Critique of MegaRail's List of Absolute Requirements for Future Transportation Systems


J. Richard Guadagno, Cimarron Technologies, Inc.

It was with a sense of deja vu that I read Kirston Henderson’s comprehensive list of "absolute" requirements for future multi-mode automated transportation systems. Twenty-three of the 26 items cited were included years ago in the technical report describing the Integrated Transportation System (InTranSys). This report, which also includes engineering details of the means by which each of these goals will be accomplished, is now available to all on Cimarron Technology’s website. Thus InTranSys is a system which can indeed meet all of these requirements – and has been for some time.

There is a very good reason why InTranSys does not conform to requirements 3, 14, and 17: it shouldn’t. Requirement 3, that the system must pay its way without public tax support, is a recipe for disaster. It is time for all of us to quit thinking of automated transportation as a business venture, and begin to regard it instead as an absolute necessity for the survival of human civilization. If we allow the profit motive alone to dictate the pace at which such systems are developed, there is no possible way that we could be successful in meeting the 2020 deadline imposed by the impending exhaustion of world petroleum resources.

In fact, profit can’t even provide sufficient motive by itself to ever complete a world-wide system. It would instead restrict the eventual installation solely to those regions which are wealthy enough to return a profit margin which would be greater than that of alternative investments. In doing so, it would leave most of the world’s people without any kind of adequate transportation, with no regard for the consequences to the unfortunate people who chance to dwell in those regions. Dependence on a profit-motivated pace would leave us still bickering among ourselves as millions of people around the globe found themselves without any means to have food and other necessities transported to the places where they live. The result would inevitably be a calamity which would make the great plagues of the middle ages seem like a rain shower at a picnic.

What we must do instead is to organize another Manhattan Project, but one which would be many times greater in scope. This effort requires a fully coordinated association involving the cooperation of myriad technicians organized toward the achievement of a single goal, as well as the commitment of vast monetary resources to get the project started. Such an effort would lie far beyond the means of private industry even if the motivation existed there (which it apparently does not). Thus this goal, like that of the Manhattan Project, can be achieved only with the full backing of the government.

Have we forgotten what was accomplished by this kind of federally-sponsored research projects? These efforts continued at full speed from their introduction with the Manhattan Project in the late 1930s right up to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. At that time they were sharply curtailed as the Department of Defense sponsors diverted all their funds to projects which had only military applications. The effort was then reduced almost to nothing during the Reagan administration. It has slowly begun to revive somewhat recently, but only in selected fields. Unfortunately, transportation is not one of those fields. Today the U. S. Department of Transportation is only a shadow of what it was during the days when a transportation test track facility was built near Pueblo, Colorado for the purpose of testing new and innovative transportation systems. Now DOT appears to serve only to assist the established commercial transportation industry in maintaining the archaic traditional methods we are forced to use.

Without the publicly-funded efforts of the mid-twentieth century, we would not now possess any of the electronic wonders we now enjoy, such as personal computers, electronic mail, and satellites for scientific research, TV, and other communications – as well as myriad other conveniences. Nor would we now possess any of the vast compilation of information about the world and the universe we live in – and our own place in it – that we now enjoy. In addition, it is no coincidence that during those glorious years when all this was going on, the U.S. became the technologically most advanced nation the world had ever seen, and was able to maintain a real standard of living far beyond that of any other society. Soon after these research funds were cut off, however, this technological edge began to disappear, and the U.S. living standard plummeted to as low as 13th place among the industrialized nations of the world, only to begin recovering somewhat within the last few years.

There are many distinct reasons why the installation of future transportation systems should be publicly funded and controlled. To begin with, all successful societies in history have relied on public transportation systems, instead of having to cater to private entrepreneurs like the robber barons of the Dark Ages. Our present highways, streets, mass transit systems, airports, and port facilities still reflect this policy. Even our railroads, which are still mostly privately owned, could never have succeeded without heavy government subsidization, mostly in the form of massive land grants. Another necessity for government involvement is the fact that we need a nationwide (at the minimum) system with universal compatibility among all the traffic corridors. We cannot tolerate piecemeal variation in systems like that which occurred when each railroad used its own different track width.

To accomplish this goal of a worldwide system within the time frame available to us, we must also be willing to invest vast amounts of up-front money, both to get the system started and then to expand it. Calculations I have made for InTranSys show that there is no question about such systems eventually being able not only to pay for themselves, but also to bring massive savings to all those who use them. But a large initial investment must be made, and we cannot expect this to come from private corporations whose primary goal lies solely in maximizing this year’s profits.

If man had always followed Requirement 14’s admonition to avoid the use of exotic, unproven technologies, we would still be swinging in the trees. Every technological advance in history has come from what appeared to the uninitiated to be exotic and unproven. It will always be so, and our future transportation systems must acknowledge this fact. But this does not mean that we have to accept pseudo-technology which can be proven to be impossible. With sufficient knowledge of the principles of physics and careful examination of the details of innovative ideas, we can determine with great reliability whether or not any idea is feasible. Then we can achieve certainty with proper testing.

The application of the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics provides the best tool for conducting these determinations. Through their use, it can be proven that very few of the alternative fuels proposed for the post-petroleum era have much of a chance of prolonging the use of internal combustion engines, and that none of them can prolong it for any significant period of time. Another good tool is a general knowledge of which seemingly exotic technologies have already been proven. In promoting InTranSys, I have often been challenged by those who question the use of linear synchronous motors (LSMs). These devices have been around since the early part of the 20th century, and have proven successful in many applications, including some which are far more exotic than InTranSys. Unfortunately, none of these are well-known. The same obscurity also applies to the proven ability for steel-on-steel rail systems to operate silently if they are well-designed, and to do so for extremely long periods of time if the contact surfaces are not used for traction, braking, or steering – the three causes of noise (as well as wear) in conventional railroading. Thus we were able to develop InTranSys by using nothing but proven technology, even though some of that technology is used in new ways which may seem exotic to some.

The two mutually contradictory requirements lumped together in item 17 – restriction to grades similar to those of "normal" roads, while not requiring massive earth moving projects – reflect two separate biases, perhaps both unintentional. The first of these is favoritism toward a system powered by rubber tires running on smooth metal or paved surfaces. Such a means of propulsion is incapable of generating sufficient friction to propel vehicles up a grade of more than just a few percent, especially under adverse weather conditions. The second restriction makes it impossible to build such lines in any area with significant topographical variation without using so many switchbacks that the distance traveled would be several times that really covered.

Such requirements would restrict the construction of automated transportation systems solely to flatland areas, leaving more than half of the country unserved. But a "normal" road in Colorado or Washington – or even West Virginia – is not the same as a normal road in Texas or Florida. Recognizing this fact, InTranSys was designed with the capability of carrying vehicles up a 10% grade under normal conditions. In areas where even steeper terrain dictates, this maximum grade can be increased to 20% (nearly three times that allowed on Interstate highways) by temporarily separating each line into two and halving the speed until they can be rejoined.

The use of these three techniques also provide InTranSys with additional advantages over other proposed systems. For example, MegaRail calls for rubber tires riding on flat surfaces and "conventional" electric motors for propulsion. Rubber tires are designed to flex while in use – if they didn’t, there would be no reason to use them. When used at high speeds, this flexing absorbs a huge amount of energy and generates a great deal of heat. This additional energy – which must be supplied by the power plant – may, in fact, be as great as that required to move the vehicles against the resistance of the air, thus doubling the amount of energy required to propel those vehicles when compared with steel-on-steel rail systems. And the heat generated, no matter how advanced the tires may be, shortens their lifetimes to an insignificant fraction of that of properly designed steel wheels. These lifetimes are decreased even more by the fact that rubber tires are also designed to generate a great deal of friction between themselves and the surfaces they run on. This means that they must be replaced very frequently – perhaps too frequently even to be considered for use on long cross-country trips.

Contrary to a statement on page 5, conventional electric motors are both more exotic and more expensive in the long run than linear synchronous motors. Regardless of the type of conventional motor used (MegaRail does not specify this), they are considerably less efficient and therefore require more energy. Moreover, even the "very advanced fault-tolerant control system technology that has been developed and proven by use in advanced U.S. military aircraft" falls far short of the degree of control offered by the almost infinitely simpler (and fault-free) techniques which are offered by LSMs. This automatic and absolute speed control also provides traffic capacities which are many (probably at least ten) times greater than the maximum offered by even the most advanced conventional motor systems. And even at the greatly reduced capacities of the latter, the probability of accidents is much greater than for LSM powered systems.

Moreover, LSMs have no moving parts (except for pure translational motion) and also have no contact surfaces. Thus they can be expected to last for many maintenance-free decades. Even though they may be more expensive to install, over time they will undoubtedly prove to offer far cheaper service. When we add to this their vastly superior traffic capacity and far simpler traffic control systems, the total cost per vehicle transported is likely to be many times lower than conventional motors and the separate and extremely exotic, complex, and relatively unreliable control systems which must accompany them .

Thus, contrary to what is claimed, InTranSys does indeed meet all of the requirements listed in this document, except for the three undesirable ones cited above. And in each of these cases, InTranSys is designed to fulfill standards which are far more stringent.

Other Comments:

If permanent magnets – whether used for propulsion as in InTranSys or for support as in Maglev – are located overhead as they are for InTranSys, the chance of their becoming "scrap metal collectors" is eliminated. This can be accomplished for Maglev if attractive magnetism is employed instead of repulsive. In both cases, a far more important advantage is also attained: the entire motor system is covered and therefore becomes invulnerable to all adverse weather conditions – a feature which is either absent or much harder to achieve for any surface system.

In all my half-century as a design engineer and my (partially concurrent) four decades as a materials scientist, I have never before heard anyone suggest the use of stainless steel as a structural material. When compared with conventional structural steel, stainless is about 3% more dense and has a modulus of elasticity (stiffness) which is about 7% lower. Therefore about 10% more stainless must be used to accomplish the same purpose. The costs of stainless steels have traditionally been about ten times as high as those of more conventional steels. Thus the cost of building a system out of this exotic material would be more than 11 times as great as the use of steel beams. When compared with reinforced concrete, this disparity grows even larger. The cost of pre-cast, post-tensioned, segmental concrete (the highly advanced but well-proven structural system proposed for use by InTranSys) has been demonstrated to be about half that of conventional steel beams.

MegaRail proposes one dual mode systems for public and passenger traffic, and a separate one for freight "along heavy cargo routes". When one examines rural roads as well as urban ones, and nighttime traffic as well as daytime, it becomes obvious that the vast majority of total ton-mileage for our present highway system (including both Interstates and lesser roads) consists primarily of freight shipments, not passenger travel. Thus this separation would require nearly twice the total track mileage to accomplish the same effect as that of InTranSys, which is a triple mode system carrying all three types of travel in a single, integrated system.

When we add all of this up, it becomes apparent that the total construction costs of MegaRail, as presently designed, would be somewhere between 20 and 40 times as high as those of an InTranSys system designed to accomplish the same goal, despite the use of "exotic" and "expensive" permanent magnets for InTranSys’ LSMs. But an even greater problem exists here, one which requires the application of the First Law of thermodynamics: it is quite unlikely that the North American continent (and perhaps the whole world) possesses sufficient chromium (and perhaps even nickel) reserves to provide that required for a stainless steel MegaRail system serving the entire United States. By contrast, the barium or perhaps rare earth chemicals needed to produce the magnets are quite common (and unexotic) by comparison.

MegaRail also objects to the use of "massive amounts of concrete" and its sunlight-blocking characteristics. But the seven-foot open space proposed for separation of the two rails of each MegaRail lane would require frequent cross-bracing between the two stainless beams. These beams themselves would also have to be both quite massive and vertically oriented (even more so than conventional steel) to keep them from deflecting under load. The total width of the structure of each lane would thus have to be at least 11 feet, compared to the 9 feet needed for InTranSys. Except for when the sun is directly overhead, the shadow cast by MegaRail’s tall beams and braces would probably be even greater than for InTranSys. But in either case, this shading would be insignificant compared with that from trees and buildings lining the corridors.

Concrete also has another advantage: it can be color-coded to match its surroundings, while stainless steel offers nothing but glitter, sharply clashing with every environment. The preferred color for the outer surface of InTranSys’ track structure is that of the photovoltaic collectors which will provide more than half its energy needs.

Even if MegaRail should also switch over to affordable pre-cast, post-tensioned segmental concrete (as it probably will; it has already adopted virtually all of the other features of InTranSys which its engineers could understand) and therefore bring its construction costs within reason, its energy, operational and maintenance costs would still continue to be several times as great as those of InTranSys for the same amount of traffic carried. Over the long haul, these costs will eventually overwhelm those of the initial construction, and therefore become the critical key to the relative feasibility of each system. It would be foolish to consider only construction costs in order to assure "operational profitability with only moderate traffic loads". Our shortsightedness in extending the petroleum age far beyond when it should have been ended, without any concern for what comes afterward, is sure to cost future generations dearly. We must try to alleviate the problems we have thrust upon them as much as we can by now beginning to build for the future instead of trying so desperately to prolong the past.

My long experience as an environmental activist (after all, this was the initial motivation for the development of InTranSys) taught me that environmental impact statements are required for all projects – regardless of who the initiator is – which affect public property, public health, or the public environment. It has nothing to do with whether or not public tax funds are used for the project. The Environmental Policy Act and all others succeeding it are designed to protect the environment not only from the actions of corrupt bureaucrats but also from those of private entrepreneurs who hope to utilize public property solely for their own profit. Private interests cannot expect to usurp public transportation rights-of-way without accepting the responsibility for their actions, simply because they are using only their own (or their investors’) money to make profit from those lands.

Cimarron Technology, Ltd. welcomes – and strongly encourages – the use of independently conducted environmental impact studies for all actions we may take now or in the future with regard to the development of InTranSys. We do so because we know that all such effects will be positive. And we feel that all others must be willing to undergo the same scrutiny.


Last modified: June 16, 2000