Unlocking the Future Transportation
It is a warm, sunny afternoon and you're merging south onto the New York State Thruway. The lanes are sparsely occupied as you press the accelerator, experiencing a mild exhilaration as the car is going 80 mph. In the upper left of you peripheral is a narrow concrete beam. A train silently darts over it 220 mph faster than your car, disappearing into the horizon within a matter of seconds. Looking out at the rapidly passing landscape, passengers in the train are enjoying a 40 minute trip from Albany to New York City.
This is no fantasy, but simply a combination of existing technology with a critical resource our governments already possess: highways that link our cities together.
Highways are much more than just roads that carry cars. They are uninterrupted channels of land connecting every city in this country, an asset of far greater value than their current use provides. They are used to accommodate cars and trucks, a slow and inefficient means to transport large volumes of goods and passengers. But what if we could also use this land to accommodate a new form of transportation, one that uses 1/30th the energy needed to propel automobiles, travel five times faster, and costs far less per passenger mile? This technology, called maglev (short for magnetic levitation), exists and is waiting to be implemented here in the United States.
Other countries have already made a bold leap into investing in this new technology, including China, Germany, and Japan. Although only one currently exists in commercial operation, the Shanghai Maglev, construction is underway in Japan to build a much longer maglev route between Tokyo and Osaka. These systems, however, are a relatively primitive form of maglev, as the same engineers who developed the Japanese maglev system have made significant improvements to the original design to make the technology even more efficient, capable of carrying greater loads such as freight, and most importantly, far less expensive than the aforementioned systems. So much less, in fact, that building maglev today can be done without government subsidies to construct or operate.
The missing piece lies in the ability to build such a system along our highways, most of which are designed with broad easements and medians where an elevated guideway can be built for maglev trains. It is rather ironic that half a century ago, when many of our cities were recklessly carved out to build these highways, providing these rights of ways removed the greatest physical barrier to construct a far more advanced and sustainable means of transportation in the future. Getting our government to permit maglev to build along our extensive highway network would set the framework for such a large-scale investment to take place. The improved design requires full scale demonstration and development prior to commercial operation, which may require some subsidy in conjunction with private investment. But clearly, this investment is justified when the benefits of maglev transportation are weighed against the significant and urgent problems facing our nation.
Using the force of a magnetic field, a maglev train is levitated several centimeters above a track or guideway. There are no moving parts. Hence, the cost to maintain such a system is dwarfed by all other modes of transport. Trains are pulled by an A/C current that runs in the track, eliminating the possibility of collisions and making maglev travel far safer than automobiles, planes, and even conventional trains. They can operate in all weather conditions; even tornados or hurricane force winds cannot derail them. The electricity used to propel the vehicle is returned to the system through regenerative breaking, leaving only a small resistance from air and in the aluminum panel loops along the track that produce the magnetic field as the source of energy consumption. They can be built on a low cost, mass produced guideway beam or installed along existing railroad tracks without precluding the use of conventional steel-wheel trains. All of the components of this system can be produced in domestic manufacturing facilities, providing many jobs and economic stimulus. There is no question that this technology offers a superior means of travel for people and goods.
The system described above is the Maglev 2000, invented by Drs. James Powell and Gordon Danby (surely they figured their maglev trains would be in use by the year 2000 when their invention was published in the 1960’s). But there are other promising prospects for maglev technology, including American Maglev, based in Georgia, and Fastransit, Inc., in addition to the German and Japanese systems currently in use. Governments that open up highway rights-of-way for bidding could expect multiple different companies to compete to construct such a system.
Transportation has always served a critical role in the development of our civilization. Cities have always grown around an efficient means to transport goods and passengers, and advancements in our means of transport have made revolutionary impacts on society. The maglev train can be the next step in transportation, just as airplanes, automobiles, trains, and boats transformed how we travel and where we choose to inhabit. It is critical for our nation to enjoy a prosperous future that we continue to evolve and advance our technology to address our dire economic and environmental circumstances. It is now in the hands of our leaders and the investment community to step forward and realize the potential of this technology.