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Maglev could be the answer

Alex Miller
Special to the Daily A 19-mile high-speed maglev line opened in January, 2004 in Shanghai, China.
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One of the big questions concerning rail in the mountains has to do with how to handle the steep grades. The legendary narrow-gauge trains that made their way over Colorado’s passes in the 19th and 20th centuries did it by going very slow up and very slow down.But if people are going to be convinced to leave their cars at home and take a train to the ski area, creeping down the hill to Silverthorne or Vail at 10, 20 or even 30 mph isn’t going to be much of an incentive. Add more speed and you bump into an inconvenient fact: No one has yet devised an adequate braking system for a steel-wheel train moving at higher speeds. In other words, if it starts to run away, it will continue to do so until it crashes.

But what about maglev? Short for “magnetic levitation,” maglev trains don’t run on rails with steel wheels but, rather, over a guideway using super-powerful electromagnets. One set of magnets keeps the train levitating over the guideway at a set distance (about 10 millimeters). Another set of magnets keeps the train aligned laterally, while a linear motor in the guideway pulls the train along also with a magnetic field.Joe Vranich, a passenger rail expert, said maglev could efficiently solve the problem of steep grades.”It beats steel wheels in mountainous territory,” he said. “It can climb grades and go down grades and control speed much more efficiently.”It might also be more economical in the long run, he said. That’s because a maglev’s superior climbing power can decrease the need for tunnels or expensive land buys to create hill-taming switchbacks. An elevated guideway can also be installed in less space, such as the median between lanes of I-70.

Maglev has recently moved out of the realm of sci-fi or test tracks. The first commercial maglev rail line opened in January, 2004 in Shanghai, China. Built by the German company Transrapid International, the 19-mile track connects a station in Shanghai to the airport in Pudong with trains that travel at 267 mph. At that speed, the 150 miles from the Denver airport to Eagle could be covered in under an hour.While the technology isn’t being seriously considered in Colorado, it is being looked at in other states. A maglev track between Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. is being studied, as is a line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and another between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.Bob Briggs with the Front Range Commuter Rail project said maglev could be something to look at in the future, but the focus now is on things that run on existing rails.”It’s rapidly developing,” Briggs said of maglev technology. “Who knows how soon it will be available and operational.”



Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14625, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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