On my recent trip around the world I made a “Best Of” list as I traveled, whimsically thinking that if I could combine these qualities from other countries with what I believe to be the “Best Of” the USA (technology, music, entertainment), it would be my own personal Shangri-La. Australia had the best yogurt I ever tasted and the most stunning sunsets. New Zealand had the friendliest people and an incredible variety of spectacular scenery. Vietnam had the cheapest prices. Cambodia had the best ancient ruins at Angkor Wat. Thailand had gorgeous beaches, amazing food, good prices, a peace-loving people, incredible spirituality, and lovely tropical weather. Bali had the most beautiful temples and the loveliest handcrafts. In Zimbabwe, the people exhibited an amazing stoicism and an always-smiling, gentle nature, despite the fact that their economy is falling apart and they live under the thumb of an insane, corrupt dictator. In Tanzania it was the animals on safari that took my breath away and in Zanzibar it was the intense colors of the fabrics worn by the women. The Swiss Alps deserve special mention, but for Europe in general, the culture and history impressed me most, along with the public transportation system – especially the trains.
Upon my return home I pulled out my list and compared it to Sarasota, Florida, where I have decided to live for the time being. Surprisingly, it held up fairly well in comparison. It has lovely beaches; great culture; friendly, welcoming people; reasonable prices; beautiful sunsets; and a great downtown with a full complement of services. The only things it lacks are mountains and a decent transportation system, and it can’t really be faulted on the transportation issue because there isn’t decent public transportation anywhere in this country – even New York pales in comparison to the train, subway and bus systems in Europe. But yesterday I discovered that there may be hope for a better transport system in this country after all.
Three years ago a company in southern California built a 400-foot long test track for a Maglev (short for magnetic levitation) train and has been testing it ever since. Riding on it is rather like floating. Between the car and the magnetic track is a 1-inch gap that allows the train to operate with zero mechanical friction and almost no sound – Maglev propulsion is whisper quiet. The technology used on this modest test track may power a new generation of ground transportation in the United States. If that sounds like science fiction, it’s not. The Maglev Train is already up and running in Shanghai, China. Take a look at this video of the Shanghai Maglev, traveling the 20 miles between downtown and the Pudong International Airport in a mere eight minutes, while traveling at speeds up to 267 miles per hour.
In other countries, steel-wheel bullet trains have been in operation since the 1960s. Japan’s Shinkansen covers the 645-mile route between Tokyo and Fukuoka at up to 186 mph. France’s high-speed TGV reaches speeds of 199 mph during its three-hour, 480-mile run between Paris and Marseille. And recently the city of Munich, Germany, announced plans to build a new Maglev train that will cover the 25-mile route between Franz Joseph Strauss International Airport and downtown in 10 minutes.
That scenario won’t come to pass for years in the U.S., but plans are on the drawing board and local and federal government officials are finally beginning to recognize the need for this type of transport system. High-speed rail has been a difficult sell in this country because of expensive startup costs and the reliability of our air and highway transportation systems, but those systems are reaching capacity. Air travelers are spending more time in security lines and waiting on the runway before they ever get into the air. The average commuter spends 38 hours per year stuck in traffic and all that waiting is expensive. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that last year U.S. drivers wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel sitting in traffic, not to mention that all those idling engines are spewing greenhouse gases into an already stressed environment. Maglev trains require about a third as much energy per passenger mile as automobiles and produce no direct emissions.
So, where would these trains run? Eleven existing railway corridors in the U.S. are currently being upgraded to handle high-speed steel-wheel rail. Several Maglev projects are also in development: one connecting the Pittsburgh airport and city center; another between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee; and a third that would link Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In California’s high-density corridors, trains could be running as fast as 170 mph within 11 years. In concept, you could board a train in downtown Anaheim at 5:30 on a Friday evening, rocket through the Mojave Desert at a top speed of more than 300 mph, and and arrive in Las Vegas just 90 minutes after departure. The map below, courtesy of Popular Mechanics, shows the proposed system. To view the interactive map, and to read the Maglev train article in its entirety, go to the current issue of Popular Mechanics.
The biggest remaining drawback, now that political support is on the rise, is the cost of building such a system – estimates range from $5 million to $100 million per mile of track and that’s a whole lotta moola. But let’s put this in perspective. At this moment, according to the calculator on the website of the National Priorities Project, our country has spent nearly $473 billion on the Iraq War – and ticking. (The Cost of Iraq War calculator was set to reach $456 billion September 30, 2007, the end of fiscal year 2007. As of October 1, 2007, it is ticking at the same rate, though Congress has not yet appropriated money for fiscal year 2008). Assuming the highest cost estimate per mile of Maglev rail ($100 billion per mile), had we not chosen to invade Iraq we could have built 4730 miles of high-speed train across the country. Or, for that matter, for the same amount of money we could have provided 22,919,337 four-year scholarships to students at public universities, funded health insurance for 283,102,021 children for one year, paid for 62,619,936 children to attend a year of Head Start pre-school, built 4,256,945 additional units of public housing, or hired 8,193,347 additional public school teachers for one year. But, I digress – I just wish we’d get our priorities straight in this country and I think a better public transportation system is a necessity if we are to save our environment, move away from oil dependency, and start living in a manner that supports long-term sustainability. It still won’t be Shangri-La, but it’s a move in the right direction.