Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Harry Reid Moves on Maglev to Vegas

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

Nevada Senator and Majority Leader Harry Reid is pushing the maglev from LA to Vegas plan, proposing a $45 million appropriation to conduct additional studies and planning for the project. Reid was down on the Desert Xpress plan and believes maglev is the solution to Southern Nevada's traffic woes:

“If it’s going to be really done in a big way, a Las Vegas way, the magnetic levitation would be the way to do it,” Reid said. “We could bring someone from L.A. to Las Vegas, and vice-versa, in less than an hour,” he said. “If we can get this done, it will be the showboat of the world.”

Reid scoffed at DeMint’s advocacy of a competing, private company’s plans for a regular train between Las Vegas and the Antelope Valley, in the desert some 85 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Reid questioned whether tourists would drive through the traffic of Los Angeles to Victorville to take a train the last 200 miles.

Unfortunately even $45 million is raising right-wing hackles - apparently it's perfectly legitimate to spend limitless amounts of money on an endless war, but god forbid we attempt to address our infrastructure needs. The current argument in the Senate is that the maglev money is "pork":

As the bill came to the Senate this week, Republican anti-earmark crusader Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina cried foul. DeMint said that the train was a speculative venture. “If we were asking members of the Senate to invest their own personal money in this project… none would reach for their wallet.”

President Bush signaled he is not pleased in what he sees as extra spending in the bill.

What we're seeing is an attack on efforts to do something about our transportation, energy, and environmental crisis in the name of fiscal conservatism. HSR opponents realize they won't win by attacking the system's merits, so they trot out "pork" and "subsidy" in hopes they can scare voters and Senators into opposing HSR on those grounds. They would prefer we did nothing and saved a few bucks today instead of spending some money now to save us from greater costs and problems in the future.

The irony is that much of the transportation system we use on a daily basis is the product of earmarks and subsidies. And the desire to hold down government spending will accomplish little other than the worsening of the transportation/energy/environmental crisis. By not spending money now, we will face a far higher cost down the line of dealing with peak oil, global warming, and collapsed infrastructure. It is an inherently short-term view that puts immediate savings over long-term investment - sacrifice the future for the sake of the present. Is $45 million really too much for the US Senate to handle? We spend that much in one second in Iraq. Surely it can be spent on America's own economic future.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Here is where you lose me. I don't think we should be spending public money on Gadgetbahn (PRT, Monorail, Maglev etc). Especially $45 million on a proprietary unproven technology. And thats just to study it, not to build it. Heck $50 million is how much Portland needs for its East Side Streetcar and Harry Reed is going to use it for a study? Portland can't get new starts approval because of the stupid cost effectiveness measure.

Let private companies take the risks on unknown tech. As a country, HSR is the way to go. We know it works, we know in 50 years there will still be a number of suppliers unlike with BART where everything has to be done special. Maglev might be cool now, but it won't be so cool when the real price tag comes in.

You're right though when it comes to Conservatives and their war. Just the other day a legislator from Oklahoma was saying that we were throwing away our children's future by spending money on Washington's subway. This from a man that voted for the war.

Anonymous said...

Robert, I am an ardent supporter of HSR in California, and I think a LA-Vegas route would be an excellent infrastructure project to alleviate traffic on I-15 and to supplement one of the busiest air corridors in the US.

However, I agree with the poster above on the topic of the technology to be used. MagLev is still very much in its infancy. HSR is a proven technology and would require a much smaller capital and planning cost. If MagLev is going to be an option for any project in the US, I would rather see that $45million going towards DoT-sponsored research to develop the technology further and perhaps start on a much smaller scale publicly.

Anonymous said...

The idea that maglev is technically superior to convention steel-on-wheels is outdated. The TGV world speed record stands at 357mph, using less power than maglev would use at that speed. Also, above 200mph aerodynamics becomes the dominant factor in noise emissions.

Munich just scrapped plans for a maglev service to its new airport because cost estimates had more than doubled in less than six months. The idea was to create a showcase for this made-in-Bavaria technology. So far, Shanghai is the only place in the world where it operates and, even they are scaling back service frequency because of low ridership.

It would be *much* smarter to let the privately funded, standard-gauge DesertXpress (DXP) project go ahead. If Harry Reid wants to spend federal dollars on a rail link, let it be on an overhead catenary in the context of a PPP and use electricity from the Colorado river dams to run it.

For a rail-only alternative to driving along I-15, selected trains on the existing Metrolink service could run across the Cajon pass. In effect, DXP service would begin in San Bernardino, with the first leg outsourced to Metrolink. You'd buy a regular Metrolink ticket to get to San Bernardino and a second one from DXP from San Bernardino to Las Vegas. Of course, Metrolink could be a sales channel for DXP tickets. Passengers could remain seated through Victorville DXP, though.

Transit between LA and Victorville might be no faster than driving, but at least you could relax and enjoy an alcoholic beverage on the way. Victorville DXP will anyhow be an intermodal terminal since the car is already mode. Ergo, there'll be a food court, clean restrooms, a playground for the kids, an air-conditioned lounge, some stores and no doubt a Las Vegas tourist information center.

Since DXP is looking to terminate its private tracks west of Stoddard Wells Rd. just beyond Victorville, only a short spur (~1 mile) off the existing line that Amtrak uses would be required to make the connection. $50 million would go a long way toward constructing that spur.

For starters, though, a simple shuttle bus between the Amtrak and DXP stations at Victorville would let passengers use Amtrak's existing Southwest Chief service to get in and out of LA. DXP could outsource operation of the shuttle to VVTA.

If an intermodal terminal at Victorville DXP actually materializes *and* there is enough demand, Amtrak could offer a small number of "Lady Luck" trains from Santa Barbara and San Diego to Victorville DXP, supplementing existing Surfliner service for most of that route.

Build ridership first, then upgrade the tracks to support higher speeds and switch to all-electric operation.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I don't disagree with the claims you all are making here, especially pantograph trolleypole's attacks on "gadgetbahn." I especially agree that maglev is not where we should be investing our money at this time, certainly not as a government.

I wasn't posting this to defend Reid's support of maglev, but to both provide info on that support and primarily to beat folks like Jim DeMint over the head for their backwards notions of government's role in infrastructure support.

It seems to me that the best solution is to the use off-the-shelf HSR tech to construct a line from Vegas to LA, not Vegas to Victorville. Perhaps there can be some sort of arrangement between the feds and the Desert Xpress people to leverage both their private interest and federal money for the project, perhaps along the lines that the second anonymous comment suggested.

Rubber Toe said...

Maglev brings several advantages to the table, and I'm quoting from the TransRapid web site, so if you think I'm blowing a lot of hot air then take it up with them...

1) Lower energy consumption at speed, roughly 2/3 that of HSR. This is because of the frictionless guideway. The 2/3 that is still used is primarily due to aerodynamic drag as the second anonymous poster points out.

2) Better performance on gradients. The ICE has a maximum grade of 4% while the Maglev can do 10%.

3) Better acceleration and deceleration performance. Basically the maglev can get up to operating speed in a faster and shorter time than the HSR, and it can also stop quicker.

4) Faster peak operating speed. The Shanghai Maglev routinely hits 400km/h. While the TGV did make a record setting run at 357mph like the poster said, no one is going to be running HSR at that speed on an operational basis.

Now, having said all that, the Maglev certainly does cost more than standard HSR. This is in some part due to the fact that while there is a lot of construction history behind HSR, only the German Maglev test track and the Shanghai airport system have been in regular operation. No doubt cost would come down if they started building as many Maglev lines as they did HSR lines.

I had the opportunity to ride a Maglev back in 1986 at the Vancouver Expo. It left quite an impression on me.

I agree with anonymous #2 who laid out the basic strategy of building the diesel Desert Express as a first step, and making it easy to get to the Victorville terminus from the Metrolink system. My only caveat for doing this, assuming that any public money is involved, would be to make sure that they engineer it so that eventual electrification is possible, with the intent of eventually incorporating it into the Californaa HSR system. Building 2 multi-billion dollar systems that do the same thing that come very close to each other with incompatible operations would be pretty stupid.

I think that you can make a viable argument that since there are basically no current HSR systems in the US (excluding Acela), maybe you pick a single corridor and bite the bullet and build a Maglev system there just to see if it is viable versus HSR. After all, we are looking at something that will be used for decades to come, so if it turns out that Maglev is indeed better than HSR, better to find out now before we build a $40 billion dollar system. This is what the Feds had in mind when they chose the Baltimore/Washington Maglev corridor and the Pittsburgh corridor many years ago for possible demonstration projects. They never ponied up the funding for those beyond the study effort.

The better use of Maglev might be along the lines of a "super regional" system like the Orange Line being pushed by a private consortium in Southern California:

This regional system would be able to get people around Southern California, and also interconnect with the HSR system to get people up North. Although incompatible, which I railed against above, they do serve different purposes. Long haul versus regional transport. The Orange Line or a Maglev could also be used to shuttle travelers between LAX, Union Station, and Palmdale airport.

This would help alleviate the congestion at LAX, especially if the Maglev from LAX to Palmdale took around 15 minutes. Union Station could then also be used to feed both LAX and Palmdale. That kind of thing is becoming more common in Europe where airlines and the TGV now have code sharing agreements whereby the last "flight" segment could actually be a train ride from Paris to Lyon for example.

Getting things like HSR and Maglev up for discussion in the first place is half the battle IMO. If the argument changes from "We can't afford to build HSR because..." to something like "Should we build HSR or would a Maglev be better...", then we are in a whole different world.


Anonymous said...

"Building 2 multi-billion dollar systems that do the same thing that come very close to each other with incompatible operations would be pretty stupid."

Which is why the CAHSR planners settled on conventional HSR instead of maglev. Being 100% incompatible with all the existing rail infrastructure is a huge disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

@ Robert -

let's leave aside the issue of electricity consumption, which probably isn't a big issue for a state with Nevada's hydro and solar resources anyhow. More to the point, the DesertXPress site shows diesel-electric trains.

Hill climbing is an issue because there are two mountain passes between Victorville and Las Vegas. However, they can obtain the traction required by installing an electric motor under each car. As with all engineering, KISS applies.

Acceleration and deceleration rates aren't really a big issue for a non-stop service.

The DesertXpress web site states that they are looking at a top speed of 125mph. Go much beyond that and you have to spend a whole lot more on the tracks and especially, on the diesel fuel - all of which has to be brought across the Cajon pass, btw. Adding a catenary later on is possible, but it's cheaper at the outset. However, the conventional track technology DesertXpress intends to use is not suitable for speeds in excess of ~150mph.

Your point that DesertXpress would ideally be linked to California's HSR system at Palmdale is well taken, but if you look closely at the map, you'll see that it will be hard for them to obtain the right of way. A spur from Barstow to Mojave would be a little longer put perhaps more doable, since someone already owns a railroad right of way along highway 58. This would also do a better job of connecting DesertXpress to Bakersfield and points north.

Note that Amtrak used to operate an LA to LV service with Talgo rolling stock. From the renderings, it looks like DesertXpress intends to use the newest version of that, the XXI. The produce both a diesel-electric and a fully electric version, perhaps there's a retrofit path for upgrading.

Talgo has a number of technical advantages for passenger service because it makes do with far fewer wheels and axles.

The FRA has grandfathered in Talgo-based service in the Pacific Northwest but otherwise strongly prefers sturdier rolling stock. As long as DesertXPress sticks to its private, fully grade-separated track, this is a non-issue. Getting federal approval for sharing tracks with Calfornia's higher-speed system just might be.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if DesertXPress LLC is one of the 70 or so potential private investors in California's HSR system? Their own project appears to have stalled since 2006.

If Californians approve the HSR ballot initiative in November, they would be a natural partner for extending the network from Mojave to Las Vegas and chip in on the rolling stock. The federal government could chip in for electrification, in the context of zero emissions transportation.

Moreover, the expensive 800 - or 1000 - mile catenary system could perhaps do double duty as short pylons for new high voltage power lines, separate from those used by the trains. This would sharply reduce the cost of adding more solar thermal power plants in the Mojave or Nevada.

Anonymous said...

This is just another boon-doggle, pour money into the pockets of land developers and now casino owners, project. The $45 million s here is insignificant compared to the real biggie.

As California sinks further and further into huge deficits, why anyone would promote the CHSRA LA to SF project, which is not in the millions but billions of dollars is just beyond common sense.

In spite of the promoters and sites like this that don't want to rally look at the facts, the public won't be fooled. The fall bond measure is headed to certain defeat We are not about to let Rod Diridon and company foist another San Jose VTA light rail type of fiasco on us.

Anonymous said...

It is important to note that the TGV can only achieve those speeds safely when running on specially-designed track. Old track has to be replaced with new track is known as LGV3. Altho the TGV trains to use existing track, the new trains cannot travel at full speed on the old tracks.

So, the argument that you shouldn't use maglev because it isn't compatible is non sequitur.

Besides, have you never heard of intermodal??? Using your argument of compatibility then we shouldn't have trains at all since they can't use the highways with buses.

HSR is at the zenith of its technology while maglev is just beginning. Given the long construction time, etc., you'll be putting in ancient technology by the time this is finished if you use HSR.

Anonymous said...

lets get the facts straight. Maglev is not unproven technology. It is over 100 years old, and the single system in operation turns a PROFIT and other than its capital costs is not subsidized. Maglev goes way faster than conventional rail, and requires way less maintenance. It also uses substantially less energy. And between these two cities, no other guide way is necessary, therefore it doesn't matter that tracks can't be shared. Lets get our minds stuck out of the past, and wake up smell the 21st century. The system in shanghai only has low ridership because it goes between an airport and a suburb way outside of downtown, not two key locations that are heavily traveled. This corridor IS heavily traveled and would easily generate profit as opposed to our obsolete systems today which do not.