Railroads make eco-friendly comeback

Is the horse-drawn carriage next? It’s 2008 and the once-dying freight railway industry is “enjoying its biggest building boom in nearly a quarter century, a turnaround as abrupt as it is ambitious,” gushes The Washington Post ( 21 April 2008 ). The boom is “largely fueled by growing global trade and rising fuel costs for 18-wheelers,” the article says. However, with the boom comes a concern about a return to the robber barons (and anti-competitive pricing) of the 1800s. Excerpts:

In 2002, the major railroads laid off 4,700 workers; in 2006, they hired more than 5,000. Profit has doubled industry-wide since 2003, and stock prices have soared.

This year alone, the railroads will spend nearly $10 billion to add track, build switchyards and terminals, and open tunnels to handle the coming flood of traffic. Freight rail tonnage will rise nearly 90 percent by 2035, according to the Transportation Department. [Actually: 88%.]

[T]he changing global market has fueled prosperity — and the need to add track for the first time in 80 years. Soaring diesel prices and a driver shortage have pushed freight from 18-wheelers back onto the rails. At the same time, China’s unquenchable appetite for coal and the escalating U.S. demand for Chinese goods, means more U.S. rail traffic is heading to ports in the Northwest, on its way to and from the Far East.

The zeitgeist has even dropped a “green” gift in the industry’s lap. A train can haul a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, about a 3-to-1 fuel efficiency advantage over 18-wheelers, and the railroad industry is increasingly touting itself as an eco-friendly alternative.

But rail customers are complaining about the kind of price-gouging not seen since the robber barons of the 1800s, leading to antitrust suits and calls for re-regulation of rail prices. The rail industry counters that it’s using the same kind of “differential pricing” that airlines use today (i.e., higher prices where they have market power).

Railroad news: Shippers say lack of antitrust enforcement hindering rail competition

China ascendant; U.S. tech prowess peaked in 1999

China is often seen as just a low-cost manufacturing outpost, but the new “High Tech Indicators” study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology clearly shows that the Asian powerhouse has much bigger aspirations.

The study of worldwide technological competitiveness suggests China will soon pass the U.S. in the critical ability to develop basic science and technology — and then commercialize those developments.

“Since World War II, the United States has been the main driver of the global economy. Now we have a situation in which technology products are going to be appearing in the marketplace that were not developed or commercialized here [in the U.S.]. We won’t have had any involvement with them and may not even know they are coming,” said Nils Newman, co-author of the study.

Georgia Tech’s “High Tech Indicators” study ranks 33 nations relative to one another on “technological standing,” an output factor that indicates each nation’s recent success in exporting high technology products. Four major input factors help build future technological standing: national orientation toward technological competitiveness, socioeconomic infrastructure, technological infrastructure and productive capacity.

A chart showing change in the technological standing of the 33 nations is dominated by one feature – a long and continuous upward line that shows China moving from “in the weeds” to world technological leadership over the past 15 years.

The 2007 statistics show China with a technological standing of 82.8, compared to 76.1 for the U.S., 66.8 for Germany and 66.0 for Japan. Just 11 years ago, China’s score was only 22.5. The U.S. peaked in 1999 with a score of 95.4. Continue reading “China ascendant; U.S. tech prowess peaked in 1999”

More business travelers are headed to China

Going Places
Top destinations for growth in corporate travel spending in 2008:

  1. China
  2. UK
  3. India
  4. Mexico
  5. France
  6. Germany
  7. Latin America (excluding Brazil and Mexico)
  8. Canada
  9. Japan
  10. Brazil

Source: National Business Travel Association (NBTA) survey of 215 travel buyers (details via CFO magazine, January 2008)

College students are taking more foreign language classes

U.S. college students seem to recognize the importance of knowing foreign languages, including Arabic and Chinese, in an era of globalization. The Modern Language Association’s survey of enrollments in languages other than English reports that enrollments expanded by 12.9% since 2002.

The study of the most popular languages — Spanish, French, and German — continues to grow and represents more than 70% of language enrollments. There is growing interest in languages such as Arabic (up 126.5%), Chinese (up 51.0%), and Korean (up 37.1%).

And, as an aside, enrollments in American Sign Language increased nearly 30% from 2002, the association reports.

Intelligence Briefs

An eclectic collection of discoveries & developments:

Bloom Energy is developing a solid-oxide fuel cell that it believes could generate more than enough electricity to power a house. — The New York Times (8 September 2007)

There’s talk of breaking up the country of Belgium into two or three mini-states. — The Economist (6 September 2007)

A Michigan auto dealer is selling a miniature Chinese electric “neighborhood vehicle.” The FlyBo starts at $10,000 and goes up to 70 miles before needing a recharge. Plug it into any ordinary household electrical outlet for two hours, and it’s ready again to cruise along at 25 mph. — The Saginaw (Michigan) News (7 September 2007)

Russia and China are expected to develop aerospace capabilities to compete with the current Airbus/Boeing duopoly for commercial jets — perhaps in the next decade. The CEO of Russia’s United Aircraft says Russian companies aim to build planes worth $250 billion from 2007 to 2025. — GE Commercial Finance industry newsletter

Slowear, a collection of men’s luxury clothing that promises to be fashionable for years, is challenging the notion of fast fashion. — Iconoculture Inc.

Development and environmental change are now altering the physical aspect of the world so fast that maps must be redrawn frequently, according to an atlas publisher. For example, a new atlas shows the dramatic shrinkage of two of the world’s biggest inland water bodies, the Aral Sea in central Asia and Lake Chad in Africa. — The Independent (3 September 2007)

The next-generation shopping cart is emerging from MarkitCart in Australia. It’s colorful, plastic, safer for children, and (most importantly) has easier-to-control wheels. It can also be plastered with advertising. — Springwise.com