With airports and highways more congested than ever, new train technologies have the potential to resurrect the age of rail.
Nestled between the seaside bluffs of Southern California’s Torrey Pines and the concrete arteries of Interstate 5 is the low-profile campus of General Atomics, home to the only magnetic levitation, or maglev, train in the United States. The company’s Electromagnetic Systems Division built the test track at this spot three years ago, basing it in part on a design for a maglev rocket launch system developed by US Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
General Atomics’ director of maglev systems, Sam Gurol, has promised me a rare ride on this prototype train, which is not really a train at all, but rather a single, open chassis with no seats. The track looks a little like the guideway to the Walt Disney World monorail in miniature – just 120 m long and raised 60 cm to 1,5 m off the ground.
As I climb aboard the chassis, a researcher waves enthusiastically from a nearby control room like a parent sending his child on a first rollercoaster ride. Gurol stands next to me. “Hold on,” he warns, and directs me to a single bar at the front of the vehicle. There’s a subwaylike jolt, a quiet rumble, and we’re off.
For a few moments I feel nothing but the soft La Jolla breeze as we accelerate. It feels as if we’re floating, and we are: between the car and the track is a 25 mm gap that allows the train to operate with zero mechanical friction. And almost no sound. One of the most surprising things about maglev propulsion is that it is whisper quiet. Suddenly, we’re decelerating. There’s another vibration, and we stop. The whole trip took 22 seconds, and our top speed was 30 km/h, but the technology used on this modest test track may power a new generation of ground transportation in the United States.
As a proof of concept, the General Atomics maglev is impressive, but to fully grasp the potential of high-speed trains in this country, you still have to use your imagination. Here’s how it could work: you board a train in downtown Anaheim, California, at 5.30 pm on a Friday, destined for Las Vegas. Instead of inching out of the traffic-choked Los Angeles metro area on what is typically a 4- to 6-hour drive, or gambling that the 1-hour, 15-minute flight will depart on time, you glide out of the city, accelerating toward Barstow. As the train fires through the Mojave Desert, it hits a top speed approaching 500 km/h, and then pulls into Vegas just 90 minutes after departure – in time for dinner before an 8 pm show.
That scenario won’t come to pass for years, but commercial high-speed train travel is no mere fantasy. In other countries, ” steel-wheel” bullet trains have been in operation since the 1960s. Japan’s Shinkansen sails along the 1 000-km route between Tokyo and Fukuoka at up to 300 km/h. In France, the high-speed TGV tops out at 320 km/h on the 770-km run between Paris and Marseille, which takes 3 hours. Spain’s Velaro E is rated to do 350 km/h on the Madrid-Barcelona run.
Magnetic levitation, the technology floating the test train at General Atomics, has a smaller commercial footprint, but it has the most impressive capabilities in the world of superspeedy trains. A maglev train that began service four years ago in Shanghai runs 30 km between Pudong International Airport and the city’s business district in just 8 minutes at speeds of up to 430 km/h. And this past September, the city of Munich, Germany, announced plans to build a new maglev line that will cover the 4 km route between Franz Joseph Strauss International Airport and downtown in 10 minutes.
High-speed rail has been a difficult sell in countries such as the USA because of high startup costs and the traditional reliability of air and highway transportation systems. But it’s increasingly apparent that in many areas, those systems are reaching capacity. The average US commuter spends 38 hours per year stuck in traffi c. And air travellers are spending more time in security lines and waiting on the runway before they ever get into the air. According to the Department of Transportation, 2007 is on track to be the worst year in the past decade for airport delays, with one in four flights arriving late.
Furthermore, all that waiting costs money – and fuel. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that last year US drivers wasted 10 billion litres of fuel sitting in traffic. That kind of inefficiency is becoming increasingly worrisome, with oil cracking $80 a barrel and all those idling engines generating significant greenhouse gas emissions.
By contrast, high-speed trains draw power from the electrical grid, which is fuelled primarily by domestically produced energy sources, such as coal. Plus, trains require about a third as much energy per passenger mile as cars (see table). Although nothing powered through the grid is entirely carbon-neutral, high-speed trains produce no direct emissions. Says Rod Diridon, chair emeritus of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, ” We’re going to have a tough time meeting any reasonable standards of pollution control if we continue to rely upon automobiles and short-hop airlines for our transportation needs.”
Building high-speed train routes would not be easy or cheap. Almost every proposed route faces some sort of political fight, and, depending on who you ask and what technology you’re considering, the cost per kilometre of high-speed rail is anywhere from R20 million to R60 million. However, more and more transportation engineers and city planners are starting to see high-speed rail as the only rational way to ease the strain that booming populations are placing on their already overwhelmed infrastructure.
” By 2035, the six counties in the Los Angeles region will add roughly 6 million people to the 18 million residents already living here,” says Richard J Marcus of the Southern California Association of Governments. “How are all those people going to get around?”
As current transportation infrastructure groans under the stress, the idea of highspeed trains is starting to catch on in the USA, at least. Eleven existing railway corridors in the US are undergoing improvements for an upgrade to highspeed steel-wheel rail. Some of the most advanced, such as those in California, may be running trains as fast as 275 km/h within 11 years. In addition, there are several maglev projects in development – one connecting the Pittsburgh airport and city centre; another between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee; and a third that would link Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Although some maglev proposals have minimal support, others are being promoted by well organised, politically connected operations. The most ambitious is the California-Nevada Interstate Maglev Project described earlier.
The technology for conventional steelwheel high-speed trains is well established. All high-speed rail trains are electrically powered, drawing current from overhead power lines. They operate on tracks carved into the landscape with wide-radius turns and grades that max out at about 5 per cent. Although highspeed rail trains can travel on standard tracks, the Federal Railroad Administration has ruled that trains travelling faster than 200 km/h must operate on tracks with no grade crossings – meaning no intersections with public roadways.
There are two main “flavours” of maglev technology: Electromagnetic suspension (EMS); Electrodynamic suspension (EDS). In EMS designs, the train chassis wraps around a guideway and, when current is applied to the rail, the train rises. With EDS technology
There’s more than one way to make a train go fast. Highspeed steel-wheel rail technologies are already in service in 13 countries, with several more projects in development. As for maglev, electromagnetic suspension (EMS) te