Trains have been on my mind lately, partly because I just completed a two-day trip from San Francisco by train, but also because trains have been in the news lately: Montreal’s Bombardier was in hot water over cracks in the suspensions of Amtrak’s high-speed Acela trains, McLean’s magazine recently ran a front-page story on rail travel, and locally, there’s increasing talk about the possibility of train service returning to Regina after an absence of several years.

Trains, of course, are the very symbol of 19th century industrial civilization. It’s probably fair to say that without rail travel, neither Canada nor the United States could have cohered as nations, and North America would instead be populated by several smaller countries.

But what’s interesting to note is that even a technology as old as railroads continues to improve, with high-tech trains running around the world today that would astonish Casey Jones and his ilk and more exciting plans on the drawing boards.

Actually, railroad technology is even older than you might think. The idea of a special track for hauling good dates back about 2,000 years, when the ancient Greeks built roads paved with stone blocks that had grooves cut in them. Wagons with wheels the same width as the grooves were pulled over the roads by horses, the grooves keeping the wagons on the road and the stone paving providing a much smoother ride and allowing much heavier loads to be carried.

Around 1550, German miners were running small wooden carts on wooden rails raised slightly above the ground to haul coal and ore up from underground. By the early 1700s iron rails were replacing wood. The steam engine was developed and improved in the 1700s, and the first practical steam locomotive was demonstrated in 1804. In September of 1825, the world’s first true railroad traveled nine miles in a little over an hour, pulling six loaded coal cars and 21 passenger cars with 450 passengers.

Over the next few decades the railroad became the primary method of land-based transportation for goods and people–and altered people’s perception of the world. Travel that once took days or weeks could be accomplished in hours. New technology developed for the railways found its way into many other walks of life, just as technology developed for the space program has revolutionized life here on Earth. Railroads became the first true national companies, altering the scale of economic enterprise. They were the focal point of some of the first labor unions, thus ultimately benefiting working people in many other industries. They defined the settlement patterns of the western parts of North America; often, only the railroad made settlement possible at all. They provided employment to thousands of people, in particular large numbers of new immigrants.

Train technology has marched on during the decades, too. Telegraphs were once used to give orders to trains which were then passed up the engineers by hand during station stops; today trains are controlled by dispatchers in highly automated centralized locations. It used to take thousands of people to process freight bills; computers take care of that now. Automated scanning systems help to keep track of the hundreds of thousands of freight cars. Even the clickety-clack sound of rail travel, familiar from a hundred movies, has disappeared in some areas with the advent of continous welded rail, which also eliminates the maintenance nightmare associated with bolted tracks.

But over time, our love affair with the railroad as a means of personal transportation has faded. The advent of the automobile provided a form of transportation that reflected our individuality better; cars run when and where you want them to, not on a schedule set by someone else. And the advent of the passenger airplane shrank the world even further than the train, so that a trip that takes days by rail (like my trip back from San Francisco) can be accomplished in just a few hours.

Except…airports are often on the edge of cities, and it can take as long to escape an airport with your luggage and make your way downtown as it did to fly to the city in the first place. Trains usually deposit you in the very heart of downtown, a short cab ride from central hotels and business places. (You can get from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Chicago in only 89 minutes by train; it takes much longer to get to the airport, fly to Chicago, and then get downtown.) If only they were a little faster, trains might be able to win back travelers’ hearts again.

With that in mind, inventors have labored long and hard to improve train technology, to the point where in Europe, almost every country has some form of high-speed train. The British/French/Belgian Eurostar, the German Inter City Express and the Japanese Shinkansen regularly reach speeds of 300 kilometres per hour. The French TGV (which stands for train à grande vitesse–French for “high-speed train”) travels at up to 320 kilometres an hour, and holds the world rail speed record of 515 kilometres per hour.

How can these trains reach such impressive speeds? (They’re mostly electrical trains, by the way, not disel-powered.) One secret is that for the high-speed portion of their runs, they run on purpose-built tracks–that is, not on the same old tracks used for ordinary trains, but on special tracks that feature a number of special features: no level crossings, concrete foundations (you really don’t want the rail to sag under a high-speed train), gentle, banked curves, wide spacing between lines (two trains passing at high speed causes a burst of air pressure followed by a drop in air pressure that can lead to fatigue and failure of the train’s windows over time), and an absence of tunnels (for the same reason: huge air pressure changes when a fast train enters a tunnel, so huge they can be painful or even harmful to passengers).

Another trick, used by most high-speed trains, especially those that run on regular, non-banked rails, is tilting technology; the coaches tilt up to 6.5 degrees as they go around a curve. This isn’t to keep the train on the track: the force required to shove a train sideways off a curve is so great that the passengers would all be plastered against the outside wall by the centrifugal force before it happened. It’s really for passenger comfort. Passengers don’t like being forced sideways in their seats or having bottles and luggage and things rolling and sliding across the floor. Tilting the coaches alters the direction of the centrifugal forces so that passengers are forced down into their seats instead of sideways. A sensor in the power car monitors when the train arrives at the curve and activates each coach, making them tilt independently.

The Amtrak Acela high-speed train, built by (and recently repaired by) Bombardier, really needs tilting technology, because it doesn’t run on purpose-built track; although portions of the track it runs on have been rebuilt. As a result, it only operates at speeds of up to 240 kilometres per hour, and in some stretches doesn’t exceed 215 kilometres per hour.

A farther-out technology that has been touted for years is magnetic levitation, or maglev. In a maglev train, the special track, or guideway, contains electrified coils that create a magnetic field that repel large magnets in the train’s undercarriage. This allows the train to levitate one to 10 centimetres above the guideway. There’s no locomotive; instead, the current supplied to the coils within the guideway walls is constantly alternating, causing the magnetic field to change polarity. The magnetic field in front of the train pulls it forward, while the field behind it adds more forward thrust by repelling it. And since the train floats on a cushion of air, it can reach enormous speeds–more than 500 kilometres per hour–with only the sound of the wind accompanying the ride. At that speed, you could travel from Paris to Rome on a maglev train in just over two hours.

Maglev trains are being experimented with in many places, particularly Germany and Japan, but it looks like the first publicly used one will debut in 2003 (at the earliest) in Shangiah, China, using a train developed by a German company.

So why aren’t maglev trains springing up all over? The main reason is the cost: it’s estimated building a maglev train system in the U.S. would range from $10 million to $30 million per mile. That’s because the magnets needed require superconducting technology, which can currently only be accomplished with expensive cooling systems. If work into room-temperature superconductivity pays off, that cost could drop dramatically.

That 19th century technological wonder, the railroad, is still with us in many forms, and isn’t going away. And even in its lower-tech, diesel-locomotive clackety-clack form, it has it’s own beauties: take a trip through the mountains of the American northwest, and as you’re rolling along, say, the Columbia River gorge, you’ll see why some of us actually prefer to take the train–two-day trip from San Francisco and all.

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