What is Planetran?

There was some discussion in the comments on Ianqui's post on air travel that relate to a relatively old idea that is not really Science Fiction. However it is quite "old fashioned" in the sense that it was largely developed in the days before the Internet, and readers may not have therefore heard much about it.    The concept was called Planetran and it was a high-speed underground train, capable of going from L.A. to N. Y. in 54 minutes.  There is now the occasional reference back to articles such as appeared in the LA Times back in the 70's when the idea was first getting column inches.  My own encounter came when it was written about in the Science and the Future Series put out by the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  It was in the first one we bought, in 1980,  as part of the whole EB package we got for the Advocate and the Engineer to help them through their school years.  (Interestingly the advent of the Internet meant that they never needed the detailed reports from EB that were part of the package back then).

Well, enough of the family history, but for those interested a short review of an old look into the future.

The EB article is about 10 pages long, so let me briefly paraphrase parts of it so that you can get some of the ideas, and I may add the odd comment as I go.
Planetran "trains" would consist of lightweight cars which are "floated" by magnetic repulsion between vehicles and guideway.  These repelling magnetic fields would be phased so as to produce a traveling wave along the guideway.  This magnetic wave would provide both vehicle support and propulsion (or braking.)

Planetran tunnels would follow the Earth's curvature and would be generally located several hundred feet below the surface in rock structures.  Besides evacuated tubes for high-speed Planetran travel the tunnels would also house conventional railroad lines and power lines, communication links, and pipelines.  This shared usage would help defray tunnel costs, which are the major element in Planetran's overall expense.

At the time, in 1980, it was anticipated that the main network would cost around $250 billion and would use only a small fraction of the energy needed by aircraft and automobiles.

Originally conceived in 1957, apparently by Lockheed, and taken over at some point by the Rand Corporation.  One of the initial major barriers was the safety controls and it was the advent of greater computing power in 1969 that returned the concept to the drawing boards.

To get the high speed it was intended that the trips would be made with the cars accelerating at 1 G for the first half of the trip, and decelerating at the same 1 G for the second half.  This would allow the trip to be made in 21 minutes, but they decided that the trip should pass through a Terminus at Dallas and that there would be subsidiary acceleration and deceleration phases which would stretch the trip to 54 minutes.  For the scientific absent minded 1 G is the acceleration due to gravity 32 ft/sec/sec and this would allow the N.Y. Dallas stage some 1,360 miles long to be traveled in 27 minutes.

The initial network would have a link between L.A. and San Francisco, and then a line from San Antonio would go through Dallas up to Chicago, and then across through Cleveland to NYC.  There would be an East Coast Corridor from Washington to Portland that it would intersect at that point.

To give some idea of local times under the same system and how life might change

Instead of two-way local service in a four-tube tunnel, planners have consdered operating locals in one direction only.  Because of the high speeds achieved, passengers could go the long way around to their destination.  An example is the New York City - Boston link with local traffic to Hartford.  By running local traffic only in the NYC to Boston direction, a traveler from Hartford to NYC would go by way of Boston.  Hartford to Boston on the local would take 7 minutes, and Boston to NYC 11 minutes, for a total of 18 minutes.
By using lightweight materials and using mag-lev the major power required would be for motion, and a lot of that might be recovered during the braking phase, or so they claim.

Ah, an interesting quote (remember this is 1980)

Recent analyses of the world's future energy supply stiuation forecast that the real limitation will not be on energy sources, but on the money to develop them.  Studies predict that world capital accumulation of $40 trillion will be required to provide needed energy supplies by the year 2020, while only $10 trillion will be available on a business-as-usual basis.  To provide adequate capital accumulation will require a 12% reduction of the share of gross world production going into energy consumption - if a start to rectify the problem is made immediately.  If there is a wait of 15 years to start the cut in consumption, the rate needed will be about 24%.

Brookhaven National Laboratory's prediction on U.S. energy flow in 1985 indicates that 28% will go into transportation, with three-quarters of this into automobiles and aircraft.

The article claims that the Platetran system would save 10% of the total U.S. energy flow, for air passengers and when coupled with freight energy savings would raise the savings above 12% justifying the investment. Vacuum pumping stations would be located at two pumps per mile would keep the air in the tunnel as thin as that at 170,000 ft above the Earth, almost eliminating air resistance.

The concrete cost (since a special concrete would need to be developed, and my memory suggests that MIT might have been working on this in the 1990's) was estimated to be $63 billion for the 21,000 miles of shell. When the article was written NSF was still funding advanced tunneling technologies.  Sigh! Those days are, alas, now long gone - I think they died with the Super Collider.

In 1979 dollars (which were used for all costs) they estimated that the service could run at $1 per minute in the system.  So it would cost $54 to go from NYC to LA. Freight costs would be $0.15 per ton-mile.  With 200 passengers or equivalent freight in a train each minute, the revenue stream was anticipated at $182,400 per minute. ($96 billion per year for those like me who can't count). Energy costs would be about 1% and the major operational cost.

And a final quote

Are there reasons to develop Planetran? To many the answer is yes- perhaps not exactly in the form of the system described above but certainly something that closely resembles it, and that satisfies Plantetran's objectives. A system having Planetran's economy of operation and potential convenience to the public is a virtual necessity in the solution of future transportation and energy-supply problems.  Platetran would also relieve pressures on the environment stemming from crowded highways and polluted skies.    . . . . . If we wait too long, our goal will no longer be that of achieving a better society but a desperate effort to preserve that which we have.
 A long time ago, and in a dream land now far, far away some of this thought this system would be an inevitable part of the future.  (Which you may take as an indication of my capabilities as a prophet).
Did they have seats that swivelled around at the halfway point?  Those rolling carts of free pretzels and peanuts could be self powered!  They'd even return to their bays at the end of the trip!

How does one take a leak?  Do the urinals swivel too?

I must be missing something.

I know, I know.  It's only twenty four minutes.  Hold it, buddy.
It's a lot older than that.  Robert Goddart, the liquid fuel rocket guy, patented the vacuum tube train idea about the time of The Wright brothers.  How wonderful a world it would be if he had had the PR that the Wrights did!

But then, why would the military be interested in things that just stay in a hole, no matter how fast they are?

It's not smart to think about boring holes thru solid rock from NY to LA.  Just make a big transparent glass tube above the surface- really really straight (think of hitting a bump at 4000mph).  Then charge admission for all the yokels along the way to stand and gawk at the dual coast stars blurrring  by.  This would easily pay for the whole shebang in no time.

And we could say goodby to all those contrails that go right over my house.  I have counted 50 at one time.  What a stink!

Ahhh, always the technology dream. As a Physicist who has read lots of science fiction, I find this kind of ideas fascinating. But that was then, and this is now. And it just wouldn't work.

Some people have mentioned how a bullet train could substitute air travel. Well, of course it will, but not the way one may think. The fact is, when you get to really high speeds with a bullet train (300Km/h), it consumes as much energy as air travel.

About the Planetran. It may be technologically feasible. In fact the German Transrapid or Japanese mag-lev trains allready have part of the technology needed. You only need in addition to it a nearly-vacuum tube that spans thousands of miles. Ludicrous. It will never work. Something that requires energy constantly to be maintained (vacuum pumps) on that scale won't work post PO. And anyone who knows something about subway contruction wouldn't even take seriously a proposition to build tens of thousands of kilometers of even more expensive tunnels.

So why don't we stop dreaming and just accept we will have to live, eat and travel slower?. Is that such a horrible proposition?

It is admittedly a fascinating concept and the technology for it already exists. Maglev trains are already developed and the technology to construct very long tunnels exists. The largest tunnels so far (Channel Tunnel, the Seikan Tunnel in Japan and the new St. Gotthard Rail Tunnel currently under construction) are 50-60 km long. Scaling them to several thousand kms would be not a question of technology (especially onshore) but of the involved costs. And these would be truly mindblowing, many hundreds of billion of dollars. Who would vote to spend this kind of money, considering it would be used only to allow a minority (the population of the 4-5 largest cities in the US) to travel very fast on only a couple of selected routes. This would be rightfully considered insane. There are far cheaper options for more ecological sound (ie less hydrocarbons burned and less pollution generated in the higher atmosphere) alternatives to conventional airtravel. Highspeed rail, maglevs, or maybe even planes converted to burn hydrogen would be possibilities. The additionally needed electricity could be generated by nuclear (if you want to have it really cheap), wind or solar power. In Europe and East Asia the answer seems mainly highspeed rail and maybe a bit of maglev (makes sense due to far higher population densities then in North America), in the US (at least it seems to me as an outsider) there is none at all so far (or maybe one if you consider shopping and talking until the sky falls a viable possibility).
MikeTor -

I think a general slowing down would be good for civilization in general. Wouldn't it be nice to actually have the time to return to a polite society?

Vacuum-tube trains are just too pie-in-the sky. Too many new and disparate technologies, too much expense, and too much politicking when it comes down to it. Imagine this thing and what it would look like after going through the transportation committee, then the full legislature. It would have stops at every single city, and would make continental crossing more like 10-12 hours...never leave out the potential for government to totally screw up a good idea by infesting it with pork and regulating it to death.

No, we should just get back to expanding basic rail service, switch to clean burning highly efficient steam locomotives to use our coal resource, and slow down. Use electric trains possibly? Maybe go back to dirigibles? Maybe ground effect vehicles for routes between major cities?

Simply accepting longer windows for longer routes might be the simplest adjustment, and it is likly to be the most efficient. Take the typical Dallas to Houston airline flight. Get to the airport 1-1/2 hours before the flight (1 hour puts you in the crush), take a 30 minute flight (get altitude, fly for 5 minutes, then back down and get in the landing pattern), take 15-20 minutes to get baggage and grab rental car or taxi, then another 30 minutes to get into Dallas. Let's see..that's almost 3 hours. Travel time by car from Houston to Dallas is 4 hours (it's 3-1/2 from north Houston), and you don't have to rent a car or a taxi.

If we actually had a simple train system that ran at 70-90 MPH, it would kill flying and driving economics in one fell swoop. But this isn't likely to happen with gasoline prices receding - even now, people are returning to their old habits and relaxing. They have simply accepted that gasoline has gone up another $.50. The fuel emergency is over until the next crisis. Back to business as usual.

Look around you - I am not making this up. We are right back where we were a year ago, and fuel has simply ratcheted up another notch. Nothing else has changed. Nothing will change until it is forced to by crisis. It's just the way societies work!

If you want change, you must do it yourself. If you want to be free of the effects of rising fuel prices and scarcities, you must do it yourself. IMO, the best thing every person here can do is to purchase the most fuel efficient vehicle possible, to turn the market in that direction and keep it there. Then opt for green alternatives in energy generation where you can, and make your preference known.

The rest is all about personal preparedness, lifestyle choices and personal finance - each of us must make their own choices. Each of us has different situations and priorities. But simply choosing sustainable things day to day (like a blender that will last 50 years instead of the cheap Chinese one that lasts 5 minutes) and renewable energy sources is additive in the market. Each time these choices are made, an incremental gain is made on the sustainable side, and several throw-away pieces of Chinese crap are NOT purchased.

And that is all anyone can do until the real crisis is upon us.

Thanks to TOD  for bringing this idea up.   We are all agreed, I think, that the real question is not whether this or that bright idea is nonsense (most are) but what to do about getting from here to there.

Just for the hell of it, I would posit that what IS obviously nonsense is:
a) the private car as the only way to go- what we have now, mostly;
b) the airplane as the only way to go a long way.

I base this on the definition of sin that a rabbinical friend gave me  "a sin is that which our grandchildren will regret that we did".

Cool, we power it by burning old copies of Popular Science!
Let alone economics, even from a pure EROEI perspective if you consider the energy needed to construct the tunnels and to keep them vacuumed it will probably make a worse deal then simply improving our existing rail system (and electrifying it! as an european I am astonished that such a rich country as USA is using diesel engines for rail).

We are already entering (or have entered) the capital expensive part of the Hubbert curve. We can not invest vast amounts of energy to build energy efficient facilities, because the energy savings will probably not pay-off in their lifetime. No wonder why our highway systems and airports were built back in the 60-s and 70-s. If we were to build them now we would not have the energy to do it.

Last year a diesel powered twin engined airplane flew from Newfoundland to Portugal with two on board. The fuel use worked out to about 30 mpg at an average speed of 180 mph. Flying slower smaller planes between smaller airports (the USA has over 4000 small airports) might have a future.
A beautiful idea, but how long did it take them to build that tunnel in Boston? And how long was that, a mile and a half or something? The geniuses building the LA subway spent a kazillion dollars of taxpayer money for a mostly useless tunnel to nowhere underneath the city which as I recall kept catching fire and exploding on them. Americans should perhaps stick with bridges, and let the Europeans dig the tunnels. If the project was given the green light today, I would expect to see it finished sometime about the year 2380.
Also, it occurs to me that by the time this transcontinental habitrail was completed the Greenland ice sheet might well have melted, raising sea levels by twenty feet, and sinking both New York and Los Angeles.