Sunday, December 30, 2012

high speed trains -- could California and China do even better?

There are times when the state of California does more to create real progress
towards sustainable energy than the federal government does.
Thus I was intrigued this morning to bump into a new project which may or may not
survive the "fiscal cliff":

One vision of this is that we burn a whole lot of "oil" in airplanes --
which may be our biggest dependency on fossil oil after cars and trucks
are accounted. Could we build a network of high speed trains roughly
as fast and as cheap and as safe as commercial airplanes, with a higher degree of convenience
and comfort? As one way to reduce or eliminate oil dependency in that sector?
In fact, China is making massive investments in its new network of high speed trains,
which does all of that EXCEPT for the speed part. This week, they announced the opening of
an important new line, eight hours from Beijing all the way down to the Hong Kong area
in the far south -- a huge improvement in speed, but still more than twice the time
of airplanes from station to station.

The question naturally arises: would it be possible to do what China is doing, for trains
almost as fast as airplanes, at the same cost per mile as what China is paying?
(Since maglev trains are faster, this would actually mean less cost PER TRIP --
you get more trips on the same line, and more trips per train.)

The answer, objectively, seems to be "probably yes, if anyone cares, and if someone follows up."

California is not paying for the least cost technology. But a lower cost technology does seem
possible. See:

 I have done some further checking this week. It seems as if there is a path forward to do justice to
this solid possibility (with the usual mix of serious risk, serious hope, and a need for intelligent adaptability). But it also seems that people do not yet know about it. Myself, I am overwhelmed
by other causes, some "mine" and some not, so I can't do justice to this one. But I view it
as bigger than CHP, for example, and I do hope someone knows a way to follow up.

None of the comments here reflect the official views of NSF, of course. But I do have some knowledge well beyond this brief posting. In 2009, I did have email contact with Thomas Lipo and Jonathan Bird, learned more about the technology, and suggested that they send a proposal to the Energy, Power and Adaptive Systems (EPAS) program, for which I am normally one of the three Program Directors. But that year, since I was on loan to the office of Senator Specter, I could not fund or handle it myself; it was funded by Geworge Maracas, after peer review. All I could do was offer a bit of guidance. And Specter himself (and Matthew Kelly who later moved from his office to Amtrak) should get credit for encouraging me to look a bit deeper into trains, that year. The news from California and from China moved me to do one more check this past week... before I move back to planning and giving lecture 9 in the series also posted here. 

Also -- I do not mean to propose this as a "silver bullet" for the jet fuel problem.  In most key areas,
we need to develop SEVERAL promising possibilities, to be sure of finding the best. For the jet fuel problem, I envision a mix of several things in the future. I am excited by the rechargeable lithium-air batteries actually developed by Excellatron ( and by their calculations, working with people at Argonne and Rolls-Royce, suggesting that ELECTRIC AIRPLANES
designed like a Boeing 777 could have a range of 4000 kilometers, cutting energy costs by a factor of four, and substantially reducing the cost of airplane tickets. (Yes, it takes a new engine, but they have cutaways of the design.) And of course, alternate liquid and gaseous fuels provide another
technology path towards meeting the commercial airline market even after fossil fuels run out. Three main pathways to sustainability.. all of which call out for full justice.  But no one should imagine that any government on earth is doing full justice to any of the three.

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