Thursday, January 28, 2010

Would it be cheaper to build a Maglev with wheels?

I bet some politician will ask a question like that.  I've heard worse. 

Anyway, where could I go with news that Maglev was left out of any funding*...  So if you go across the whole history here, we imploded over an attempt to build Skybus which was a novel transit system using rubber wheels on a guided track while Maglev without wheels at all has defined inertia for decades. You wonder why we don't ever try the normal thing and build or use boring rail lines. We just have to be different. Oh yeah, no money for rail either now. Thus is the state of transit strategy in Southwestern Pennsylvania. If your strategy was to actually not expand transit options would the results be any different.

You would think the maglev folks would get something just as a reward for sheer tenacity at this point.  You can call up my past Maglev related comments here.   There was a moment in time not too long ago when the ethereal Maglev project looked like it might actually happen.  Just before 9/11 there was momentum for an actual demostration project with real money for maglev.  Pittsburgh had been declared one of two finalists along with a plan to build something from DC to Baltimore. An actual draft environmental impact statement was put out there which was a real step toward something concrete (pun intended).  Retired PG transportation columnist Joe Grata even dubbed it all "High Speed Maglev Week" at the time. It looked like a light at the end of a long tunnel.  On top of it all the folks in Maryland did not seem to be keen on the impact construction of the line would have through the endless exurbia that now seperates DC and Baltimore. A Pittsburgh maglev almost (well, almost almost) seemed inevitable.  It was not to be.

Long ago Pittsburgh lost any bragging rights to have the first operational maglev even if it had been built.  Shanghai's maglev line is up and running and has been for years.  Shanghai actually built theirs with Transrapid technology, a German company that was slated to build the Pittsburgh high speed maglev.  One problem is that Transrapid announced it was shutting down last year.  It didnt go away immediately and I am not sure what the status is, but there is a great writeup of Transrapid's history in the Indian press (why not? flat world and all of that) just last week.  As of more news today.. and as best I can tell the Germans are still trying to keep Transrapid from fading away completely.

How long has maglev been a figment of our imagination? Again this illustration from 1985 kind of says it all:

* High Speed Maglev that is..  have not heard from either of the low speed maglev projects that have been talked about in town.  One out at Cal U and the other that I think was going to connect Downtown with parts of the lower Hill District I thought... have to go look that up. Someone should check in on them to see what traction they have remaining.


Blogger n'at said...

I'm surprised Rube Goldberg wasn't a Pittsburgher. We have a long history in this area for developing overly complicated solutions to simple problems. Considering our nation's track record for maintaining our infrastructure, a transit system requiring slim tolerances, hurling +200mph along hundreds of miles of elevated guideway will either be very very expensive and heavily subsidized, or will imp along like every other transit agency in the country with calamitous delays and pricing out their ridership through rate hikes.

Build at grade with proven systems on a standard gauge, i.e., the opposite of PAT's LRT.

The mechanics of rail are not supposed to look good, their supposed to work...

Friday, January 29, 2010 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous jet said...

What's wrong with conventional high speed rail like what they have in Japan and Europe? Or even starting with giving passenger rail priority over cargo rail until proper passenger rail is built out?

Friday, January 29, 2010 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Giving passenger rail priority over cargo would increase overall energy use and carbon emissions by a very large amount. Switching the cargo from train to a trucks is a far bigger increase in fuel usage than switching the passengers from a train to their car or a planes.

Friday, January 29, 2010 1:53:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

The gauge issue comes up every now and then.... Some anomalies have explanations that are undertandable if not completely logical. The T's gauge is nonstandard because it was built originally to accomodate the trolleys probably because they didnt have money to buy the cars at the same time. So a great Masloffian compromise (before Sophie of course, but I could see her thinking this up).. use the old trolleys on the new subway line.. Remember when the Downtown stations had platforms of 2 levels to accomodate boarding either trolleys or the new cars?

The trolleys back in the day used a 'nonstandard' or Pennsylvania Trolley gauge which was wider than what became standard. But it's more the opposite issue in that Pittsburgh had an early trolley system and the world didn't follow... not Pittsburgh doing something stupid all on its own... but there was probably never money to backfit the system somewhere over the century so yup.. now we have a new system with nonstandard, and I presume costlier, rolling stock.

Friday, January 29, 2010 4:52:00 PM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

Although it does not have a specific Pittsburgh reference that I am aware of, this discussion puts me in mind of jet packs. Seems to me whenever a character in a movie is somehow transported forward in time, his first reaction is "where is my jet pack?". We saw a jet pack in the original "Thunderball" (where the cars still had decorative fins), but my understanding is the technology has not progressed much since then. Probably why we can hybrid and hydrogen powered cars, but no Jetsons' mobile.

Saturday, January 30, 2010 8:49:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...


A few years one of the men's magazines -- maybe Esquire -- wrote a facinating article about jet packs. Murder has actually been committed over them.

I got so depressed reading about transportation in this country. While much of the rest of the industrialized world invests in infrastructure and improving quality of life for all their citizens, we bicker over tax cuts.

Saturday, January 30, 2010 10:30:00 AM  

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