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higher-speed trains? what a crock!

By enelson
Friday, February 1st, 2008 at 6:06 pm in high-speed rail.


Today was a big day for high-speed rail in the Bay Area, what with representatives of Japan’s nearly half-century-old Shinkansen network in San Francisco to talk about how they made it all work.

“It was excellent,” said Judge Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board. “Those Japanese go all out. That was well-done.”

The presentation went all the way back to the early 1960s, when the system started and opened in time for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Now the system has over 1,500 miles operating.

It’s enough to make California HSR supporters misty-eyed.

While we were on the subject, I asked the judge if he’d seen yesterday’s storyin the LA Daily News about the privately funded, $26 billion plan to build a magnetic levitation train from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles to Ontario. Oddly enough, it’s cargo-oriented, with the aim of relieving the heavy burden the ports of Long Beach and LA have on the region’s freeways and rail lines.

The story told of how the LA City Council agreed to create a joint-powers authority with neighboring cities to help the private maglev program obtain rights-of-way:

The move marked the first step in negotiations to solidify an Atlanta-based firm’s proposal to construct a magnetic-levitation train system that would start at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, run through downtown and eventually reach Ontario Airport.

Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith said American Maglev Technology would foot the bill for the system and has been working with the Southern California Association of Governments on its proposal.

SCAG is prohibited from working on construction projects and asked Los Angeles to form the joint-powers authority with West Covina and Ontario.

The company is called American Maglev, and the story says it’s got a prototype system in Atlanta.

The question I had for Judge Kopp was, if you guys are trying to build a $40 billion high-speed train system that runs on rails and goes about 100 mph slower than maglev, won’t this dampen enthusiasm for your already wobbly and nearly unfunded enterprise?

Ok, so I may have phrased the question a bit more simply. Kopp hesitated only slightly, saying he wanted to be diplomatic in his answer.

“The print story to me is exaggerated,” he said, noting that an Ontario City Councilman and member of the Southern California Association of Governments, said the project “has a long way to go before final approval”:

It hasn’t gone under any kind of scrutiny and we aren’t sure how valid the proposal is,” Wapner said. “American Maglev has proved their technology, but we want to see more on whether it can be done.

“The advantage they have over other firms is they are offering to pay to build the system.”

Wapner said the firm originally wanted to be involved only in cargo transportation, but SCAG insisted that it include a passenger component.

Kopp said American Maglev and a couple of professors from upstate New York have also been by his authority’s offices to pitch their ideas on maglev, which is lifted and pushed along by repelling electromagnets.

The idea hasn’t had much traction, however, and Kopp said the technology, different from the one being used to whisk passengers to Shanghai’s airport, has yet to be proven.

Certainly the Japanese model of high-speed ground transport has been proven over the decades, but I couldn’t help wondering why high-speed rail boosters would be so dismissive of maglev.

Maybe it’s because the proven technology of high-speed rail is hard enough to sell in a cash-strapped state would rather be spending its billions on a new health-care system, but can’t even seem to get that chugging along.

Graphic from

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4 Responses to “higher-speed trains? what a crock!”

  1. Guy Span Says:

    Time for a tiny history lesson. While the Bay Area was designing a state-of-the-art 45 MPH (average) speed, shiny new electric railway, Japan was designing a breathtaking 136 MPH electric railway. Set the way-back machine to 1957 and you will see how both got funded. They lied about the costs. But for both countries the benefits generally exceeded expectations, over time.

    Nothing has changed since then. See Big Fat Lies at the following link:

    The big, huge difference between Maglev and High-Speed Rail is the simple fact that High-Speed standard gauge rail can slow down and use existing terminals, even historic terminals (as in Europe) and Maglev must build brand new ones in an already crowded city center.

    But whatever we decide to build, multiply the official construction estimates by 1.5 to 3 and divide the benefits by 2. It still may be beneficial, but we should be fully aware of the costs.

    Guy Span

  2. Roadkill Says:

    What makes anyone think that American Maglev has $26 billion to spend on this? Has anyone checked them out?

    SCAG has no significant power in southern California — they just think they do, and they don’t represent every municipality. The idea for moving containerized freight is a great one considering the incoming volume of it, but there are a number of proposals to lift it and carry it to the rail heads. The notion of moving passengers from the port has no importance as, excepting, the cruise ships, there aren’t any.

  3. South Bay Resident Says:

    Back when BART (and Japan’s HSR system) was being designed, there was another subway being built. It was being built by the Philidelphia Port Authority Corporation (PATCO). This system was in many ways the anti-BART. Instead of trying to reinvent everything and usher in a new era of rapid transit, PATCO focused on cost control and using the best proven technologies of its day. The result was a system that broke even financially, moved lots of people and could be operated all night with a grand total of 2 people. Admittedly, the system is much smaller than BART at only 1/10th its length and only carrying a tenth of the number of people that BART carries, but the lesson is clear. You can build transit that works well if you focus on cost containment and using the best proven technology. This is where maglev fails. While there have been pretty cost-effective high speed rail lines, every maglev line ever built has been an expensive boondoggle. Given this state’s record of delivering cost-effective transit, do we really want another one? At least the CAHSRA picked the technology that is more likely to work.

  4. Michael Krueger Says:

    Maglev is to rail travel what the Concorde is to air travel: Yes, it is the fastest technology available, but it is also the biggest energy hog and it is not at all cost effective. There is a reason the Concorde is no longer flying, and it is the same reason we should not waste another dime of taxpayer money on maglev fantasies. Even supposedly “free” projects like the SCAG maglev have a cost, because the false hopes that they raise will prevent real, feasible, cost-effective projects from ever getting off the ground.

    It bothers me to no end that proponents of technologies like maglev or monorail insist that proven technologies like steel wheels on steel rails are obsolete just because they were invented long ago. By that logic, the hovercraft should have completely replaced the wheeled automobile by now, because the wheel is such an old, outdated technology. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—an “old” technology really is the best solution to a modern problem.

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