Sunday, January 22, 2012

Will High-Speed Rail, bought from other countries, win our future?

Maglev has been consistently dismissed in the US as not ready for prime time, too expensive to build and operate, and in many other ways not taken seriously by both pro- and anti-high-speed rail gurus. Germany has been running a test track for years. China has a commercial train running from the airport to Shanghai. (see YouTube video)

Our high-speed rail politicians who were part of the decades-ago crew that cooked up the HSR project also seriously considered maglev as a viable alternative for very fast corridor travel, until they didn't.

It must be made clear here that what we are watching with Shanghai's maglev is no more desirable along the intended HSR route than what is currently planned. Elevated viaducts are disastrous along any of the current considered routes regardless of the transit modality they support. But, as we shall point out, that is not the point.

Permit me to stress that I have insufficient knowledge about this technology to have an informed opinion, nor am I here advocating this technology as a substitute for the inadequacies of our high-speed rail project in California.  The point here is not maglev per se, but the differences that have emerged between China's and our attitudes regarding innovation, development and manufacturing.

That is, I do have an opinion about where the US is failing and China is succeeding, and that is in creative thinking "outside the envelope," as they say.  Here is an example.  The Chinese are not dismissive of maglev but willing to invest in R&D in ways that we fail to take seriously here.

If we are so envious of their thousands of miles of high-speed rail, we should be far more envious that they are willing to take risks with new technologies not yet proven in the market place. 

We certainly may assume that the Chinese are not dismissing this technology out of hand as we are, and as we have done most recently regarding the Las Vegas to Victorville/Anaheim route, which now appears to be on the conventional high-speed rail track.

We in the US have already out-sourced much of our manufacturing leadership overseas. We are doing this as well in the service sector.  What's next, R&D?  India and China have now created their own Silicon Valleys.

What we have noted over the past decade is the Chinese capacity to buy, borrow or steal the technological innovations of other nations, including our own. Nonetheless, China has evolved into a highly creative as well as productive industrialized nation, at the same time that we, in the US, have eagerly shipped our manufacturing capacity to that country, making it our shopping center for our materialistic, post-industrial culture. 

Please read this article from today's (Sunday) New York Times about Apple Computers and overseas, especially Asia, manufacturing. 

Instead of emulating Europe and Asia's grand-eloquent investments in high-speed rail, and about which some are beginning to have second thoughts, ought we not in the US be seeking next generation conceptual transit models?  Is the US no longer to be the "break-through" nation?

Keeping steel-wheel-on-steel-rail passenger technologies, now over two centuries old, alive with acquired-from-elsewhere 'heart-lung machine' speed upgrades does not, typically, characterize the American temperament. Nonetheless, our government leadership is promoting this nearly obsolete transit mode aggressively, despite the realities of construction times reaching decades into the future, and costs exceeding anything we can now imagine.

Why is it the Chinese are investigating 1000 km/ph (621 mph) locomotion within vacuum tubes and not us?  Can you see the role reversal between our two countries in which we are helplessly and mindlessly immersed?  

Why are we so quick to dismiss outside-the-box innovative thinking in transit technologies without first pursuing a solid experience and knowledge base that comes from R&D investments? Those who are so quick to dismiss the maglev technologies for the US, please cite the research documentation on which such a dismissal is based. 

Ford Motor Company and Stanford Research Institute engaged in maglev studies in the '60s and '70s. What happened to that enterprise?

Building a rail project that promises to be defunct not long after it is (if ever) built, does not sound visionary, contrary to the hype of the HSR advocates.  America's visionary future is not being taken away by other nations.  We are giving it away even as we intend to buy their high-speed train technologies off their shelves.  Shame on us.

China introduces low cost Maglev train

January 21, 2012 | 


China’s love affair with magnetic levitation trains (Maglev) began long before it knew how to build them itself. In 2001Germany’s Transrapid International built the first Maglev train for China, which, at a maximum speed of over 270 miles an hour, was also the fastest in the world. Apparently, in the process the company also handed its technology to the Chinese. China set up National Research and Development Center for Maglev Transportation Technology, an organization to build on Transrapid tech, and voila, it was on its way.

Since then, the country has steadily been making progress in the dream of building these high speed trains itself. In 2010 China’s first high speed Maglev train was delivered to the authorities in the Sichuan province. It was built by the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Company, the same company that is making the 5th Generation J-20 planes. The train ran at over 500 km/ph and was suppos,ed to use technology that normally is found in the planes.

There were news reports at the time that the country was trying to build a train that would run at an unheard 1000 km/hr, but that train is yet to be delivered. China is reportedly building special vacuum tunnels for these trains so that it is able to eliminate friction from the air.

Now, it has built a version of the Maglev, which though not so fast is supposed to be more commercially viable. The train will run at an inspiring speed of a 100 km per hour. But it is quieter and more environmentally friendly that conventional Maglev trains. The train which is developed by Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Co. Ltd. of China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation (CSR).will have just three carriages, and will consume less energy than a sedan. “It’s ideal for mass transportation, as it is quiet and environmental-friendly. Its manufacturing cost is about 75 percent of a conventional light-rail train,” said an spokesperson for the company.

The train is designed to operate in tourist destinations, and areas with fragile ecologies. The train’s environmental friendly and low noise pollution is ideally suited to such areas.

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