Gentle Folk, allow me to introduce . . . .

(Grin)  When I wrote about the Planetran system yesterday there was some cynicism in the comments about the viability of the concept, and its economics.

For some decades now it has been cheaper and more effective to put transportation underground in cities than trying to drive through roads through them.  Putting the tunnels a bit deeper does not change the tunneling operation itself that much, but puts the tunnel into more stable rock.  The idea of Planetran was sustained for a long time by the thought of putting the corridor up the East coast from Boston to Washington.  Having the train operate at high speed, and from down-town locations, and in a weather-independent location where security could be better ensured has some advantages.  

Evacuating the air removes the air resistance that makes normal transportation more expensive at higher speeds (energy wise).  Thus it is possible to develop a technical solution that will significantly change and reduce the need for oil.  

And to those who say that this is still fiction, I am indebted to Greko, who points out that it will first become a reality in Switzerland While the idea is still developing, it is known as the Swissmetro, and has many features of the Planetran that I described.

The basic idea of Swissmetro is simple: lack of public acceptance, environmental pollution and the settlement structure of Switzerland all mean that a high-speed railway is more likely to be realised underground than on the surface. Along the main railway axes, such as between Basel and Lugano, Basel and Zurich or Geneva and St. Gallen, an underground magnetic levitation railway could travel at top speeds of up to 500 km/h. These high speeds could be achieved by a partial vacuum in the tunnels, which would be built at a depth of between 40 and 400 metres. This kind of futuristic transport is still pie in the sky, but commencing operation in 2030 may nevertheless be realistic.

Several NRP 41 studies investigated the potential, and the consequences, of Swissmetro. For example, a survey of today's rail and road users on the planned main line from Geneva to St. Gallen determined the potential demand.An ingenious interview technique called the "Stated Preference Method" was used, which- despite the uncertainties inherent in all predictions - is increasingly being used internationally. The results show that if Swissmetro were implemented, it would attract some 24,000 passengers between Geneva and Lausanne and approx. 34,000 passengers between Bern and Zurich per day and in each direction. Around 60 per cent would transfer from the railways,25 per cent from road travel, and approx. 15 per cent would be new passengers.Conventional rail travel would decrease by about half on some routes.

The demand for the super-fast underground magnetic levitation railway will be particularly sensitive to variations in timetables and fares. For example, a 10 per cent fare reduction for Swissmetro would result in an increase in passenger volume of 3.1 per cent, whereas a 10 per cent increase in travelling time would lead to a reduction in passenger volume of 3.4 per cent.

 A quick Google scan brought up a site that shows that the concept is being taken further. That article was written in 2003. There is now a company that is promoting the concept, which appears to have considerable public support.

It is also interesting to note a paper on the need for image management of the project.  As Schueler notes

Swissmetro will function as an example of a young, futuristic project, which tries to obtain space. However, every step outside its paper form meets resistance, simply because space is already occupied. Since the 1970s, civil engineer Rodolphe Nieth is determined to lead his concept of an underground high-speed train connecting all major cities in Switzerland to actualisation. An extended network of tunnels will enable Swissmetro to glide with approximately 500 kilometres per hour 50-100 meters under the surface. The preferred metaphor, to make the technology understandable, is 'an aircraft without wings and engines'. There are no wheels, bogies or engines inside the vehicle, so it indeed resembles an aeroplane flying through thin air. Swissmetro rises high hopes, but is simultaneously heavily debated. Swissmetro has the task to reduce the obduracy of the existing (world)order. The intensity of the battle fluctuates constantly, which result in a shifting representation of the Swissmetro system as well.
Swissmetro S.A. has focused its promotion strategy mainly on two themes, namely speed and underground.  Both notions are marketable, because they cover areas that seem to be unoccupied yet. Swissmetro pretends to easily penetrate these spaces. In this paper I will mainly focus on the cultural connotations surrounding the underground to bring to bear how difficult it can be for a project to find the right tools to generate an imagery and language to make identification with the project possible.
Well if anyone can do this, the Swiss can.  They are expert tunnel builders.  They have built some of the longest tunnels in the world.
HO -

Other than it was first proposed that way, and it might help in the event of nuclear war, why do this whole thing underground where the tunneling expenses are so high, the material that needs to be sealed is wildly variable (rock formations and fractures), and water pressure must be fought back while pulling a vacuum? Maintenance and construction are very problematic underground. And who wants to be underground on the quake-prone west coast, moving at 400 MPH?

Why not just run this thing on pylons above ground? That way you are piecing together sections of tubes designed to hold lower pressure? If you're going to do it, at least do it in a practical and common sense fashion.

But the expense is so phenomenal compared to standard rail construction - why do this at all?  Why do we need to be able to go from NY to LA in an hour? I would think our productivity is good enough, thanks, and we really don't need this at all.

Any time you have to do surface construction in a city it becomes very expensive, in more ways than just money. Running tunnel boring machines (TBM's) these days is a well-known art and they can bore tunnels quite rapidly and safely through a wide variety of rock.  Techniques have evolved for coping with water and they are now routine - mainly you inject either cement or a chemical resin into the ground ahead of the TBM  (depending on how permeable it is) and these seal the flow channels.  Sub-surface the excavation can proceed without having to buy a right of way and demolish houses, or interfering with existing traffic as the tunnel is driven.

The sub-surface location makes a lot of sense in mountainous terrain (since it is the shortest distance and does not involve traffic grades) - and Switzerland is a logical site for that reason.  It also makes sense in highly urbanized locations such as the US East Coast and parts of Europe.  It would not probably be as good an idea across the midwest, but there are debatable points on both sides of that issue.

Building an underground long-distance, high-speed rail system is one thing; building a large-diameter vacuum vessel hundred of miles long is something else again, something that probably raises the difficulty and cost by an order of magnitude. For instance, with a vacuum rail system each rail car would have to be an air-tight pressurized vessel, and each station would have to have enormous air locks.  And a  massive vacuum pumping system would be required to maintain the vacuum against the inevitable leakage inherent in a tube several hundred miles long. Maintenance and repairs would  be a nightmare, as well.

I for one would  be more than happy to forego the super high speed concept and go with a more conventional modern high-speed underground rail system, say something with a speed of about 200 mph, along the lines of the European and Japanese bullet-type trains. Getting the political committment and accumulating the huge capital investment for any major high-speed rail infrastructure will be tough enough as it is.  

I can't believe this is being discussed as a serious issue.  Lets get back to business.  Oil.
Agreed.  This post is off-topic.  Besides, as a cornucopian solution to peak oil, it suffers from the same flaws as all the others:  Long lead-times and massive capital energy costs.  This would make a great Scientific American article but it's not a great Oil Drum post.
I have to disagree. Possible ways to save oil by other transport methods are totally on-topic here. As the "About Us" page say:
This real and tangible crisis of supply and demand is now inevitable. Whether the coming crisis arrives in six months or in four years, whether the crisis arrives in a slow, secular fashion or as a cataclysmic "shock," our purpose is the same: we are here to raise awareness of the reality of the current problem and to attempt to address the real issues that are often hidden by political pandering.

We are here to talk about ideas. We're all learning here about ourselves and from each other. No perspective will be punished as long as evidence and logic are present. We want to bring brain power to bear on all of these issues; we may not come up with a solution...but we can at least say we tried.

What can be expected to happen as this crisis develops and unfolds? Stick around, because that's the kind of stuff that we're going to talk about.

"It will/won't work" is a legitimate debate (I'm pretty sceptical about this much tunneling myself). But "it's off topic" is clearly incorrect.
Trains replace cars & other oil-fuelled transportation. Any inhibition to train construction/efficiency is an inhibition to decreasing oil consumption. Unless you would limit talk to the problem, and not the solution, this is very pertinent.

It's helpful to point out problems, but no one listens until you propose solutions.

Thanks for the support.  Actually we also do, on occasion, transgress into talking about wind and solar, and likely will on occasion talk about pulverized coal, and coalbed methane.  The intent is to point out that the world is not totally ignoring the need to find alternate solutions, even some that might, at first glance, appear unlikely.

Since the intent is to provide information, you can make up your own minds, but be aware that work has been done on concrete liners that will provide the necessary vacuum seal; underground is remarkably free from earthquake damage (ask the coal miners who did not know that there was an earthquake until they came to the surface and found that the city of Tongchan had been destroyed); and one of the nice things about the underground is that once you have established a condition - whether vaccum or as a cold storage plant - it takes very little energy to maintain the condition.  We will see how the Swissmetro goes, but perhaps in 10 years or so, I suspect that one or two of our readers may owe me a beer! (In the meantime shhhhhh!)

A quick perusal of the Swissmetro website i came across a statement that the construction of the tunnels would use as much energy as their current rail system uses in 100 years.
In todays press release EIA says 4 week avergae product was 20700 (Approx) release. GO to this link and compare.
 this says 20400.

Is the EIA up to something? 1 day difference can make an average difference of 300,000 barrels over 28 days. That doesnt make sense.
Any ideas anyone?

[ Parent | Reply to This ]

These are fun posts--and anything that might be a viable alternative for our future deserves a hearing. I would steer away from unlimited free energy devices, vehicles that run on water, and perpetual motion machines, however.

I understand that running in a vacuum will reduce wind resistance, but to do that we've got to keep vacuum pumps running 24/7. And the magnetic levitation--isn't that based on electromagnets? It seems to me that the energy needed to pump and levitate would offset most or all of the friction savings, not to mention the huge energy use to tunnel.

I think it's cool, and I'd ride it. But it's not the technology to save us from the crash ...

Well I might say that the idea is good and the problems are solvable. Along with tunnels we could use onground tubes, the tunnels might be isolated to prevent decompresion etc.

But unfortunately for it to pay-off energetically we would need another source of primary energy. The situaition is that by conservation and efficiency you can only solve the problem in the short run, but at some (very soon to come) point the investments in both of them do not pay-off energetically - we will reach "peak conservation", and probably after that "peak efficiency".

Finally - if I wanted to discuss real solutions I'd start discussing breeder reactors. Doable, feasible, available. Now.


I understand that this thing is entirely possible.

But WHY do we need this?

It is a huge expenditure, and only benefits those cities with enough legislative clout to get a train-stop put in. Otherwise, it only benefits LA and NY, and contrary to what these fine people may think, there are other places people live very effectively.

I think that, while it may be a really cool beans thing in terms of tech, it is a very poor use of our energy and money when the rest of the country has only a bare-bones rail system or none at all.

True it is largely for the bigger cities, at least initially, but somewhere in the Planetran article it mentioned that it moves people with sufficient energy efficiency as to reduce the overall national need for energy by between 10 and 12%.  That is not a small number.  

I suspect that, following the success in Europe it will start to be adopted here in the highly densly populated areas of the East Coast Corridor and gradualy spread outwards.

The big problem left to solve is that of digging the holes fast enough and with a low enough energy cost, and there is some work on that which might be promizing.

It's a stupid idea, short and simple. It's one of those "it would be neat if we could snap our fingers and make it happen for free" ideas. My guess is that the energy needed to maintain the tunnel under vacuum would easily dwarf the energy that would be expended if those 24,000 passengers per day drove from point A to point B. That doesn't even begin to tackle how long you'd have to wait to get back the energy you spent building the damn thing in the first place, if you assume that the steady state system is favorable energy wise.