Is Maglev in our future?

by Bill Daugherty

nyone who makes the statement that "People can't be coaxed out of their cars" is unaware that they can be coaxed. Commuters are neither stupid nor stubborn. Provide people with a transit system that meets most of their needs, as well as enabling them to get to and from their destination in less time than they can drive, and they will use that system. The greater the time saving, the greater the patronage.

Imagine San Diego with an integrated transit system that enabled you to ride from Oceanside or Carlsbad to downtown San Diego in 15 minutes, rain or shine, at any time of the day or night.

If you commute to and from Temecula, it would take you 15 minutes to get to Escondido and about 20 minutes more to catch a plane at Lindberg Field, whether it was 8 AM on a wet Monday or 6am on Sunday. The system would provide you with the capability to get from Descanso to the University Town Center in 30 minutes. Disneyland would be 20 minutes from Oceanside. Add up to 20 minutes to these times to use the local feeder service, and it still beats driving your own car.

Consider that the ride is community friendly, quiet, vibrationless (there are no moving parts), nonpolluting, very reliable, very safe and FAST. Would you use it?

Is this a pipe dream? No! The technology exists. In fact, the system was invented over 30 years ago and approved by the US Department of Transportation for use in the Northeast Corridor (Washington, Boston, New York). It is a magnetic levitated and propelled train called Maglev. A prototype model was tested, but under pressure from special transportation interests, the program was terminated by Congress.

Now, SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments (Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside) has selected Maglev for their regional transit system. Their Metrolink train system has proven too costly and does not attract sufficient passengers because it is too slow.

One proposed link would connect Riverside (March Airforce Base) and San Diego along the I-15 freeway. They have asked for San Diego's support in securing federal funds to build the system. SANDAG, with its usual "hemming and hawing" wants more studies comparing steel wheel rail and Maglev.

Over the past 30 years, studies have shown that such transit systems attract private financing, are cheaper to build and maintain than other modes of transit, and will pay all operating costs while repaying some of the interest-bearing bonds. If they are designed to also carry freight, the cost-benefits markedly improve.

The State of California's High Speed Rail Authority is charged with the responsibility to develop a system linking Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. They too have been analyzing conventional steel wheel on steel rail systems for over 5 years, and still have not made up their minds. It seems every politician and transit bureaucrat is afraid of technology. In the meantime, the Germans and Japanese have committed themselves to Maglev. In fact, SCAG is favoring the German "Transrapid" design.

This country has made tremendous progress in almost every industry except transportation. Automobiles and busses are basically the same as they were a hundred years ago. Electric and internal combustion engines may be far more powerful and efficient, but they are still electric or internal combustion engines propelling cars with sleeker lines. Steel wheeled trains traveling on steel rails are still driven by steam, diesel or electric engines that have been around for over a hundred years. We deserve better than this.

Mr. Daugherty is a retired Program Manager who participated in the design definition of the High Speed Ground Transportation for the Northeast Corridor project and the Washington Metro subway for the US Department of Transportation. For several years, Mr. Daugherty was a member of the SANDAG Regional Transportation Advisory Committee. Mr. Daugherty is also past President of Buena Vista Audubon Society and a member of the Board of Directors of San Diego Coalition for Transportation