Maglev touted as transit solution for I-70 corridor

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High-speed rail advocate Harry Dale says existing maglev technology is mature and stable, and that there are funding opportunities. All that’s lacking is vision and leadership, he claims after returning from the High Speed Rail World Conference in Washington, D.C. last month.

High-speed maglev in Japan
Transit advocates say existing maglev technology developed in Japan could easily be applied to the I-70 corridor. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

SUMMIT COUNTY — While the possibility of high-speed trains from Denver to the high country remains a tantalizing dream (or a potential nightmare of unintended consequences for some), other regions of the country are also considering how they can use the latest rail technologies to meet their transportation needs. A regional group in Southern California and Nevada, for example, is advocating for construction of a maglev line from L.A. to Las Vegas.

Maglev trains can travel at speeds up to 350 mph and can climb grades up to 10 percent. Some mass transit advocates are convinced that it’s the solution for mass transit in the I-70 corridor.

Along with other high-speed rail issues, those regional plans were discussed April 19-21 at a high-speed rail world conference in Washington, D.C., and Clear Creek County Commissioner Harry Dale was there to represent the interests of communities along the I-70 corridor.

“There’s such a huge disconnect in transit policy,” Dale said, describing how several different factions of rail interests are competing with each other for whatever meager resources may be available. “The maglev technology is there. We could do it tomorrow,” he said, adding that it comes down to a question of political will. “The technology exists. It’s mature and stable,” he said. “There are private investors willing and ready. The only thing missing is state and federal leadership.”

Even though some skeptics say there is no money to build any significant rail system, Dale claims there are foreign investment groups, mainly from Japan and China who are want to invest in U.S. infrastructure projects, simply because they have no other place to put their money. What they want in return is the revenue from the system as a long-term payback, he explained

Dale said he spoke with a representative of a Japanese company that is on a mission to build a high-speed rail system in the U.S.

“They’re saying, if you can get the federal government to fund half the cost, we’re ready to pay the other half and build it,” Dale said.

Although that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, Dale said he’s concerned by the myopic view of transportation issues by national and state leaders.

“There’s such a limited vision here, with all the focus on highways. You have to start planning now for a different world, when gas costs $5 or $10 per gallon … 10 years from now, when automobiles won’t be the primary mode of transportation,” he said.

Dale acknowledged that concerns about the unintended consequences of building high-speed rail from Denver to the mountains are legitimate. Some local officials have said a rail line could result in a population boom, with people who want to live in the mountains and commute to work in the Denver area. But he said those concerns  are outweighed by what could happen if nothing is done.

“What happens to the economy (in the mountain towns) when it’s too expensive to drive? We have to create another option to allow our economies to remain robust,” he said.

Soaring gas prices could constrict the economy of towns along the I-70 corridor. A high-speed maglev rail system could ease the transition into a new era, he concluded.

Following the video is Dale’s unvarnished account of the high-speed world rail conference, which he compiled for the benefit of members of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority and shared with Summit Voice.

Harry Dale’s report from the conference

“There is a huge group of low-speed rail or “higher” speed rail advocates who support the Federal Rail Authority’s current policy of pursuing primarily fare-subsidized, low-speed intercity passenger rail operation on freight railroad tracks. This is the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington model. This is the single largest driving force behind the current intercity passenger rail movement in the US today. And it is all bad. Some of these states received hundreds of millions, if not billions from ARRA for essentially very low-speed, fare-subsidized Amtrak service, with average speeds in the 30 mph to 40 mph range.

This is the single biggest problem with the Federal Rail Authority’s high-speed program. Since these systems will not secure ridership over intercity bus, let alone automobile or commercial air travel, they will require very large annual operating subsidies. Why these systems remain the priority focus of the federal rails program defies logic. It is the single reason intercity passenger rail is doomed to failure in America.

One of the three factions is the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. These folks support new dedicated, completely grade separated guideways for true high speed rail operation (cruising speeds at or above 150 mph).  They have proposed a $600 billion new national network. Unfortunately, they do not support maglev because it is too new a technology (it has only been around for 30 years). They only support conventional Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, Talgo, N-700 (Japan Railways), GE or other conventional steel wheel high speed rail technologies. This is OK, except for grades steeper than 4 percent, and there are very high operation and maintenance costs for conventional high-speed rail due to the wear and tear on the rails at high speeds, regardless of grade. Maglev is actually much less expensive to operate and with new modular prefabricated guideway components, is potentially cheaper to construct than conventional high-speed rail system.  And it is faster!

The third high-speed rail faction are the maglev technology proponents, who are facing opposition from the two other groups. The conventional high-speed rail guys don’t want the competition of a new technology and would prefer to sell off-the-shelf European and Asian train sets here in the US. The low-speed rail guys are extremely conservative and essentially regressive and have never been part of the mainstream transportation policy discussion in the United States. While roadway and commercial aviation advocates have been making all the major transportation policy decisions in this country for the past 50 years, intercity passenger rail advocates have remained effectively irrelevant and largely ignored. They have never had to appeal to the mainstream traveling public and actually had to compete for ridership because they have relied primarily on annual operating subsidies. The Federal Rail Authority, Amtrak and most state’s intercity passenger rail advocate groups are following the same path today towards eventual irrelevance.

Intercity passenger rail needs to be a desirable mode in the U.S. today, not just because of energy efficiencies and potential greenhouse gas emission savings, but because it is actually a fast, convenient and cost effective travel mode that competes favorably with automobile, intercity bus and commercial air travel. Intercity passenger rail strategies that do not compete favorably with these other modes should be avoided and America should invest its transportation dollars elsewhere.

The Midwest intercity passenger rail presentations at the conference were offensive. Their focus was on facilitating the needs of the current intercity passenger rail user and getting them to their destinations with some improved level of reliability over today’s poor performing Amtrak. Their goal is to mildly improve current service and in some cases expand destinations, but not to introduce any level of significantly higher speed service that might actually compete with intercity bus and automobile travel. They are actively pursuing huge annual operating subsidies and eventual irrelevance. They are scared to death of what the Northeast is doing with Acela and what California is proposing for true high speed rail. They are perfectly happy with today’s low speed, fare subsidized Amtrak and competing for track space with freight trains, which is their sole focus.  None of these systems are even proposing top vehicle speeds over 90 mph.

Also interesting is that the freight railroads, lead by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad at the conference, won’t let passenger trains go very fast on their tracks, because too many of their very long freight trains running at 30 to 40 mph would be displaced by faster passenger trains.  90 mph is the limit in terms of track speed that BNSF will allow for passenger trains because anything faster would overtake too many of their freight trains.  From a practical perspective, this sets the bar again at 30 to 40 mph passenger train speeds.  This is a critical point that most people do not understand.  90 mph track speed for heavy diesel passenger rail vehicles sharing track with freight trains translates to 30 to 40 mph average speeds because these are big heavy buff strength compliant trains that do not accelerate or decelerate very well.  They cannot compete with the automobile, commercial air travel or even intercity bus, and yet this is the primary model for the US intercity passenger rail effort today.

The maglev presentations at the conference were the most impressive. The Transrapid technology in particular is ready for deployment in this country, if only there was the political will to consider it. It is far faster and much less expensive to operate than conventional high-speed rail, and with new guideway manufacturing techniques, it is potentially less expensive to construct than conventional high-speed rail. This is the technology needed for a 7 percent grade highway alignment in the I-70 mountain corridor.

There are also private firms from Europe and Asia interested in financing true dedicated guideway, high-speed rail deployments in the US.  Unfortunately, there are no supporting Federal and State programs to accept this financing and actually build anything, even if we could get our state and federal agencies off the low speed, fare subsidized, Amtrak bandwagon.

Unfortunately for our national and state leaders, our world is changing must faster than our public transportation institutions can adapt. In a global environment of rapidly increasing energy prices, time is not on our side. Our state and national leaders need to wake up and realize that our past travel and land use behaviors will not work in a Peak Oil world. The time for change is now.

I’m convinced we will see $5/gallon gas within three years and between $5 and $10/gas within 10 years.  I’m also convinced that highway expansion should not be the primary focus of US state and federal transportation improvement policy moving forward through the 21st century because it is not a sustainable strategy for a 21st century world.  Unfortunately, the entrenched US and state DOT culture is incredibly highway centric and extremely difficult to change.  In addition, the US national passenger rail perspective is dominated by outdated Amtrak and FRA intercity passenger rail culture that will never be successful.  State and federal transportation agencies lack the motivation for real innovation and very necessary change. They are terribly risk adverse and incredibly resistant to any deviation from the transportation norms of the past.  Their past policies can only fail.  We have a national transportation policy of 1900’s solutions for a rapidly changing 21st century world and there is virtually no national leadership for genuine change.

Needless to say, the entire US Intercity Passenger Rail discussion is very difficult for us in Colorado, since we really need a true dedicated guideway HSR and maglev friendly national HSR program.”

White papers and other presentations from the World high-speed rail conference:

Kevin Coates
 Executive Director
North American Maglev Transport Institute

The Key To Sustainable High-Speed Ground Transport (Whitepaper)

Modern Maglev Intercity Transport (Presentation)

Dr. Ing. Ralf Effenberger
 Managing Director, Transrapid Testcenter
IABG (Industrieanlagen-Betriebsgesellschaft mbH)

The importance of research and development spending in high speed maglev industry (Presentation)

Daniel Freire
 Head of High Speed Strategy
High Speed Rail, Beyond the Business Case (Presentation)

Fred Gurney
 President & CEO
The Pennsylvania High-Speed Maglev Project (Presentation)

Adam Nicolopoulos
Managing Director and Founder of ADN Capital Ventures, Inc.

Innovative Project Implementation & Finance Models Post-Financial Crisis (Whitepaper)

Financing High Speed Rail Projects (Presentation)

Erik Steavens
Intermodal Programs Director
Georgia Department of Transportation

GEORGIA Crossroads for South East High Speed Rail (Presentation)

Laurence E. Blow
President, MaglevTransport, Inc.

Dispelling the Top Ten Myths of Maglev (Whitepaper)

Dispelling the Top Ten Myths of Maglev (Presentation)

Robin Blair
 Director of Planning
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Planning Los Angeles’ Union Station (Presentation)

Neil Cummings
American Magline Group

California-Nevada Interstate Maglev Project (CNIMP) (Whitepaper)

John Harding Ph.D
Federal Railroad Adm. Maglev Chief Scientist, Retired

Advantages and Disadvantages of Maglev

Andy Kunz
 President & CEO
US High Speed Rail Association

US High Speed Rail Association (Presentation)

Donald Missey 
Chief Economist and Senior Project Manager
PRS Economics

Unsustainable Transit Democracy – How Transit Advocates Defeat Themselves (Whitepaper)

Sustainable Transit is Intermodal (Whitepaper)

Sustainable Speed of Travel – Air-Rail Link Development (Whitepaper)

Failure & Sustainability, HSR & Lessons Learned (Presentation)

Karl H. Frank, P.E., Ph.D.
Chief Engineer
Hirschfeld Industries
Austin, Texas

Maglev Guideway Design (Whitepaper)

State of the Art Guideway Design (Presentation)

Richard Lawless
 Chief Executive Officer
U.S.-Japan High Speed Rail

U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail (USJHSR) (Whitepaper)


Torkel Patterson

U.S.-Japan Maglev (USJMAGLEV) (Whitepaper)

Superconducting Magnetic Levitation, (SCMAGLEV) System (Presentation)

Curt Pringle 
Chairman and Mayor of Anaheim
 California High Speed Rail Authority

CALIFORNIA High-Speed Rail Authority (Whitepaper)


Giuseppe Sciarrone
 Managing Director

The liberalization of the high-speed market in Italy (Presentation)

Harry Dale
Clear Creek County Colorado Commissioner
Chairman, Rocky Mountain Rail Authority

Why America needs a new USDOT agency (Whitepaper)

RMRA: High Speed Rail Feasibility Study for Colorado (Presentation)


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