Three more installments to go! This is No. 13 in a series, started back in July, on the biggest infrastructure project underway in America, and either the most important one (if you're a supporter) or most misguided (if you are not). That's the proposal for a north-south California High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, which Governor Jerry Brown has embraced as his legacy project and is selling hard in his re-election campaign. For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12.

Today, mail from some readers who say that California needs a better land-transportation system, just not this specific HSR proposal. Their alternative suggestions come in two main categories: taking seriously the possibility of self-driving cars, and changing from a conventional wheels-on-rails railroad system to the maglev systems, for "magnetic levitation," now in use in some other parts of the world. I also get mail in a third category, involving Elon Musk's "Hyperloop" transport vision, but that one is still hypothetical enough that I'll leave it for another time.

Before you point it out: Yes, I'm aware that responding to any proposal by saying, "I like the idea, I'm just not sure of the execution" often has the same effect as "Actually, I don't like the idea." That's for later. My purpose for the moment is to let advocates of these systems lay out the main points in their cases. The grand unification theory is still to come.

First, self-driving cars. I turn the floor over to a reader in California whose identity and background I know. He works in the advanced-research parts of the info-tech industry and did his bachelor's and doctoral training at Caltech and MIT. He says:

Your series on High Speed Rail is under-emphasizing an important aspect of the big picture.

Should we invest in infrastructure? Absolutely!  But the right kind of infrastructure.

The technology and accompanying infrastructure creating the greatest impact today and over the past 30 years has been not just big scale physical stuff, but the brains coordinating and controlling physical stuff—specifically, computing and communication.

This revolution has already penetrated business, commerce, and entertainment. But it is just starting to touch transportation.  

Certainly, the logistics business is seeing impact through better tracking and scheduling, and personal transportation is benefiting from Maps, GPS, and mobile apps. But the really huge impact will come with self-driving vehicles.

One of Google's self-driving cars, with more info here.

If it is built, High Speed Rail in California will be obsolete for most of its lifetime. Consider:

   -Self-driving cars cover ALL highways, not just one station-to-station route.

   -Self-driving cars will be safer and more efficient than current driving because they coordinate with each other.

   -Self-driving cars can be faster on highways because they can caravan. For the same reason, they can be more energy-efficient. Because they are point-to-point instead of station-to-station, they get you from source to destination faster and with less hassle.

   -Self-driving cars will create productive time because the driver can attend to other things.

   -Self-driving cars avoid a single point of failure (track disruption) because the road system and vehicles are distributed.

For these reasons, by 2030 or 2040 when HSR is done, the best physical investment in getting between San Francisco and Los Angeles will be to double the width of Interstate 5—much cheaper than a whole new train system.

Rail is terrific for some purposes but it represents old technology. There's an analogy in telecommunications. Over 80 percent of the world's population now has telephone service---but not through stringing wires all over the countryside. The developing world has leapfrogged land lines by going straight to cellphones. California already has a great road system. We should leapfrog passenger rail by using our existing roads much more effectively.

The infrastructure ingredients of information technologies include both small-scale physical (sensors, signals, gateways, vehicles, roadway accommodations) and informational (algorithms, protocols, UI design, training, economic, and legal support structure).

The challenge we have as a society is whether we can marshal resources to conduct the distributed infrastructure investment required to transform transportation through computation and communication, or whether we are forever stuck associating "infrastructure investment" with more concrete and steel ending in a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Now, maglev, which in essence allows a train to "fly" at very high speeds while suspended at a very small distance above the rail bed. The train is supported and propelled by magnetic forces.

The two main arguments for maglev are lower long-term maintenance costs, since there is little or no physical contact or wear and tear on wheels or rail bed; and higher possible speeds, again because you don't have the constraints of what a system of metal rails and wheels can sustain. Beyond that is the general argument that wheels-on-rails are yesterday's technology, and maglev (among others) is tomorrow's. For some previous maglev back-and-forth, see installments No. 8 and No. 9.

One of my frequent correspondents has been Kevin Coates, who is writing a book about maglev possibilities and is a maglev consultant and executive director of a maglev-advocacy group. Here is an initial note setting out his argument about looking forward rather than back:

I’m reading American Road for some background information on America’s first highway building initiative, the Lincoln Highway. Fascinating story. It was only 95 years ago [this summer] that the first military convoy made the three month trek from DC to San Francisco—not on paved roads, for the most part. Their first day from DC to Frederick, MD took 7 hours and 15 minutes. In fact, there were no paved road networks west of Pittsburgh in 1914—only 100 years ago.

The line that sticks with me from the book and is pertinent to what you are writing about now is the comment from, I believe, Henry Joy, CEO of Packard Motors and chief booster for a national highway who lamented his fear that the Lincoln Highway would be built more with politics than with cement and gravel.

I think this is even more true of the California Rail project where they are looking to deploy yesterday’s technology to address future travel needs without understanding the first thing about how expensive it is to maintain trains and tracks, much less high-speed trains and tracks.

Maglev diagram, via Florida State U.

From my observations, all these rail boosters in California lack the training and background to properly design a rail system, much less a high-speed rail system. None of these people are technically proficient with the inner workings of fast electric trains and they know even less, or nothing, about maglev technology which would make better sense on several levels; including speed, safety, energy consumption, maintenance and life cycle cost (NPV, if you will).

In short, since American politicians devalued passenger train travel by creating Amtrak over 40 years ago, we in America do not now have technical proficiency in high-speed rail R&D, construction and operations—and this includes the FRA, the CAHSR folks, state DOTs, and American industry. It pains me to report that this is the core reason why we are fumbling Obama’s HSR initiative. We simply do not know what we are doing when it comes to fast trains or fast train lines.

So, if we are going to build this type of infrastructure, then let’s go with the most advanced and less expensive wheelless versions. This would be a logical approach. Hell, the Japanese are even offering us $4 billion and no licensing fees if we use their superconducting maglev technology between DC and Baltimore. This is the same technology they are installing for their new Tokyo-Nagoya Chuo Shinkansen. The German system in Shanghai is different technology, but also less costly. Unfortunately, we have no one to evaluate these advanced technologies because we abandoned maglev research over 25 years ago.

The whole mess makes me ill.

The Shanghai project Kevin Coates mentions is familiar to anyone who has been to the city. It whooshes across the 18 miles from a not-quite-downtown subway stop to the far-off Pudong Airport in about 7 minutes, reaching top speeds of more than 250 mph. But the route is so short that the train barely speeds up before it has to start slowing, and it's poorly enough connected to the rest of the transport grid that, if you're taking any luggage with you to the airport, it's more hassle than it's worth. While living in Shanghai we often took visitors there for a gee-whiz ride but were generally stuck with the slow, traffic-paralyzed taxis for real trips to the airport.

Amplifying some of these themes, we have a message from another member of the maglev community. This is Laurence Blow, of MaglevTransport Inc. He writes:

So far, your maglev-related remarks have been fairly balanced against the predictable HSR opposition. I trust that trend will continue. In fact, that's why I'm contacting you today with two personal comments.

First, one pet peeve I've developed over the years concerns the conduct of side-by-side comparisons of rail and maglev. The (rail) consultants typically lay out a rail-compatible alignment from which to compute speed profiles, trip times, costs, etc. Then, given a mandate to assess a maglev route, the consultants will start from the original alignment and only plot route deviations where they estimate maglev will clearly be able to improve things.

Later, when it comes to costing the line, maglev is always assumed to be elevated, automatically making it the most expensive option, when in reality it can be run at grade or in cut-and-cover tunnels. In such a situation, maglev never has a chance to perform (or cost) as it might if given a clean-sheet-of-paper approach.

Only one project has ever approached its analysis such that maglev and rail can be compared accurately, in my experience: the UK Ultraspeed project. It showed that when laid out properly, taking best advantage of maglev's performance features, such a maglev system could outperform a HSR system handily while costing 50% less to construct. ...

Second, if California is to be the testbed for HSR infrastructure, surely there's a 30 or 40-mile segment somewhere else in the country that could be devoted to a demonstration project for maglev technology, as the Chinese did with Transrapid in Shanghai 12 years ago.

During the U.S. Maglev Deployment Program of 1999-2003, half a dozen areas explored the possibilities of building a maglev line, only to fall away over time as federal funds dried up. ...

Speaking as a maglev "dead-ender," it's my hope that your 13th installment [this one] sheds some positive light on the possibilities presented by incorporating maglev technology for intercity as well as urban-transport applications.

Laurence Blow sends along these references: more on the UK Ultraspeed project here, and background material from an international maglev conference in Europe here.

Maglev rolling into Shanghai's Pudong airport (Wikipedia)

Now one more from Kevin Coates about Shanghai in particular and maglev in general to round things out for the day:

Maintenance becomes a major cost factor not long after a rail line goes into operation. Selecting a technology with significantly lower maintenance requirements is so important because once a line is built, the operator is stuck with the energy consumption and maintenance requirements inherent to that particular technology for several decades (the all-important life cycle costs).

Basically, the choice for California's north-south high-speed ground transportation initiative is to go with an older electro-mechanical system, or to go with a more modern and reliable digital electro-magnetic system. The facts are in on the advantages of the latter. The question is: Is anyone in the U.S. paying attention? If they are not, then why not?

[Some Chinese colleagues Coates recently spoke with on a visit] agree that the problem for maglev is no longer technical or financial, but political.

I told them that you asked if the Shanghai maglev project was a success. They agreed wholeheartedly with my response—when looking at the construction techniques, manufacturing processes, operations, energy consumption, maintenance requirements, and speed capabilities, the Shanghai maglev is an unmitigated success. When looking at the ridership numbers and revenues, it is not a success—BUT, this is not an indictment of the technology, but of the line's route planning, which was a political process. [JF note: Yes, as noted above, a Shanghai maglev trip is fun, but for most airport trips it's a nuisance.]

If a HSR line was built instead on the same exact route as the maglev, the ridership numbers would be no better, and probably a little worse due to slower speeds.

The maglev line was never intended to be a stand alone project, but was built as the first segment of a line that ran to South Shanghai Train Station and then on to Hongqiao Airport and its train station. The decision to suspend the line extension was political. It had nothing to do with cost!!

The No. 2 subway now connects the two airports, but the trip takes just about two hours. If the maglev line was completed, the total end-to-end trip time, including two intermediary stops, would be at most 20 minutes.