In the USA, the only fast way to get across the country fast is by air, which can be trying and tedious at times, especially when bad weather exists in some major part of the country. Weather can quickly disrupt air service all across the country because of many planes having multiple legs on any flight. (i.e. weather might be fine where you are but the weather where it is coming from is adverse.) While aircraft can fly through bad weather, taking off and landing requires reasonable conditions. This form of transportation is also one of the most polluting options and has adverse consequences for the quality and behavior of our atmosphere as well. Trains have been covered already at some length in this blog but what is the state of the art for this form of transport. High speed rail would work well for at least two express (220 mph) West-East corridors across the States and several North-South routes. This is similar in Europe with its already well-established high-speed routes that are updating all the time.
At this time, there are only four high speed routes in the USA. The New York to Washington line yet with only 83 mph average speed, the Los Angeles to San Francisco still under construction and unlikely to be finished soon, the soon to be started Houston to Northern Texas line, and the newly proposed Charlotte to Atlanta line. This highly anticipated Texas line would allow people to avoid the deadly I-45 corridor. The Texas train would resemble the Japanese Shinkansen system. Notably, the Shinkansen has never had an any passenger injuries because of the train, not during the monstrous Earthquake of 2011 and even with two minor derailment incidents during its long service history. It is expected that the Texas line will be running by 2026.
One of the greatest problems with new technology is simply that – it is new and means changing how we look at the way we transport ourselves and our goods around. The change to new technologies is like the change from horse and cart to the train and subsequently to the automobile and on to air travel. Technology can be exciting and at the same time make many of us fear the unknown changes.
The Maglev, also discussed earlier, is poised to become a reality. Elon Musk proposed an experimental Hyperloop Transport Technology (HTT) in 2012 but hasn’t gone beyond experimentation yet. What makes the HTT different is the that the Maglev run within a low-vacuum sealed tube to all but eliminate air resistance. The work done by Richard Branson’s Virgin company (Hyperloop 1) is showing more promise and is already for scaling up from the half kilometer track to longer track for final testing. Over 10 places in high population density areas (10 chosen out of 2600 requests, 4 in the USA, one on Canada, one in Mexico, two in the UK and two in India) have been selected to work alongside Virgin technologies as the optimum places to build the prototypes of this transport technology. Hyperloop one will travel at speeds of 760 mph with May 2021 scheduled for its first real run. The advantages of Hyperloop one is that it can run from downtown city areas, with the sealed tube (above ground or even underground) completely unaffected by weather. Of course, the tube would have escape areas if for some reason it stopped within the tube. The tube could also be sealed to prevent vacuum loss in case of an unlikely breach of the vacuum system where the worst that could happen would be friction slowing down of the train. The option for commuting on this HTT would allow people to live distally from where they work for the same commute time that they currently experience in city traffic. One other advantage of ground based high-speed transport systems is that they are mainly unaffected by things like volcanic eruptions as occurred over Europe in 2010 when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air traffic across the Atlantic and Europe for over a month. Now imagine an advanced ultra-efficient vacuum hyperloop that can travel more than 4000 mph. While technologically possible now, the devil is in the details. Yet, the possibility in travelling through underground tube systems at such speeds around the world is no longer science fiction but something that may be realized in the not too distant future.
Hovercraft (Air Cushion Vehicle)
One well known and used technology that is little discussed as a form of rapid and especially freight transportation is that using Hover technology. In 1955 Christopher Cockerell ran the first hovercraft using a vacuum cleaner engine to create the lift. This technology remained essentially unchanged for 50 year and because of the noisy engines were the singular reason for their lack of mainstream use. The British successfully used them as car ferries for nearly 50 years. New technology engines, especially with electric engines, are now allowing them to come back as an option again. Hovercraft that are still used travel 4-6 times faster than boat ferries and 2-3 times faster than catamarans or hydrofoils.
The greatest advantage for hovercraft is that they can cover almost any terrain without surface preparation (e.g. mud flats, estuaries, rivers, oceans, snow and ice surfaces) and indeed this is their greatest use at this time, especially with rescue craft and military craft needing to move from aquatic to terrestrial surfaces and vice versa). Like trains, however, they are grade restricted – can’t be too steep for the engines to push uphill or slow downhill. Hovercraft are almost unaffected by weather conditions although heavy storms on the ocean would still need to be ridden out or avoided like any modern ocean shipping. The reduced freight handling needs would also make hovercraft more cost effective and efficient. Imagine loading up a mega-hovercraft in Denver bound for China. It could take off towards California along hover paths (marked throughways that prevent these crafts going off across country) until they reach the coast. Then after customs inspections, the craft could simply slide down the ramp into the ocean and then run full speed (up to 150 mph) across the pacific arriving a mere 43 hours later in Shanghai gliding up on the land with the same cargo on board. No road, bridge, or rail building or any related maintenance, and only hover throughways to negotiate while on land.