Monthly Archives: August 2011

Off the rails: mag-lev personal rapid transit

I have not been thinking about blog posts much over the last week and a half: on the 11 August my closest friend died and his memorial service was a week later. However, I have received a guest post from a new contributor to the Stubborn Mule: Norwegian academic Trond Andresen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. I met Trond last year at the CofFEE conference in Newcastle where he was spending time pursuing his research interests in macroeconomics. However, as will become evident in the post below, Trond also has other rather different academic interests and was inspired by the recent Train in Vain post, to write about a rather radical alternative to high-speed rail.

I am a Norwegian control systems lecturer recently back from a ten-month sabbatical in Newcastle. I have had one-year stays in Australia on two earlier occasions. My first stint was in Sydney 1997-98. I then experienced the city’s grave congestion and environmental problems due to car traffic. Thirteen years later it is even worse.

I have also tried the very slow railway service between Newcastle and Sydney. It hasn’t improved either. From 1997 I remember the debates about intercity high-speed rail and magnetic levitation trains. But this didn’t lead to anything.

Today however, there exists a new and proven – but largely unknown – technology that in one go can solve both the in-city and intercity transportation problems, and it is much cheaper than high-speed rail. That technology is maglev-based personal rapid transit (M-PRT). Computer-controlled small two-person streamlined pods run on a guideway six meters above gound. The guideway is carried by utility poles. The structure is very slender and much less intrusive than the Sydney monorail, because each pod weighs maximum 300 kg. It may be quickly erected along some main thoroughfares, and gradually extended to create a dense city network. One will not anymore depend on a few large stations, but can instead access the system at any of the many hundreds of network nodes (resembling elevated bus stops) you will have in a city like Sydney. A pod hangs under the guideway, and slides along it without wheels and no contact; an extension of the pod inside the guideway levitates it by magnetic repulsion. This is a new, simpler and cheaper type of maglev technology than that used in the very expensive German Transrapid, which was part of the Australian debate in 1997.

Maglev and the absence of wheels give two crucial advantages: very low maintenance requirements, and speeds up to 240 km/h (pods will of course cruise at a much slower speed in a dense city). This translates to impressive intercity timesL Newcastle-Sydney 0:45, Katoomba-Sydney 0:30. Canberra-Sydney 1:30. And between cities you don’t need to travel via central stations, you go directly and nonstop from suburb to suburb. Erecting lines between cities and towns is easy and fast because very little is needed in the way of earthworks: the guideway is on poles 6 meters above the ground. Nature is left largely undisturbed, and traffic and animals may cross freely under the track.

A bidirectional M-PRT line has the same capacity as a freeway with three lanes in each direction (like the new M2). Since there are no chauffeurs needed in the system, tickets may be quite cheap. And energy use per person even at top speed is low, on a par with high speed rail.

This technology should be included in the ongoing discussions. It is far superior to the alternatives.

I research and write about this in cooperation with the  American inventor, Doug Malewicki. But my engagement in this technology is purely academic: while I am the Norwegian contact for SkyTran, which currently has a research agreement with NASA to develop the concept, I have no commercial ties to the company.

Note that this is not Sci-Fi, or eccentric dreaming from some “futurist”. All parts of the system have proved to work, and you might check out the first “flight” of a full-size prototype at NASA’s Ames center, downloadable from here (my uni web site in Norway, guaranteed virus free!).

I gave a talk about the system at Sydney University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies early this year, see presentation here (you find it as the second entry from the top). I was also interviewed about this on the ABC Science Show In spite of these openings, it is really an uphill battle to get radical new solutions out there in the public domain. I tried several times during my Australian stay to get something into the Sydney Morning Herald, but they didn’t even respond.

Train in vain

James Glover is a regular contributor to the Stubborn Mule who tries, whenever possible, to incorporate back of the beer coaster calculations in his posts. Here his beer coaster helps him skewer the prospects of high speed rail in Australia.

Don’t get me wrong–I love trains. I have caught trains around Europe and even the train from Sydney to Melbourne just for the pleasure of it. My favourite train journey, from London to Edinburgh up the east coast, was made particularly memorable one trip because I was (a) sitting in First Class (as usual), and (b) sharing a booth with two particularly rotund members of the House of Lords including Lord Lawrence “Mad-Eye” Mooney. So, whatever you do please don’t accuse me of trainist tendencies.

With that in mind, you would think I’d be excited by the release of a government report into building a high-speed train line from Melbourne to Sydney and from Sydney to Brisbane, via Newcastle and the Gold Coast. Sadly however the report recommending construction of this train line contains figures which crush any chance of this actually happening. The estimated cost of the build is $100 billion and there would be an estimated 54 million passengers per year. So how does that work out on a beer coaster? To convert $100 billion to an equivalent annual funding cost we just work out how much the government would pay, perpetually, to borrow this amount. At current government long-term yields of 6.00% this represents an annual interest cost of $6 billion. If the government wanted to pay back the capital in 25 years, a typical benchmark for infrastructure projects, the annual payments would increase to about $8 billion. So, calling it 50 million passengers a year, represents a cost per passenger of $160 per trip. That doesn’t seem so bad given that the cost of a one-way plane ticket between Sydney and Melbourne is about $200-400.

Is this just a coincidence? Sadly, no. It appears the planners have flipped the beer coaster over to its dark rum-soaked side to work out how many passengers they would require to make the project commercially feasible and competitive against air travel. It’s a time honoured trick but one that doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. In the interest of beercoasternomics and because a Google search failed to find the answer, I estimate the daily number of air passengers between Sydney and Melbourne. Turning to, I counted 75 flights from Melbourne to Sydney on a Wednesday. From memory a typical plane on that route has about 40 rows and 6 passengers per row or about 250 passengers. That represents a total of fewer than 20,000 passengers per day. Double that for the return journey and add 25% for the numbers travelling to and from Brisbane. Let’s call it 50,000 passengers per day. Over a whole year our generous estimate of airline passenger numbers Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane is 20 million. I’m guessing it is really no more than 5 million a year but lets call it 20 million anyway. Even at that figure it falls far short of the 50 million required to make the high-speed rail line economically viable. So why have the planners been so brazen in their estimate? That becomes clear if we used a still optimistic but realistic figure, in my opinion, of say 2 million potential rail passengers a year (which is still over 5000 per day), then the average cost of each passenger, one-way, would be $4,000! I rarely approve the use of “dead dog’s dicks” exclamation marks [strikethrough courtesy of a prudish editor], but really!!! Should this line ever get built I will be a frequent and enthusiastic user of it. $150 for $4,000 value is the sort of bargain that would make a late-night shopping channel host blush.

I suspect by including a few commuter stops at the beginning and end of their trips such as Brisbane to Gold Coast and Sydney to Newcastle and maybe even a new commuter line or two, e.g. Sydney to Epping, they have boosted the overall passenger numbers. But then those people are hardly going to pay over $150 for a short trip. The majority of the cost will still be borne by the (maximum) 2 million intercity travellers. Though even including short trip passengers 50 million seems excessively high until you realise it is really just the figure they need to make the numbers work.

So, sadly, the numbers don’t add up. I won’t comment on the politics except to say the feasibility study is one of promises the Labor Party made to get Greens’ support to form a government. Nor will I comment on the claims that there are hidden environmental and economic benefits. High speed rail in Australia is the classic white elephant which, according to Wikipedia, was a gift made by Thai Kings to obnoxious courtiers to bankrupt them due to the high cost of maintenance of these sacred pachyderms. Some will bring up the precedents of Europe or Asia, but there you have either cheap labour and government requisitioned land or a high density of large cities. Australia has none of these.

As The Clash so prophetically sang: it’s a train in vain.