High-speed rail: Private sector getting there fast
Ryan Summerlin December 14, 2012
GOLDEN – The days of traditional trains and railroad tracks may be long gone.
When transportation officials asked for mass-transit models connecting the Front Range to mountain ski resorts, industry experts came back with designs for elevated guideway systems, powered by magnets, electricity and air, that can travel hundreds of miles per hour, ferry cars or transport passengers in individual cars summoned with smartphones.
“We’re looking at the full range of qualified technologies for the corridor,” stated Division of Transit and Rail director Mark Imhoff in a release from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Eight private companies presented distinct models for advanced guideway systems (AGS) – the modern-day equivalent of a previous generation’s rail line – at a technology forum Thursday in Jefferson County. Two other firms have also submitted plans that meet CDOT’s criteria for the corridor.
Though different, all of the systems are clean, safe, fast and designed to traverse the Rocky Mountains.
“I flew in from Pittsburgh,” said Colorado MagLev Group project manager David O’Loughlin, whose company is proposing an energy-efficient magnetic levitation rail system. “The idea would be, I have my skis with me on the plane. They just put them on the MagLev vehicle and I can be in Vail in an hour. That’s possible with this technology.”
Other technology providers, like SkyTran, are proposing personalized rapid transit systems that would transport smaller groups of people on demand rather than on a schedule.
“SkyTran is a point-to-point transit system,” SkyTran CEO Paul Williamson said. “It only goes at the time you need it, 24/7. You get on a vehicle and say, ‘I want to go to 10th and Broadway,’ and it takes you from that point to 10th and Broadway. You don’t have to wait for anybody else.”
The computer-controlled system, powered by solar and hydrogen, would be able to transport passengers from the Front Range to Keystone in 45 minutes.
Another model re-envisions the century-old suspended rail car, combining passenger coaches with on-demand personal vehicles. Another would combine passenger trains with a vehicle transport component, allowing drivers to park their car on the system and be jetted up to the mountains at a rate of 125 mph.
All of the AGS models presented Thursday are designed to handle the specific challenges – including steep grades and extreme weather – of the I-70 mountain corridor while traveling faster than a car.
Some systems are designed to follow the highway, or within CDOT right-of-ways eliminating the need to acquire additional land. Most feature elevated systems, curbing environmental impacts and making the systems better able to handle snow, wind and ice than traditional train models.
Most of them are also far less expensive than existing rail systems.
But transportation officials aren’t signing any contracts yet.
“None of us have extra money right now,” CDOT rail manager David Krutsinger said. “If we’re going to use taxpayer dollars we have to be very sure that what we’re buying on behalf of the public is a good use of money.”
While firms are proposing public-private partnerships, best estimates indicate ticket sales for an AGS would only cover operational expenses, leaving taxpayers on the hook for several billion dollars in construction costs, officials said.
CDOT’s annual budget for the entire state, by comparison, is $1 billion.
With the help of the private sector, CDOT officials are looking to develop possible funding strategies and determine the likelihood of raising the money for an AGS next year.
The name: American Maglev Transit
The concept: An optimized maglev (elevated) system that uses electric linear induction propulsion. The system is able to traverse steep grades in wintery conditions using frictionless traction. Cars will carry roughly 200 passengers.
The price tag: $19-$25 million per mile
The speed: Designed to travel at an average speed of 76 miles per hour. Total travel time from Golden to Eagle County Regional Airport is roughly 2 hours 13 minutes.
The edge: The system will be designed with airplane amenities in mind, rather than train service, according to developers. Only one vehicle accelerates from the station at a time, minimizing spikes in power consumption.
The name: Flight Rail’s VECTORR
The concept: This light-weight elevated transit system uses vacuum/air pressure to propel passenger vehicles. The train operates without power.
The speed: Up to 200 mph on flat terrain; an estimated 100 mph on a 7 percent grade, like those in the I-70 mountain corridor.
The edge: Cars lock onto the rail with alloy steel wheels, allowing the train to take sharp curves at a high rate of speed. The wheels are also designed not to use traction, allowing the system to accelerate faster and handle steep hills more efficiently.
The name: General Atomics/Colorado Maglev Group
The concept: The system uses maglev technology and track-mounted power source to move elevated train cars. But the track uses power only in the sections where the vehicle is located, reducing energy consumption as well as wear-and-tear on the system itself, developers said.
The price tag: $58 million per mile
The speed: 150 mph
The edge: The model is based on $40 million in federal and privately funded research, and similar technology is being used to power planes for the Navy. A $14-million test track of the system has been constructed in California and proved to work.
The name: MegaRail’s MegaWay System
The concept: An elevated multi-purpose system that electrically powers a family of rubber-tired vehicles, which would operate similarly to road vehicles on traditional highways.
The price tag: $20 million per mile for a starter system
The speed: 120 miles per hour
The edge: Some train vehicles are designed to carry pedestrian passengers, others freight and others, through a lock-in system, private cars with the drivers still sitting inside them.
The name: Public Personal Rapid Transit Consortium
The concept: A system featuring elevated pod-cars, holding up to four adults each, propelled on a fixed guideway by an air-lifting mechanism integrated with magnetic induction propulsion. The cushion of the air generated underneath the pod car takes the place of maintenance-intensive wheels, according to developers.
The price tag: $24 million per mile
The speed: Up to 200 miles per hour.
The edge: The system is described by designers as an on-demand, non-stop high-speed transportation system. Cars wait at stations to take passengers directly to their destinations.
The name: SkyTran
The concept: The system uses an automated transit network to provide non-stop, point-to-point service in two-passenger vehicles on an elevated track.
The price tag: $15 million per mile
The speed: Up to 150 mph
The edge: Developers say the system will leverage smartphone technology for payment as well as calls for on-demand service
The name: Swift Tram, Inc’s Suspended Coach Automated Rapid Transit
The concept: A new take on the existing model of a hanging train, the electric-powered system would employ a combination of standard scheduled train service with on-demand pod service.
The speed: Average speed of 80 mph
The edge: A faster system than existing model that is better able to sense changing weather conditions than its predecessors. Hanging cars are able to travel faster in a network system, according to developers.