SEPTEMBER 2009

State News: August 2009


 

State News August: The New Public Sphere

riding the rail

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Sharing the Tracks
In most states, plans calling for faster trains also call for those trains to share the tracks with freight trains. That could get tricky in some areas where there’s not enough space for trains to pull over and wait—extra tracks called siding—or where additional passenger trips are planned for certain corridors of track.
Congestion could be an issue, state officials say.
“Well obviously you need a signal system in place that for one will allow you to have your trains operating at speeds up to 110 miles per hour, and you want the capacity to separate them as much as possible,” said George Weber, bureau chief of the Illinois Department of Transportation Bureau of Railroads.
Right now, for example, the segment from Chicago to St. Louis only has one railroad track, Weber said. The one track has siding spaced throughout the corridor—to the railroad world’s version of passing lanes or tracks where a train sits while another one goes by—but if that corridor were to support eight roundtrips of passenger rail a day, Weber said, another track would be needed.
To compound what could amount to a lot of rail congestion, Union Pacific—the railroad that owns most of the corridor—is opening a new intermodal facility nearby next year and will be operating more freight trains on the route, Weber said.
“The fact that you would potentially be having 40 trains a day on this Chicago to St. Louis corridor requires the need for additional capacity,” Weber said.
Ironically, the corridor actually did have another track until back in the 1960s when one track was removed, Weber said.
“We would be putting that second track back in to accommodate both passenger and freight,” Weber said.
That is the case all too often when it comes to railroads.
“I think you’d find out that a lot of railroads wish that they’d never given up capacity or tracks that they had,” Weber said. Some tracks were taken out to save money or sold to communities or towns that later made bike paths out of them, Weber said.
So some of the stimulus applications in both Illinois and North Carolina, for example, call for rebuilding a railroad track that was removed decades earlier. In North Carolina, it’s the abandoned CSX corridor from Raleigh through Petersburg, Va., a segment that would connect Charlotte to Washington, D.C.
High speed rail plans don’t come cheap, especially when some states are seeking to rebuild or build all new railroad tracks.
—Mikel Chavers

 

 

High-Speed Rail Technology
Are Magnetic Levitation Trains Getting their Start?
State News SeptemberOut in the middle of open land in rural Powder Springs, Ga.,just outside the hustle and bustle of thebusy Atlanta metro, a passenger train nicknamed the Magic Carpet floats and glides effortlessly down a raised track. There, a startup company called American MagLev Technology Inc. is testing its prototype train.
It’s not the typical steel wheels on steel tracks train that comes to mind when you think of fast trains like France’s TGV or Japan’s Bullet trains or even the fast trains Amtrak operates in the U.S. No, this one is different. The technology is different.
This kind of train uses magnets to allow the train to levitate and raise itself off the track where it can glide, almost frictionless on its way. It’s so light when it’s levitating in fact, that American MagLev CEO Tony Morris, a middle-aged businessman, can actually push it down the track by himself.
And with a flurry of activity surrounding high-speed passenger rail and the more than $8 billion available from the federal government this year to stimulate high-speed passenger rail around the country, proponents of magnetic levitation hope it will be the fast train technology of the future.
Morris said traditional street wheels on steel train systems generally cover only about a third of their operating cost with the fares people pay to ride the trains. “And so the taxpayer has to pay all the capital costs and two-thirds of the operating costs,” he said.
He found that out in the early 1990s when he was working on a Georgia Tech study commissioned to see if the Atlanta Braves stadium could be moved to the suburbs—to eliminate traffic gridlock in the city—and connected with mass, rapid transit. But that study found it couldn’t be done with the traditional train systems—mostly due to financing problems mentioned above, Morris said.
And that’s how Morris’ company, American MagLev was born. If traditional trains wouldn’t work, then he’d find something that would.
Americans didn’t invent magnetic levitation technology—the Germans did, Morris said. And the first commercially operating magnetic levitation train runs in China from the Shanghai airport to the downtown area, taking just more than seven minutes to travel the nearly 19 miles. But those trains are expensive and complex to build, Morris said.
His prototype is more economical—that’s because its speeds top out at 110 miles per hour and the train tracks aren’t as complex to build as other more technology driven magnetic levitation models, Morris said.
“Our strategy has been instead of being technology driven, which is what the German approach has been and what you do if you want to go with supersonic airplanes or go to the moon or those sorts of things—you don’t care what it costs, you just want the hottest technology,” Morris said. “We’re market-driven and that means we have to compete with other alternatives. We have to be the best price.”
According to Morris, the American MagLev train system can be built for around $20 million per mile.
That price includes everything except the land where the raised tracks are placed. Morris has a solution for that.
He proposes putting the raised MagLev tracks along the interstates and highways in existing right-of-way corridors where the land is already owned by the state.
Morris also hopes to tout the green factor in his train systems. The American MagLev system uses 70 percent less energy than steel wheel trains on steel tracks, Morris said. The prototype in Georgia runs on the equivalent amount of electricity 15 hairdryers use, he said.
The American MagLev system also uses no drivers; many traditional train systems must have drivers to operate them.
And some states are interested in newer technology (well, new to the U.S., at least) for faster trains.
Part of a multistate application from Illinois and Wisconsin for high-speed rail stimulus funds is seeking money for new trains, according to George Weber, bureau chief of the Illinois Department of Transportation Bureau of Railroads.
The states are looking for the kinds of trains capable of doing 110 miles per hour—“possibly European-type equipment or if there was an American car that could meet the 110 mile per hour-standards,” Weber said.
The applications won’t get as specific as naming a particular company, but once the grant is awarded, the process will likely go out to competitive bid for high-speed train equipment and technology, Weber said.
Since most of the high-speed train systems are manufactured in other countries where they are used, Morris is hoping the “Buy American” clause in the federal stimulus bill will encourage states to go with American-made equipment.
—Mikel Chavers

 

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