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Reimagining Railroads

Some see railroads as dated technology. Others see railroads as a platforms for entirely new means of transit.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space Exploration Technologies, unveiled his idea for a Hyperloop system to the world one year ago. It was futuristic. It was eco-friendly. Passengers would be able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a little more than 30 minutes. Furthermore, Mr. Musk claimed that the proposed Hyperloop system could be built at only a fraction of the cost of the high-speed rail system currently under construction in California.

Hyperloop was meant to be an alternative to high-speed rail. However, Hyperloop is not as revolutionary as one might initially think. Remove its novelty, and it begins to look like nothing more than a very fast train. It is a new and useful means of conveyance, but it neither ameliorates the congestion that urban and suburban commuters face every day nor addresses the last mile problem—the means by which a passenger gets from a hub to her final destination. It merely travels in a straight line from one station to another at a remarkable speed.

The future of public transportation will need a more disruptive idea.

“We are stuck in the railroad paradigm,” Jim Fiske, the VP of Advanced Systems at LaunchPoint Technologies, said in a recent phone interview. According to Mr. Fiske, this paradigm is one in which a passenger arrives at a transportation hub (Point A), boards a means of conveyance set to depart at a certain time (train, bus, subway, etc), and then waits for her stop (Point Z). The major inefficiency in this model is that this passenger has to make every stop between Point A and Point Z in order to let other passengers on and off.

The spacing is also wasteful, Mr. Fiske added. With trains, the busiest rail lines are “empty most of the time, even at maximum capacity.”

For Mr. Fiske, the new paradigm of public transportation is all about Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). By using the same method of packet switching that one employs to send information via the Internet, he envisions a system in which the packets are small, automated vehicles connected to a vast, elevated maglev network that could potentially be as extensive as the bus system in a major metropolitan area. A commuter will be able to use a smartphone to both summon one of these vehicles and tell the vehicle her destination. Upon arriving at her local hub, she will find a vehicle already there. Because the station is more akin to a pit stop than a train stop, the reserved vehicle will not interrupt the flow of traffic buzzing along the adjacent line at around 50 mph.

Mr. Fiske believes that a PRT network like this will eventually be able to send a passenger not only anywhere within a single metropolitan area, but also between cities that are hundreds of miles away without stops or transfers.

Maglev technology is nothing new. Maglev, short for magnetic levitation, uses magnetic repulsion and a linear motor to propel specialized vehicles slightly above a guide way or track. There is no contact between the two. This basic concept, what one could call First Generation Maglev, has not evolved much in the past 40 years, according to Mr. Fiske. However, even this form of maglev has always had the potential to be ideal for mass transit systems. It virtually eliminates friction, thereby reducing the need for constant maintenance. Furthermore, it is quiet, does not necessarily rely on fossil fuels and can achieve tremendous speeds—the maglev train in Shanghai regularly exceeds 267 mph.

Two obstacles to implementation have proven insurmountable, however. The first is a compatibility issue. Maglev trains are incapable of using conventional rail systems, as they do not run on conventional tracks. Converting to maglev would require either retrofitting existing tracks or building entirely new lines to replace them. While the former is certainly more cost-effective than the latter, both options would require a greater initial investment than making incremental improvements to the rails already in place.

The second (and perhaps more difficult) obstacle to overcome is the stigma against maglev projects. There have been numerous failures on account of faulty engineering, the most embarrassing of which occurred in the early 2000s when American Maglev Technology attempted to construct a 3,270-foot long track at Virginia’s Old Dominion University.

Unlike the notorious Monorail from a classic Simpsons episode, there was nothing wrong with the brakes. Rather, American Maglev Technology burned through $16 million before realizing that their design was so flawed that the train could not actually levitate. The company abandoned the project; never repaid the $7 million loan they received from the state of Virginia; and provided skeptics with enough ammunition to frustrate any subsequent proposal to build a maglev train.

The skeptics have been successful, too. Not one maglev project has broken ground on American soil since the Old Dominion debacle.

Tel Aviv is considered the Silicon Valley of Israel. It is home to thousands of tech companies, and it has been ranked as one of the world’s top ecosystems for start-ups. It may also be the site of the first maglev PRT system, which has been designed by skyTran, an American company headquartered in Mountain View, California.

As of June 23, 2014, skyTran reached an agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries to begin developing a test track on the grounds of IAI’s corporate campus. If testing proves successful, construction will begin on the Tel Aviv commuter line.

Jerry Sanders, the CEO of skyTran, believes that the concept will revolutionize mass transit. Like Mr. Fiske, he is not interested in traditional maglev. Mr. Sanders does not even consider it to be on the same playing field as the system developed by skyTran. “It’s comparing apples to oranges…or comparing an airplane to a Model T Ford,” he said in recent phone interview. When asked if the Internet metaphor proffered by Mr. Fiske accurately depicted the way his network operates, the response was an enthusiastic yes: The skyTran switches allow the small, egg-like vehicles to maintain a steady speed until they have reached their destination.

Though the specifics of the maglev systems designed by LaunchPoint and skyTran are markedly different, both are light-years ahead of the skeletal remains that tower above the Old Dominion campus. On top of being more energy efficient, one of the most important disparities between the Old Dominion maglev and the new one being developed by skyTran is that the latter's guide ways are narrow, lightweight and can be assembled with celerity. According to Mr. Sanders, “We can lay a mile of guide way, anywhere, in a matter of days…. It’s built in a factory, and it comes on a truck with barcodes, and people just assemble it onsite like Lego—it’s a very simple system.”

If skyTran’s testing and subsequent construction of a commuter line in Tel Aviv proves successful, the stigma surrounding maglev technology will have to dissipate. It will be impossible to ignore the benefits of maglev PRT systems in urban areas. They can be extensive enough to solve the last mile problem, travel at speeds surpassing a subway (and without myriad stops), eliminate traffic congestion and, as a consequence, reduce air pollution. 

As to its costs, Mr. Sanders claims that the first phase of its commuter line in Tel Aviv, which will have three stations and be 2.7 miles in length, will have a $50 million price tag. The first phase of the 2nd Avenue subway in Manhattan, which will create 2 miles of new tunnels and three new subway stations, is expected to cost close to $4.5 billion.

When used in conjunction with a PRT network as opposed to a large vehicle like as a train, all of the obstacles that have confronted maglev in the past could evaporate.

When asked if he had any words for potential detractors who believe more conventional means of public transportation will be not be so easily displaced, Mr. Sanders pondered for a moment before responding with four words: “Burroughs and Sperry Univac.” If you have no idea what he is referring to, then he had made his point.

Jay Fox is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, His debut novel, The Walls, was published by Stay Thirsty Press in 2011.

This story was originally published by FutureStructure