Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another Transportation Folly?

Bainbridge Island WA - A news story out of Bainbridge Island Washington has me reminiscing of the Skybus days in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. A relatively untested mode of public transportation is being touted as a godsend by the developer and key politicians.

The developer, Jerry Lamb, seems hesitant to call his LEVX system a maglev system and the term maglev was not mentioned once in the article. The basic principals of maglev seem to be the propulsion system however but the main difference is using a lighter and less expensive plastic composite track over more traditional materials.

What strikes me odd about this proposal is that it's seriously being considered for a multi-million dollar transportation plan for the island when it hasn't undergone any form of rigorous testing to prove the concept works reliably and is safe. I can strap a rocket to a brick that's strapped to a skateboard and claim it works to move the brick from point A to point B but it doesn't mean it's safe and reliable as a form of public transportation.

The LEVX concept is unproven and has only had 3 million in private funding invested into it for development. There has been no real hard tests to determine safety and reliability of the LEVX system. While the amount of money invested tells little as to if the concept is viable, it does tell that the developer has not had the money to really do all of the needed testing and development.

LEVX brings back memories of the old Skybus project in Pittsburgh where an unproven concept was adopted by politicians to solve the transportation problem in the area. Skybus went through batteries of hard tests, had hundreds of millions of both private and public funding poured into it and it eventually passed the majority of the tests over a 10 year period but still failed to be built in the area.

While it was more political as to why Skybus wasn't built in Pittsbugh, it still had many questions that were not being fully answered. The Skybus concept now works at theme parks and airports and even in Miami and is known as "people movers". These applications only occurred after years of hard tests and refinements on the test track in the Pittsburgh area and even then, the early uses of the technology wasn't without its problems.

At the time of the Skybus development by Westinghouse in the 1960's and early 1970's, it wasn't refined enough to be used in public transit. LEVX is much the same, it needs many more years of development and testing before it is placed as the sole transportation mode for an area.

LEVX strikes me as similar to Skybus in this way as well, it's unproven but has a legion of supporters who want millions in taxpayer money to build a line to help solve the transportation issues of the area. The big problem with LEVX however goes back to the fact that it hasn't been subjected to the hard stress tests that Skybus had been and is still basically unproven since there are no real full scale tests being done on the concept.

In concept it sounds great. A cheaper maglev system which can be built quickly and help solve the transportation ills of the area. In reality, we only have the developers word for this as no hard testing has taken place and much of the concept is just that, a concept.

The first LEVX line is to be built privately at a resort in Mississippi in 2007. That will be the technologies first true trials. This needs to be done before committing millions in public funding for a transportation mode which is more or less an untested concept and being placed as the primary transportation mode for the area.

Let's make sure the concept works as its inventor advertises it will before pushing it on the public. Years of hard testing and proof that the concept works as it should in an operating environment will turn this doubter into a believer. Until then, I'll have my doubts that the concept won't be without serious problems once built.

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