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High-Speed Trains Are Catching Up

Taking a cue from Europe and Japan, the U.S. gets on track with high-speed trains.
October 11, 2001

In Los Angeles, a consultant boards a train. At 240 kilometers per hour, she’ll step out onto the San Francisco platform in less than three hours. At Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, a family sets off for Orlando on a train that levitates above a magnetized coil, cruising at 240 to 400 kph.

Welcome to the world of high-speed trains. Europeans and Japanese have been riding them for years, and while Americans have yet to jump aboard, all that may soon change. Whether it’s high-speed rail connecting all 800 miles of California, or magnetic levitation, as proposed in Florida, engineers and politicians are reconsidering these alternative ways to sprint from city to city.

Clearly, the events of September 11 have caused the public to take a second look at high-speed train travel. The ridership for Amtrak’s Acela trains, which connect Washington D.C. to Boston, has increased by 40 percent. More track upgrades for high-speed rail are being explored in the Midwest, South and California.

But many engineers have far bigger plans than these.

Maglev: It’s All in the Magnets

While the Amtrak Acela maxes out at 240 kph, superconducting maglev trains have exceeded 500 kph in tests in Japan. Maglev creators claim that these trains are not only fast but quiet, creating only wind noise when running at maximum speed.

In Japan, the superconducting maglevs levitate above a guideway through super-cooled, superconducting magnets located at the bottom of both ends of the vehicle. When the train moves, it generates an electrical current in conductors on the guideway, creating a repulsive force. As soon as it exceeds 100 kph, its wheels fold up inside and it begins to levitate. A refrigerator system cools the magnets to save energy.

“The current wave pushes on the superconducting magnets on the vehicle, moving it much as a water wave moves a surfer on a surfboard,” says Jim Powell, who coinvented the technology with Gordon Danby in the late 60s. “The vehicle always moves at the speed of the AC wave, regardless of whether there are head or tail winds.”

Powell’s company, FL-based Maglev 2000, is seeking funding for a line from Orlando to Cape Canaveral Seaport and Kennedy Space Center. Called the M-2000, the proposed system could handle passenger travel or freight transport. Employing an updated version of the Japanese maglev technology, the train cars would weigh between 35 tons (fully loaded with passengers) and 50 tons, when loaded with trailer trucks driven directly onto the train. The company claims that this system can levitate at 30 kph.

A competing maglev technology, called Inductrack, uses room-temperature, permanent magnets that don’t require large and complex refrigerators. This simple structure results in a train that levitates at 1 kph. “This system works at walking speed,” says Dick Post, who developed it at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We can operate at just a few kilometers an hour, and the train rests on wheels when it stops.” Currently existing only as a scale model, the Inductrack technology may be ideal for inner-city travel.

A third company, Berlin-based Transrapid International, uses an electromagnetic levitating system. Unlike superconducting maglevs, the electromagnetic system does not require wheels because it always levitates, even when standing still, as long as it is receiving electricity. While superconducting maglev trains hover at between 6 and 10 inches above the guideway, electromagnetic trains hover at less than half an inch.

Boarding Time?

So when can you hop aboard? Congress has approved $950 million for a magnetic levitating train system, and while no site location has been decided on, there are some candidates. One is a system connecting Baltimore and Washington, stopping at Baltimore-Washington International airport in between. A line from the Pittsburgh airport to Pittsburgh and the city’s suburbs is also being considered. The U.S. Department of Transportation will choose the winning site in 2003. The maglev train in the winning location may be modeled on the Transrapid International system in Germany.

The estimated cost for constructing a new maglev line ranges from $15 to $60 million per kilometer. By contrast, conventional high-speed rail, such as Amtrak’s Acela line, works on current rail lines, with upgraded track and signaling equipment. Using an existing line for high-speed rail is half the cost of creating a maglev line from scratch, estimates Michael Holowaty, whose company, Parsons Transportation Group, acted as an engineering consultant on the Chunnel project and Acela.

“I’m not a maglever,” Holowaty says. “Everybody would love to have higher speed, but let’s get something running. You’re better off to at least start service. You have to prove that people want to ride trains.”

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