I took my first airplane ride when I was 18. It was a short trip, from Boston to New York, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been many flights since then, some enjoyable, some not.
I took my first train ride when I was an infant. I don't know if I enjoyed it. There haven't been many since then.
If my experience is typical, Arlo Guthrie was right in City of New Orleans, where he sings of the "disappearing railroad blues."
But technology—and circumstances—are making trains reappear.
Even before the September 11 terrorist attack, many travelers opted for Amtrak's Acela Express for trips to New York from Boston. They liked the comfort and convenience, and it didn't take them much longer than flying. In the last week in September, ridership in Amtrak's Northeast Corridor went up 36 percent, and it has continued to grow ever since. While the increase is related in part to fears about the safety of air travel, technology is a factor too.
Thanks to new continuously welded rails and concrete ties, the ride is smoother than ever. And, the Acela Express speeds along at 150 mph, tantalizingly close to the 186-mph-plus speeds of France's TGV, Germany's ICE, and Japan's Bullet trains.
Other train-technology initiatives:
Sensors to warn of possible derailment. The Association of American Railroads' Transportation Technology Center is developing them.
Locomotive-fuel cell research at Argonne National Laboratory.
And several MAGLEV studies.
Indeed, MAGLEV (magnetic levitation and propulsion) promises a host of benefits, including high speed (240 mph), low noise, low pollution, and low maintenance. Southern California and Las Vegas have major studies underway. China will use MAGLEV trains to connect Shanghai Airport to downtown.
Al Perdon, program manager for California's projects, says MAGLEV can solve airport and ground-congestion problems. He's right. It's time to focus on the rails.