By Ruth Galanter, Columnist
CAN you make an omelet without breaking eggs? Our elected officials, and even the news media, apparently think so.
The latest example is the Los Angeles City Council's infatuation with maglev. Maglev is a train technology that lifts the train off the track by creating a magnetic field that makes the train and track repel each other.
In theory, maglev trains are faster, quieter and cheaper than other trains. But the only ones in operation are at test tracks and in Shanghai, where the government built the train to the airport as part of its campaign to demonstrate how modern China has become. In Europe, Japan and Taiwan, high-speed trains have been in operation for years, but they run on rails instead of above them.
Local maglev fans claim the private sector will build the trains, so this isn't going to cost the taxpayers. But here are some questions no one has bothered to ask:
Where will the train lines be located?
What is there now, and where will it be moved? Who will pay to relocate displaced residents and businesses?
Who will pay for the right of way?
What happens if the technology doesn't work out as promised? Are there warranties or a plan to remove anything that doesn't work?
Maglev fans have been around for years. The Southern California Association of Governments got into the act when someone discovered some federal money. (Willie Sutton would have loved this.) SCAG's proposal was for a maglev from Los Angeles International Airport to downtown and out to Ontario Airport. SCAG's director claimed it wouldn't require any public money since the trains would run along the public freeways.
OK, I said, picturing myself in a train:
How does the train get from LAX to a freeway? No answer.
Which freeway? Doesn't matter, the SCAG director said. So I picked 105 to 110 to 101 to Union Station. Do we run at freeway level or on top? On top, he said.
What happens at the interchanges? (Let me remind you that before the 105 reaches the 110, it crosses the 405 at a many-level interchange.) Does my train go through the middle or over the top? The top? How high and how steeply can a maglev train climb?
At each end of the trip, the train is actually running on rails, just like other trains. And to maintain high speed around a curve, the curve can't be too tight.
I tried once to get the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to extend the Green Line train into LAX by taking it through the Sepulveda tunnel. The MTA pointed out that even Green Line trains can't make the sharp right turn to get into the tunnel, and they also can't go down and back up in the short distance of the tunnel.
Can a train at high speed make the curve from the northbound 110 to the southbound 101? Safety rules require even ordinary freight trains to run slowly in urban areas because an accident at high speed is much more serious than at low speed. (Momentum equals mass times speed.)
The magnetic field that lifts the maglev train is created by electricity. What happens in a power failure or earthquake? The train settles onto its track. And if it is on top of the 405/105 interchange, how exactly do we get the people down?
Close to a decade ago, the California High Speed Rail Authority, which is responsible for planning high-speed rail service to connect northern and southern California, studied maglev vs. regular high-speed rail and concluded that maglev was too expensive, unproven, unwarrantied and unwarranted. Regular high-speed trains would do the job just as well and at lower cost.
High-speed rail (of any kind) is designed to connect distant places. It works best when the stops are far apart. It is utterly unsuited to commuter lines within a metropolitan area. It would work for connecting Anaheim with Las Vegas (with maybe one stop in the Inland Empire), but it would not work for connecting Anaheim with downtown Los Angeles.
It is always wise to ask who will pay, who will be displaced, what will happen to those displaced, and is any of it morally and fiscally justified. The answers are never easy. There is no free ride.
Ruth Galanter is a former member and president of the Los Angeles City Council, on which she served for 16 years.