Wednesday, September 12, 2012




 Today let's look at Montgomery's predisposition towards the manufacture of "out sized items" and the vital role that inland water transport plays in attracting such employers to the city.  Above is the Union Station that parallels the rail road tracks in Montgomery, which right behind the station, now a tourism center, parallels the river. In the heyday of the Port of Montgomery this site was what we would now call an "inter modal transportation center", a place where road, rail, and water transport met and cargoes were transferred between modes as necessary because not all modes go everywhere. Moreover not all modes lend themselves to all cargoes. To better understand that statement let's look at at a little rail road  history.

 The standard railroad gauge distance between rails in the United States measures 4 feet, 8.5 inches. This is because when we started building railroads we used existing and proven British designs and this was the standard British gauge. I suppose nobody asked why the British adopted this odd sized gauge at the time. Today we know. Maybe we knew quite a bit back then and maybe we were stuck with some of the same issues. The British adopted that gauge because they relied on wagon makers to build the first rail cars and their jigs and tools were set to that wheel spacing. The reason the wagons were set to this gauge was that it matched the wheel ruts in Britain's long distance roads and if you didn't match the wheel ruts your wagons were subject to a rough ride and a lot of breakage. But how did the wheel ruts get to be that gauge. The original long distance roads in jolly old England were built by the Romans to accommodate their imperial legions. The favorite ride of the legion Brass was the standard issue military chariot, and believe it or not these vehicles were standardized. The best chariots could accommodate two horses hitched in tandem. 4 feet 8.5 inches the Romans learned would accommodate the over whelming majority of two horses butts abreast.  So there you have it, our entire railroad right of way and track gauge system has a two horse's ass basis for design. And you land lubbers wonder why we tow boaters show such little respect for the rail industry. Really! Check it out I don't make this stuff up.

 Whatever the original reason for making the rail lines as narrow as they are,there is no on going to rush build newer, wider rail lines. It took almost two hundred years to spider web the nation in rail lines, rail right of ways are expensive. The rail roads as they presently exist , are second only to the towing industry in fuel efficiency, which is to say they are way behind the towing industry but way ahead of the over the road trucking industry. Nothing is more fuel efficient than a barge, and nothing is less fuel efficient than a truck. But only a truck can deliver directly to most any door. So things tend to move by inter modal transport. They go long distances by rail or barge then are "transferred by truck" for final "to your door" delivery. There are of course exceptions. Coors beer was once restricted to a very short radius around its Colorado brewery because Coors didn't use preservatives in its beer.

Every beer drinker in my generation knew where the "Coors Line" (The eastern most place where you could purchase a case of (Coors) was. Coors was not something that could be transported slowly. Blessed improvements in trucking refrigeration and intrepid 18 wheeler drivers annually pushed the Coors line farther east, until , at last there was no Coors line. This marked the first time in recorded history that truckers were hailed as heroes by tow boaters.  The elimination of the Coors line was no victory of inter modal shipping, it was trucking's proudest moment. No one else could have done it. The conquest of the Coors line even sparked a minor Hollywood movie franchise , think of all the employment generated by the Smokey and the Bandit movies.  

Sometimes there is a certain type of movement that only one form of surface transport can do. Because of limitations of right of way width and weight restrictions there are certain products that can only move by barge. Barge and rail may compete over bulk commodities like corn, and heating oil but mostly these commodities are not time sensitive and the greater efficiency of barge movement makes it no contest where rail lines and barges can both get you between point  A and point B. In those areas rail rates are lower because of the competition. Where there is no barge competition rail rates are often complained of as excessive. However that discussion will have to wait for another day.
Today we are discussing the one industry that must rely on barge transport. If you are going to make anything that is very much larger than the width of a rail road flat car or the right lane of an interstate, you just absolutely must have a barge. Such manufacturers can't locate anywhere else but in towns with barge transport availability. Ever been stuck in traffic behind a moon rocket?

File:Saturn rocket component loading on Palaemon.jpg
Saturn Rocket Part Being Loaded  On A NASA Barge
We didn't think so. Some parts for the space program actually had to be manufactured smaller than what the designers considered optimal because the parts had to fit on double horse's ass width transportation. Politics required that the space race government spending be spread around the country to the maximum extent possible. So some equipment was  designed first for function,then redesigned to fit the transportation mode to the final assembly area. Boy some parts simply had to be big, really big, bigger than rail car big. So those parts, and the final assembly site, and test site, and final launch designation are all in the south and located on navigable waterways. There are of course lots of navigable waterways in the north and lots of experience in manufacturing things, but only the Southern waterways are ice free all year.  Space vehicles are not the only "out sized" equipment manufactured in the United States. Anything is "out sized" when a complete unit ready for shipment is a challenge to an 18 wheeler flat bed trailer or a rail road flatbed car.  The biggest 18 wheeler tractor trailer combinations can carry about 44, 000 pounds in a unit that may not be longer than about 48 to 50 feet and about 8.3 feet wide ( with some over sized loads taking up more than one highway lane sometimes allowed for relatively short hauls with special permission and an escort service. Railroad flat bed cars can handle a bit more. But you can't have an unbalanced load or a  very big overhang because your wheel base is only 4.8 + feet. So a maximally sized railroad flat bed car may handle loads with dimensions of up to about 97 feet in length by about 20 feet in width and about 13 feet in height. 

 So here is the bottom line, if your finished manufactured product measures roughly  somewhere beyond 48' x 8.3 ' you will need to locate your manufacturing facility either on a navigable waterway or on a rail line. If your finished product measures much over 97' x 20' and especially if it is over 13 feet in height your manufacturing facility has to be on a navigable waterway.   Some sample items of things that have to move by water include
preassembled bridge trusses and braces, off shore oil rig equipment, and larger turbines. So how does Montgomery shape up in the competition for these manufacturers?

 Work Force: You make cars Montgomery, you have to have a manufacturing capable work force, your cost of living and taxes are competitive so your wage levels have been highly competitive, that's one of the reasons the car guys are with you.

Quality of Life: The big boys who operate big manufacturing like nice places to live in and a nice place to live attracts the first line management and staff talent that they need. Quick, name another place between Savanna,  Georgia and Dallas, Texas south of Nashville that isn't subject to tidal surges and the destructive force of hurricanes that come ashore that is a better place to live than Montgomery. Yeah, I thought that one would stump you. Now, of all the places in that general region free of hurricane tidal surge name one where commercial vessels could reach the Gulf of Mexico over night. Remember some of those over sized manufactured item are bound for the Gulf oil patch. The answer is two towns both state capitals Montgomery and Baton Rouge. Now name the .town with undeveloped water front sites. And which town would you rather live in? Are you starting to get the picture? You can do the rest of the civic booster picture on your own.  Montgomery would be a front runner in recruiting this kind of manufacturing but for one hang up. How reliable is your navigation?  Can you assure a manufacturer that he won't wind up behind a closed lock and dam system? You don't have to land a plant to save the locks from the potential fall of the coming budget ax, but you do have to produce a marketing plan for industries like that before January. You must demonstrate to Congress that they are killing an on going jobs development plan should they close your locks. Get started ! Underdeveloped navigation is endangered navigation when you are lock dependent in hard budget times.

Take this to heart Montgomery, to paraphrase Scarlet O'Hara:

"I will lie , cheat , steal, kill, or do whatever I have to do to never ever accept that I am limited to the manufacture of items smaller than the width of two horses asses. With Montgomery as my witness I swear that we will become again THE PORT OF MONTGOMERY!

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