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Transport / Mass transit

Could ultra light rail technologies solve America's transport problems?

America is home to 320m people. By 2050, it will have added 80m more. With population rise will come a corresponding jump in car travel – and with that, traffic congestion, delay, wasted fuel and polluted air.

According to Federal Highway Administration figures, Americans logged a record 3.1 trillion miles behind the wheel in 2015. Without an effective mitigation strategy in place, the negative consequences of all this will worsen. In other word, the US’s business-as-usual development paradigm of unabated roadway building is unsustainable.

Some think that high speed rail could hold the solution. It’s only now beginning to win support in the US – but it won’t come cheap.

Take the cities of the north east corridor – stretching from Boston to Washington DC, via New York and Philadelphia. Joe Boardman, the president of the national rail agency Amtrak, contends that the 456-mile long, quasi-high-speed connecting this region could be rebuilt and upgraded to world class standards. Such an upgrade would draw increased patronage, taking traffic off the roads – but in 2012, its cost was estimated at $151bn.

On 6 January 2015, the nation’s first true high-speed train route formally broke ground in California, in the agriculturally bountiful San Joaquin Valley. The 800-mile network will one day connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with eventual links to Sacramento and San Diego, too.

But the cost of the initial 520-mile backbone of the network is estimated to be a pricey $64b. These days, Uncle Sam seems to have neither the deep pockets for nor the inclination to want to invest in more endeavours like these.

Going ultra light

This is where less expensive but more advanced transit modes could fill the bill.

Take the proposed “CyberTran” system. It derives its name from conveyances – or “trans” – that can venture about autonomously, under the command and control of an onboard computer (hence the “cyber” reference). These, unlike traditional rail, would be dispatched on demand.

An artist’s impression of the system in action. Image: CyberTran.

Such a system should be cheaper to run, which could help appeal to users. But at the moment it’s largely theoretical. As CyberTran chief executive Neil Sinclair admits: “For CyberTran to be credible to the first buyers requires that an operating system be demonstrated… Once a full scale system is demonstrated, the market will open up to UltraLight Rail Transit.”

A rival system involves the use of atmospheric propulsion. Flight Rail Corp.’s Vectorr system, invented by Max P. Schlienger, would use differential air pressure created by stationary power systems, to move cars along an elevated guideway. Unlike traditional rail, it can purportedly climb grades as steep as 10 percent, and is capable of operating at speeds over 200 mph.

Then there’s SkyTran, developed by a NASA spin-out company. Its own system would see distinctive tear-drop shaped pods would move around their network on a single overhead rail, propelled by magnetic levitation. This would be significantly cheaper to run than a traditional passenger railroad. In the words of Jerry Sanders, SkyTran’s chief executive:

 “At $14m per bidirectional kilometer, SkyTran’s capital cost is an order of magnitude (in most cases 20 times cheaper) than other rail systems… Furthermore, SkyTran uses electricity and does not rely on oil or unproven battery technologies that are difficult to scale.’”

The system should save on power, too. As executive vice president Christopher Perkins explains:

“Passive maglev requires no external power to levitate vehicles. Rather, the magnetic repulsion is produced by the movement of the vehicle over shorted wire coils in the track. Essentially, a linear motor that provides vehicle locomotion does double duty by inducing the levitation effect.”

An artist’s impression of SkyTran in action. Image: SkyTran.

Presently, none of the three systems is up and running, though all three are working on pilot projects to demonstrate the technology.

These advanced transit offerings could revolutionise travel the way the train and motor vehicle did after they were first introduced. The key, though, will be getting the innovations beyond the drawings – to prove their efficiencies, and give people the opportunity to actually ride them.

But several important factors could help their causes along. Firstly, the price of gasoline will climb: when this happens, alternatives to conventional-mode travel and transport will begin to look ever more attractive. Secondly, as car travel miles grow, congestion will worsen – and advanced transit approaches could have a real chance.


That future may be closer than you think.

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.
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