Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Letter from Al Gore and Trains for Warren Buffett

Teaching my transportation & logistics class is always an incredible experience! Today, I shared with my students the New York Times OpEd piece by Bob Herbert, What the Future May Hold, in which he writes: We're trundling along in the infrastructure equivalent of a jalopy, with bridges rotting and falling down, while other nations, our competitors in the global economy, are building efficient, high-speed, high-performance infrastructure platforms to power their 21st-century economies. Herbert then proceeds to imagine an America with rebuilt and healthy metropolitan areas, efficient rail and electric power networks, coupled with world-class public schools. He cites both a Brookings study and Rohatyn's recent book, Bold Endeavors, with the opening sentence: The nation is falling apart -- literally.

The themes of our Fragile Networks book focus not only on identifying the vulnerabilities of our infrastructure through the prism of transportation and logistical networks but also how to identify potential synergies through cooperation, through teaming and wise sharing of resources, and even through mergers and acquisitions. Patrick Qiang and I show in our book how to also compute a priori potential environmental synergies by capturing the underlying network structure of firms involved in mergers and/or acquisitions.

Today's New York Times also has an article on the environmental costs associated with air travel (which I also shared with my students) in which is stated that the average British commuter while commuting by rail, bus, or car in a full year would emit LESS than a single air traveler flying from London to Los Angeles! Research is now being conducted (and some terrific work is being done right here at UMass Amherst) to develop alternative fuels even using algae, that would drastically reduce the carbon imprint of air travel. The article emphasizes that the effect of carbon offsets at the present prices on emission-reduction is esssentially null (but travelers' guilt might be reduced and that is about it).

Mr. Dickenson, of the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project, says that he is now taking trains, flying less, and trying to conduct more meetings via phone or teleconference. The article ends with a comment about Warren Buffett's recent investment in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation. Indeed, what does it say when the world's most successful investor, Warren Buffett, is now purchasing more railroad companies?!

As Buffett has joked, This is all happening because my father didn't buy me a train as a kid. Buffett gets the importance of trains for the movement of goods in the United States of America and how environmental impacts can be reduced through mode switching from trucks to trains. By the way, as I told my students today, CSX has a very cool carbon emission calculator for determining the environmental costs associated with moving freight from different origins to destinations via rail.

In honor of Warren Buffett's vision, I have featured a photo above of some trains (toy, obviously) from my husband's collection.

I have also included a photo of the letter that I received from then Vice-President Al Gore commenting on my book, Sustainable Transportation Networks, and thanking me for it, when it was published. The letter is hanging in my Isenberg School of Management office for my students to see.