Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Oooo! Shiny Maglev Toy!

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

One constant feature of HSR activism are the folks who don't think it's a good enough idea. These people turn up their noses at HSR as being too mainstream, too boring. No, what we really need is some gee-whiz technological solution that has never really been tried successfully on a large scale anywhere, but looks cool. Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is one of these - the Facebook HSR groups often get visited by these folks who try to convince us we're wasting our time with HSR and that PRT is going to solve all our problems.

Even more common than PRT acolytes are the maglev promoters. They like the idea of fast passenger trains but conventional HSR technology just isn't fast enough for them (I guess 200 mph trains are old hat to some). So they insist on exploring maglev technology - and for some it's maglev or nothing.

Maglev is an interesting concept, but notoriously difficult to construct, and a real budget-buster (the HSR deniers really should focus their attention on maglev, where they might actually have a point). Such was the fate of Munich's maglev project - intended to link central Munich to the airport, the project costs doubled and when the German government refused to increase its contribution, private backers pulled out. Shanghai's maglev line is experiencing ridership problems and China has chosen to use conventional HSR technology to connect Beijing to Tianjin (which is set to open on August 1).

But that doesn't stop the American media from fawning all over maglev. They've been doing it for as long as I can remember - it was in the late '80s or early '90s that the Southern California media was all over a proposal to link Anaheim to Vegas via maglev. The media loves nothing more than a neato piece of technology, which seems to explain MSNBC's maglev article:

Could America’s fastest train whisk us away from $4-a-gallon gas guzzlers?

Thanks to a $45 million infusion from a transportation bill signed by President Bush in early June, there could someday be a magnetic levitating train, or “maglev,” soaring from Disneyland to Las Vegas at a maximum speed of 310 mph — 180 mph on average.

After the research phase is complete in about three years, the private partnership behind the effort, American Magline Group, comes to its biggest crossroads: obtaining $12 billion in funding for construction.

The article goes on to discuss some of the pros and cons of maglev, selling it as a solution to high gas prices but concerned about the construction cost and the routing. But nowhere are the other HSR lines on the American drawing board - including ours here in California - discussed, even though they're much closer to reality.

And it's not like HSR lacks for technological interest. Assemblywoman Fiona Ma was on the record-setting Alstom TGV journey in 2007, reaching a top speed of 574 kmh, or 357 mph. The California system is planned to hit 220 mph, which would be the fastest train in North America by far.

It's unfortunate, though not surprising, that it's the shiny new toy that gets the media attention. Californians deserve to hear more information about high speed rail, especially realistic explanations about what it is, how it works, and how it has succeeded around the world. I guess we'll just have to do that on our own.

I'm not against PRT or maglev per se. But Americans need high speed rail to connect their cities, especially with the environmental and energy crises we face. HSR is a tried and true technology, and 220 mph isn't anything to sneeze at. Let's focus on the task at hand, and if folks want to continue researching and testing maglev, have at it - but it doesn't need to compete with HSR.


priyanka said...
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Laurence Blow said...

Speaking as a longtime maglev promoter, I find your post just a bit off-putting.

While I'm one of the first to admit that HSR is a wonderful technology -- and its popularity has never been more visible, or warranted, in Europe and Asia -- there's no harm in looking to better-performing alternatives, is there? That's all maglev is when you boil it down: an alternative for the longer haul. Because when a community or state decides to build HSR, say, that's a 100-year decision.

So there's no need to reach out for negatives (maglev is "notoriously difficult" to construct? Says who? Certainly not the Chinese, who built the 19-mile Shanghai Transrapid commercial-grade infrastructure in 18 months...from scratch) to diminish maglev's accomplishments.

We're all in this together, trying to find solutions to our future energy and transportation needs. A little competition, real or imagined, won't kill anyone.

Robert Cruickshank said...

As I said at the end of the post I'm not opposed to maglev. But I also don't think it's a superior solution to conventional HSR. It's just not ready for prime time, not on the scale we want to build it here in California. I've become frustrated with some maglev supporters who think our project should either adopt maglev or is not worth supporting, and I don't think that's a wise move.

The main thrust of my post was to criticize the media's attitude toward maglev and their frequent ignorance or dismissal of HSR. I'm not dismissive of maglev, but it has some very real problems. Shanghai has stopped its expansion plans and the collapse of the Munich project suggests that maglev has more refinement that's needed before it can be adopted on a wide scale.

There is sometimes a desire to pursue the most advanced technology even when other high-tech alternatives exist that are more proven, more stable, and less financially risky. Alstom's work on the very high speed trains suggests that even if we don't build maglev we can still build an infrastructure that can enable cutting edge HSR technology well into the future.

I look forward to the day when maglev is viable on a mass scale. But we're not there yet, and I don't see the harm in suggesting that until we get there, it seems wise for Americans - especially the media - to give some love and attention to the existing and quite viable HSR projects currently in development.

Avidor said...

The PRTistas are always wasting everyone's time. James Howard Kunstler called the PRT guys "cranks". I made a video showing just how cranky these guys are.

Laurence Blow said...

I'd be curious to hear why you say maglev's not superior to conventional HSR, since at least the Transrapid in Germany was designed by rail specialists to be just that: the next generation of ground-based transportation, overcoming the limitations of wheel-on-rail systems. But we don't want to bore others with a tit-for-tat session.

What you refer to as maglev's "very real problems" should be familiar to anyone pushing for HSR in California: NIMBY-ism and politics. We know Shanghai has put its maglev expansion plans on hold until after the Olympics, in an effort to avoid any more NIMBY protests, and the collapse of the Munich project can be blamed on poor marketing and national-level politics. There's nothing to suggest that maglev needs any more refinement of any sort, no matter what people may say, before it can be adopted on a wide scale.

Alternate Transport said...

Yes, MagLev is nice, but very expensive.
Over the last 30 years, our company has developed a way to build high speed rail for about 30% of the cost of other HSR systems. Not only that, but it also has a far higher energy efficiency than traditional HSR.

Because of the low construction / operational costs, systems can be constructed without government funding.

For example, the MagLine say that it will cost $12 billion to build the Los Angelese to Las Vegas line. We could build a 200mph system for about $2 billion.

Our Russian division just won a tender to build a system in Moscow.

Some information is available on the Alternate Transport website.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Laurence, I am not opposed to maglev conceptually. But it is not politically workable at this time. We have an enormous list of infrastructure projects that need to be built in this country and it's not going to be easy to get the funds to do it. Conventional HSR is something we CAN do because it is a proven financial success and provides the most bang for the buck, with the most up-to-date non-maglev technology.

I'm supportive of spending research money on maglev and even some studies. But we're not at a point where we can or should embrace maglev as a long-distance transportation solution. When maglev systems become affordable and reliable then sure, let's do it. But conventional HSR meets our needs - it meets them very well - at a cost we can handle.

Luis D. said...

It seems to me that people who are pushing for Maglev and ignoring conventional HSR are people who are getting ahead of themselves!

Since they see we've been left behind by other countries concerning fast train travel, that the only solution to get the upper hand and "Beat" other countries is Maglev!

They think that regular HSR is will just make us (United States) catch up, but we'll always be second. Maglev is their way of saying we've caught up and passed all of you on fast train transportation.

That in my mind is too risky and unless we had money to burn would be a bad idea.

In no way am I against Maglev, but we cannot afford it at this scale!

arcady said...

There's really one big argument against maglev and for HSR: interoperability. HSR is still rail, and its trains are pefectly capable of operating on any standard gauge electrified track. In fact, in some cases, the trains can even operate on non-electrified track (there is one TGV route where the train is puleed by a diesel locomotive for part of the way), and on non-standard gauge track, like Spain's gauge-changing Talgo trains. This lets the HSR trains use the existing extensive infrastructure. No maglev can do this, ever.

And by the way, this is something that the HSR people can and should be pushing further. So what if the first phase doesn't go to Sacramento? They should just electrify the existing UP line and run the trains at normal train speeds. Same for San Diego: no reason not to have through-running between the Surfliners and the HSR line. And that way many more destinations could be served directly by HSR trains even if they're not running on HSR lines.

Matt in SF said...

It seems like most people who talk casually about mag lev (present company excepted) are people who are not well-educated on the issue of HSR and don't understand the huge gulf that exists between conventional HSR technology (not too different from the trains we have been using for the last half century) and mag lev (closer to the flying car end of the future vehicle spectrum - literally).

If it really is ready now, then why are there less than 20 miles of mag lev HSR in revenue operation in the entire world? We already have a mountain to climb to get HSR in CA - there's no need to add additional political, technological and financial hurdles to the job - and that doesn't even touch on the issue of interoperability with our existing rail system. In the end, maglev just distracts from the goal of implementing HSR in CA in any of our lifetimes.

At least you don't hear anything more about putting aircraft jets on HSR. That was one of the worst idea I have heard of in a long time. (And please don't tell me that it is still being discussed. Even if it's true, I prefer to believe that it will never happen for obvious reasons.) ;)

Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't I believe that maglev in the US isn't just another Military-Industrial complex wet dream?

The Germans have given up on the technology. If, when the Germans were spending like drunken sailors on reunification, they gave up on maglev for Berlin-Hamburg, what does that mean? The line is now an ABS line, upgraded rail line for 165'ish mph. The test loop is all that remains in Germany.

The Germans have given up. Guess they don't have lobbyists in Berlin that can score $45m for more studies of a technology that can't make it past paper.

arcady said...

Oh yes, and Maglev (at least in the Transrapid incarnation) really is harder to build than HSR. For one thing, the whole thing has to be 100% elevated, basically like a monorail. Also, like a monorail, the primary running surface for the train is the elevated structure itself, rather than rails sitting on top of it. Unlike a monorail, however, a maglev goes much faster, so the alignment of the structure has to be very precise. And aligning a giant elevated structure, and keeping it that way, is pretty hard. It's much easier to just align a pair of rails with the necessary precision.

not a fan said...

Quoting arcady:

So what if the first phase doesn't go to Sacramento? They should just electrify the existing UP line and run the trains at normal train speeds

Along the same line of reasoning,you have thousands of residents in the bay area, wondering why they need HSR from San Jose to SF, when they already have a bullet train.

Its all about the money, greed, power and politics in both San Jose and San Francisco.

Laurence Blow said...

Robert: You suggested that maglev "needs more refinement before it can be adopted on a wide scale" but apparently you meant to say that maglev's not politically viable. I can accept that. It's one of the main factors underlying the slowdown in Shanghai's commercial line expansion and the recent Munich program cancellation.

arcady: Three responses to your points: First, the interoperability argument against maglev misses the point. Maglev should never mix operations with standard-gauge rail for one reason: safety. With its sealed corridors, maglev can run at its higher speeds at no risk to any other systems.

Second, you say maglev has to be 100% elevated, but that's not literally true. In the Transrapid case, it just needs about a meter or so vertical clearance above its foundation to allow the vehicle to wrap around the guideway. Running maglev "at grade" can merely mean making a small cut to effectively put it on grade.

Third, you say that aligning a giant elevated structure for maglev, and keeping it that way, is pretty hard. Not true. The test facility in Emsland, Germany has been in operation since 1984 and has had no field adjustments to its beams, bearings or support columns over the years for misalignments due to settling or disturbances from running operations. The situation in Shanghai, where construction of the 19-mile guideway infrastructure was complicated initially by poor/sandy soil conditions, is almost as good. Several beams were adjusted in the field by a Chinese engineers-invented device to account for small settling changes (on the order of a few millimeters) since the completion of building in 2002.

無名 - wu ming said...

this sounds remarkably similar to the promotion of hydrogen fueled cars at some distant future date as a way of marginalizing electric or hybrid cars that can be put into place right now.

a greenwash bait and switch, beloved by phony environmentalists like arnold or bush.

as an aside, beijing-tianjin has a HSR now? i assume it's for the olympics, as the soccer games and some other stuff are in tianjin IIRC.

無名 - wu ming said...

caltrain's "baby bullet" SF-SJ service isn't anything close to a bullet train, it's just a conventional commuter train that doesn't have many stops.

making an earlier conventional tie-in to sac would make things a lot nicer, and should be considered as a stopgap solution, even just if it's a capitol corridor-esque sac to merced regular train route timed to meet up with the HSR and ticketed as one trip.

Andrew said...

I blame the History Channel and Modern Marvels :-D

Mag-lev, while a great technology is far too expensive with the majority of the cost tied into the ROW.

The title of this blog is for the CA HSR which will still be using steel tracked ROW and railed vehicles. However, I would support the Anaheim to Las Vegas Maglev line as a preliminary test of the technology for the rest of the country.

Anonymous said...

@ mu ming

San Jose to SF may indeed be just a conventional commuter train, but it can make the trip in one hour.

The HSR will be about 35 minutes, for which the cost will be $15 billion. There will numerous lawsuits and delays. The route dictated by Diridon and San Jose has enormous opposition all along the peninsula.

In any case, the way the new amended AB-3034 (just out today) is drafted, you will have no idea of what routes will be built.

pat moore said...

Pop quiz - which is more expensive? BART or MagLev?

Laurence Blow said...

Andrew: You say maglev is far too expensive, with the majority of the cost tied into the ROW, but in at least one case [see: page 7 of
7_Maglev_PE_Cost_Estimation_Report.pdf] the ROW costs for a maglev system in southern California amounted to less than 1/20th of the total capital costs.

And believe me, I realize this blog is for the CA HSR project. I don't assume anyone will agree with anything I say. The only reason I bother to post at all is to respond to the more snarky digs about maglev that appear on my Web news alerts. Having been in the business for 20 years and ridden on high-speed maglevs in Germany and China I know it's not an unproven / paper concept like some others that claim superiority over HSR. But as you say, it needs a test line for others in the USA to see the benefits and figure out what to do with it.

James said...

PRT, as normally proposed, can't function as an acceptably high-speed intercity connection method. In most system designs, the cars (or "pods") travel between 25-35MPH. The entire SYSTEM ends up being rapid because of the dedicated, usually elevated guideways that provide nonstop "shortcuts" between points A and B, when compared to the regular road system, with its numerous obstacles and often jammed traffic. But sheer speed counts in long-haul intercity connection, so something else is needed for that.

What PRT can do is to solve both the "last mile" and NIMBY problems of HSR. If PRT stops were ubiquitous in the local service area of an HSR station, then it would be easier for people to take the PRT to and from their homes or offices, without using their cars at all (or having to park them in a long term lot). Also, HSR stations would not need to be constructed in quite suburban neighborhoods, or in crowded, expensive urban centers, but could be situated in lower-rent industrial areas or elsewhere on the outskirts of town. Get on a PRT car anywhere in town, and in minutes you are delivered to the HSR station.

As far as PRT being a waste of anyone's time, check out Heathrow's PRT system, which recently passed into operational testing, in advance of full passenger service later this year. Those who previously said PRT was a "waste of time" also crowed that no PRT system had ever been built and would ever be built. They are looking pretty foolish now, and their arguments are now often reduced to unconvincing ad hominem attacks against "cranky" PRT supporters. Let's watch Heathrow's story unfold and decide whether the airport's ULTra system or similar approaches would be suitable for US towns and cities, especially to "build out" HSR into the surrounding municipalities in a way that helps the locals and satisfies the NIMBYs.

As far as maglev being expensive, you're just not looking at the right kind of maglev. Two approaches that were developed in the USA are quite a bit more practical and less expensive than those that have been implemented elsewhere.

The first is inductrack, created at the Lawrence Livermore Labs and more recently tested and proven by General Atomics in Southern California ( This maglev approach is very cheap, using permanent magnets arranged in a specific configuration that amplifies the magnetic field under the car. The sheer motion of the car over a track containing embedded, shorted coils creates a repulsive force that levitates the train: no horrendous power consumption or supercooled superconductors necessary. The General Atomics test system presently operates at lower speeds appropriate for intracity transit, but they have high-speed versions (and other maglev approches) under study, too.

Another approach is the one taken by American Maglev of Marietta GA ( They use electro-magnets instead of permanent ones, but are similarly efficient in creating a sufficient levitation force with minimum power usage and no need for exotic technologies. They have a demonstration car and track outside Atlanta and from research so far, say that their system can be implemented for between $13M and $19M per mile. How does that compare with current HSR cost allowances per mile? From their rates of progress so far, the Inductrack and American Maglev technologies should be fully deployable during the HSR's window of opportunity.