Comments on Walt Velona’s Proposed Letter to the U.S. President


J. Richard Guadagno

Note: The letter referred to here has not yet been posted as it is still under discussion. It may be posted at a later date.

Let’s address the issues contained in this letter in the order in which they were presented by Mr. Velona.

To begin with, it is not a mere increase in the price of oil which threatens us. This is a rather trivial matter which could be handled with only moderate difficulty. The real threat lies instead in the inevitable and absolute unavailability of oil which – unless drastic steps are taken to delay it – is going to be experienced worldwide around the year 2020. [For contrary views, click here][For supporting views, click here]

Nor is it just single family detached home owners who will be subjected to this potential calamity. Inner city dwellers are actually far more vulnerable to oil depletion than are those living elsewhere. While they may be able to travel locally without using cars, virtually every item which is necessary for the perpetuation of their lives – food, clothing, furniture, appliances, electronic devices, and in many cases even fuel – is brought to them from distant places by trucks, trains, or ships powered by oil. On the day when we run out of gasoline for suburbanites’ cars, we will also be equally out of fuel for these devices as well. And it is the city dwellers – who live so close to everything cultural but so far from everything material – who will be the first to starve.

Thus if they are to survive, we must do much more than just divide our cities into small neighborhoods. While most auto trips are made in urban settings, the vast majority of both the total mileage driven and the total petroleum consumed takes place in less urbanized areas. The people who live and work in these areas, and who are instrumental in transporting goods to the cities, must also be provided with alternative transportation.

This alternative transportation must include replacements for trucks and trains as well as for cars. Thus it is just as important that we make provisions for freight transport in addition to both public and private passenger vehicles. The best way to accomplish this is to forget about "dual-mode" systems and consider only triple mode ones instead – those which will be capable of transporting public passenger vehicles (including PRTs), private passenger vehicles, and freight equally well on the same interconnected set of guideways.

There is no need for magnetic levitation (Maglev) for any travel other than cross-country, high-speed traffic. [For contrary views, click here]. For about 98% of the trips, the same goals can be accomplished far more easily and cheaply – and almost as quietly – by employing well-designed steel wheels on steel rails for support. Maglev should be reserved solely for those applications which require speeds too high for the practical use of rails – speeds considerably greater than 200 miles per hour. The major necessity for this category lies in the obligatory replacement of today’s airplanes by 300+ mph Maglev systems. Unlike other modes of travel, aircraft cannot be powered by electricity. They will always be wedded to internal combustion (including jet) engines powered by liquid fuels, and the cost of such fuels after the oil is gone will be so prohibitive that, with the exception of military and overseas travel, all airplanes will become as impractical as SSTs are today.

Velona’s arguments in favor of automated, electrically-powered transportation are well presented; if they have any fault, it is that they are actually understated. For example, the fact that most auto travel mileage takes place in rural settings (even though most of the individual trips are urban) means that the lifetime of the average car can be increased by much more than a mere doubling. Similarly greater improvements can also be expected in repair costs, average speed of travel, and availability of adequate transportation for all people.

Unfortunately, we cannot afford the gradual deployment schedule he proposes. Nor can we leave half of the nation unserved by this technology and depending primarily on our 19th railroads. If we are to completely avoid catastrophic disruption of our society due to the exhaustion of the world’s petroleum resources, we must provide automated transport for the entire country and its entire population, and not just for those who happen to dwell in its major occupied corridors. To force anyone to continue to rely solely on "conventional" cars and trucks would not only be both intolerable and inhumane – it would also be impossible. To avoid such gross inequality, at least two-thirds of an estimated minimum of 285,000 miles (instead of Velona’s 100,000) must be completed by 2020, with the ensuing oil savings perhaps enabling us to finish the job within another decade after that. This would require an average rate of about 9500 miles per year, nearly 2 times the 4000 suggested by Velona. And the urgency of an timely surge of construction could require a peak rate of perhaps double this amount.

Today’s antiquated railways can be tolerated solely because they are already there. But their future use should be limited solely to the transport of bulk goods, such as coal or grain, and large, heavy loads which cannot be transported either on today’s highways or tomorrow’s automated system. Today’s truck-rail-ship freight containers can be transported more cheaply as well as far faster on a well-designed triple-mode system. All railroads which are retained must be electrified, of course, since Diesel (even Diesel-electric) power cannot continue to exist any longer than can the gasoline-powered engine.

Some of Velona’s speeds of travel also seem to be a bit conservative. The express portion should employ a speed of no less than 300 mph – a goal easily attainable with Maglev. This would provide door-to-door travel between major cities faster than today’s airlines for distances up to about 2000 miles, and would eliminate the need for at least 95% of today’s domestic air travel. All commercial air freight could be displaced in this way. A much more inclusive intercity and interstate system could employ speeds of 150 mph without any technical difficulty. Only the speeds cited for urban (60 mph) and associated PRT (40 mph) travel seem about right.

Such a complete and comprehensible system is necessary because we cannot simply reduce the consumption of petroleum as an energy resource; we must eliminate it instead. Nor can we rely on any other fuels for internal combustion engines to ever "come on line", no matter how high oil prices may rise. Regardless of how good our future technology may become, and how much faith we may put into it, we cannot overcome the physical limitations imposed by the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. Those laws dictate that the petroleum age is about to come to an end, and with it the age of the internal combustion engine as well.

Why should we show concern for the best interests of the petroleum suppliers when they have shown none for the best interests of the human race by bringing it to the crisis which it now faces? Nor could we possibly save this industry from extinction even if we tried. The conversion of transportation from the use of oil to the use of electricity is not just an option; it is an absolute necessity. Neither can an 80-mpg auto provide any real relief. Indeed, it should not even be considered when we know that that same auto could easily get 500 mpg by traveling on an efficient automated and electrified system instead. And this is true even if we were foolish enough to produce the needed electricity by burning our final supplies of petroleum.

By contrast, there would be no need for a downward shift in demand if we shifted instead to an automated and electrified system combined with the use of all-electric autos, instead of trying to perpetuate the superannuated gasoline car in an 80-mpg form. Let’s forget about all of these interim band-aid approaches and move directly and quickly to the real, sustainable solution.


Last modified: September 04, 2000