Francis Reynolds

August 9, 2000

Responding to Kim Goltermann, of July 27 and Walt Velona, of July 30, 2000

There are some dual-mode system proposals that I strongly disagree with on a number of points. But while I don't agree with Kim, Walt, and several others on the relative importance of certain factors, we are in pretty good agreement on the basics. First let me address several items in Kim Goltermann's last contribution.

I too am concerned with cost, but I have learned the hard way that penny pinching is frequently false economy. I am reminded of a remark one astronaut supposedly made to a partner just before they were blasted off; "Doesn't it give you a good feeling to know that all of the hardware under us was built by the lowest bidders?" With regard to the HiLoMag turnaround concerning pallets: Some members of the team were concerned with the cost of true-dual-mode additions to private cars, but the main reason for our admittedly amazing switch is not cost. It is the recognition that the interface hardware to make a True-Dual-Mode Vehicle (TDMV) that could be suspended below an overhead guideway appeared to be prohibitively heavy and bulky to build on top of private cars. The retracting pantographs we proposed would help, but a suspended TDMV would still be a difficult and unappealing design.

These are gut-feel opinions however, since this hardware has not been designed. We don't know if we are talking fifty pounds or five hundred pounds of vehicle-to-guideway interface equipment. How many pounds of magnets does it take to lift and propel a hundred pounds of car? That depends upon what kind of magnets, what kind of maglev, and what kind of LSMs. And are we talking about putting the coils in the guideways and the magnets in the cars, or vice versa? There are advantages both ways and it will take much more engineering than a small volunteer team can provide to arrive at optimum decisions.

I still hate pallets, and HiLoMag could still change back to TDMV. Vacillation? Yes, but that isn't bad at this stage of the game. Many things oscillate for a few cycles until they settle into a preferred final position. It is much better to change horses as we get smarter rather than to put all our money on the wrong nag when the chips are down.

Kim, you commented "I have no dual mode concept of my own," and pointed out that you don't have to defend any choices. HiLoMag is a concept, but it will never be any more than that so we are also free to change our minds. And interestingly, Walt Velona doesn't have any system to defend either. So, "Listen up" you people who intend to raise money and build hardware: We three roving experts are going to tell you how to do it (as soon as we get it figured out).

I will evoke less controversy if I avoid making any decisions, but simply discuss the pros and cons of various choices. Let's try that approach for a while. Kim described characteristics of a system that he thinks would stand the best chance of "making it." Yes, achieving fruition is vitally important; but equally vital is the formulation of a dual-mode system that will do the things that need doing in the present-day transportation world. I will combine discussions of these two essential goals, since either without the other would be pointless.

So I disagree with Kim where he wrote, "The true challenge of dual-mode transportation is not to describe or build a technologically optimum system." Yes, the necessary technologies have all been invented, but the choice of which combination of the many possible ways to combine them is vitally important. He went on to discuss "the need for a viable transition path to an advanced dual-mode system." Agreed we must have a viable transition, but all stages of that transition must be on the same "path" (guideway), because we can't afford to build it twice (if we can afford to build it once.) And the economics cannot be allowed "to dictate the transition path as well as the technology chosen," or we will end up with junk, chaos, wasted funds, and an even more disenchanted public.

Since I hate pallets, I love True Dual-Mode Vehicles, if a good TDMV system can be designed and "sold". My idea of a good dual-mode system is one that will solve most of our traffic congestion problems, will allow us to have still more private cars, will eliminate the need for additional highway lanes, will immediately reduce the consumption of petroleum and eventually come close to eliminating petroleum use in transportation, will reduce the generation of CO2, will reduce domestic airline traffic, will provide good public transportation, will carry most of our freight, and will do a few more delightful things.

Kim, you wrote, "a dual-mode system is not intended to …. …." Where is it written that dual-mode systems are not intended to do certain things? Considering the overwhelming problems that instituting any new transportation system will present, it makes sense to me to solve just as many of our transportation and transportation-related environmental problems as we possibly can with one system, and not have to rebuild it or build another one in a few years. A beautiful advantage of the dual-mode transportation concept is that it will be able to do so very many useful things for us.

And whether we design and build to do one of those things or all of them, the cost is close to the same—or at least nowhere near proportional to the advantages of multiuse. It would be criminal to leave half of the gains out. In fact, from this time on all new dedicated-path single-mode transit systems will be criminal waste because they are not being designed as dual-mode systems. I get very upset whenever I read of a new light rail or similar system being planned.

Here is a summary of a report [1] released by Jonathan Richmond of Harvard University several months ago (this report is not on-line but similar papers are - see his website for a list of on-line publications).

Their comprehensive study analyzed the performance of more than a dozen light rail systems built in the United States in the last twenty years. None of them were financially successful, and none of them even came close to achieving the riderships they had promised. Worst of all, there were very few new transit riders among the light rail riders. Three quarters of the customers were former bus riders, and many of the bus companies then went out of business. None of these expensive light-rail systems had any measurable effect upon the traffic congestion. Yet the planners keep planning more transit systems. When will we get the message across?

Dr. Hopkins thinks we will never get a dual-mode system, and others warn us of the extreme difficulties. I agree with the difficulties, but refuse to throw in the towel. One might argue that selling a dual-mode system that will work should be easier than selling a single-mode system that won't solve our many problems. But first we have to spread the word on the concept and convince people that it would be the answer. This job has turned out to be many times harder than I thought it would be. Seemingly all others who have tried have had the same experience. The cards are stacked against us.

Suspended-vehicles systems have many advantages, as we have discussed, but one claimed disadvantage that I hadn't considered serious until recently is psychological opposition to traveling fast close to the ground but not "on" the ground. I have trouble understanding this one, and claim that most people would come to accept it with comfort when they see that it is safe, but I have met with a surprising amount of opposition on the point.

On a related problem, various ways have been suggested for getting travelers down from the suspended-car guideways if the traffic should stop in some kind of an emergency. These include a rope ladder in each car, catwalks beside the guideways, and ground-based rescue vehicles. But in a dual mode system we need more than just helping the people down to the ground. We are talking about privately owned and commercial vehicles. "Rescuing" the people only would raise the questions: "Now how do I get to my destination, and how do I get my car back."

We must have a complete solution that will lower the suspended vehicles and their passengers to the ground if the delay is to be long. The Swede Track FLYWAY single-mode, suspended monorail system proposes to load the cars on the ground then winch the cars up to the overhead guideway, and vice versa at the each station. That doesn't appeal to me at all for a standard operation procedure, but for an emergency procedure only it is appealing and simple. The details of such a system have been examined and found to be quite practicable. The cars can be safely and automatically lowered to roadways below the guideways in the absence of both AC power and emergency battery power.

During emergency shutdowns of moderate duration all passenger vehicles would be lowered from the guideway, but unmanned freight vehicles with nonperishable cargo could stay suspended and automatically resume their trips when service is restored.

You are right Kim, eight feet is not enough ground clearance below the suspended cars. Let's make it higher if we build a suspended system.

Supported (as opposed to suspended) vehicles using pneumatic tires on both the streets and the guideways is certainly a cheap and simple way to go. But in the opinion of many of us it is not going far enough. Except for the LSMs that you want, you seem to be proposing essentially the Intelligent Vehicle Automated Highway System that was examined by the National Automated Highway Systems Consortium (NAHSC) a couple of years ago and demonstrated in San Diego. The USDOT withdrew their support of that effort. It would have accomplished little [Ed. note: see Shladover article at the Dualmode Debate page for a contrary view].Your addition of LSMs to such a system would save a lot of petroleum and allow lower headways for higher system capacity, but I don't like the rubber tires for the numerous reasons discussed by myself and others. And remember that levitation and LSM can be an integrated package that gives us both of these marvelous features for little more than the price of either one alone.

I too think we need to retain internal combustion engines (ICE) in early dual-mode vehicles, since these cars should be able to use the new guideways where they have been completed yet be able to use the highways effectively in areas where the guideways have not yet been built. That has always been part of the HiLoMag plan. I won't attempt to outguess the various experts on when we will be out of petroleum, but even if we believe the most optimistic of them the empty-tank date is far too close to continue to sell SUVs and bury our heads in the sand. And even starting now with full support for a national (and worldwide) dual-mode system, it is already much too late to avoid major problems due to oil shortages. If the transition period for the dual mode system will last for 30 years as you suggest, and if Gaudagno's tank-empty date of 2020 should be correct, we are already ten years in the hole. That hole, however long it is, will be holy hell.

Kim, you took issue with my desire for a dual-mode system capable of high speeds. HiLoMag was originally seen as 100-mph guideways throughout, but the turning radii needed appeared somewhat excessive for urban areas. And the time it would take to get across the prairies wouldn't be enough better than what it takes on our existing highways. Since the airlines contribute their full share of our transportation woes, it seemed only logical to let the dual-mode system solve a major percent of them also—by a high enough intercity guideways speed to effect a major reduction in domestic airline traffic. This is consistent with our goal of a single system to solve as many or our myriad transportation and environmental problems as possible.

I now address Walt Velona's contribution of July 30. I also wrote to Walt and asked for a copy of some of his earlier papers, which I received and have had time to partially read. Let my observe that this gentleman has his head screwed on right with respect to understanding both our transportation problems and their solution. Further, his knowledge of government and his earlier career in high positions of the USDOT makes him a most valuable member of this solution-seeking fraternity.

Walt titled his debate item, Public versus Private ownership of a National Dualmode System. I agree with almost everything he wrote, to the extent that my experience permits me to understand it. Walt questions whether private industry can get the money. If he is right, Oh woe is us, because from my observations in such matters we would have a much better chance of getting a good system in a timely matter if it is mostly entrepreneurial effort rather than mostly governmental effort.

But if it has to be done by the government, can we have a capable dual-mode czar at the helm? Said czar would need power enough to suppress the infighting. That way we might have a chance. We did it that way on big jobs twice in modern history: The Manhattan Project to end WW II, and landing people on the moon before the Soviets could. In both of these remarkable national achievements the President of the United States played a strong role. I feel the President also needs to be strongly and visibly behind our dual-mode program.

For several years I have wondered whom we can find to play the role that Einstein played with regard to the bomb. In this case to sign the letter to the President acquainting him with the urgent national need to develop a dual-mode system. (After writing that I reread an e-mail that Walt Velona wrote, and see that he has the same idea.)

Let us hope that whoever is elected president this time will have vision enough to get the message and start the ball rolling rather than to round-file the letter. Round-filing innovative transportation appeals seems to be pretty standard operating procedure in most organizations at this point. There are times in history when a revolution of some kind is essential. We think this is one of those times, but as yet we are in the minority.

Whether the bureaucratic USDOT will ever become part of the solution rather than part of the problem remains to be seen. The congressmen don't seem to want to lead, but they will get on board as soon as they start to see votes for themselves and jobs for their constituents.

The public played no role in the atomic-bomb project because of very tight security. On going to the moon the public supported a very popular president during a time of national pride and international competition. The general public won't even know what dual-mode transportation is until the media thinks it is worthy of their space. I have repeatedly tried to crack the media barrier with very little success. But someday, if we keep pecking away, dual-mode transportation will become news.

Public support is essential here. "The masses" have to understand the crises that are upon us, and to believe that a dual-mode system is the solution. They are the customers, and each person has things to gain from a dual-mode system. The chances of building a system should be proportional to the percentage of public support. (Boy, am I ever naive!)

You are a hard man to debate with, Walt, because I can't find enough of your contribution that I disagree with. So I will expand upon an area where we agree. Your last sentence recognized that the scope of the program will be mind-boggling, and you went on to wonder about hydrogen and fuel cells as an alternative. You foresaw many problems. Correct. Let me talk a bit about some of those problems.

Fuel cells, the reverse of electrolytic cells to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen, are wonderful for generating electricity is space vehicles. The fuel-cell development companies would like to have us believe that fuel-cells will also be our salvation in cars when the world's petroleum is gone. No Way. The problem, of course, is that the earth has almost no free hydrogen, the favorite breakfast of fuel cells.

At its website the National Hydrogen Association makes the statement, "Hydrogen has often been called the perfect fuel. Its major reserve on earth (water) is inexhaustible. The use of hydrogen is compatible with nature, rather than intrusive. We will never run out of hydrogen." That is very misleading. Water is not hydrogen; it is a stable compound of hydrogen. Water cannot be used as a fuel (except in a special way in nuclear-fusion reactors, which we don't have). We would have to spend more energy to make hydrogen by electrolysis of water than we would get back in using is as a fuel. Hydrogen (like electricity) can be seen as a carrier of energy, but not as a source of energy. Until we have controlled fusion the hydrogen in water cannot be considered a fuel reserve—regardless of the size of our oceans.

Some fuel cells are "reforming." These will eat methane for breakfast instead of hydrogen. But methane, the chief ingredient of natural gas, contains carbon, and whenever we use a hydrocarbon fuel, in an engine or a fuel cell, we end up with byproduct carbon dioxide, also known as the chief global-warming gas. If we make hydrogen from coal we again have the carbon-dioxide problem. There have been several novel proposals on possible ways to hide the carbon from the atmosphere, but at this point they are all just ideas. Yes, Walt, there would still be lots of energy and environmental problems in a hydrogen and fuel-cell transportation era, and we wouldn't be alleviating the traffic jams.


1. A Whole-System Approach to Evaluating Urban Transit Investments. Forthcoming publication in Transport Reviews. Based on New Rail Transit Investments — A Review, Taubman Center for State and Local Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. The full report is available for $20 by e-mailing

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Last Modified: March 21, 2004