EUROPE AND JAPAN ARE BUILDING "FLYING" TRAINS THAT COULD HIT 300 MPH. BUT researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque have come up with a back-to-the-future concept that could be just as fast--and cheaper. It's a takeoff on cog railroads, the venerable technology that helps locomotives climb steep mountains.
The overseas systems rely on magnetic levitation--magnetic fields that lift a train off the tracks and propel it forward on a thin cushion of air. But this requires very costly new tracks. Sandia's approach would use existing tracks--plus a ladderlike fence erected alongside. Electromagnets on the locomotive would generate magnetic "gears" that engage the ladder and push the train to speeds of 200 mph. And with new precision-made rails, magnetic-cog trains could easily reach 300 mph.
Sandia's train is a spin-off from the Star Wars program, when the lab worked on a gadget that would use magnetic pulses to shoot projectiles into space. That technology has already produced a crude model locomotive, which hits 34 mph in just 12 feet. Next, "to get out of the lab and onto the rails" for real-world experiments, Barry M. Marder, the physicist heading the project, hopes to raise $1 million.