guest post by Todd McKissick
We all can’t wait for High Speed Rail to come to our town. Whether we’re referring to fast traditional trains on wheels (HSR) or those that float down the track on magnetic fields (maglev), this is the 21st Century, so what most people desire is the full featured deal. Anything less is just another compromise. They have been touted now for 40 years that I know of.
But, as usual, it begs the question: is this really the best solution? I’ve found a lot of different solutions and reviewed everyone of them, but only two stand head and shoulders above the rest.
First, let’s look at some of the specifics of what we’re asking for. It runs really fast so there’s lots of possibility of crossing the country in a couple hours. It gets its efficiency mostly from packing lots of cargo into a very efficient vehicle as most trains do. It’s clearly better than getting 25, 60 or 85 passenger-kilometers per liter in a fully loaded airplane, Suburban or Prius. (That’s 65, 140 or 200 passenger-miles per gallon.) As long as it’s comfortable, this is all good stuff.
Unfortunately, to accomplish this, maglev takes a fairly standard sized train and hovers it over a massive rail with thousands of high-powered electromagnets to float this 80+ tonne piece of machinery from one town to another. It accelerates slowly and brakes slowly, unless you want to double the incredible amount of power it uses already. Its rail system consists of hundreds of tons of concrete per 30 meter segment to make the rail and the support beams, and we all know that concrete is horrible for the environment. And lastly, it costs a billion dollars to build each couple miles of the system.
I’m thinking there’s a better way.
To truly combat the automobile, the airplane and other forms of transportation that use lots of fossil fuels, let’s first look at the last mile segment. This is from your door to the store, work or school lobby or even to your friend’s door. Check out this picture from a company called SkyTran.
It’s called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT for short), and it’s courting numerous locations around the world right now. Basically, it’s a small carbon fiber pod that holds two seats and an iPad. This pod hangs from a small rail which then hangs from arms on regular telephone-style poles. At certain locations, a set of steps to a platform is placed to allow people to call for one and hop in. These terminals are cheap enough that they can be placed so that you’re never more than about 2 blocks from one in town or a couple miles in the country. In fact, they can be incorporated into lobbies, shopping malls, schools, sports arenas and even the higher floors of high rises because they are really just a landing to stand on (or ramp for those using wheels). Up to 350 kilogram pallets can be shipped autonomously. The one-way rails pass each other at different elevations so collisions are avoided while off-ramps to terminals simply drop down to a separate rail to stop on. This allows following traffic to continue at full speed while you merge on or off.
Now for the fun stuff. Once you get in and select your destination, it takes you straight to your end destination. Initial speeds are advertised at 70 kilometers per hour (45 mph) for town and 240 km/h (150 mph) for country but the top speed is well over 320 km/h (200 mph). It’s really only limited by wind resistance. This means you can board one at your sidewalk and step directly onto the upper level of a sports stadium 80 miles away in 25 minutes. Need a 2 hour nap before reaching the kids’ house? You’ll have to be farther than 450 kilometers away. When you figure in all the time needed for the various legs required to travel, this is the fastest way to travel any distance between 6 and 600 kilometers. Ya just gotta love avoiding parking at the airport to switch to a plane, because you can get there faster by avoiding the plane altogether—not to mention airport security!
The ride is perfectly smooth and quiet and offers iPad access with wifi support for your own devices. The pods can even be ‘ganged’ for when you have more than two riders (or kids) so that you load your kids in one car, connect it to your car virtually and then follow them to the destination. Along the way, it can switch the order so you can get out first for safety. Each rail has the capacity of a 3-lane freeway. Since the rail is upside down, balancing suspension is not needed because there’s no chance of the pod falling off. In other words, the curves are all banked for the set speed so the passengers feel no side force.
The energy required to operate it is equivalent to getting 85 kilometers per liter (200 mpg) in a loaded car because it is lifting small enough loads to take advantage of ‘passive levitation’. This is a type of maglev that uses drag to levitate the car. This kicks in at about 1 kilometer per hour, raises the car off the wheels, and diminishes to negligible drag once you pass 22 kilometers per hour (14 mph). Coupling this with regenerative braking means that you really only need to provide the energy to push against the wind. In fact a canopy of solar cells over it could power the entire system during rush hour for free. The rail is designed to also incorporate transmission and/or distribution power lines, 3G / WiFi internet connectivity (including backbone and user distribution) and possibly other utility services. A nationwide network installation could reduce US oil imports from 12 mbbl/day to around 3 mbbl, cutting the cost we pay to OPEC from $700B/yr to $175B/yr.
The cost of building such a system is still fairly high at €4.7/km ($10M/mile), but even that’s 1/19th of the cost of most HSR, and it’s and expected to come way down. The cost to the riders for a privately funded system (before profit, of course) is about €0.02/km, or 4 US cents per mile. Compare this to the cost of a personal vehicle which comes in at 14 times more. When you envision the scope this could be implemented, you can see that many targeted communities could do away with roads altogether, and opt for wider bike paths (to accommodate the occasional moving truck) and more nature. Parking lots could be located in cheap real estate areas or eliminated altogether. Delivery trucks could be replaced with individual pallet deliveries directly inside the factory. In short, all deliveries would eliminate the return trip. Cargo sharing could be implemented along with interstate passenger ‘opportunity’ trips for low cost travel for those who can’t afford travel. If there were a public outcry for this system and we decided to install it nationwide, each community could fund a significant chunk of it from existing road funds with no change in taxes. Or private individuals could invest to install it on a for profit basis.
I mapped out my small 12,000 person town, hit all the major points directly and put a terminal within 2 1/2 blocks of every house, for a total price of $160 million. The annual cost to pay it off completely in 10 years would be around $5-6,000 per family before considering the added savings like providing transportation to those in our population that can’t legally drive now. That’s 60% of what people spend on cars today. What better way to help young adults get their lives started without debt? All infrastructure additions can work in parallel with existing roads and utilities and installation time is roughly 2-3 miles of rail per week per crew. You do the math. If there were a global push behind PRT, we could cut our energy dependence, our environmental impact (not to mention the impact on people’s lives) and bring nature back into our communities.
That covers the short range travel but we still have long distance air, rail and international travel to address. Enter Evacuated Tube Transport.
This system suspends a long vacuum tube overhead or under water to guide mini-trains of 6 passengers on extremely high speed, long range trips. By evacuating the entire length of tube, most of the wind drag is removed, allowing it to travel at speeds up to 6,500 kilometers per hour (4,000 mph) with a maximum of 1 g of acceleration in any direction. The ET3 website suggests that intra-state travel will run at around 550 kilometers per hour (allowing for 2.5 kilometer radius u-turns) while the higher speed legs across the country or under the ocean surface can do a loop in a 320 kilometer radius.
A sample trip from L.A. to N.Y. would take 3 minutes to accelerate over the first 160 kilometers, 42 minutes to cruise the middle and 3 more minutes to slow down while capturing the remaining momentum as electrical regeneration.
Of course, riding in a vacuum requires a pod capable of safely withstanding dangerous pressures, but even transoceanic underwater travel poses no problems we don’t already deal with for other causes. It would be worth the ride for just the scenery if there were transparent sides on the tube, but one has to wonder what you could actually see at that speed below sea level. And since a 6 hour trip across the Pacific would not include any stops, there are some obvious human considerations which would need to be dealt with. Even considering these issues, the economics are sound in dollars, resources and energy. As you can see on their page comparing to standard trains, the ET3 system far surpasses even the Skytran for efficient long distance transport. One could only hope for the merger of the two, where you hop in a Skytran car on your corner, zoom straight into a ET3 loading system, jet up to high speed, cross half the globe, reverse the process at some foreign destination and charge $100 on your card, all in a couple hours.
If you think this is is all hype and fairy land, you might want to search around for some of the projects around the world that are reviewing these two little gems. It’s only a lack of popular opinion that’s holding these two back. Let’s make this happen with a little viral support!