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 V.15 No.1 | January 5 - 11, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

Magic with Magnets

When I was a kid, I read the funnies in the Sunday papers with a devotion that bordered on the religious. I poured over those colorful panels like some biblical scholar searching for revelations in a newly discovered parchment scroll. Dick Tracy was one of my favorites.

I still remember the line that Chester Gould, the creator of that particular strip, repeated every week for years: “Remember: He who controls the power of magnetism will control the universe.” I still don't know what the heck that means (if it means anything at all), and it may simply have been phony, mysterious-sounding trappings for bad science intended to impress credulous pre-adolescents.

Still, when I recently got exposed to a stack of information on a very promising approach to mass transit called “magnetic levitation” or “mag-lev” transportation, I was surprised to catch myself thinking back to Dick Tracy and his “Crimestoppers' Notebook Tips” for the first time in many years.

Don Oppenheimer, the retired Sandian who patiently exposed me to the tantalizing possibilities created by mag-lev transit, doesn't bear even a superficial resemblance to the goofy characters that populated Gould's comic book fantasy world. And the theme of his message to me was not “control of the universe,” but rather, “here's a simpler, less expensive approach to moving people from home to work and back.”

However, it sure did bring back memories of Dick Tracy when I heard him describe the elegance of using the power of magnets as a means of transportation for large numbers of people around the Albuquerque area. Magic with magnets harnessed in an economical, easy-to-build mag-lev transit line connecting Rio Rancho to Albuquerque and Santa Fe and beyond could very well be the solution to our energy crisis, our air quality problems and our economic development needs.

For starters, this is not pie-in-the-sky technology. It's in use already in Japan and Europe. Thousands of commuters travel every day in comfort and safety at high speeds on trains that have no wheels ... or engines. Instead, the cars are propelled by magnetic resistance, actually pushed along inches above the “rail” by one of the most basic of natural phenomena, the force that repels, or drives apart, similarly charged magnetic fields.

It is an attractive alternative to the heavy conventional train system our new regional Rail Runner will use (diesels pulling heavy cars down existing rail lines) on the Belen to Bernalillo commuter route starting sometime early in 2006. And it has several startling advantages over the light rail system that the City of Albuquerque seems poised to commit millions to building within the next three years.

Before we get too far down either of those optional pathways, Oppenheimer is hoping our transportation planners will fully explore the potential implicit in mag-lev. We could save millions of dollars and literally years of time getting started. We could use routes impossible to consider otherwise.

And we could create a potentially lucrative industry for our state in manufacturing the sections of mag-lev track that could then be transported to the site and installed easily and quickly like some giant erector set being linked together.

For Oppenheimer, the most compelling advantage mag-lev lines have over any of the alternative approaches is the far-greater flexibility in routes it provides to planners.

Mag-lev trains could easily manage the 7 percent grade of La Bajada. Neither conventional nor light rail systems trying to get to Santa Fe can do that. They have to loop around La Bajada to Lamy and thence to Santa Fe. That detour effectively adds 25 miles to the route and makes the trip by train far less attractive an option than automobile. A mag-lev route could zip between Albuquerque and Santa Fe using existing I-25 right-of-way straight up La Bajada. No problem.

Light rail routes in Albuquerque are planned for existing street corridors. That's fine, except that it will tie up those streets completely during construction and will reduce the carrying capacity of those existing city streets, effectively bottlenecking automobile traffic.

Mag-lev trains plying the exact same routes can be installed above automobile traffic, and because they require such a far simpler construction approach, employing preassembled sections raised into place by light cranes, they can be put into operation much more quickly and with less disruption to other activity. They could even be routed through existing buildings ... such as the Sunport, a new Downtown arena or the State Capitol.

Oppenheimer made a believer out of me. He envisions several routes through the Albuquerque area that would eventually be extended across the state and even be linked to a similar system being considered by the State of Colorado.

Anyone who has seen the backup of automobiles on the Paseo del Norte, Montaño and Alameda bridges during rush hour lately should be an easy sell for the mag-lev advocates.

Instead of waging the all-out warfare it takes for two or more decades to build (or even restripe) another bridge across the river and the disruptions for private property owners that another bridge would entail, a mag-lev system using existing crossings (but moving silently and smoothly above the flow of cars) could greatly expand the efficiency of our existing traffic grid.

It's cheaper than the alternatives. Less disruptive. More efficient. What's not to like about magnetic levitation? Dick Tracy was right: magnets do work magic.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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