Station

The world was taken aback at the destruction of such a magnificent and important structure. The demolition of Penn Station shocked New York into passing a landmark protection law and creating a commission responsible for the protection of historical landmarks. This commission was later responsible for preventing the demolition of Grand Central Terminal, after a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The current Penn Station resides almost entirely underground, and consists of the original platforms along with what many describe as small, unflattering “catacombs” consisting of a low-ceilinged waiting area, a concourse, shops, etc. However, a new, more beautiful train station may be coming soon. Although there have been many legal and financial hindrances, a plan for the construction of a new station in a nearby post office has gained traction in recent years. The station will be named Moynihan Station, in honor of the US senator who pushed for its creation. Entrances to the underground tracks of Penn Station from the post office are scheduled to be completed by 2016, after which the construction of the main hall of Moynihan Station will begin. However, even after its completion, the new station will only service Amtrak passengers – about five percent of Penn station’s current traffic. NJ Transit, Long Island RR, and subway passengers will continue to use the crowded Penn Station.

The story of New York Penn Station is one of great tragedy, of inevitable change, and of lessons to be learned. Functionally, its demolition provided great benefits to the city. A new arena, additional office space, … and all while keeping a fully functional train station. However, with the loss of the architectural masterpiece that was Penn Station, New Yorkers lost a beautiful piece of artwork to bring joy to their daily commute. They lost a magnificent edifice that welcomed visitors to the city with a declaration of New York’s greatness. They lost a symbol of the past and an old friend.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. Sometimes, even in mundane, everyday things like a train station, people long for more than just simple functionality. Engineers would be wise to recognize that desire, however unquantifiable. Transportation systems are intended to serve people. Why should that be limited to such a narrow concept? If a transportation system can be beautiful without sacrificing its primary function, is it not more likely to be used? Will it not bring more joy and satisfaction to the people it serves? Will not more people be interested in its upkeep and preservation? Maybe art and man’s sense of beauty are the best answers to the question of true sustainability after all.

The main waiting area of the old NY Penn Station







The Caravel and the Impact of New Technologies on Transportation Systems

A Caravel

Transportation systems have evolved since ancient time. This continual transformation of the ways in which humans travel and transport goods is often closely tied to technological advances in the field of transportation. In many ways, the culture of a civilization is heavily influenced by the transportation technologies available to it. However, the relationship goes the other way as well. The transportation technologies present in a society are also often determined by the culture of that society.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, an iconic ship known as the Caravel largely dominated the sea-faring industries of Southwestern Europe. Although the exact origin of this ship is still debated, it had been used as an offshore fishing vessel by the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula since at least the 1200’s. The ship featured a strong Moorish influence, and its design, at least in part, may have been passed from the Islamic body of knowledge to the Western Christian societies of Spain and Portugal. This is quite possible because, as one author points out (see links below), Medieval Islamic society contributed many advances to the fields of geography, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. These important theoretical discoveries would later contribute to the success of European seafaring by forming the foundation of cutting-edge navigational techniques and other technologies.

The Caravel was a relatively small ship, especially by modern standards. The bottom of the ship protruded below the surface of the water by only a small distance, making it an extremely maneuverable watercraft. For much of its life, the Caravel featured triangular “lateen” sails that, combined with its eminent maneuverability, allowed it to sail into the wind using a zigzagging technique known as “beating to windward.” The Spanish and Portuguese soon recognized the potential of this ship, and transformed it from a simple offshore fishing vessel to the backbone of the European Age of Exploration. With the addition of square sails (to provide increased power when sailing with the wind) and other minor changes, the Caravel soon became the ship of choice for many explorers. It has been suggested that two of Columbus’s ships, the Niña and the Pinta, were Caravels optimized for transatlantic exploration.

Clearly, the Caravel revolutionized European transportation. This technology made it possible for European explorers, fishermen, and merchants to “expand their horizons,” by providing the ability to travel further, faster. One could argue that it played a major role in the rapid colonization of the New World.

However, the inverse is also true. To a large extent, the success of the Caravel was due to navigational techniques brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, combined with the European desire for political, economic, religious, and scientific expansion.

This dichotomy holds true for many transportation-related technologies. Railroads are built to service existing towns, but the route itself often determines the development of future towns. Military conflict has served as a catalyst for the development of many advances in aviation technology that have later spilled over into the public sector. It is clear that a society’s culture and its transportation technologies are very much linked. Engineers must keep this in mind when developing new technologies for transportation systems. When designing part of a transportation system, it is important both to take inspiration from society and to recognize the changes that that technology will have upon society.





Nuclear Port Security

The goal of transportation systems in general is to facilitate the movement of people and goods from place to place quickly, safely, and inexpensively. However, because it is often not possible to meet all three of those goals simultaneously, transportation engineers are forced to choose some imperfect, but realistic, combination of those ideals. Securing our nation’s ports from potential nuclear threats is a prime example of a goal that forces transportation engineers, politicians, and others to choose between safety and efficiency.

Since the attacks of September 11th, national security has been an especially important issue in the United States. The federal government quickly took measures to decrease the chances of another major terrorist attack from occurring on US soil. While much attention is given to those measures that directly impact the public, such as airline security checks, other less obvious measures are equally important.

Nuclear Port Security is a major issue for many reasons, including the following:

1.)    Nuclear weapons can only be detonated in the US if they are created here or transported here. If we assume that creating or obtaining a nuclear device is easier outside of the US than within it, and that a missile or other military-style delivery system is beyond the technical capabilities of most terrorist groups (both somewhat questionable assumptions), they it appears that smuggling a nuclear weapon into the US is perhaps the easiest way to get such a device on US soil.

2.)    Nuclear “Dirty Bombs” provide a low-tech method for radiation dispersal, while highly-enriched Uranium weapons emit only low levels of radiation prior to detonation that are difficult to detect by many scanners.

3.)    Sea- and river-ports process huge amounts of cargo every day, increasing the chances that the “needle” may never be found in the “haystack.”

4.)    Air traffic is very closely monitored, making smuggling radioactive material by air a risky possibility.

5.)    Cargo ships are massive and carry goods from many different companies and points of origin to just as many places. This vast complexity and great scale make it difficult for all transported items to be fully checked and monitored.

6.)    Each shipping crate is capable of carrying large amounts of materials and can be unloaded from a ship directly to a truck without any form of visual or other inspection of its contents.

7.)    Ports are extremely important to the world market, and are often located in, or very close to, major cities. A nuclear detonation at a port could cause great loss of life as well as major monetary losses. According to the Washington Post, “Estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.” The destruction of a major port would cause tremendous financial and cultural turmoil. Global trade would suffer, and many jobs would be lost. Suspicion or tension between countries would result in even greater consequences.

Clearly, the protection of its sea- and river- ports should be a major priority for the US. However, there are major obstacles to such security. Financial concerns, delays in shipments due to extended processing time, privacy and intellectual property concerns, and poorly organized oversight of the cargo monitoring process have all plagued attempts to institute an all-encompassing scanning methodology at US ports.

In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring that all cargo containers entering the US must be screened for radiation at foreign ports. In an effort to achieve this goal, the US has helped over twenty nations to install cargo scanning equipment in their ports, largely through the Megaports Initiative of the National Nuclear Security Administration. This initiative, begun in fiscal year 2003, seeks to expand this success to 100 seaports by 2015. Despite the success of this initiative, reported the Washington Post, the Department of Homeland Security failed to meet the July 2012 deadline for 100% foreign-based scanning set forth by Congress, instead “extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome.” In a report to Congress, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano “said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.” The current cargo scanning system used by the Customs and Border Protection agency uses intelligence-based analysis to target “high-risk” cargo for inspection.

Although much of the cargo imported into the US is not yet scanned in foreign ports, nearly all of it is scanned after it reached US ports. However, concerns have been raised regarding the effectiveness of the scanning equipment used for this application. In addition, a 2013 report by the DHS Office of Inspector General revealed poor coordination between Customs and Border Protection and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office that has allegedly resulted in poor scanning and tracking methods.

When looking at an issue such as nuclear port security, it is often very difficult to see a clear solution. The many available courses of action each provide their own set of benefits and drawbacks, even when looking at only a small aspect of the problem. For example, looking at the issue of nuclear port security from an economic perspective provides little useful directives. On the one hand, according to the Washington Post, “estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.” On the other hand is the reality of the current system exemplified by failed attempts to address the issue, as shown by a simple look at the news: “Pilot programs established to scan all containers [in foreign ports] were abandoned in 2009 after the agency said costs were too high and the effort led to cargo delays and logistical problems.”

Transportation engineers, politicians, businessmen, and the public must also weigh the daily logistical nightmare of in-port radiation scanning against the chances of the logistical hell of a nuclear detonation in-port.

Will things ever change? It’s unclear. The optimist will point to new scanning technology that will revolutionize the scanning process, while the pessimist will point to increased government bureaucracy that will only make the system more costly and inefficient. However, some things are certain: as long as nuclear threats exist, the issue of port security will be an important (and likely costly) one.





What are Engineering, Civil Engineering and Transportation Engineering?

Engineering can generally be considered the application of math and science to solve real-world problems. These “problems” may vary widely in their nature, seriousness, and frequency of occurrence, but they all have to do with the needs or wants of humans. However, in order to exclude fields such as medicine and economics, it is perhaps best to limit the scope of engineering to problems that deal with the physical environment in which humans live and with which they interact. Engineering also implies that some measure of complex scientific knowledge is utilized in the solving of the problem at hand. This excludes, for example, cooking, basic techniques of agriculture or animal domestication, and possibly even simple forms of building, such as the construction of a stone wall. Although the modern concept of engineering began only recently, the field of engineering has existed almost as long as human civilization through the work of architects, inventors, and other similar persons. Most forms of modern engineering can generally be considered part of civil, mechanical, chemical, or electrical engineering.

Civil engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with the fundamental, every-day needs of society that allows a civilization to function. Civil engineering is one of the oldest branches of engineering due to the important role it plays in helping to keep society functioning. It is referred to as “civil” engineering to differentiate it from military engineering, which does not serve to meet the basic needs of society in the same way in which civil engineering does. Civil engineering, like engineering in general, can be divided into several sub-disciplines, including transportation, structural, geotechnical, hydraulic, and environmental engineering. Other related fields of study include materials science, geophysics, architectural engineering, project management, land development, surveying, and a host of other fields. Civil engineers may be employed by public entities such as municipalities, water and sewage authorities, and zoning offices or by private firms specializing in design, consultation, or construction.

Transportation Engineering is the branch of civil engineering that deals with the movement of people and/or objects from place to place. Sub-disciplines can generally be grouped by the means of transportation, and therefore include fields such as highway engineering, port and harbor engineering, railroad engineering, and airport engineering. Transportation engineers often design large, complex systems that utilize several of these vehicles of movement. For example, a city’s public transportation system may include a combination of subway or tram lines, bus routes, and regional rail services, while the city itself may also be serviced by a road and highway system, ferries, and perhaps even a network of walking and/or bike paths. Transportation engineering is vital to any society because it allows for the movement of people, food, and natural resources, facilitates economic development through the transfer of goods, and provides a means for the exchange of knowledge and culture.