Planes, Supertrains, and Automobiles

Futurists once thought that high-speed monorails could replace cars. Now they're a joke on "The Simpsons." What happened?

In 1962 Popular Science described the Seattle World's Fair's optimistic vision of the transportation future, circa year 2000: "Huge rocket airliners that can take off and land vertically soar through the skies. Individuals take to the air in scooters. Not far above the ground, jet-propelled monorail trains rush the daily commuter traffic to its destinations."

Now it's 1998 and the flying scooters didn't happen and our clunky airplanes still need runways. What about supertrains—those Jetsonesque machines capable of going, well, really fast? Are they just another futuristic dream? Not exactly. Amtrak will unleash its first high-speed train in October 1999, servicing the Northeast Corridor line of Boston-New York-Washington, D.C. The trains will peak at 150 mph, cutting the current nine-hour trek to less than six.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Still, we're 36 mph and 10 years behind the French, who have been zipping passengers along at 186 mph in their Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) since 1989 and now have six high-speed lines. The Japanese bullet trains and the German Intercity Express have also caught up to the TGV's speed. Yet despite growing traffic congestion, environmental concerns, and the trains' futuristic allure, "supertrain fever" hasn't taken hold in the U.S., much to the dismay of Joseph Vranich, America's high-speed train guru. He had the fever back in 1991 when, in his book Supertrains, he confidently predicted that they would soon be crisscrossing the landscape. Vranich admits: "I feel a little foolish now."

"People ask, 'Why don't we have supertrains?'" says Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris. "Well, we invest in rail at about the same level as Bangladesh does."

While we skimp on trains, we spend lavishly on cars, which are firmly fixed in the American imagination, thanks to their romantic symbolism and aggressive lobbying by the auto industry. Congress has spent approximately $329 billion over 40 years to build our highway system, yet critics balk at the $20 billion in "subsidies" given to Amtrak since 1971.

Perhaps Amtrak's critics would be less curmudgeonly if they experienced supertrains firsthand. More luxurious than coach class on planes and more powerful than automobiles, they also allow you to dispense with the airport commute, because your trip begins and ends downtown.

There are few delays, almost no accidents, and none of the heart-stopping landings that remind you that air travel hasn't quite been perfected yet (whatever happens, you can be sure the train won't plummet 30,000 feet). Supertrains are designed such that they don't "buckle" but instead come smoothly to a halt, and the few minor supertrain accidents that have occurred have not caused a single fatality.

Passengers on the Northeast Corridor route will soon appreciate such perks. Vranich cautions, however, that Amtrak's new trains are not on the cutting edge: "They're going to offer slower trip times than trains did in Japan in the 1970s." Still, 150 mph might be fast enough to fancy yourself in a James Bond flick—and, Amtrak hopes, to attract a projected 3.5 million new riders to the route by 2001.

Amtrak's jump to high speed is a departure from the incrementalist approach currently favored by planners. Most Amtrak trains now have a top speed of 79 mph, or even less. By upgrading tracks, improving signaling and safety technology, and eliminating intersections where tracks cross highways, railroad engineers can increase the speed to a poky 90 or 110 mph. High-speed rail American style.

"The capital investment [needed for] a true high-speed rail system is just something that this country is not prepared to take seriously," says Don Damron, administrator of the Ohio High Speed Rail Authority. He notes, however, that in some instances supertrains do not make economic sense. Their added costs—which include electrification ($321 million for 157 miles in the Northeast Corridor), and sometimes entirely new tracks—outweigh the benefits of increased ridership.

Damron cites a new study by Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration that looked at upgrading rail lines connecting every large metro area within 400 miles of Chicago, including previously ignored corridors such as Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago and Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Chicago. "Going to 110 mph will attract a huge amount of ridership," he says, "enough to pay for the operating costs."

Upgrading to true high-speed trains, however, is less profitable. A study of the routes connecting Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, whose ridership currently stands at about 1.2 million passengers per year, showed that while real supertrains could cut the Chicago-Detroit commute time in half and boost ridership to 8.1 million, the technology's higher cost would initially put the program in the red.

So conspiracy theories about the big automakers standing in the way of our high-speed future are dwarfed by a more immediate obstacle: funding. "The financing picture needs to change so that the same kind of partnership is available to high-speed rail planners that is available to the people who plan airports," insists Vranich. Airports get the bulk of their money from tax-exempt bonds issued by state or local governments or airport authorities; from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which receives revenues from taxes on domestic and international travel, air freight for domestic cargo, and noncommercial aviation fuel; and from airport tolls paid by passengers. Without similar help, high-speed rail systems simply won't become a part of America's future.

There is some hope. Florida is planning a 186 mph supertrain that will connect Miami, Orlando, and Tampa by 2006—and, state planners say, run at a profit. Already, the state has agreed to help finance $70 million a year for the project.

But given the realities of state and federal financing, supertrain enthusiasts have learned to lower their expectations, and they don't even bother thinking about the truly futuristic supertrains—the magnetic levitation trains, or maglevs.

Maglevs are even cooler than the jet-propelled trains envisioned by Popular Science in 1962. They float between magnets, catapulting you along comfortably and silently at speeds reaching 300 mph.

Germany hopes to begin building the first commercial maglev next year between Berlin and Hamburg. Numerous U.S. government officials, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.)—an ardent maglev advocate—Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and the federal railroad's Molitoris, have ridden a maglev at a test track in Emsland, Germany. "It was as smooth as silk," Molitoris exclaims, "and very quiet. I was so amazed I really didn't want to get off."

So far, America has only toyed with the maglev idea. A report released in 1993 by the National Maglev Initiative, a government-appointed study group, concluded that a U.S. maglev system "is not likely to be developed without significant federal government investment." Of course, the same could have been said of the space program, which now sops up more than $13 billion a year in federal money. Where would any nascent technology be without government encouragement?

After all, the benefits of supertrains extend beyond the measurements of transit studies: By siphoning off drivers, supertrains would relieve congestion and substantially reduce pollution. They consume less than half the energy per passenger mile that cars and commercial airplanes do, and would help revitalize lagging city centers.

Yet we've still got a ways to go before supertrain fever hits. Meanwhile, Molitoris looks on the bright side, weaving visions of the new train service that will run through the Northeast Corridor. "These trains are gorgeous, they are exquisite, and they're going to have wonderful amenities," she says. "You need to be there in 1999 when we cut the ribbon."

Will our air scooters be there waiting for us, too?

David M. Fine lives in Boston, where he manages the Electronic Policy Network's Web site.