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Sunday, April 22, 2007

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

Americans used to love their trains.

Casey Jones, the Golden Spike, the Wreck of the Old 97-all are a part of our legend, and even today trains are seen as a romantic link to another time.

These days, we see the future in trains.
There are a variety of new train concepts floating around-literally-and new variants of traditional designs as well.

There is one train concept, however, that has the potential to completely change all we know about moving people and freight.

It’s cheaper to build than any other current design, but more importantly, this concept appears to forever alter how we think of energy use for mass transit.

Having piqued your interest, let’s add background information to set the stage...

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 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.

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