Friday, April 06, 2007

High speed train from Santa Monica to Las Vegas

If you have evet been to Japan you will realise that it is a trainspotter's paradise without any doubt. From the 12 separate metro lines that twist beneath Tokyo like a bowl of noodles to the suburban commuter trains packed to bursting every morning and evening, the country runs on rails. In 2005, Japanese traveled 243 billion miles by railroad, which is nearly 1,900 miles per person. And 49 billion of those miles were covered by the shinkansen, the super-fast bullet trains that make intercity travel as simple as a subway hop.

If all you've ever known is the slow torture of Amtrak, you won't believe trains that reach 170 mph, depart for major cities at least six times an hour, and measure punctuality in tenths of seconds. Still, the Japanese want to go faster.

Japan already has the world's fastest rail service, but it is spending billions on leaving the bullet train in the dust by dispensing with the friction of rails

For over a decade, Japan has been experimenting with electromagnetic trains at a testing facility in Yamanashi prefecture, about 50 miles west of Tokyo. The repulsion created between magnets embedded in the U-shaped track and others embedded inside the cars causes the train to levitate 10 cm above the bottom of the track "maglev" is short for magnetic levitation, even though is sounds like an Israeli name. The magnets also propel the train forward very, very quickly, in part because air creates less friction than rail. The Yamanashi test maglev set a world speed record for trains in 2003 at 361 mph, and it cruises at 310 mph. The standard bullet train' average speed is 164mph.

Right now, however, the maglev only travels the length of the 11-mile test track at Yamanashi. The train begins moving on wheels and the levitation doesn't kick in until the cars reach 81 mph. After a bump and release, as you would feel aboard a plane leaving the runway, it's pure, even, rapid acceleration to 310 mph. The only clue to the sheer speed is the tunnel lights outside: Standing 40 feet apart, they seem to stretch and blend until they appear as a single white stripe; very Buck Rogers. Outside the train makes a searing boom sound as it rips the surrounding air, but inside the car is as quiet as an airplane cabin, if a bit bumpy. Even before you've grown accustomed to the speed, the ride is over, the maglev gliding to a gentle halt, ending on its wheels.

Motaki Terai, the project's engineering manager, says that bumpiness won't be an issue: "People will be able to drink hot coffee when we start commercial service." But that day may be a long time coming, because the maglev is as costly as it is speedy. Japan Rail (JR) Central, the ex-public company that operates the country's main shinkansen artery, has already spent nearly $2 billion developing the maglev. Building an operational line that would cover the 342 miles between Tokyo and Osaka which is Japan's most heavily traveled rail route and would cost an estimated $70 billion which is about $204 million per mile. That price tag may be prohibitive for a country whose public debt is over 1.5 times its GDP and the largest in the industrialized world, and whose poplation is shrinking.

So it is about 236 miles from Santa Monica to Las Vegas Nevada. It takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes to 9 hours to get there or return depending on the traffic. It costs between $100 to $200 return to catch a plane and that doesn't include parking, and at least $100 in gas if you drive not including any speeding infringements that may be handed to you by officer friendly.

How about a maglev going from Santa Monica to Las Vegas. At the maglevs cost of $204 million per mile, it would cost about $48 billion to build and take less than an hour for the trip. Now I am sure that it would have to stop along the way to pick up passengers but if it was capable of carrying 300 passengers each way every 1/2 hour x 24 hours per day then that is 28800 paying paggengers. If it was $125 each way then that is $3600000 per day times 365 = 1,314,000,000 per year coming in which still would not be enough to make it a viable investment. You'd have to allow for running costs and maintenance as well as the fact that even though there is plenty of people in LA would the train be full all of the time?

What would make sense is a good old TGV or shinkansen bullet train which are capable of a top speed of about 186 MPH (300kph) or more. These are rather old technology and are capable of running on standard tracks up too about 150mph. If it cost 5 billion to complete properly then on the same calculations above you'd be able to charge $85 each way and have the project payed off in under 7 years.

The airlines would have something to say about it I am sure, but it would certainly make the trip to Vegas about 1 hour and a half and I for one would pay $85 each way to get to Sin City without worrying about speeding tickets or missing the plane.

Something to think about.


Cactus Kate said...

I was silly enough to take the GreyHound a few years ago to Vegas. The "express" did not show up on time, and it took a day.

I am loving the train idea. Although next time I think I will rent a car.

Rob Good said...

I have never heard of anyone taking the Greyhound to Vegas LOL. Best we get some funding together and get the train platform operating.

TonyC said...

For places with high population densities this would make a lot of sense. The only thing I'd be concerned with is that THIS type of system will not be very forgiving of maintenance lapses.

You can have serious accidents as per Europe of late on ordinary trains, and these TGVs will need to be maintained by the book for both the trains and the track/networks.

Its maintenance, like an aircraft, is certainly not something which cost-cutting bean-counters should meddle with.

Rob Good said...

Yes but as with airline technology Tony, the trains have been around for quite some time and in the litigious pace of USA I an sure that there would be plenty of maintenance performed on the new trains when necessary....

Cactus Kate said...

I thought you would laugh Rob. In my defence it was my first visit to LA, I was on my own and had no idea you needed a car to do anything. I also had 2 weeks to muck around so waiting for the Greyhound was no big deal!

Would I do it again?

Rymann said...

You forgot the third option - KSMO to KLAS in a light plane. About $250 - $300 in plane rental and fees each way ( assuming you can fly yourself), you leave when YOU are ready, and theres no TSA chimps up in your grille.

Andrew said...

In France they have helicopters flying along the train tracks looking for bombs.

Trains in America can run way behind time - ie days late. Planes are much more reliable but much less fun.

Rob Good said...

Well Ry, the idea would be to get there and back for less cost and (risk) than driving... Flying would be fun but not 100% practical for budget minded individuals.
Andrew the idea is that the trains would be properly maintained and being new there would be some sort of service contract with the manufacturers to make sure all is running well. I am sure with the right planning a high speed train will be a success..

s.j.simon said...

:) You know, the swiss were very late to lay rail tracks. check this out