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Levitating trains: hope for gridlocked transportation.

The United States faces a transportation crisis. Congestion on U.S. highways and airways is rapidly increasing. From 1985 to 2005, highway vehicle delay is expected to increase from 3 billion to 12 billion vehicle-hours annually. During the same time period, the number of airports with chronic delays of more than eight minutes per takeoff or landing is predicted to increase from 11 to 47. For both highway and air travel, the estimated cost of delay to passengers win rise from $15 billion a year in 1985 to $61 billion in 2005. High-speed ground transportation (HSGT), with top speeds of up to 300 miles per hour (mph), offers an attractive alternative. HSGT represents a new mode of transportation for the United States, one that is potentially superior to both airplanes and automobiles for trips between 100 and 600 miles. In this range, the private auto is too slow and will become slower as a result of increased congestion. Air travel gives a false sense of speed, since door-to-door travel times are relatively long and inclement weather can prevent planes from flying. Also, highway congestion around major airports and the cities they serve is becoming more severe. HSGT is already a reality in Europe and Japan. In the United States, regional HSGT systems could utilize the airport of a major metropolitan area as a hub and extend service to smaller surrounding cities or airports. The use of HSGT for regional transit between hubs would free scarce airspace for longer distance and overseas flights. In addition, the lines used for regional high-speed service could be used for suburban commuting and airport access. HSGT technologies with vehicle speeds exceeding 150 mph can be divided into two basic categories:

* High-speed rail (HSR) systems, with top speeds between 150 and 200 mph, use steel wheels on steel rails, as with traditional railroads, but can achieve higher speeds because of the design of both the rail bed and cars.

* High-speed magnetic levitation (gun) systems, with top speeds between 250 and 300 mph, use forces of attraction or repulsion from powerful magnets placed in either the vehicle or the guideway beneath it both to lift the vehicle above the guideway and to propel it forward. A gun vehicle can be likened to a flying train or a guided aircraft.

If linked effectively with highways and air service, HSGT technologies - particularly gun could have a significant impact on congestion in the future.

Early U.S. Efforts

U. S. efforts on HSGT began with the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. This law established the Office of High Speed Ground Transportation under the U.S. Department of Commerce and authorized federal research and development for HSGT. The objectives of the 1965 Act were to advance high-speed-rail technology as rapidly as possible and to explore other technologies that might be useful for intercity ground transportation. Initially, little attention was paid to magnetic levitation. It was thought that installing magnets aboard the vehicles would cause them to weigh too much and that embedding magnets in the guideway would cost too much. Early research on HSGT concentrated on high-speed rail in the form of self-propelled electric cars, known as Metrohners, that could achieve speeds of 160 mph.

MAGLEV R&D was a very small part of the HSGT program and consisted of paper studies and small model development. Total expenditures in this area were less than $3 million. The earliest work in gun technology was conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the mid-1960s. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, research into gun systems was undertaken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ford Motor Company, Stanford Research Institute, Mitre Corporation, and TRW Systems Inc.

With the expiration in 1975 of the 1965 Act, all R&D on HSGT in the United States came to a halt. Information exchanges with West Germany, Japan, and Canada had proven fruitful, and the final report of the Act stressed that, for the nation "to continue to benefit from the foreign research, the United States will need to have information to exchange. " Interestingly, in the same report, two reasons were given for dropping the R&D effort in advanced technology:

* The need for large amounts of government money to maintain existing rail service in the North-east and Midwest, principally to rehabilitate the roadbed.

* The growth of demand for air transportation had slowed relative to predictions made in the mids. 1960"Advent of larger aircraft has reduced airport congestion at least temporarily. Therefore, the pressures to relieve congestion, which seemed so urgent in the 1960s, diminished - at least for a decade," the report stated.

Thus, when federally sponsored HSGT R&D stopped in 1975, no long-range plans had been adopted. Only short-term solutions to relieve immediate problems would be implemented. However, such stopgap measures have clearly proved inadequate: Air traffic congestion has been a problem since the early 1980s, and air traffic is expected to more than double between 1986 and 2005. Since 1975, U.S. efforts in HSGT technology have been minimal in comparison with efforts by Germany, France, Japan, and Great Britain. Most of the U.S. effort in upgrading HSR transportation since 1975 has focused on upgrading the Northeast Corridor rail lines between Washington and New York, at a cost of over $2.5 billion.

International Developments Japan's bullet' trains, using high-speed-rail technology, have been operating since 1964. By 1986, the Shinkansen rail system had carried over 2 billion passengers without a single injury or fatality. With a maximum train speed of 130 mph, the trip from Tokyo to Osaka takes three hours and 15 minutes.

Perhaps the most-advanced HSR operation is the French Train A Grande Vitesse (for "train of great speed") or TGV, which runs between Paris and Lyons. Since September 1983, the portion of the line between the outskirts of Paris and the outskirts of Lyons has been totally dedicated to high-speed service. The system has a maximum speed of 168 mph and covers the 273 miles between Paris and Lyons in two hours. Through mid-1989, this operation had carried over 100 million passengers and accumulated over 3.5 billion passenger-miles without a single accident. A second line, the 186-mph TGV Atlantique, which connects Paris with Le Mans in the west of France, began service in September 1989. Other HSR developments in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan have also been directed at decreasing travel time between cities. One example is the German Intercity Express (ICE), designed for top speeds of 150-180 mph and scheduled to begin service in January 1991. The initial line will run between Munich and Hamburg, followed by lines between Frankfurt and Stuttgart and between Hannover and Cologne.

There are currently three high-speed gun systems for which full-scale prototype vehicles have been developed:

* The German Transrapid system is expected to begin service by the end of 1990. The Transrapid is an electromagnetic system (EMS), which uses attraction forces to lift the vehicle to the guideway from beneath (see illustration on page 29). At its 19-mile test track near the city of Lathen in northern Germany, visitors and the general public have traveled at speeds of 200-230 mph, and the system permits top speeds carrying passengers at over 250 mph. A high-speed line between Essen and Bonn is expected to begin construction in the early 1990s and to be operating in the middle to late 1990s.

* The JR Japanese National Railways) system, scheduled to complete its development cycle by 1997, is the only superconducting gun development with a full-scale prototype. The JR is an electro-dynamic system (EDS), which uses repulsion forces to float the vehicle above the guideway. Now undergoing trials at a four-mile track near the city of Miyazaki, the JR system regularly carries visitors at speeds of 150-200 mph, and an earlier prototype achieved speeds of 323 mph unmanned.

* The Japanese HSST system, sponsored by the HSST Corporation, has no estimated date for beginning service. This EMS or attraction system has been demonstrated at several expositions and the Vancouver World's Fair, but has never realized its top speed of 180 mph during these demonstrations because the tracks have been limited to lengths of less than one mile. Completion of its development cycle will depend on HSST's ability to construct a demonstration track of sufficient length to reach and maintain top speed.

gun vs. HSR

When comparing HSR and MAGLEV technologies, gun appears to be the technology of choice. Though the new generation of HSR technology can reach commercial speeds of up to 186 mph (TGV Atlantique), additional increases in speed pose great engineering problems, suggesting that rail transportation is a mature technology. gun technology, on the other hand, is in its infancy and win improve substantially with additional engineering.

In contrast to HSR, gun systems involve no physical contact between the guideway and the vehicle, which means less wear, less maintenance, less noise, and greater reliability. gun rides are as comfortable as those on airliners flying in nonturbulent air. gun trains can climb grades and bank curves without substantially reducing speed, thus permitting lines that are less intrusive on existing communities than rail lines. And, as with electric HSR, there are no emissions along the guideway because gun runs on electricity.

Though the capital costs of a gun system are somewhat higher than those of an HSR system, operating costs are about the same, and with gun'S higher speeds it can attract more riders and produce more revenues.

Despite these arguments, one still might ask, IS gun - or high-speed ground transportation in general - really necessary? Why not just build more highways and more airports?

Unfortunately, highway projects are costly undertakings. Just to maintain the U.S. highway and bridge system until 2005 win cost 550-$630 billion. Even so, there is likely to be a shortfall of 11,00015,000 lane-miles. Demand for highway space is far outpacing the nation's financial capacity to build it. Environmental concerns and the "not in my backyard- syndrome have also played a role in slowing down new highway construction.

To build more airports means to build them farther from the cities and other areas to be served. This would obviously result in longer, rather than shorter, door-to-door travel times, especially if the private auto continues to be the most popular airport access mode. If an access mode other than the private auto is to be used, then gun again becomes the answer.

Regional gun Systems

In all of the high-speed-rail developments in Europe, Japan, and even the U.S. Northeast Corridor, the philosophy has been to consider city centers as the starting and ending points of Journeys. In Europe and Japan, where public transportation is used as part of an intercity trip, the new high-speed services are projected to continue utilizing upgraded versions of traditional rail routes. The infrastructure to support rail operation still exists in those countries.

But let's look at the typical inter-city p in the United States. First, with the exception of the Northeast Corridor, it is not accomplished by train, and it generally involves use of the private automobile. If the private auto is not used for all of the trip, it is at least driven to an airport and parked while the travelers fly to their destination airport. At this point, the travelers use public transportation, taxi, or limousine, rent a car, or are picked up by someone in a car to continue their trip to the final destination. The return trip is the reverse of this procedure. Due to urban sprawl and the difficulty of getting to center city by private auto, the center city to center city trip is becoming more and more outdated.

Regional gun systems with top speeds of up to 300 mph make a great deal of sense. Such regional systems could utilize the airport of a major metropolitan area as a hub and extend service to smaller cities (either at airports or major highway junctions) and to adjacent major metropolitan airports and down-towns. The hubbing concept, now practiced at many major airports, can in many cases be handled more efficiently by gun, freeing valuable air and airport space for longer-distance flights. As the U. S. economy becomes more strongly linked with those of other nations, demand for long-distance and overseas flights will continue to increase rapidly.

Since such regional gun systems will run through suburban areas surrounding the major metropolitan airport, these same systems could be used for suburban commuting, airport access, and high-speed regional access as well. To generate early revenue, the suburban commuter system could be built prior to the regional system. This concept of budding from small to large is not new to transportation, having been employed in railroad, highway, and air-travel infrastructure.

Top speeds of the suburban commuter and airport access system would be 150-200 mph. Even the regional gun trains would operate at these lower speeds while moving through the suburban areas. When outside of the urban areas, top speeds would he in the 200-300 mph range.

Let us suppose, for example, that suburban gun systems existed around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Washington-Baltimore and were connected by regional high-speed fines via Cumberland, Maryland. The average door-to-door trip time would be cut in half, from 4-5 hours to 2-2 1/2 hours.

Linking it All Together

The success of such regional and suburban gun systems Will depend upon their connectivity, both among gun systems and with the highway and air-travel systems. Many of the gun stops could handle baggage for the air carriers, so that travelers could check in before arriving at the airport. All gun STOPS, with the possible exception of those at major airports and downtowns, must provide for auto, bus, rail, and taxi access, with major parking facilities.

An intriguing possibility is automated parking garages. A commuter or long-distance traveler would leave his automobile in a parking lane, walk a very short distance to an escalator, and enter the gun station. The auto would be parked automatically under computer control. On his return trip, the rider would inform the computer control of his arrival on the platform, and his car would be waiting for him at the parking lane.

As with all new long-range transportation developments, new public-private partnerships will be required to implement gun systems in the United States. Federal, state, and local governments are all battling revenue shortfalls and are unlikely to foot the bin for gun systems. In a public-private partnership, the public sector would put up part of the necessary financing, with the rest provided by private investors. The private sector would then build and operate the system under franchise to the public partners.

As mentioned before, operation of suburban gun lines could provide revenue to build regional networks. In addition, gun stops would likely function as engines of economic development or redevelopment around the stops.

High-speed gun technology will play a major role in the evolution of the U.S. transportation system in the twenty-first century. gun systems linking airports and metropolitan centers to the urban and suburban sprawl can provide alternatives and complements to America's overburdened highways and airways. In this way, gun can ward off the prospect of a national transportation crisis.

About the Author

Richard A. Uher is director of the High Speed Ground Transportation Center, Carnegie Mellon University, 4400 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213-2683.

Portions of this article are reprinted with permission 1989 Society of Automotive Engineers, inc., 400 Commonwealth Drive, Warrendale, Pennsylvania 15096-0001.


A high-speed magnetic levitation (MAGLEV) train could be a reality in the United States in only four years, according to an article in the Washington Post. A (Florida) International Airport and a terminal near Walt Disney World is scheduled to open in October 1994. The train, which could reach speeds of 300 mph, would make the 14-mile trip in five minutes.

Eventually, this line may be connected to a high-speed rail (HSR) route linking Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. The HSR trains would use steel wheels on steel rails, as with traditional railroads, but could reach speeds of 150 mph. Real-estate development along the tracks is expected to serve as the financial engine for the system.

Other high-speed ground transportation (HSGT) projects under consideration in the United States include a high-speed tram linking Southern California and Las Vegas, an HSR line between Dallas and Houston, and a Pittrburgh regional gun system.

Banks and corporations in Japan and Western Europe, where HSR trains have been running for years and high-speed gun trains are now being tested, are giving a strong push to such projects in the United States. Source: High-Speed Rail Backers Hope Florida Train Is Bound for Glory' by Don Phillips. The Washington Post, February 20, 1990.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on high speed trains
Author:Uher, Richard A.
Publication:The Futurist
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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