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Plans for Magnetic Train Get Back on Track : Transit: Renewed federal funding may speed the technology in the United States. Trains are already up and running in Germany and Japan.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A technology that would speed trains across the American landscape at 300 m.p.h., suspended on a thin cushion of air, seems to be back on track after a long derailment caused by government budget cutbacks.

Buoyed by the prospect of $725 million in federal funding, U.S. scientists hope to develop a magnetic levitation (maglev) transportation system that eventually would compete with those already being perfected in Germany and Japan.

The U.S. prototype of a new train should be ready by 2000, Donald M. Rote, a scientist from the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, predicted at this year’s annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

Lifted, propelled and guided by fast-moving magnetic fields, maglev vehicles look more like sleek airliners than train cars and seem to float as they move swiftly along their guideways, which can be built as much as 40 feet above the ground.

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“Construction of a 16,000-mile maglev network would relieve highway and airport congestion,” says James R. Powell of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. “You could build it mostly along existing railroad and highway rights of way. Such a network could serve 170 million people and provide an unparalleled opportunity to move people and goods cheaply.”

Visionaries such as Powell and Gordon T. Danby of Brookhaven, who developed advanced maglev technology in the late 1960s, foresee the day when a magnetically propelled vehicle carrying hundreds of passengers could streak from New York to Los Angeles.

That dream could have been closer to reality today if the U.S. government hadn’t stopped financing maglev projects in 1975.

Congress has authorized $725 million for maglev over the next six years, but no money has been appropriated for fiscal year 1993, which begins Oct. 1.

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The Bush Administration favors further studies. “Clearly, Congress will have to take an active role to get some of this money approved in next year’s budget,” a Senate committee staff member says.

Germany and Japan have each invested more than $1 billion in maglev programs.

Using German technology, the first maglev service in the United States, a $500-million system, is expected to link the Orlando, Fla., airport to a point near Disney World as early as 1995. Vehicles reaching a top speed of 250 m.p.h. would make the 14-mile trip in 6.5 minutes.

Electromagnets on the German-made vehicles are attracted to iron rails on a reinforced concrete guideway. An automatic device positions the cars a fraction of an inch above the guideway and propels them.

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The Japanese system and some of the proposed American systems provide 4 inches to 8 inches between guideway and vehicle. Strong magnets on the moving vehicles create repelling magnetic forces on the guideway that suspend and propel the cars.

The Japanese hope to have their first maglev train whizzing between Tokyo and Osaka at more than 320 m.p.h. early in the next decade.

It’s still not clear which system the United States will pursue. Maybe neither one.

“We’ll make our decision after seeing the results of evaluation studies currently under way,” says Robert L. Krick, who directs the Federal Railroad Administration’s National Maglev Initiative Project. “A U.S. maglev system may build on existing technology or develop a whole new approach more suitable for application in this country.”

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Initially, the vehicles probably would skim along heavily traveled 100- to 600-mile corridors such as San Francisco to San Diego or Boston to Washington. The object would be to reduce air and highway congestion and make room for more efficient long-haul flights at crowded airports.

These first systems eventually could expand and connect to become an interregional or even a nationwide network in the 21st Century.

“Any new system has to make high-speed transportation available to major shopping malls and not just megahubs in cities or airports,” cautions Henry H. Kolm, president of a maglev design company in Bedford, Mass.

“Skip-stop” schedules also would help commuters. “Typically,” explains Brookhaven’s Powell, “a given vehicle might stop at every third or fourth station, with other vehicles serving the skipped stations. Since the time interval between vehicles is very short--a few minutes--the waiting time at any given station will be very acceptable.”

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In off hours, maglev could move massive amounts of freight. Experts say that the vehicles could easily be converted to accommodate large piggyback trailers and could serve as speedy land ferries for long-distance trucks.


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