Monthly Discussion



Magnetic Levitation Trains (Maglevs)


The world's first magnetic levitation train for commercial use, the Maglev, started its regular service Thursday, Jan. 1, 2004 between Longyang Road Station and Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China (see article in http://de.news.yahoo.com/040101/12/3tl9m.html).

The prediction that had been made in PREDICTIONS twelve years ago concerning Maglevs was that around the end of the 20th century a new 都pecies would enter the world transportation market and begin competing for passengers with the other means of transportation. The specific prediction was that Maglevs would 兎nter the market significantly around 2025, by claiming a 1 percent share of the total length in all transport infrastructures, and reach its maximum rate of growth close to 2058, see Exhibit 3.

An Orderly Precession of U.S. Transport Infrastructures

Exhibit 3. The growth in length of each infrastructure is expressed as a percentage of its final ceiling. The absolute levels of these ceilings in miles are quite different, for airways the ceiling has been estimated. Interestingly the 50 percent levels of these growth processes are rather regularly spaced 55 to 56 years apart. The Maglev infrastructure therefore may start sometime around the beginning of the twenty-first century, but its halfway point should be close to 2060.*



Today, besides the Chinese Shanghai section, Maglevs are planned in at least seven states of the US. In Virginia the Baltimore-Washington project plans a Maglev connection that would link these two cities in less than 20 minutes. In California, the planned Maglev will connect the Los Angeles International Airport to March Field in Riverside County, a 92-mile distance in 78 minutes, and in Pennsylvania the Pittsburgh-Greensburg connection (54 miles) in less than 35 minutes. All three of the American Maglevs mentioned here are planned to come into operation around 2010-2011.

These developments reinforce confidence in my old prediction that Maglevs will claim a 1 percent share of the total length in all transport infrastructures by 2025. From then on Maglevs will begin taking away market share from the dominant air travel, see Exhibit 4.



Exhibit 4. The sum total in mileage among all transport infrastructures is split here among the major types. A declining percentage does not mean that the length of the infrastructure is shrinking but rather that the total length is increasing. Between 1860 and 1900 the amount of railway track increased, but its share of the total decreased because of the dramatic rise in road mileage. The thin model lines are projected forward and backward in time. The share of airways is expected to keep growing well into the second half of the twenty-first century and begin declining only when Maglevs enter the scene in a serious way (dotted lines). The small circles show some deviation between the trajectories predicted fifteen years ago and what happened since then.*




Let me explain again here why Maglev constitutes a new bona fide transportation species. The major inter-city transportation systems so far have been successively: waterways (channels), railways, highways (motor vehicles), and airways. Each time the new system progressively replaced the old one as the dominant means of transportation despite large overlap between different systems. But the competitive requirement for a new transport system has always been that it must provided a factor-of-ten improvement in speed or, more precisely, in productivity (load times speed.) Supersonic travel as introduced by the Concord did not go in that direction because while it did increase the speed it decreased the payload, and even the speed increase was far less than a factor of ten. Future supersonic planes based on new technology用ossibly using liquid hydrogen as fuel洋ay provide Mach 8 in speed but will be useful only for long distances. Supersonic flight is obviously not the answer for linking cities within a continent. Since speed of existing airplanes is sufficient to serve shuttle links such as New York to Boston, the future vehicle must increase the number of passengers by a factor of ten, the equivalent of the Boeing 757 or the European Airbus, but with a carrying capacity of close to twenty-five hundred passengers! The problems arising from handling that many passengers in one flying vessel would be formidable.

The alternative is Maglevs. These trains move at a mean speed of up to six hundred miles per hour, and from the point of view of speed and running cost they are like airplanes. But they can carry a much heavier payload. Maglevs should only connect core cities in order to justify their high capacity and investment costs.

But at this point, a word about fuel is in order. Transport is coupled to energy. The dominant means of transportation at any given time is linked to the dominant primary energy source of the time. The succession we see in Exhibit 4, waterways to railways to highways to airways is coupled to a succession of primary energy sources (animal feed to coal to oil to natural gas) also discussed in PREDICTIONS. Animals used to draw the barges along the channels during the 18th century, coal was the primary fuel of railways, oil the primary fuel of automobiles, and natural gas the primary fuel of airplanes (aviation is young and still uses oil as early railways used wood!)

This one-to-one correspondence between transport and energy suggests that Maglevs should use the next primary energy source, which is nothing else than nuclear energy. Today痴 Maglev, and those in the planning stage, are all powered by electricity. But electricity is not a primary energy source. It can be produced in a variety of different ways. Today it is largely produced by burning oil and in the future it will be produced by burning natural gas. In late 21st century it will be mostly provided by nuclear reactors. By that time nuclear energy will be the dominant primary-energy source. It will probably also be providing in a direct way the hydrogen needed for advanced-aircraft supersonic travel.


Substitution of Primary Energy Sources Worldwide


Exhibit 5. This modeled substitution of energies is obtained from PREDICTIONS. The intermittent line represents animal feed only for the US. 鉄olfus is a futuristic energy source combining solar and fusion.

*Adapted from a graph by Arnulf Grubler in The Rise and Fall of Transport Infrastructures, (Heidelberg: Physica-Verlag, 1990), excluding the lines labeled 鄭irways and 溺aglev?

* Adapted from a graph by Nebojsa Nakicenovic in 泥ynamics and Replacement of U.S. Transport Infrastructures, in J.H. Ausubel and R. Herman, eds, Cities and Their Vital Systems, Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1988).