Comments on the Need for an Integrated Dualmode National Transportation System



Dr. John B. Hopkins, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center


Francis D. Reynolds, P.E.

The following is derived from an e-mail exchange between Dr. Hopkins (first part) and Francis Reynolds (second part). Dr. Hopkins asks that his response be regarded as "personal" and informal and not official in any way. 

Dear Francis:

I'm afraid I cannot be an enthusiastic supporter of HiLoMag dual mode. This obviously has to be a very subjective and intuitive judgment at this stage of the game.  Let me indicate some of the considerations that generate doubt.

First, a rather abstract conceptual point. Much of the thinking about innovative transportation technologies in the latter half of the 20th century has been devoted to systems that embody a tight integration between vehicles and guideways, often also including the control system. Examples include personal rapid transit, magnetic suspension and propulsion, and tube systems. In general, these have not been very successful in gaining implementation. This is in spite of the fact that, from a technological perspective, such approaches permit a much more nearly optimal engineering solution, which suggests the promise of high levels of performance and efficiency.

For highly constrained circumstances, such as passenger transportation in localized activity centers (amusement parks, airports, possibly universities and downtown areas), solutions of this type may be quite effective, being well suited to meeting high demand, particularly in circumstances for which the activity center generates sufficient income to make the transportation function self-supporting.

However, in addition to issues associated with multi-jurisdictional coordination and public funding, serious problems arise when considering tightly integrated vehicle-infrastructure-control systems to be used by the general public for wide-area transportation. The technical evolution of each element of tightly coupled systems is, to a large degree, dependent on parallel and simultaneous modification in each system component. In contrast, it can be argued that one major reasons for the dominance of traditional aviation, highway and rail technologies is their adaptability.

Within relatively modest bounds, any road vehicle can operate anywhere in the highway system. Similarly for intercity and urban rail systems. Vehicles and propulsion have changed, roads and track have changed, control system technologies have changed. But throughout, each change has - to a remarkably large degree - been independent of the others. More importantly, improvements have been substantially "downward compatible," with new roads readily carrying old cars and trucks, and the newest vehicles operating successfully on highways constructed many decades earlier.

A similar argument can be made for aviation and much of marine transportation. A key point is that these systems have thus been able to evolve, adapt to changing needs, and incorporate technological advances in a basically incremental fashion. In a world characterized by rapid technical change, but also in which infrastructure and vehicle lifetimes can be many decades, as can the time required for initial construction, this consideration becomes ever more important, since it is highly desirable to minimize the impediments to introducing beneficial changes (and the costs) wherever they arise.

A related factor is the reality of very long implementation times for physical infrastructure, which must therefore accommodate vehicle and control technologies that will inevitably change substantially before the system is even finished, to say nothing of the duration of its service life. System economics are also affected, since infrastructure-dependent benefits will emerge only slowly, thereby reducing the motivation of vehicle owners to pay for the related vehicle technology that will offer very limited initial return.

Further, the decision process for shaping system evolution becomes very complicated. Aside from this philosophical notion, I see an extreme problem in implementation of HiLoMag. A dominant characteristic of US transportation, which is rapidly diffusing around the world, is its highly decentralized organization. The "system" actually comprises the investments and activities of many independent entities: the private sector, a large number of governments at all levels, and the users.

Our highways are constructed by state and local governments, within Federal standards, for use all comers operating a wide range of vehicles. The Federal government has responsibility for safety standards and provision of air traffic control services, but the choice of where and when to operate flights is left to the airlines and private flyers, and the physical facilities are provided by local airport authorities and private parties.

It is by no means clear that any entity exists with the authority to design and implement a true "national" system, nor that agreement on its nature could ever be reached. HiLoMag is a very different notion than the Interstate System. This is especially true of the area particularly relevant to congestion and environmental issues: urban transport.

Aside from the fulfilling of its mandated responsibility for air traffic control, the largest Federal government innovation program has for a decade been the fostering of intelligent transportation systems. This effort clearly illustrates the limited degree of Federal power: the technology has been largely developed by the private sector, and is to be purchased and installed by state and local bodies. The Federal role has focused on fostering understanding and appreciation for the potential gains, conducting demonstration projects, and supporting development of technical standards and a suitably trained workforce to implement ITS.

It can be argued that the Internet pattern is the best model for how transportation systems are created and evolve. Seed money and a conceptual framework can be provided in a top-down manner, but what happens then depends on the entire community. More generally, it is hard to imagine the process by which a decision could be reached among the many necessary parties to commit to such a major and expensive undertaking. Construction of physical infrastructure has become an extremely challenging and contentious process. It is hard enough to simply widen a major highway. The mind boggles at just the time and cost of the environmental impact statements required to construct the system you envision, and the difficulty of satisfying everyone.

In truth, I simply do not think that the right-of-way and environmental approvals for such a network could be obtained even if the funding were available. It is hard to imagine building this system through a major urban area. Simply modifying the Northeast Corridor for high speed service on an existing right of way has raised many difficult issues. My assumption is that the HiLoMag system would largely have to be elevated (certainly at all rail and highway crossings, and probably wherever high speeds are required).

The high speed goal also poses serious limitations on route alignments. Also, if there were any likelihood that public or private monies might be forthcoming on a large scale for a new national transportation infrastructure, there would be many other contenders, and my guess is that at least several would have advocates able to make a case as plausible and attractive as yours.

There's also a chicken-and-egg problem. For the many years while the physical infrastructure is being built, people would have to be persuaded to buy the special vehicles that would have very limited use in most cases, and might be obsolete by the time they had guideways on which to operate. The institutional impediments are similarly daunting. Think how many governmental bodies at all levels would have to be not only acquiescent, but reasonably supportive, and in mutual agreement concerning routes, financial issues, and local impacts, even though benefits are seldom distributed very equally.

This has been a major difficulty for the Intelligent Transportation System people, which poses a much less difficult challenge than HiLoMag. How do you persuade a jurisdiction to be the first to implement, when the benefits will accrue only when (and if) others go along with it. I cannot imagine the federal government forcing this down anybody's throat these days.

I also have some misgivings from the transportation perspective. The high capacity which should be a strength of HiLoMag will typically not be matched in urban areas by the ability of local roads to handle the traffic generated-the bottlenecks will simply to moved around, not eliminated.

To realized the intercity vision, you'll have to pay for a lot of infrastructure capacity that isn't used nearly to its limit. And if you really think about the many ways and places that cars are used, it would seem that most people would continue to want to have the functional equivalent of current vehicles, and a very large network of conventional roads would still be required.(currently around 3 million miles, I believe). I suspect a relatively small part of the highway network-perhaps comparable to the Interstate System-could conceivably justify the necessary investment for HiLoMag.

I think it would be helpful to try to think through in some detail a very wide spectrum of current uses of our road system and vehicles.  Not just abstract notions of suburb-city commuter trips or city-center to city-center intercity trips.  Think about real origins, destinations, stops made, chained trips (workplace-day care center-dry cleaner-convenience store-home), the variety of roads people drive on (including 60-MPH rural roads).  Try to pull out of such data as exists, as well as simple observation of the world around us, to get a feeling for how people actually use the transportation system.  

To what degree would people want or need to have a second "real" car in addition to the HiLoMag vehicle?  How much would they still be on the basic road system?  Freight traffic is a primary use of intercity roads today, and requires a very careful look, including vehicle characteristics.  How will the interchanges work, particularly in terms of  land use requirements and impedance mismatches with local roads?  Overall, how much of transportation activity does HiLoMag really address?  How much of the conventional system would still be needed?  What does this do to the economics of HiLoMag? 

And how strong might the competition be from "automated" highways which provide only vehicle guidance and separation, rather than propulsion.  I'm not a great fan of these, either, but they potentially offer much lower cost, incremental implementation and evolution, and exploitation of existing infrastructure and vehicles.   Whether they would really permit high speed and/or capacity with adequate safety and reliability is another question.  And even this much more modest approach has has trouble getting very far.

There are also safety and system reliability requirements and issues that I think are often greatly underestimated, but I won't get into that. But the mean time to failure for the vehicles will have to be extremely high to avoid locking up the system periodically, and you won't have much control over those vehicles.

These are some of the reasons I am dubious about HiLoMag. I wouldn't rule it our forever, since capacity constraints, energy and environmental limits, and technological advances might generate both need and capabilities -though there's still the issue of competing approaches. But I really can't imagine it going very far just on faith. Without very limited small-scale revenue-producing applications to establish credibility, there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of getting anyone to take a really large-scale program seriously.

I apologize for the long and rambling nature of this discussion. I can't prove anything I've said, and I suspect you are prepared to counter all of my points. But perhaps this will at least give you opportunity to sharpen your arguments for a broader audience. The key is not to be too wrapped around the technology part. The real issues are understanding real transportation needs, in a fairly sophisticated way, and the environment for transportation advances and innovation-the very wide range of conditions that must be met: functional, economic, environmental, institutional, etc.

Don't underestimate the economics - things ALWAYS cost a great deal more than the advocates thought, and usually don't work as well as planned. Most of the world now knows this, though the technology community still tends to be captured by its own optimism. One consequence of this reality, and of our form of government, is that just getting a program started is not the real problem. The difficulty is having a strong enough and sufficiently realistic case to carry you past the rough parts.

In the non-defense area, political enthusiasm can wane rapidly - and it's even tougher in the private sector when the investment bankers and accountants get looking at projects. Look at the major transportation research and technology programs of the last 30 years. This particularly includes the many failures in recent decades, particularly in high speed ground transportation. Just because you have a new concept and sophisticated technology does not mean you're exempt from making a pretty iron-clad case. I can't help noting your mention of the misplaced 1974 optimism of many smart and important people concerning dualmode. Maybe here's a lesson there. Sorry not to be more helpful.

-- Regards, John

Original Message from Francis Reynolds, inventor of HiLoMag

Dr. Hopkins:

As you may remember, in May 1974 the Transportation Research Board held a three-day National Dualmode Transportation Conference. The proceedings were published as Special Report 170 in 1976. Participants included the TRB, the Commission on Sociotechnical Systems, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, USDOT, General Motors, University of Minn, the State of Mass, Mitre Corp, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, IBM, French Institute of Transport Research, Battelle, and many others.

The participants at that 1974 conference enthusiastically supported dualmode and urged that such systems be designed and built. Looking back, one sees that 1974 was actually too early for the development of a dualmode transportation system, for several reasons. Yet now, 26 years later, it is obvious to many individuals that a national dualmode system will get us out of a high percentage of our problems, and that maglev with linear synchronous motor propulsion will be an ideal choice for the automatic high-speed mode.

This is an interesting observation, since maglev train proposals worldwide are in trouble and some projects are being cancelled. But note that it isn't the maglev concept per se that is lacking in merit, it is the obsolete concept of trains. Maglev technology is wonderful if used in the right transportation systems.

In "our" opinion (the HiLoMag Team is a nonprofit group of concerned technical individuals) the United States urgently needs another---an updated---National Dualmode Conference, again with all of the right organizations participating. The very promising dualmode concepts are not getting a hearing in the proper places. Few of our leaders are aware of their potential, or even of the concept. We have delivered a number of dualmode presentations and papers to various technical, transportation, and environmental organizations in the past year or two. These were well-received, but they do not reach the right people---the people who can make huge systems of this type happen. You may recall that I e-mailed you on this same subject on 3/29/00. I haven't heard from you. If you are so busy that you haven't reached that level of your in-basket yet, please forgive my impatience. But we feel this subject is urgent because we see a great deal of money being spent on patches and expansions of obsolete transportation concepts, yet the overall picture keeps getting worse rather than better. Attached to my previous e-mail message were two items. If you have been too busy to download them, please read the following short item instead. This is roughly the verbal presentation I will be making in Korea next month. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ --------------

Seoul 2000 FISITA World Automotive Congress Paper F2000I387 Presentation,

June 12, 2000

dualmode, The Future Transportation of the World?

By Francis D. Reynolds, PE.

"Thank you. Good Afternoon: We know that there are big and complex transportation crises affecting most of the world. I am going to address all of these and boldly propose a single system that will solve most of the problems. We will have more cars, because they are so very useful and convenient; and cars of the right kind need not further endanger our environment. The revolutionary system we propose is dual mode.

Special private and commercial cars will be driven in the normal manner on the streets; and they will also travel automatically on high-speed maglev guideways with their motors shut off. These guideways will largely replace highways. Cars will still be used for nonstop door-to-door travel, but our trips will be safer, far faster, with less congestion, without more highway lanes, and with much less environmental damage. There are several dualmode systems currently described on the Internet, but the particular system my partners and I propose is called HiLoMag, which stands for "High and Low speed Maglev transportation."

dualmode transportation is not a new idea. There was a National dualmode Transportation Conference in the United States in 1974, which included the major transportation organizations and companies. The participants supported the dualmode concept and urged that such systems be designed and built. Now, twenty-five years later, we still have almost no dualmode systems anyplace in the world.

What has happened to delay the development of this excellent concept? Many things have changed since 1974: There were no Global Warming concerns then, and computer and maglev technologies weren't advanced enough then. Only dualmode vehicles with wheels were considered in 1974; maglev wasn't even mentioned as a possibility. And the number of automobiles has more than doubled since then.

The transportation crises weren't yet great enough at that time-1974 was too early for a dualmode system. Now the crises are much more serious. We badly need some up-to-date dualmode Transportation Conferences. Additional conventional mass transit is not the answer in most areas of developed countries. In the United States the percentage of travel by transit is constantly decreasing. Most areas have more transit capacity available than riders to fill it. Now subsidies largely support almost all transit systems. Many former transit users now have automobiles.

In democratic countries we cannot force people to stop driving their cars. With a dualmode system there would be little need to. The bankrupt passenger railroads in the United States were taken over by the government in 1971 and named "Amtrak." Now in the United States most train routes are used still less, and the Amtrak deficit has continued to increase. Yet we foolishly continue to propose more trains as a solution to our traffic problems.

A study published by Harvard University two months ago reported on more than a dozen light rail systems built in the United States in the last twenty years. None of them have been financially successful, none of them have anywhere near the riders they were expected to carry, and most of their riders are former bus riders, instead of former automobile users.

"None of these new rail systems have had any measurable effect on traffic congestion." We must not just continue to patch or add to the obsolete systems we now have. The patches are obviously not working; the situation keeps getting worse rather than better. None of the conventional things being proposed will do much good. Trains and automobiles are over a hundred years old; they were nineteenth-century inventions. They are obsolete. We must start over and design and build a system with 21st century technology for 21st century traffic.

In many countries a dualmode system is the only logical choice. Maglev technology is quite well developed, especially in Japan, Germany, and the United States. Maglev trains are fast: The maglev speed record is over 500 kilometers per hour. But coupled trains are obsolete whether they are supported by steel wheels on rails or by maglev. For that reason maglev trains will die in their infancy. A big effort in Germany was canceled just four months ago.

Railroad train cars must be coupled together because they are all pulled by one locomotive, but each HiLoMag car has its own motor, so coupling the cars would serve no purpose. Quite the opposite; the concept of coupled trains has major disadvantages. Coupling the cars greatly limits the flexibility and effectiveness of the transportation system. But the basic concept of magnetic levitation and propulsion has wonderful advantages in dualmode systems where the cars are not coupled into trains. HiLoMag cars will be physically independent, separately owned, and will go their separate ways, just as vehicles on our highways do.

If the cars are levitated with their motors stopped they won't be wearing out. And neither will the guideways wear. The ride will be quiet and free of bumps, and the guideways will use "clean" electricity, not gasoline or diesel oil. Also, maglev propulsion is about five times as efficient as automobile engines. Magnetic support alone requires no energy. Here is a novelty ball-point pen levitated by permanent magnets (Demonstrate). It has no battery and the pen floats as high now as it did years ago.

Linear electric motors are used to propel maglev vehicles. These interesting devices are like ordinary AC motors except that they are "unrolled" and laid out flat so that the working parts move in a line instead of rotating. In most cases the same magnets and coils can be used for both the levitation and the propulsion. The stationary parts of the motor are built into the guideway, and the moving parts are rigidly attached to the levitated car. HiLoMag will use synchronous linear motors so all of the cars will operate at precisely the same speed at all times, and therefore the spacing between cars will never change.

The cars will be like boxes on a conveyor belt: their spacing is constant. Or like plug-in electric clocks, which keep exactly the same time because they are all running synchronously on the same alternating current. A constant guideway speed of 100 kilometers per hour in and around cities is suggested, and the guideways between cities may operate at a constant 325 kph. The synchronous propulsion of the guideways may permit minimum spacing between vehicles of 30 centimeters or less, even at 325 kilometers per hour. This will give HiLoMag enormous capacity.

At 30 centimeter clearances a single 100 kph guideway lane could carry the traffic of twelve highway lanes, and at 325 kph one guideway lane would be equivalent to forty highway lanes. The guideways will carry all types of vehicles. Most of the traffic will consist of private cars, but there will also be transit buses, intercity buses, school buses, rental cars, taxis, delivery trucks, and cross-country freight traffic.

Most of the HiLoMag vehicles will be dualmode. But the long-distance buses and freight vehicles will use the guideways only. They will have no wheels, engines, or drivers. They will need only the magnets required for levitation, synchronous propulsion, and guidance. The unmanned freight vehicles will be more like cargo containers than like trucks. The guideway system will be paid for by automatically charging every vehicle that uses it - and most vehicles will use it.

The design and construction should be financed by long-term bonds in democratic counties, not by more taxes. Expensive? Yes, but the guideway system will pay for itself because it will be a universally used system like our highways are. If we build a light-rail system or a Personal Rapid Transit System it will have to be subsidized. But a dualmode system, with comparable costs per mile, will accommodate all of the private cars, buses, and freight, and won't need subsidies. In fact the private and commercial vehicles on the guideways will pay taxes, just as highway vehicles now do in most countries.

Guideway use will sell itself. Commuters stuck in highway traffic who see the adjacent guideway cars traveling at a constant 325 kph will likely start using the guideways themselves. HiLoMag will also greatly reduce airline traffic. When we include reservations, the trips to and from the airports, parking, canceled flights, late flights, baggage checking, security checking and all the rest, the guideways will probably be faster than flying for trips up to at least a thousand kilometers.

And guideway travelers will have privacy instead of someone else's crying children. They will also have their own cars to use at their destinations instead of airport buses, rental cars, or taxis. If you wish to enter the guideway system you will drive into a guideway stop, shut off the motor, and type the guideway exit number of your destination into a keypad on the dashboard of the car. The exit number will tell the navigation computer where to send you, and tell the billing computer how much to charge you for that trip. Meanwhile electronics in the stop will be reading a chip in the car that identifies you and your vehicle. At the same time an automatic system will check the operation of all parts of your car that are essential to safe travel on the guideways. If any vehicle fails to pass any of these requirements it will be denied access to the guideways and returned to the streets.

After these preliminaries, which may take 30 seconds, your car will be levitated, accelerated to guideway speed, and merged with the traffic on the guideway. The guideways will never stop or change speed, therefore they will have no traffic congestion or delays. HiLoMag cars will probably be battery-electric for street use. But they will run mostly on the guideways, using guideway power, so batteries that are inadequate for highway use will be more than adequate for the limited street use. And fuel cells may be used instead of batteries. The additional alternating-current electric power required for the guideways can come from any energy source.

Because of worldwide energy problems, air pollution, global warming, and the traffic congestion, our present needs for a dualmode transportation system are greater than were the needs for the railroads and the automobile a century ago. Most of the papers in this and similar conferences are limited to a single problem. Solving problems one at a time is usually the logical approach; but not in this case, because the individual obsolete patches are not working.

Fortunately present technology will permit us to build a revolutionary 21st century dualmode system that will reduce or solve most of our transportation and transportation-related environmental problems all at once-and solve them much better than all of the patches and additions ever could. If you think what I have been saying is right, please do all you can to help. Write letters; tell your political leaders, transportation and environmental officials, and automobile companies.

The HiLoMag team has given up its patent rights, and will not profit from any of this. Some such integrated dualmode system is inevitable, because it is the best and about the only answer. The question is when will we have it? How long will we delay the decisions and further compound our huge problems? You will find some technical details of the system in my written paper, and more on the Internet site given in the paper. My e-mail address is also there. I would like to hear from you. Thank you.


You, Dr. Hopkins, are one of the few people we are aware of with vision enough for a good cursory evaluation of what we are proposing; yet you have experience with the political problems that would be involved, and you have prestige enough that you in turn will be listened to. Please let me hear from you.

Sincerely, Francis D. Reynolds, PE.


Last modified: May 27, 2001