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.