Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Maglev is Dead

OK. Remember a few months ago, the Sundays were briefed about one of Tony's eye-catching initiatives - to launch a magnetic levitation high-speed rail link from London up to Scotland?

Well, if it ever had any substance, it's now a dead parrot. And so are all maglev projects, which should bring a hearty cheer from everyone who cares about good technology. Wanna know why? Get your looking gear round this Eurotrib thread. Not only did the new TGV rip through its own record by cranking up to 356 mph, it got within 6 mph of the record for a maglev vehicle. That's seriously fast for something running across the lumps and bumps. That's as fast as an early-model Spitfire.

And it kills off the only real argument for maglev - speed. So why do I hate maglev?

It's a classic case of bad technology, for the same reasons the NHS NPfIT is, and for the same reasons Tony Blair fell for it. John Waclawsky said that there are two kinds of technology, the kind that provides a direct benefit to the end user, and the kind that's designed by people who think they can see the future. These, he said, are also known as success and failure.

The only way you can start doing maglev is to take a Big Tough Decision to spend kajillions and tear up the whole rail infrastructure. Anything short of that is still going to cost a fortune, but won't make a profit or give any realistic feedback on whether or not to go ahead. Further, you can't get any benefit from doing some of it - it has to be all or nothing, because it doesn't integrate at all with the existing system.

For example, if you put in an upgraded, LGV-standard line from London to Doncaster, even without building it any further, you've already hugely increased the speed of the service, and freed up the old main line for freight. And if that worked, you can just keep building. But if you start a maglev project - you've got to go all the way before you get any benefit whatsoever, you can't run services on from the end of the line over conventional tracks or the other way round, and you can only upgrade by pouring another zillion tonnes of concrete.

Given that it involves a completely new alignment, you will probably also need to terminate it out of town (airports were suggested for the ECI mentioned above), which means you've got to deal with hordes of passengers getting from where they live or work to the terminal. Do something sensible, and you can run the trains right into London.

But the good news is that it's New, it's Expensive, and it's Centralised. Like second-generation nuclear power and monster government databases. And there is something about this stuff that managerialists can't resist - it takes a lot of managing, after all.

Thinking about it, I'm struck by an analogy with the creationist quackery of "irreducible complexity". You can't have a little nuclear industry, or a modular national identity register, or a progressive roll-out of maglev. They have to spring into being, complete in themselves, fresh from the Designer's drawing board.

But it doesn't happen like that. If it can't evolve, it's probably useless. Think process.


Phil said...

Maglev mass transport is dead. Maglev for rockets is... probably dead too, but NASA were looking at it seriously five or six years ago; my cousin Denis was one of the researchers (google 'maglev nasa denis', what else). No news lately, I have to admit - I just like saying 'maglev for rockets'.

albedo404 said...

Maglev is at the Stephenson's Rocket stage of development and right now maglevs can comfortably exceed the sorts of speeds production TGV and Shinkansen trains currently run at. The TGV record attempt was made with a highly modified train on specially laid track that took a lot of damage, both the rails and the overhead wire systems. There isn't a steel-wheel on steel-rail train production design anywhere, not even on the drawing board, that will do 350mph day in day out with fare-paying passengers. Maglev on the other hand can achieve these sorts of speeds at any time because it doesn't rip up the track the same way.

A good analogy would be the introduction of jet engines during WWII -- highly developed piston engines gave prop-driven planes similar performance to the early jets but it was obvious piston engines were reaching hard limits on power and capability whereas the jet engine was still raw and unrefined. It was obvious to a few smart people (like Sir Henry Royce) that a lot more performance could be wrung out of the concept in the future.

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