On Greener Trains, Or, Who Doesn't Love A Bargain?

Virtually all trains you see today are operated by electric motors.

In the “standard” locomotive design, electricity for those motors is provided by generation onboard the train itself (diesel engines operate generators which are the electricity source).

Other designs use electricity provided through a centrally-generated electrical distribution system. The “third rail” familiar to subway riders is one form of distribution. Overhead (catenary) wires are another, and the United States Capitol subway system offers an example of this method.

As of today, virtually all passengers and freight move by one of these designs.

The biggest changes on the horizon involve ways to move passengers faster

The Japanese “bullet trains” (Shinkansen), introduced in 1964, are a “steel-wheel-on-steel-rail” system-essentially a “standard” train on steroids. These trains require dedicated and fenced right-of-ways, special rail installations, and no contact with other traffic (no railroad crossings, for example).

These trains normally operate at about 200 mph, and they typically operate between destinations that are 100 to 500 miles apart.

The fastest of these trains, the French TGV, set a world speed record of 357 mph just about 3 weeks ago (April 3rd).

There is another design you might be familiar with, the “magnetic levitation” or Maglev design. This concept is radically different from other trains. First, the trains have no wheels, and instead “float” on a magnetic field, generated by electromagnets, within the rail system. Propulsion is provided by “switching” the polarity of other magnets, in a controlled manner, as the train passes by. The principle of magnetic repulsion, which occurs when the negative and positive polarities of the train and track magnets interact, moves the train along the track.

If you are still a bit confused over all this, the description at this site will help make things more clear. A helpful 8-minute video can also be seen here. (Click on the “MPEG 1” link to the right of the train.)

The fastest of the Maglev trains has a speed record 4 mph faster than the TGV.

Another difference of Maglev trains, compared to “standard” trains,
is the absence of an engine. The propulsion system does not use motors (or any other moving parts); meaning that all the cars on such a train can be passenger-carrying cars.

There are Japanese and German versions of the Maglev concept, and each resolves braking and stability issues in different ways, but the basic designs are reasonably similar.

An extensive list of high-speed rail projects worldwide is available, courtesy of Railway-Technology.com. At the moment, the only commercially operating Maglev system connects downtown Shanghai and Pudong Airport (about 30km), and pictures of that train in action are here.

While high-speed trains are relatively green (using air travel as a basis for comparison), they either require lots of amperage sent to electric motors, or lots of amperage sent to banks of electromagnets in order to operate. The Japanese Maglev design uses more current than its German counterpart due to the fact that its electromagnets are cooled to obtain a superconducting effect, and the cooling creates an additional electrical load.

The low-level electromagnetic fields created by the Maglev systems are an additional hazard, and those with pacemakers, for example, will be unable to ride those trains. The “steel wheel” trains are disadvantaged by friction, and the Maglev trains experience “magnetic drag”.

OK, so now we get to the good part.

Imagine if you could take the wheels off the train, removing the friction disadvantage of TGV, and remove the electromagnets and cooling system from the Maglev, reducing energy requirements to a fraction of what was previously thought possible.

Imagine being able to move 2500 pounds over flat level ground, at substantial speeds, while using only ½ horsepower of energy?

For that matter, imagine if the same technology could operate escalators, move container freight around the yard, or even launch spacecraft?

Earth, meet Karl Lamb.

In typical American style, he has invented a new approach to the Maglev concept, patented the idea, and has now decided to take on Germany, France, and China pretty much single-handedly.

And guess what? He may just pull it off.

His company, Magna Force, Inc. Is promoting the LevX system as an alternative.

What’s the difference between this and other systems?

Permanent magnets-not electromagnets-suspend the cars above the guideway.

With permanent magnets no current is required to keep the load suspended above the track, and no current is required to cool conductors, as in the Japanese design. This system results in enormous savings in electricity over any other concept we’ve discussed.

A linear induction motor (also described in the movie above) provides motive force. To give you an idea how much speed such a “motor” can provide, consider that a variation of this design is the linear accelerator, which propels objects at velocities approaching the speed of light.

Here’s the crazy part-the system can be scaled up or down in size. In other words, designs ranging from a 1 person people-mover, to a sort of “container pipeline”, to platforms that assist aircraft to launch and land from shorter runways (aircraft carriers?) are all possible-and would all be greener than current methods of accomplishing the same thing.

Can this concept work? Check out the last two pages of the “Letters” link for an independent engineering analysis. Long story short, it absolutely can work.

Now let’s talk money.

Because this system requires no electromagnets, no elaborate cooling technologies, and very little power for propulsion, there is a giant reduction in operation and maintenance costs. The folks at Magna Force (who were kind enough to talk to me-thanks Jo!) report that the difference is in “orders of magnitude” compared to a light-rail system such as the Sound Transit system being built in Seattle.

If that wasn’t enough, it’s much, much cheaper to build as well.

So how’s that for a great way to wrap up Earth Day?

An American company that has an exciting new technology that saves huge amounts of carbon; saves huge amounts of money, and who, if all goes well, may soon be able to announce their first commuter project. (Because there are currently no formal commitments, and no official announcement has been made, I’ll wait for developments before providing more information there.)

The best part- if this takes off, we’ll see the greenest trains ever.

--crossposted wherever they'll have me...


I love green technology.

It'll be the hotbed of economic growth over the next century. Too bad we will have wasted 8 years in unproductive public policy by the time Bush is gone.

no kidding...

...but here's to better days.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

If it's such a great idea...

...shouldn't the market eat it up?

Why in the world does the government at any level - let alone federal - need to get involved in making this concept a "go"? Economic growth comes from smart, productive people. More often in spite of government policy rather than because of it. The idea that we're driving around using internal combustion engines on roads only because Bush is president is the stupidest thing I've heard all day (I haven't read the rest of the BlueNC articles in my feed - so I don't expect the distinction to hold).

There's still a tax break for hybrid cars, the rail projects have the benefits of weird right-of-way laws from our "Manifest Destiny" years, and people are nostalgic for the choo-choo. Admittedly, as an engineer, I have a thing for trains; but every time I pay just a little more to buy something in the county I work in (Mecklenburg) than I do in the one that I live in (Cabarrus) - I get over it. I suggest the "travel-the-way-we-tell-you-to" Statists find a way to do this without diving into the public's pockets.

The stupidest thing I've heard all day?

I don't know what rock you're living under, but there's no such thing as a "free market" anywhere in the world that I'm aware of. Governments have huge impacts on all aspects of commercial development, including the enormous subsidies currently in place for the oil and gas industry and the internal combustion engine.

You've apparently been drinking far too much free-market kool-aid to engage in thoughtful discussion. Either learn some manners or stop coming around here.

thank god for the free market

thanks to them we have cars and roads!

excuse me, ill be over here laughing for a while. call me when you are done reading a history book or two.

Draft Brad Miller -- NC Sen ActBlue :::Liddy 44 Brad 33

"Keep the Faith"


The idea that we're driving around using internal combustion engines on roads only because Bush is president is the stupidest thing I've heard all day

There are a lot of things we're doing just because Bush is president. Driving cars on roads isn't one of them - unless you're talking about driving cars on roads --in Iraq.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Gandhi

there appear to be two basic answers:

--light-rail systems tend to be multi-billion dollar investments, which creates a "barrier to entry" that ususally means no transit at all.

since investment is required to make it go, and citizens derive the value of the investment, why can't our "national corporation" make such an investment, on our behalf, to "grow the value of the stock", as it were?

--in this case, it appears there may be huge savings-carbon and cash-from such an investment (not unlike taking out a loan for new thermopane windows) which will pay off, not unlike a dividend, for us "stockholders"

who doesn't want an investment that pays dividends?

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

This is KEWL!

I have wondered for years if the people-movers at disney were such a good idea why wasn't it used more extensively here at home. This sounds very promising. The other night during my County Govt 101 class, we were given a presentation by the Transportation Dept. It struck me when, after a conversation about planning and roads, he said that building more roads doesn't solve the problems, give the money dedicated to road building to the Trans Dept instead, they will solve the problems. I'm still thinking about that and it's possibilities.

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Progressive Discussions

i'm also impressed...

...by the scalability of this concept.

it's possible to build a "trunk" guideway system (with large cars) that can be serviced with smaller guideway vehicle "feeders".for passenger service.

they did not mention it, but imagine if the standard shipping container could be adapted (bolt-on magnet panels?) to be placed in a "shipping pipeline".

in theory, this would mean containers could become their own trains, and that the multimodal system would gain a new player.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

From the Moore County Dem. Party

This is from our Policy, Principles, and Priorities Statement, adopted by the Executive Committee last year. The Political Action Committee, led by the new County Chair, Brian Deaton, worked hard on this. (this is under Environment and Infrastructure)

How we plan our highways and develop alternative types of transportation – e.g., off-duty school bus systems, light rail along the Hwy. 211 corridor which already has light rail paralleling it – all will dictate what our children and grandchildren will be working with in this area. If you just build more and more highways, the traffic will come but at the cost of destroying the very qualities that created the attractiveness of the area.

I hope we can attract some candidates for the County Commission who will agree with these statements, and that we can all get behind to win. Colin McKenzie and Tim Lea are up for reelection in 2008, if I'm not mistaken.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Gandhi

Wow, y'all seem to be welcoming to dissent...

...if you're the only ones doing the disagreeing.

The concept of public-funding of roads is Constitutional, and people tend to throw those out of office who can't maintain them - regardless of their political persuasion. Our involvement with the railways has been going on for more than 150 years; but didn't take as well as roads did - mainly due to flexibility. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for high-speed, long-distance trains, light rail, and the like; but look at people vote with their feet now : 25 million on all Amtrak during 2002. 25 million is about how many flew during that same time period...out of Charlotte-Douglas alone.

If we're going to subsidize transportation - trains strike me as a rather inefficient way of doing it.

You seem to have had a brain transplant over the weekend.

Dissent is fine . . . and welcome. Disparaging an entire community in their virtual living room? Not so fine. If you want to behave like an asshole, do it on your own blog.

Death of rail

The railroads were killed by the massive subsidies of the interstate highway system as well as the onset of affordable and accessible air travel. Actually, the remaining freight carriers are doing quite well, in fact, they are all jammed up with traffic. If we had MORE rail capacity, we could have fewer long-haul trucks on the road leaving more room for passenger cars and causing less wear on the asphalt.

Trains work very well even for longer distances in heavily-populated areas like the northeast corridor. They just aren't going to cut it for passengers trying to get from NY to LA, but they are a great option for NY to DC.

im sure

that the low numbers have nothing to do with the fact that our train technology is 30 to 50 years old at best. Or the fact that our trains operate at almost the same speeds now as they did 100 years ago, even though the technology has advanced.

Anyone who wants to argue against trains just needs to look at europe or japan. heck. look at the subways.

Draft Brad Miller -- NC Sen ActBlue :::Liddy 44 Brad 33

"Keep the Faith"

the fact is...

...customers do vote with their feet.

consider this fact about the ny city subway:

In 2005, the New York City Subway hit a 50-year record in usage, with ridership of 1.45 billion...In September 2006, average weekday ridership was 5,076,000, the highest figure since such numbers were first recorded in 1970.

as far as subsidizing...the cost of light rail and roads, when right-of-way is considered, is almost the same, only trains can more easily be scaled up in the future (easier to add train cars than lanes).

i'm not suggesting eliminating roads, but more and more the idea of moving more people with less carbon makes environmental and (considering $3 gas) economic sense.

it's also a national security issue: why would you want to send even one unnecessary dollar to middle eastern nations that are not our friends?

aren't you willing to invest in national security?
investing in transit is one way to get there.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

we could keep the roads

and invest in electric car technology...

Draft Brad Miller -- NC Sen ActBlue :::Liddy 44 Brad 33

"Keep the Faith"

i suspect...

...as with life generally, the answer is somewhere in between.

even using non-carbon fuels, cars still have to park, and right-of-way still needs to be acquired to support new capacity.

real estate may turn out to be the second major "constrainer" on cars as densities increase.

ironically, the right-of-way assets repersented by roads may turn out to be a huge "enabler" for transit systems nationwide.

my suspicion is that we will tend to drive to train stations, or move closer to work, as time goes on and all energy becomes more expensive.

to put it another way:

i've seen numerous transit proposals that envision a "feeder" service of busses that serve "arterial" light-rail or other "heavy" transit services.

my prediction is that cars will become the "feeder" in the model, and electric cars seem ideally placed for such a task.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

having been in cities

with various levels of public transit I think you are correct. My dad lived for a time outside Denver. He drove every day to the light rail station that had just been built. He was willing to live farther away for a number of reasons... But, where was most of the new construction going? As close to the light rail stations as possible.

Draft Brad Miller -- NC Sen ActBlue :::Liddy 44 Brad 33

"Keep the Faith"


energy costs will go up.
no way around that.

this suggests denver's example (which is but one of several similar stories) will be a common model.

i note dan besse's message touches on similar themes when addressing nc's own growing density issues.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Which brings me to my point...

My reaction when someone talks about rail is informed by the experience we're having here in Charlotte where the project seems to have funding coming out of everyone's pockets; but serves a limited market - taking money that is desparately needed to maintain - let alone widen or build new - roads. If light rail would enhance the areas around it where there are stations - why can't most of the money come from TIF bonds?

Why do I, someone who lives in Cabarrus County, have to help foot the bill for a project via taxes in Raliegh for a light rail experiment (whose funding needs swell at every milestone) that primarily serves downtown Charlotte only to see badly needed projects in my area get put off because of lack of funding? I know the argument is that in 10 years we might see some relief; but that doesn't fix my 40-minute commute to cover 9.7 miles at ANY time.

a reasonable question which leads...

...to what keeps politicians up late at night: how do you provide for every need with limited funds?

your question can be just as easily asked in many ways-why pay federal income taxes to build levees in louisiana that won't help nc residents?

why should nc citizens pay to fund boston's big dig?

in the end, the answer seems to lie in an effort to provide the best value possible for limited tax dollars.
long term, more highway lanes, especially in urban environments, are becoming a bad investment, and in nc, most of the 50% increase in population you can expect in the next 20 years will be in urban centers.

the looming possibility of $4 gas will make investments of this sort much more practical.
improving air quality in charlotte will also be advantageous.

it has been suggested that nc's urban centers have suffered from underinvestment in infrastructure over the years (as has nc generally), and, to be honest, a "no taxes at any cost" philosophy seems to be involved.

i guess the best answer i can offer to your basic question (why should you pay for a charlotte project?) is that the ultimate expression of that philosophy will be bad for your county. if urban centers are where the economic and population growth are occurring, your county's tax base will probably depend on subsidies from charlotte taxpayers if you want your roads fixed. (carrabus county has 150,000 residents, suggesting every $100,000,000 in construction would be about $1500 per household with county-only funding of projects. if 10 miles of i-84 needs widening, that could easily be $15,000 per household.)

in other words, if 2/3 of the population ends up in urban centers, but 50% of road projects aren't, why should charlotte subsidize you?

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

i am but...

...your humble servant.

by the way, that $15,000 figure is for "cash on the barrel" funding.
30 year bond funding requires interest, which should raise costs 200-250% over 30 years (just like your mortgage...)

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Ah yes

the miracle of compounding is sometimes not our friend.

...cheaper to build?

So, wait. Guideway would be the same size as light rail, monorail, or any other train. But why would permanent magnets be cheaper to lay than regular steel rails? This sounds like the monorail advocates.

if they are in fact permanent

then the argument is that their upkeep would be much less, meaning that over a long period of time it would be cheaper.

its the same reason that building with stuff like geothermal heating can end up being cheaper after 10 years, even if it costs more upfront.

Draft Brad Miller -- NC Sen ActBlue :::Liddy 44 Brad 33

"Keep the Faith"

the answer...

...lies in the electrical infrastructure required to make magnets into electromagnets, or to power electric motors.

no substations, on on-grade cable, no third rail, no safety devices for keeping the public away from all this, and reduced spare parts/service vehicle requirements (you wouldn't need extra transformers, for example.)

the japanese design also required that the magnets be cooled, which is more expensive to construct and operate.

not to mention you don't need to pay as many electricians for construction.

the materials involved in making the permanent magnets, additionally, are common (the exact materials escape me, but i believe iron and boron were involved) and inexpensive.

take a minute and check out the lev x link from the original diary, where this is described in more detail.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965