When considering a high-speed rail system one of the most important questions is, “What kind of train should we use?” There are a number of technologies in existence around the world that a high-speed rail system could be built with, and each of them has certain advantages and certain drawbacks.
First, there are conventional steel-wheel trains. Without a major change from the mixed freight and passenger track designs of the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, many conventional trains can reach speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour. In Texas this would require the use of diesel-power trains, as we don’t have any electified track. Therefore while the capital cost would be lower, the operating cost would be higher. Still, this is typically the cheapest approach, with costs as low as $3-5 million per mile. Most commuter rail proposals are looking at this kind of technology.
Then there are high-speed variations of the steel-wheel train. These electric railroads are the dominant form of passenger rail around the world, and the vast majority of existing high-speed systems in Europe and Japan. These trains are built on highly specialized track, usually with overhead power supply. They cost a lot more than conventional trains, and the costs vary widely from project to project. The most common figures I’ve seen range from about $30 million per mile to $70 million per mile. The fastest high speed trains travel over 200 miles per hour.
Lastly, there’s maglev. At a cost of about $70 million per mile, the Shanghai Maglev Train is the world’s benchmark for this new technology. Unlike steel-wheel trains, Maglev runs on a different kind of track, and theoretically is capable of faster speeds than steel-wheel trains (though among currently built systems the top speeds are pretty comparable). The Shanghai Maglev has tested at 311 MPH.
As I said before, each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages. However, the more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve come to conclude that these systems are based on an out-of-date design philosophy. In the early 1900′s the trains were built so long because the cost of staffing them was very high, and the biggest challenge was scheduling all the trains. A small number of really long trains is easier to schedule (especially using slide-rules and whatnot) than a large number of really small trains.
However, when you get down to it, the biggest advantage that automobile travel has over train travel is the “on-demand” service that leaves whenever you want. Trains may be faster than cars, but if you have to wait twenty or thirty minutes for the next train then much of that advantage has been lost. Also, there’s no mental effort required to schedule a trip by car, you just hop in and go. Collectively these factors are a big reason why cars are more popular than trains in the US.
For that reason, I’m particularly interested in an emerging variant of maglev technology, being developed by American Maglev Technology (AMT) in Atlanta, Georgia. Their system can operate between 150 and 300 miles per hour, and can be built at a cost of $15-17 million per mile. But, most importantly, their system is specifically designed to run small trains at very high frequencies – as close as two minutes apart – all controlled by a computerized command center.
In addition to high-frequency, high-speed service, AMT’s system is also built on small pylons spaced between 80 and 100 feet apart – roughly 3 pylons in a city block – and the guideway is always grade-separated. The tracks can run inside the ROW of virtually any major thoroughfare without requiring lanes to be removed or impeding traffic below. You can see this illustrated in the photo below, this is a prototype track that AMT was building a few years ago in a university campus environment.
A final benefit is that the concept is built on the idea of a simple, “dumb” track and a “smart” platform that can carry passenger cars or freight containers equally effectively. The system was designed from the beginning to be standardized, modular, and mass-manufactured.
The end result of all these small improvements over conventional rail is a system that AMT believes it can operate privately, generating a profit, without significant funds from the government. I’ve discussed this technology with AMT President Tony Morris at length, and what struck me was his understanding that for any new rail system to be sustainable it should be run as a private business capable of generating reasonable return on investment.
There’s one last benefit to AMT’s system: it’s quiet, clean, and both visually and emotionally appealing. The other high-speed rail technologies are in fact equally advanced pieces of technology, but they don’t get people excited the way maglev does. That excitement has value when you need public buy-in.
For the rest of the series I’m going to base my concepts on AMT’s technology. There are other technologies that could service our local needs, but I believe AMT has the best technology available.
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Based on some of the first comments, let me reiterate this last point. I am 100% certain that AMT’s technology is not the only good option. I am completely aware that it is new technology, and therefore doesn’t have the track record (no pun intended) of more established technologies. What I am suggesting, however, is that their paradigm is spot on – provide better service than private automobiles by connecting directly to critical destinations (using their compact aerial guideway), providing on-demand service (by breaking the train into smaller cars running every 2-3 minutes), and traveling much faster than freeway traffic.
Any other technology that can do that would be equally viable for my proposal. But I need to pick one to base some assumptions on, and this is my pick. In addition to the other reasons I’ve already laid out, I chose AMT because they have been really helpful in my research efforts over a long period of time, and I’ve met their company president personally and I believe he’s got the chops to deliver on the system they’re designing.
I absolutely want to hear other people’s ideas about what train technology may be equally good or better, just keep this disclaimer in mind when you’re writing me a long letter about everything you think I’m forgetting .
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