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Opinion: High speed rail advances globally, crawls in the U.S.

(The following appeared on the Green Energy News website on February 11.)

Somewhere deep in the pages of President Bush’s proposed 2009, $3.1 trillion budget is a 40 percent cut in Amtrak funding. A cut so deep that the quasi-government interstate passenger rail service could screech to a halt. The lame duck’s plan is to give Amtrak $800 million.

Nearly on the same day that the President unveiled his budget Alstom, of France, unveiled its latest high speed train, the AGV (Automotrice ˘ Grande Vitesse) ) a next generation replacement for the TGV (Train ˘ Grande Vitesse). The company already has orders: 35 trains, with an option of 10 more to Italian rail operator NTV

Fortunately Amtrak has friends in Congress who will ignore Bush’s budget request and Amtrak will keep rolling. Congress gave the rail service $1.3 billion for 2008. At least that is expected for ‘09. States in the Northeast in particular can’t afford to lose the rail service: The strain on the highways as former train passengers took to the roads would be too high. But, if for some reason Amtrak should eventually go, states from Virginia all the way up the coast will likely team up to keep the rail service humming as best they can. Behind the scenes they’re making contingency plans, you can be almost certain of that.

While Bush may not have noticed the unveiling of the AGV, rail proponents in the states most likely did and, like many, continue to wonder why the rest of the world seems to be moving ahead building more high speed rail while generally the US has little interest.

Little interest doesn’t mean no interest, however, and from time-to-time plans pop up and disappear. A group in Florida planning high speed rail, with an initial leg between Orlando and Tampa hasn’t met in nearly three years. That project appears shelved.

In California, though planning, is still proceeding to build a 700-mile TGV style railroad in that state. The government group in charge of planning for that project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board, has recently announced that it has approved a cooperative agreement with the French Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Spatial Planning to share its expertise and skills learned as part of France’s TGV high-speed train system.

For California, high speed passenger rail will become part of its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While passenger rail is generally a low emitter, the Board is now investigating the possibility of running the whole system on renewable energy, thus making the system a true zero emission form of transportation.

If built, it likely won’t be a now-outdated TGV system but an AGV.

The AGV is technologically and environmentally impressive even without renewable power. According to Alstom, CO2 emissions per passenger-kilometer will be 2.2 grams, compared to 30 grams for a bus, 115 grams for a car and 153 grams for a plane. At its planned capability to travel at 360 kilometers per hour (224 miles per hour) (it can travel faster too) it has fifteen percent better energy economy than its rivals in the high speed train marketplace.

To achieve this efficiency the AGV makes extensive use of composite materials to keep weight down. It will weigh around 70 tons – about 17 percent less than rival trains of a similar length.

AGV has no locomotive cars. Each carriage has electric traction motors in each wheel bogey creating a distributed drive system that runs the length of the train. Without a locomotive at each end Automotrice can carry 20 percent more paying passengers than other trains of the same length, adding to the overall passenger per kilometer efficiency. Trains will be 7 to 14 cars long and carry 250-650 passengers.

Those traction motors are the rare earth synchronous permanent magnet (PM) type and operate at 97 percent efficiency. Aside from propulsion the motors also help brake the train and, like most hybrid cars, capture lost energy. This regenerative feature can return up to 8 megawatts into the train’s power supply, typically the grid.

Amtrak’s highest speed train is the Acela which travels the Northeast Corridor at up to 150 miles per hour but often much less on curvy rails through old cities. Instead of keeping Amtrak limping literally and figuratively along a dream would be for Congress, and perhaps the next President, to launch a long term project to bring high speed rail to the entire US.

Around the world, high speed rail is the happening thing. In Europe 6,000 kilometers (3700 miles) of high-speed lines are due to be built by 2020, tripling the length of the existing high-speed network. China is expected to build 3,000 kilometers (almost 1900 miles) of high-speed railways within 15 years. Argentina has recently announced plans to build a 710 kilometer-long (440 mile) line from Buenos Aires to Cordoba – the first high-speed line in Latin America. Morocco is considering high speed rail also powered in part by renewable energy - solar. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Portugal, Russia and Sweden are all considering high speed rail. At least 14 other countries already have it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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