Alternative Transportation Systems

Railroad Workers United (RWU) is an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity “caucus” of railroad workers, and their supporters, from all crafts, all carriers, and all unions across North America. More than a decade ago at the 2012 Convention of Railroad Workers United, the question of railroad ownership first came before those members assembled.

The United States lags behind the rest of the world in rail development, largely stuck with 100+-year-old technology, that is itself is substantial decline and degeneration. In face of the degeneration of the rail system in the last decade, the RWU Steering Committee voted unanimously to adopt a position that advocates for nationalizing the railroads. (see Resolution here).

And while there are many good and compelling reasons for nationalizing the railroads, there is another path that needs to be considered as a potential parallel effort. Buckminster Fuller, the American architect, systems theorist, writer, designer, inventor, philosopher, and futurist was known to state “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Is it time to consider that the U.S. railroad ecosystem is so outdated that it is incapable of being modernized, and is unable to be brought in sync with the current needs of society and the planet? We believe so. Which begs the question, what would an alternative look like?

The Concept of a Disruptive Alternative

Perhaps we should we look to the developer of the theory of “disruptive innovation“, Professor Clayton Christensen, who was the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma and “The Innovator’s Solution” where that concept was introduced. Disruptive innovation is innovation that either creates a new market and value network or enters at the bottom of an existing market and eventually displaces established market-leading firms, products, and alliances. We feel that a whole new market can be developed that leapfrogs over the existing rail ecosystem much like cell phones leapfrogged over landline telephone systems in developing countries.

What is needed is a new way to move freight and people in the United States. Fortunately, there is one that is already being used in various forms in other countries, just not here. That alternative will be explored below. Before doing so, we need to understand the single biggest factor that has to be addressed in order to successfully introduce a new paradigm.

The Problem of Right of Way

To better understand the value proposition represented by that alternative paradigm, we need to address one key issue that impacts all new mass transit systems, where are we going to move freight or people. That issue is called “right of way”.

Having the legal right to built a mass transportation system along a particular route represents a significant hurdle for its developers. On average, half the time and half the cost of such a project (like a freeway) is consumed just in obtaining that right of way, before any construction can commence. The railroads leapfrogged over that problem by receiving land grants from the federal government to encourage railroad companies to build railroads. (Note – one thought on nationalization would be to take back those land grants instead of trying to seize entire rail companies, and using the rights of way to require the rail companies to better serve the public.)

So, if we are to address the introduction of any kind of new mass transportation system, we first need to address the right of way issue. And unfortunately, barring the federal government taking back the rail rights of way, we cannot count on using them for our new transportation ecosystem.

Existing Rights of Way

A key starting point to explore an alternative paradigm is entertain a system that can utilize existing rights of way (other than rail rights of way) rather than having to obtain new ones. Fortunately, there is a common solution set that can be used by several different transportation modalities, each of which can make use of existing rights of way.

When it comes to the nature of the movement of freight and people, there is no one universal concept. There are long haul, medium haul and short haul requirements for both freight and people, and the mechanisms for satisfying them require different modalities for the different needs. However, if we start with an “elevated platform” rather than a ground level one (like trains), we open all manner of possibilities, many of which can use existing rights of way.

For example, a freeway represents a major pathway between cities where the right of way has already been obtained by a federal or state agency. The center dividing median for those freeways represents a potential route for building some sort of elevated platform, that would rise above traffic and not interfere with the current use of that freeway.

So, What Can Use an Elevate Platform?

That begs the question, what kind of transportation system can make use of an elevated platform for moving freight and people?

We start with a very mature system that is ideal for short haul movement of people and potentially freight. That system is called a monorail and anyone who has been to Disneyland in California, the Walt Disney World in Florida, Seattle, and in Japan or the cities of Las Vegas and Singapore and may others throughout the world, have long seen people movers in the form of monorail trains.

What Other Modalities Are Possible With Elevated Platforms?

In addition to monorails which typically use rubber wheels secured against the rail, there is a whole other class of trains that are currently in use throughout the world. They are based on a concept called magnetic levitation and are referred to as magnetic levitation trains or MAGLEV for short. (See this 2021 document from the U.S. Congress on MAGLEV systems.)

This article How Maglev Trains Work, provides a good primer on the basics. MAGLEV trains use magnets to lift the train above the platform so that it floats in air. They are then propelled forward by the use of the magnets as well as braked, in a fashion similar to the simple science experiments we did as kids, when we tried to push two bar magnets of the same pole together (south pole to south pole and vise versa) where we saw that those magnets “repelled” each other.

In that article you will note that there are two primary types of MAGLEV systems. The first is represented by a version that was developed in Germany by a company call Transrapid called the electromagnetic suspension (EMS) system, which uses a combination of electromagnets and permanent magnets.  

Germany failed to commercialize the technology (see The rise and fall of Transrapid: The maglev train that could have revolutionized transportation), but the Chinese city of Shanghai did deploy the Shanghai maglev train beginning in 2002, and still in use today.

The train line connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport (transfer to Line 2) and Longyang Road Station (in the outskirts of central Pudong, transfer to Lines 2, 7, 16, and 18), a distance of 18 miles, where passengers can interchange to the Shanghai Metro to continue their trip to the city center. The journey takes a little over 7 minutes total with the train achieve peak speed of 268 mph. See this YouTube video How the Shanghai Maglev Transrapid works

Superconducting MAGLEV

Which brings us to the second type of MAGLEV system whose chief characteristic is that the system is driven with superconducting electromagnets. Superconducting MAGLEV trains were invented in the United States in late 1960’s by James Powell and Gordon Danby of Brookhaven National Laboratory. That development represented the first generation of superconducting MAGLEV systems. In subsequent years, they developed both a second generation of them and a third.

To date, generation one and two have been deployed in a number of countries around the world, with the glaring exception of the U.S. where the systems were invented. Generation three is still on the drawing boards. All three represent game changing technologies which represent very attractive new systems for moving freight and people around the country.