Thursday, October 22, 2009

Choo Choo Trains Meet the Space Age

In contrast to the spiderweb of interstate highway and railway connections typical of the eastern United States, much of the west - particularly the southwest - has far less transportation infrastructure.  Las Vegas and Phoenix are connected in large part by a single highway that shrinks to one lane in each direction for many miles.  Las Vegas and Southern California are connected by I15, a major interstate highway.  Anyone who has ever made the trip between the two areas, however, will quickly tell you that the road is not big enough to handle the weekend crush of visitors into and out of Las Vegas.  And there is no rail service between Las Vegas and any of these areas.

Las Vegas is vying to be the hub of a future network of southwest railways.  Similarly, many companies are competing to create this next generation of rail transportation.  The two leading proposals pit traditonal steel on rails technology running from Las Vegas to Victorville, CA against magnetic levitation (Maglev) trains that will run between Las Vegas and Anaheim, CA.  For those unfamiliar with the cities between Las Vegas and Southern California, I'll try to put the two proposals in context.  A railway between Las Vegas and Victorville is the equivalent of building a railway to connect Washington DC to New York City, but dropping riders off in Philadelphia, PA and telling them to get to New York the best way they can.  A railway between Las Vegas and Anaheim is the equivalent of getting the DC riders to Newark, NJ and giving them the option of taking a cab or renting a car into New York City.  There are, of course, real facts on the ground (so to speak) that help to explain some of the differences between the proposals.  Cost is a big deal, as is the feasibility of the technology.  Moreover, the pesky Cajon Pass between Vegas and Southern California contains steep grades that would defy the steel on rails technology.  Finally, no large transportation project can go proceed without political and fiscal ... intrigue.  Each side is jockeying for political and economic support, with dizzying results.

I don't want to dismiss the other contenders in the race too quickly.  The southwest offers the opportunity to dream big.  For example, I am certain that few could have envisioned today's glittering Vegas metropolis emerging from a dusty airstrip and a few scattered motels in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  Here is a brief description of the other rail contenders:

SolaTrek, a highway-decluttering maglev hybrid that motorists would be able to board while the train is in motion; Texas-based Robert Pulliam of Tubular Rail, which puts the rails on the vehicle and the locomotion in a series of O-rings stretched across the countryside; and America’s Sunlight Bullet Expressway, a subsidiary of a Las Vegas-based operation that would blend rail transportation with electrical transmission lines linking cities with solar-power-generation stations.

It will be interesting to see how imaginative today's leaders will be.

Ngai Pindell

Clean Energy, Las Vegas, Transportation | Permalink

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