Coming Fast: Futuristic Commuting : A driverless light rail line would serve employees of nuclear center. It's seen as a model for other municipalities.

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A 60-mile stretch of sagebrush-strewn desert may seem an unlikely setting for a "metro line," but one is moving down a fast track toward development here.

The proposed 150-m.p.h. state-of-the-art rail line would actually serve commuters--5,000 residents of the Idaho Falls area who work at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. The lab, the nation's largest nuclear research center, is situated on a remote, moon-scape-like chunk of terrain that is bigger than Rhode Island.

And what's more, Morrison-Knudsen--the Boise contractor that received another shot at the contract to build the Los Angeles "Green Line" trains after controversy was whipped up about awarding the job to a Japanese corporation--is a partner in this little-publicized transit project and would build both cars and track here in its home state.

Unlike the Los Angeles trains that Morrison-Knudsen is again bidding to supply, the futuristic "CyberTran" cars for the desert line would weigh only 10,000 pounds each and carry 20 or fewer commuters. They would be operated by computers and driverless.

So far, they have passed muster in tests at 55 m.p.h. This summer, when eight to 10 miles of test track have been built, engineers will push CyberTran past 100 m.p.h. to monitor the computer-and-electric system for stress and the steel-and-plastic car for stability. Eventually, they hope for runs at 150 m.p.h.

John Dearien, chief engineer for developers of the electric line, has concluded that the project is technically feasible and could serve as a demonstration model for potential municipal buyers. He says it could be in use by 1997.

"I can understand the people in L.A. looking at this thing out in the desert and wondering, but there are some real implications for the future here," said Dearien, who is employed by EG&G;, a private multinational conglomerate.

While developing the line is expensive, its use would dramatically cut the nuclear lab's transportation costs. Currently, most workers get to the facility on 131 diesel-fueled buses, each of which costs more than $300,000 a year to operate. Each CyberTran car would be operated for about $50,000 annually.

The time required to make the one-way trip also would be cut, to 15 or 20 minutes from a little more than an hour at present.

Dearien and Morrison-Knudsen are optimistic about CyberTran's technical potential, but it is clear that the most critical phase will be finding funds for the estimated $150-million project.

The U.S. Department of Energy has contributed $300,000 in public funds toward testing and development costs, but the expense of erecting the CyberTran system to serve the nuclear plant will have to be borne by private industry, said William Thielbahr, the Department's engineer assigned to the project.

"I have no reason to believe that this concept can't be developed," said Thielbahr. "But can it be developed economically, is it marketable?"

So Dearien's honing of technical aspects of the project must be sharp enough to convince Morrison-Knudsen, or any other private company, that it is commercially feasible and worth building.

So far, Dearien and his fellow engineers, fueled by a favorable Morrison-Knudsen report on the project's progress, are excited about the prospects.

Dearien said Morrison-Knudsen experts concluded that not only is CyberTran technically practical, but also that a likely market exists in cities and at municipal airports needing links to downtown centers.

One potential market is Salt Lake City, where a winter of warm, windless days turned carbon monoxide, wood smoke and other pollutants into a chronic bed of smog for virtually all of January. A referendum on raising the county sales tax to pay for expanding bus service and building a short light-rail line is scheduled for the November ballot.

A Desert 'Metro Line'?

A proposed state-of-the-art rail line would serve residents of the Idaho Falls area who work at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

* Speed: 150 m.p.h.

* Capacity: 20 passengers

* Annual operating cost: $50,000 per train

* Features: Cars would be computer-operated. Commute would take 15 to 20 minutes, compared to more than an hour aboard buses.

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