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'Maglev' trains that reach speeds exceeding 300 mph eyed for county

(The following article by Mark Walker was posted on the North County Times website on June 4.)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Imagine being whisked from San Diego to an airport in Imperial County aboard a magnetic levitation train at speeds of more than 300 miles per hour.

That's one possibility in the ongoing search for a new regional airport site, and one solidly backed by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, whose district includes Imperial County.

The first step toward that scenario will be taken if Congress agrees to provide $10 million in funds to study proposals for magnetic levitation train systems around the nation.

If federal lawmakers authorize the money, the San Diego Association of Governments plans to ask for $2 million to study corridors in this region that could be served by such a train.

On Monday, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board will consider passing a resolution supporting that application and approving a contribution of up to $500,000 of its own money toward the study.

During a meeting of the association of governments' transportation committee Friday, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Lemon Grove Mayor Mary Sessom reported on a recent trip to China, where they rode one of the world's two magnetic levitation trains now operating.

The two transportation panel members rode the train's 19-mile route that links Shanghai with its regional airport. Reaching a maximum speed of 270 miles an hour, the highest possible because of the relatively short distance between the station and the airport, the ride took less than 20 minutes.

"It's as impressive as you might expect," Roberts said. "It's probably the future of long-range public transportation."

Magnetic levitation trains have no engine, instead relying on a magnetic field created by electrified coils to propel it. The coils, called a guideway, repel large magnets on the train's undercarriage, allowing it to levitate and creating magnetic fields that push the train along the guideway. The only sound generated by the train is that created by its speed.

Because the trains effectively float on a cushion of air, friction is eliminated and speeds of more than 300 miles per hour are achieved. That's more than twice the speed reached by Amtrak's fastest commuter train.

The only other "maglev" train now operating is in Germany.

There are proposals for several such systems around the United States, including one that would link Anaheim with Las Vegas.

Sessom and Roberts said they were wowed by their ride on the Shanghai train. They described it as impressively smooth and quiet.

"You did not know you were going 270 miles per hour," Sessom said.

Roberts said he will champion the study among his fellow county supervisors and seek their support for the federal funding and any county contribution that may be appropriate.

"This really is something that needs our consideration," Roberts said. "For any planning group in San Diego County that is serious about looking into the future, this is an absolute must."

Besides serving as a conveyance to reach a new airport for San Diego County, Southern California transportation planners have floated the idea of a magnetic levitation train that would link airports throughout the region.

Garry Bonelli, chief spokesman for the association of governments, which serves as the region's transportation planning and funding agency, said it was important to consider the possible role of magnetic levitation train.

The airport authority's role in the study comes after Rep. Filner appeared before its board this spring to push his support for a new regional airport in Imperial County.

Filner said he would work to secure funding for a magnetic levitation train to link this county with an airport there, and he chastised the board for planning to drop Imperial County as a prospective airport site because of its distance from San Diego.

An airport in Imperial County coupled with a high-speed train would open up a new transportation corridor that could stretch from San Diego to Arizona, Filner said.

The airport authority is charged with coming up with a recommendation for a new airport site or a plan to expand San Diego's Lindbergh Field in time for a November 2006 countywide ballot measure.

The fate of an unrelated high-speed train project, this one operating on traditional steel wheels and linking San Diego with San Francisco and Sacramento, is unclear.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has approved a route that travels along the Interstate 15 corridor with stops in Escondido and Murrieta in Southwest Riverside County.

A measure asking state voters to approve $8 billion in bonds for the first part of that project was slated to appear on November 2006 ballot, but the state Assembly recently voted to move it to the 2008 fall election.

A final decision depends on whether the state Senate and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger concur.

Monday, June 6, 2005

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