Friday, April 17, 2009

Cooler Than Monorails ...!

Proposed US high speed rail routes
What looks like a serious effort to build a high speed rail network in the United States, something about 50 years overdue. (Really, what an embarrassment that those cheese eating surrender monkeys have the fastest trains in the world.)

Alll abooooard!

Monorails, by the way, were never really that cool, indeed one of the more gimmicky ideas of the rocketpunk era. It isn't as if the problem of providing a smooth, comfortable ride at moderate speed hadn't already been pretty elegantly solved before the Disneyland monorail was more than a gleam in Uncle Walt's eye. Truth to be told I feel much the same way about maglevs. If you really need to go more than 500 km/h to get where you're going in a reasonable time, it may be a sign that The Future will still have a niche for jet planes.


Jim Baerg said...

There's been talk for decades about a high speed rail link between Calgary & Edmonton, & the Alberta government did purchase some land in Calgary on the grounds that it would be needed for the rail terminal if such a link was built. The Edmonton airport is so far out of town that they really need to have a stop on that rail link by the Edmonton airport.

Given the modest population of Alberta the economics of such a rail line is probably a bit marginal. Windsor to Quebec City is more plausible as a route for high speed rail in Canada.

BTW do you have any idea why people used 'cheese eating' as an insult?

Rick said...

Calgary and Edmonton were two of the first North American cities to build modern era light rail systems - in rating corridors, I'd give some bonus points to rail-minded communities.

I confess I had to look at my road atlas to find Windsor and Quebec City, being as I am at the other end of North America. But once I did look, it's unsurprisingly what I'd expect to be Canada's 'natural' heavy corridor.

Interesting question about cheese eating. My guess is that the connotation originally had nothing to do with France (or surrender). From the 1970s, 'wine and cheese set' has been used as a synonym for 'yuppie,' thus picking up overtones of effete. A couple of more jumps of stereotype and there you are! ('Wine drinking surrender monkeys' doesn't quite work.)

Anonymous said...

monorails and current maglevs are pretty much a dead end ..

once upon a time in the late 60-ies and early 70-ies there was a railroad company that had to decide on how to create a future high speed transport system

on the one side there was the aerotrain - a aircushion monorail system that was fully developed and showed a lot of potential and high speed . and was very sexy indeed

on the other hand there was an "old tyle" wheel bound experimental train set ... which showed a little less promise then the aerotrain .. and was a lot less sexy

nethertheless the train company decided to use the "old style" wheel vehicle .. why?

because - while the wheeled vehicle would need special tracks to run at full speed - you could run it also on the old, already existing, rail tracks at lower speed ..


and the same argument still holds for todays high speed train sets and maglevs ..

interoperability is the ace ...



Rick said...

Was the railroad in question SNCF? Your description sounds an awful lot like the TGV decision process.

I forgot to mention interoperability, but that is my main reason for dissing maglevs. There is a double advantage to operating over existing lines - not only extending service beyond the high speed segment, but not having to drill the high-speed line into city centers, at astronomical expense.

A secondary advantage, but a big one, is the sheer amount of engineering experience and industrial capacity for wheels on rails. No need to reinvent the wheel!

One of the oddest things about high speed rail is that the basic technical capability is a hundred years old. Maybe not for TGV top speeds, but 200 km/h must have been attainable from nearly the beginning of mainline electrification. It didn't happen then because no one saw the need to invest heavily in superfast lines and equipment to run on them.

More generally, wheels have made a comeback in the future. (What would a grammarian make of that sentence?) It used to be taken for granted that even 'ground-cars' would float on repulsor fields of some sort; now it's pretty understood that future cars will broadly resemble, well, cars.

Anonymous said...

As far as trains go, economics will ace all else. Passenger rail lines in the US are heavily subsidized; they don't make enough money vs the cost of overhead to be profitable. Any rail line, momorail, air custioned, conventional, whatever, will have to pull enough customers to more than cover operating and maintainance costs. To be viable, a future rail line must be a better option than other methods of transportation. People (even in the future) want cheap, comfortable, reliable, safe, and timely transportation. Cars are realitively cheap and can go most places people want to go in less than a day or two. Change that conveniance and maybe trains will have a future.

Rick said...

Practically all transport is subsidized, but high speed rail competes more with air travel than with automobiles. Take LA-San Francisco, about 450 mi / 700 km. Driving it takes a full day, Interstate 5, but using jet planes is grossly inefficient; they don't even reach cruise altitude before they begin descent. By high speed train the trip would be 2-4 hours, nearly as fast as air and far more convenient.

Cars are not going away in 'the future,' but one way or another the cheap oil era is over, and post oil economics favors electric rail. Building the lines is a huge front end investment, but once they are in place the trains will be packed.

Anonymous said...

yes .

the railroad company was SNCF and i was referring to the TGV decision ..

Aerotrain was a awfully close contender for a long time ... but the TGV's ability to run on old tracks insde cities and beyond the high speed network was what broke the Aerotrains spine ..

The Aerotrain test track still exists - all 18 km .. a pretty impressive sight and VERY futuristic in a rocketpunky style



Carla said...

Do you think it will really happen?

"Wine and cheese parties" were briefly fashionable in the 1970s over here, as I remember, but they seem to have disappeared into naffness quite quickly. I'm not aware of the phrase having settled in the language as a synonym for yuppie, so the "cheese eating" insult mildly puzzled me too. Many thanks for the explanation!

Rick said...

I think there's a Pretty Good Chance that it will happen. $9 billion is a non-trivial start. Even more to the point, the political climate may be more favorable to big public works in coming years.

Jean Remy said...

The argument for interoperability works for railroads already established on Earth, yes.

What about, say, connections between cities on other colonies. The Moon would seem unlikely: vacuum + 1/6th g make some form of "flying" transport more efficient than building a complex rail system. On th other hand a "plane crash" would be fatal in any circumstance, unless everyone has to suit up, and who wants to add putting on a space suit to the already lengthy process of airline check-ins (I use airline loosely here)... actually, this can go either way.

But what of Mars? Its thin atmosphere would demand flying vehicles to have a wide wingspan and rocket engines requiring the craft to carry not just its fuel (like a modern jet) but also its oxidizer. Add the above-mentioned need to wear a space suit in case of a crash. Granted not really a deal breaker, but probably not cheap, and demanding an investment for each new vehicle as demand increases.

How about building a set of tracks between the settlements. Since there is no preexisting infrastructure, you may as well build a maglev. Any future traffic increase: just add another set of cars, at far less cost than a new aircraft.

Rick said...

Yes, operating over existing tracks only applies on Earth!

'Flying' on the Moon means suborbital hops, so surface transport may be preferred once traffic is substantial. And even on Mars, the atmosphere is so thin that - even apart from the oxidizer requirement - transport aircraft may be impractical. Takeoff speed would be 10x that of a similar wing on Earth - something like 300 knots even for an ultralight.

So some form of rail is desirable. Conventional rail has one other advantage on Earth besides running over existing tracks - the technology is widespread, with a big industrial base to supply equipment of all sorts. But vacuum / thin atmosphere, not to mention location, pretty much eliminates that advantage as well, so maglevs probably win the off-Earth competition.

Jean Remy said...

I've always felt rail to be a far more elegant transport solution than air, but then again rail may be more ingrained into us Europeans in general, and French in particular.

All of a sudden I am not sure why though. It was rail that conquered the American West. Railroad transport should be as integral a part of that culture, yet there is a sharp culture lag when it comes to modern rail transport instead.

P.S: The cheese eating part is completely lost on the French, as far as an insult. It's actually pretty funny. We've been joking about our own cheeses for a lot longer. "You can eat a different type of cheese every day for a year." Even De Gaulle said: "A country that produces more than 365 sorts of cheese is impossible to govern." One man's insult is another man's compliment.

Surrender-monkey, however...

Rick said...

Railroading is, or was, deeply ingrained in 'Murrican culture. The decline of passenger trains after midcentury had more to do with auto mania than the airlines. And, since the 1970s - just when the potential of high speed train travel was becoming clear - the period of conservative ascendancy, with hostility to any large public initiative as 'socialism.'

But one other factor is the continued importance of freight railroading, meaning that most existing trackage has heavy freight traffic. There's been a great deal of progress in rail freight operation, but - as with sea cargo - it is a matter of handling procedures, not running speed.

I'm hoping that nascent political shifts will make passenger rail investment more viable!

On 'cheese eating surrender monkeys,' I remember reading De Gaulle's observation! As for the rest, it is acutely embarrassing, as you can see from the links I provided. A whole subculture in this country has never forgiven the French because De Gaulle passed on some advice about Vietnam that we, to our cost, ignored.

Jean Remy said...

To be fair the French also ignored De Gaulle's warnings about tank warfare before WWII, with similar results. I'm sure he and Cassandra would have a lot to talk about.

I thought the US resented the French for their attempt to remain independent from the US, at least in the matter of international politics, rather than simply be a "yes" man... er country, as exampled when De Gaulle (him again!?) canceled France's participation in the brand shiny new NATO... thing.