Technology is not the Solution June 1st, 2004
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — When it comes to transportation, many people get hung up on technology. People argue we need the latest in monorail, or maglev, bullet trains or whatever. Naturally the people most hung up on the technology are the people trying to sell a particular technology. Now, technology can be wonderful. But most transportation systems boil down to a box carrying people usually on a right of way. This is true of trains, planes, cars, ships, maglev or monorails. What most people care about when they travel is safety, convenience and economy. The technology is secondary.
RailPAC got started in San Diego. This was not an accident. Why San Diego? In large part because of State Senator James Mills of San Diego, considered the “Father” of the San Diego Trolley and the success of the San Diegans. He wasn’t the founder of RailPAC, but the success of both the Trolley and San Diegans formed the basis of the philosophy of RailPAC. The Trolley is far from hi-tech, but it was cheap to build. It was not possible to get enough money to build the full system all at once. But enough money was found to build the first line. It opened in 1980, used an existing rail right of way, and served a major local market. Also, the San Diego Trolley was built to serve the train depot in San Diego. Many of the transportation planners thought this was a waste. The depot station became the busiest station.
The most important thing Senator Mills did was show that a transportation service could be well managed. When Senator Mills was involved with the Trolley, it was always built on time and on or under budget! Before the Trolley, Senator Mills got the state to pay Amtrak to run additional trains between Los Angeles and San Diego. He also started the process to upgrade the tracks and stations. From 1975 through 1980 the number of trains on the San Diegans went from three to six round trips. Ridership at this time went from 300,000 to 1,6 million annually. The success of the Trolley not only spurred expansion of the Trolley, but also light rail projects around California and the rest of the country. The San Diegans have become the Surfliners. The success of the San Diegans led to the development of the San Joaquins and the Capitals. It is difficult to see how Metrolink or the Coaster could have ever happened without the San Diegans. This in turn has helped the rebuilding of CalTrain and creation of ACE.
Now lets look at some of the darlings of hi-tech transportation. Maglev heads the list, which the German and Japanese governments have spent a lot of money trying to develop. These projects go back over twenty years. Much of the interest for maglev in this county comes from defense contractors interested in government contracts. So far, only one 19-mile project has been built. It is in Shanghai, China and despite their many attempts the German government has not been able to build maglev in Germany or anyplace else other than Shanghai. The Shanghai maglev was so important to the German Government that it paid about 10% of the 1 billion dollars cost. Chancellor Schroeder of Germany made a State visit to China to celebrate the end of construction at the end of 2002. Germany hoped to use this project as a springboard for an extension to Beijing. After a year of testing the Shanghai maglev went into service in January of this year. After over a year of first hand experience with maglev, the Chinese government announced 2 weeks after the start up of the Shanghai maglev service that new Shanghai-Beijing intercity service would be high speed rail, not maglev.
Many futuristic transportation systems assume elevated structures are cheap to build and will be popular. They are not. Along with monorails, maglev will be difficult to evacuate in an emergency and are hard to switch. In Las Vegas they have built a 3.9 mile, 650 million dollar monorail system. By 2006, the Las Vegas monorail will be extended 3.1 miles to the airport. This Monorail is a fully automated system without vehicle operators. It was supposed to start service in early January of this year. The start up date was pushed back to early March, then late March and now is set for late June. Monorail has less passenger capacity than light rail, is slower (average speed 18 miles per hour) and has nothing to catch falling debris to the street below. In January an 18-inch driveshaft fell off a test monorail train in Las Vegas. Luckily no one was hurt.
The Las Vegas monorail system was built by Bombardier. Another Bombardier product was the Acela trainsets for Amtrak. Enough has been written about the many problems with the Acela. Tilt-trains are a form of hi-tech which allow faster train speeds on existing railroads. Amtrak could have bought tilt-train equipment “off the shelf” from a manufacturer with a proven track record. Instead, Amtrak signed a contract with Bombardier which didn’t have a tilt-train in their current inventory. Early in the Acela program, Amtrak ordered that the train be widened by 4 inches. This made the tilt function of the train unusable in most areas of the Northeast Corridor, which prevented the trains running at their full potential speed. Technology is no substitute for competency. What works is good management, cost control, use of existing resources when possible, incremental improvements of services, good schedules and connections to other markets to feed ridership.