Travel by Bamboo Trains

SUBHEAD: We are about to re-learn that steel wheels on steel rail is a far more efficient technology to pneumatic rubber tires on blacktop.
By Stacey Irwin on 25 January 2010 in Green Earth News -

Image above: A bamboo railcar is ready for loading firewood and passengers. Click to see video. From (  

[IB Editors note: The Kauai Energy Sustainability Plan makes the key cognitive error of extrapolating current trends into the future even as the fundamentals are changing. This plan gives us a road map into a business-as-usual future that will soon be precluded by peak oil and economic collapse. Where is the rail option? According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S railroads were able to move one ton of freight 436 miles using just one gallon of fuel. Average fuel mileage for tractor-trailer trucks has fallen to just 5.3 miles per gallon or (for 40,000 lb load) they move one ton of freight only 106 miles per gallon. There will be no highway congestion problems when gasoline is well north of $10/gallon and unemployment is at 90% due to the bankruptcy of the airlines and our tourist industry. The county and state roads will soon fall into nearly impassable conditions due to lack of expensive asphalt overlays and repairs. Grinding some roads back into gravel as a cost-saving measure will soon start to makes sense here on Kauai. We may be asking where is our bamboo train.]

Transportation plays a key role in the advancement of societies. Sumerians invented the wheel in 3500 BC to aid in the movement of heavy stone as they built their temples; Romans built a vast network of roads across their Empire so soldiers could march and conquer more efficiently; Egyptians built ships to access more markets for trade and later on, canals were constructed to give more passage. In the 1800s, America’s own Industrial Revolution was spurred on by expanded transportation including the Cumberland Road (now part of Interstate 40), the creation of the Steamboat, the opening of the Erie Canal and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

In Cambodia, a country destroyed by years of civil war and the Khmer Rouge reign, transportation is a struggle. The French colonists created an intricate system of railroad lines to connect the plantations with their lucrative coffee and bananas to marketplaces. But these lines and trains fell to waste after the Khmer Rouge banned the “ordinary” people from using them. Now trains run infrequently in between the villages and the trips are long as break-downs and derailments are common. The Cambodian Government promise an upgrade to the system but little has been done. So, Cambodian villagers long ago took matters into their own hands and built the Bamboo Train.

Their choice of materials is an unusual combination of the strong and abundant bamboo that surrounds them and parts from abandoned military tanks. Described as a “bamboo slab on wheels,” these trains sprung up in the late 70s where they were controlled by a series of levers and hand-cast controls. They have since upgraded to wooden footbrakes and small motors that poured into the country, courtesy of the United Nations relief effort in the 1980s.

Simplicity is key for this train system. They use the existing railroad tracks and spurs to travel. When they meet another bamboo train on the tracks, whoever has the least passengers merely lifts their train off the track to let the other one by. They keep a sharp ear out for the infrequent freight trains that come through and when they reach their destination, they simply pick the train up and turn it around to head back.

These bamboo trains, or “Norries” as they are called by locals, provide a link between villages, a way to get produce and animals to the market, a way to get lumber to building sites and a means of income for many as rich tourists pay up to $2/day to ride them. In Cambodia, that can equal two months wages to most citizens. A local village has even turned into a “little Detroit” and builds up to 10 trains a month for sale and use. Not only are they building them, but they want to make them more beautiful to help encourage the tourists to ride them.

Necessity is the mother of invention and in a country that desperately needs (and wants) to rebuild itself, these bamboo trains are an ingenious solution.

For a firsthand and most fascinating look at bamboo train travel, check out this:
Bamboo Railway – Cambodia Video (

County roads turned to gravel

By Tim Martin on 12 June 2009 in Chicago Tribune - 

Image above: View of gravel road in Michigan encountered by motorcycle club near lake Superior. From (

As goes Michigan’s crumbling economy, so go some once-paved rural roads now being turned back into gravel. About a quarter of the state’s county road agencies largely left out of the federal stimulus package, which focuses on highways and other major thoroughfares, say they can’t afford some costly repaving projects and have crushed up deteriorating roads. Montcalm County alone estimates it saved nearly $900,000 by converting almost 10 miles of pothole-plagued pavement into gravel this spring. Reverting to gravel on low-traffic roads has been done to some degree for years and long-term savings and maintenance costs vary widely. 

But it can be an attractive option for municipalities seeking to save money up front and it’s recently been done in a few other states, including Indiana and Vermont. More than 20 of the 83 counties in Michigan, home to the nation’s highest unemployment rate for much of the past four years, have turned rural roads back to gravel with no immediate plans to repave, according to the County Road Association of Michigan. About 50 miles have been reverted in the last three years.  

While Vice President Joe Biden was in Michigan to break ground Friday on a $68 million project along Interstate 94, the majority of county roads weren’t eligible for stimulus cash and money was tight for those that were. Montcalm converted nearly 10 miles on three primary county roads into gravel in May. Crushing the pavement and laying gravel cost about $10,000 a mile. Repaving a mile with asphalt would cost more than $100,000. The county had patched the roads in bits and pieces for years. 

But with potholes the size of steering wheels and no money for an extensive repaving, crews figured it wasn’t worth another piecemeal job. “We were throwing good money into bad roads,” said Randy Stearns, managing director of the road commission headquartered about 50 miles northeast of Grand Rapids. “It had to stop.” The new gravel on Lake Montcalm Road actually offers an easier ride than the crater-filled pavement it replaced. Motorists have stopped driving on the roads’ shoulders to avoid potholes.  

But speeds have slowed and there are complaints about chipped and cracked windshields from flying stones, said Trent Hilding, 29, a county resident whose Chevrolet truck is one of the more than 700 vehicles to travel the stretch of road on an average day. “It’s smoother than it was before, but my concern is how they will maintain it,” Hilding said. “Especially in the winter.” And while gravel roads typically are cheaper to build, they aren’t always cheaper to maintain. A study published by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2005, for example, found that high traffic gravel roads can cost more per mile over a several-year period than paved roads. Well-maintained pavement also is generally touted as a preferable driving surface because it is more consistent, allows higher speeds and keeps vehicles cleaner. 

But road commission officials who have chosen gravel note the pavement being replaced often is riddled with hazards. Roads are deteriorating in several states as the recession ravages tax revenues and concrete and asphalt costs escalate. Indiana’s Hancock County returned 10 miles of road sealed with a thin layer of liquid asphalt back to gravel this year, after finding a gallon of the asphalt that cost about 65 cents in 2004 now goes for about $1.85. “Prices going up – that’s what kills us,” said Joe Copeland, Hancock County’s roads superintendent. “Next year we may have to do more.” But the practice appears to be most common in Michigan. 

Heavily reliant on the struggling auto industry, the state slipped into a recession well ahead the rest of the nation. It’s April unemployment rate sat at 12.9 percent. Michigan is getting an estimated $847 million from the federal stimulus package to help roads, but even that money won’t offset years of neglect. The state Department of Transportation is expected to spend nearly $1.9 billion, including stimulus money, on road and bridge projects this fiscal year. That’s just a shade above the nearly $1.8 billion spent in 2006. Montcalm County had sought repaving money in a $10 million stimulus wish list that was whittled to $1.3 million in March. The county learned in April it would get no more than $670,000 in stimulus road money. The cash will be used this fall to improve and repave a stretch of road that the county spent more than $10,300 of its own money to grind up earlier this year. 

Stearns, of the road commission, said the county had acted out of safety concerns and several motorists called to say deteriorating pavement had wrecked tires and damaged vehicle frames. Many politicians doubt motorists would support higher taxes to fund road projects during tough economic times. But without new money, small agencies are left with few choices.  

“We don’t want to go backward, and I view this as going backward,” said Tim Hammill, managing director of the Dickinson County Road Commission in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where 2.5 miles of paved road was converted to gravel last year. “It’s depressing.” 


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