Faster Trains May Bring Star Wars Down To Earth

A technology born of the Reagan-era Star Wars program may put the U.S. back on the map in advanced rail transportation. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque are designing trains using propulsion technology first studied as a way to accelerate satellite-killing projectiles. Engineers in Europe and Japan have looked at magnetic repulsion not only to propel the train, but also to levitate it into the air. No contact means minimal resistance and higher speeds. But levitating a train demands enormous power--so much so that true magnetically levitated trains have proven too expensive to commercialize.

The Sandia scientists are simplifying things by doing away with levitation. By leaving the train on steel or rubber wheels and pushing it forward using magnetic propulsion, their proposed Segmented Rail Phased Induction Motor system, called Seraphim, should show real benefits. The trains will be able to climb grades as steep as 12%, making them ideal for hilly environs. (Commuter trains have trouble climbing more than 3%.) And because the train is pushed along by external magnets, it should be quiet and clean, and able to hit speeds up to 125 mph.

While too expensive for freight lines, the technology could be a great boon to commuter rail systems. Seraphim-powered trains could be built alongside existing freeways. The cost of such a train with the capacity of a six-to-eight-lane highway would be roughly equivalent to building the road: $12 million to $22 million per mile, says J. Bruce Kelley, project engineer at Sandia.

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