Farming the Rails

May 11, 2011 at 4:28 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

The current issue of Sunset has a full-page pictorial of a concept for a dining foodie car in an LA-SF bullet train. Let’s put aside the fact that the route doesn’t make any sense. (Current plans are to build a short proof-of-concept track in a very rural part of the San Joaquin valley, later to be extended all the way from Fresno-Bakersfield. Getting the rest of the way from Bakersfield to LA requires going under or around the Tehachapi mountain range. That or transferring to a three-hour bus ride on the 5).

Instead, let’s think about the dining car itself. The pictorial shows a dwarf citrus tree in the car for passengers to pick fruit either to eat out of hand or for juicing. (As the owner of an orange tree, I can tell you that the pictured dwarf tree would make about two carafes of orange juice). Similarly, there is a “Self-Harvest Salad Bar. Snip and dress your own organic greens from a hydroponic vertical garden and choice of on-tap vinaigrettes.” Because, you know, there is no more efficient way to grow lettuce and oranges than to put a farm on a rail car and rocket it up and down the state at 150 mph. Similarly, it shows solar panels on the roof to, I kid you not, power the espresso machine and “grow lights” for the aforementioned dwarf citrus tree. I’m not an engineer, but I guarantee you that the extra weight and/or drag implied by the solar panels (and changes to the fuselage necessary to accommodate them) would imply fuel costs at least an order of magnitude greater than the power generated by the panels. I mean, who comes up with this shit?

[click the image for full size]

I guess I should be grateful they didn’t describe plans for an aquaculture car or a composting car. It’s one thing to talk about putting hydroponics in a moon base, but that’s because the transportation costs for getting food to the moon are millions of dollars per pound. Transportation costs in getting food onto a train means sending a van from the train station to the supermarket. That or you could just not eat for the three hours you’re on the train and have dinner when you get to San Francisco, which I’ve heard has restaurants in it.

As I fumed about this, I realized that this isn’t just a really stupid idea for a train’s dining car, but a reductio ad absurdum of the whole idea of locavorism. Just as it is much cheaper and ecologically sound to grow food on a farm and have it loaded onto a train at the station, or to generate power at a power plant and transmit it to a train via overhead lines than to produce the food and power on the train itself, to a lesser extent it is more efficient to grow food in a rural farm and truck it into a city (accepting the trivial carbon emissions implied by a few “food-miles”) than it is to devote extraordinarily valuable urban or suburban land to agriculture, thereby increasing the commute times (and by extension, the carbon emissions) of people who might have made denser commercial or residential use of that land.

Gains from specialization and trade people, gains from specialization and trade.

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