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High-Speed Rail: The Need for Speed

Jeffrey Syken

“There’s an almost universal recognition today that we need these new trains, and we need them now. We just have to make high-speed rail a priority for lawmakers and a good deal for private investors.”
Joseph Vranich, Author of “Super-Trains”

It’s as old as the “Iron Horse” itself – The Need for Speed. The steam railway locomotive’s history began in 1804. In that year, Richard Trevithick demonstrated the capabilities of a railway engine in South Wales. John Blenkinsop’s engines began to run in 1812. Of the other pioneers the most famous was George Stephenson, whose “Rocket,” of 1829, gained world acclaim for its speed. In 1808, Trevithick publicized his steam railway locomotive expertise by building a new locomotive called “Catch-Me-Who-Can,” which was demonstrated to the public at his “Steam Circus” - a circular track in Bloomsbury. Members of the public paid to ride in carriages pulled by the engine around the track at a reported speed of 15 mph. However, it would be George Stephenson, and his son, Robert Stephenson, whose work in the development of the steam locomotive and the railway would lay the foundations of rail transport systems around the world.

However, there remained a glass ceiling for rail-bound locomotives whereby above about the speed of 80 mph. aerodynamics would get in the way of ever-faster trains. With railways firmly established and the technology ever-maturing by the turn of the 19th Century, the advent of Art Deco and its derivative; Streamline Moderne, in the post-WWI years would have a significant impact on how fast trains would travel in the 20th and 21st Centuries. The “Streamline” style denoted movement and speed – from vacuum cleaners-to-automobiles-to-airplanes-to-boats-to-trains. Put on display at both the 1933/34 Chicago World’s Fair (a/k/a “Century of Progress”) and the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair (a/k/a “The World of Tomorrow”), the public was given a glimpse of their high-speed future. Popular at both fairs were the powerful, streamlined trains put on display, in particular the “Railroads on Parade” exhibit at the latter fair. Streamlined locomotives were setting new speed records with increased horsepower and aerodynamic efficiency, so the $64K question now was what was the best means of propulsion: coal, oil, electric, diesel-electric etc.?

By the later part of the 20th Century, experiments were taking place with ideas that originated earlier in the Century. A good case-in-point is “magnetic levitation,” which takes advantage of the simple fact that magnets both repel and/or attract one another (given the orientation of their poles). Although experimentation with this concept goes back to the 1930s, it did not get off-the-ground (literally) until the 1960s. Conceived in the U.S., Germany and Japan would take the lead after the OMB cut funding for maglev research in 1975. The Brits, who invented the “Hovercraft,” in 1958, took the lead in developing a “Hovertrain,” but that too ended when funding was cut in favor of more promising technology. More recently, Elon Musk has gotten in on the act with his “Hyperloop” concept for a high-speed train traveling in a tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Other Hyperloop derivatives (i.e. Transpod) use a vehicle traveling with little friction through a tube. But it was the success of Japan’s “Shinkansen” (a/k/a “Bullet”) trains, first introduced in 1964, that got the world’s attention. On the heels of that success came France’s TGV trains. Like the Shinkansen, they too ran on dedicated tracks at very high speeds. Although the U.S. has been slow to get in on the high-speed train act, that’s changing with upgrades to the NEC, “Brightline” trains. and California’s ambitious, but troubled ,“High-Speed Project.” It seems Mr. Vranich’s prediction is spot-on.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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