Monday, May 11, 2009

Are high-speed trains viable in the US?

Interesting article here: | Are high-speed trains viable in the U.S.?

Certainly thought provoquing in a country where "high-speed trains" mean 150 mph only.

Here are the comments I've posted.

To me, there are a few truths:
- Rail is less polluting in general (it takes less energy to move something on iron-to-iron railways), even more so if lines are electrified and electricity comes from renewables or nuclear

-  Rail competes with air easily for distances less than 1000 km / 600 miles

- The city-centre to city-centre networks work well in dense connurbations with adequate public transport between the city centre and suburbs. When megapolis have no centre, advantages are less obvious.

- For the end-user, convenience/speed and price must be right, unlike in the UK where people choose cars because public transport fails them, despite congestion and high cost of the personal convenience called "car".

- Railways are never going to turn up a profit, they need subsidies and have to be built upon long periods to become alternatives to automobiles. Just like roads and street lighting. Of course, single lines can be profitable under some cicumstances, but it's missing the point about the advantage of an integrated public transport network.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Time to nationalise the trains?

Library file photo dated 12/12/2004 of two Midland Mainline trains at Kings Cross St Pancras, London. Transport group National Express said today it had exceeded expectations for this year after strong performances at its coach and bus businesses. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday December 18, 2006. Shares in the group, which runs rail services including Midland Mainline and Central Trains, rose 2% as it told investors that it had ended 2006 strongly.Read in The Times this am:
National Express wants taxpayers’ cash to keep running East Coast trains - Times Online

At a time where rail fares have been increasing faster than inflation, I was reading this and thinking it was a further proof that the rail privatisation did not work, in the UK or anywhere else.

Its results are:
  • a poor deal for the consumer with one of the most expensive transport system in the world, sending more people than ever on the roads (an overused infrastructure with little investment over the last 20 years)
  • little progress in upgrading and investments, with for instance no high-speed links between London, the Midlands and Scotland ; I mean Crossrail and HS1 are not much in 20 years
  • overall, the service is sort of improving but is running on many lines over-capacity 
In the meantime, the government continues with its double standards and taxes cars CO2 emissions while not taxing aviation fuel and not phasing out diesel train engines with electrified lines.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My no-knead sourdough bread

I've now been baking bread almost every week-end for well over 3 years and have tried many different recipes, including this one or that one, but also ciabattas, lardons breads, walnut and apricots breads, etc etc etc.

I've got several books just , including the "ultimate" The Bread Bible, a very concise and good book in French called Les recettes du boulanger : Pains et viennoiseries.

My current routine is to refresh my sourdough starter which I keep in a jar in the fridge on Thursday night, mix the ingredients together on Friday and bake on Saturday. I always keep some dough if it's a white bread to make pizzas for the Sunday night.

So far, I was using the proportion that Joanna gave me:
  • 675 g strong organic white bread flour + 75g organic rye flour, or any mix I like of different flours (such as spelt, malted, buckwheat, etc...) but keeping the total at 750g
  • 270 g sourdough starter, usually using rye flour or wholemeal or white bread flour -I keep them at around 100-120% hydratation, which is same weight water and flour or a bit more water
  • 495 g water
  • 15 g salt -regular, coarse sea salt doesn't make a difference except sprinkled on the crust
  • Note that you can also add up to 20% of "whatever": dried apricots and walnuts, sunflower and other seeds, lardons (pancetta cubes) and rosemary, etc...
The rest of the recipe is:
  • Knead for 15 mn (that's a whole blog post on the subject...)
  • Leave overnight to prove on a silicon sheet on an oven tray
  • Pre-heat the oven to the max (275 Celcius for me)
  • Bake for about 50-55 mn with a metal tray and 7-10 ice cubes on the oven bottom but NOT under the bread -makes it all soggy
  • Reduce heat to about 180 degrees after 20 mn
  • Wholemeal, spelt, rye breads take more time to bake: to see if they're done, tap on the bottom to hear if it sounds hollow, if not continue for 5-10 mn.

Now, 750 + 135 = 885 g flour for 495 + 135 = 630 g water, which is about 70% hydratation or 66% if you don't account for the sourdough starter.

Over this bank holiday WE, I've tried my new toy -a very nice electronic scale and have altered the proportions to go well over 70% hydratation:
  • I've kept the flour at about 750 g (using a mix of my favourite Dove's Organic StrongWhite Bread Flour and about half of the lovely Bacheldre Smoked Malted Flour)
  • However, largely due to a handling error I've ended up with over 320 g of starter
  • Thinking back of the "no-knead" NYT article I had read some time earlier, I decided to experiment and added about 600 g of water.
  • Now, this makes a very soggy dough which you can't knead -just leave proving for about 14-18 hours or thereabouts
  • Shape as best as you can trying to to add too much flour or you'll see the seams inside the bread
  • Mark and prove for 2 hours (on the photo, I had only the time to leave it for 1h but the result is still good).
  • Bake as above (again, on the picture, I did not have time to pre-heat the oven really hot, so the bread is softer but it's still OK, kids loved it)
  • The NYT recipe suggests baking it into a cast iron pan. I've tried it and like the result but prefers my bread to be more wonky and hand shaped. The ice cubes (thanks god I have an fridge with an ice machine) seem to do the job.
  • If you use yeast, either frest or dried, you need to reduce the proportions or your dough will deflate back due to the long proving time. You can also do a biga or a starter the day before with a bit of yeast and a 100% hydratation flour-water mixture.
  • Sourdough can be started but you need a week to develop it.