The love affair between Miss America and Mr. Mass Transit remains on the rockiest of roads. Yet, Neil Sinclair and others are desperately trying to carry this stormy couple to the altar and over the threshold.
As Sinclair argues, there are so many reasons why we finally have to get on track with mass transit in America. We are spending $400 billion a year to import oil, which nearly equals our trade deficit. The “dead time loss” for people stuck in highway traffic jams is about $75 billion annually, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. “Finally, the health costs associated with air pollution caused by cars alone is about $70 billion. These problems will only get worse if we don’t attack them,” Sinclair says.
Add in America’s love affair with the automobile, a major stumbling block to acceptance of mass transit strategy, and the embarrassing size of the country’s carbon footprint as four percent of the world’s population continues to use 25 percent of global energy resources.
Sinclair is chairman of CyberTran, short for "cybernetic transportation," a high-speed, high-tech passenger rail system based in Richmond, Calif., and founded in 1998 by the late Dr. John Dearian. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Idaho National Lab developed the initial technology in the early 1990s, but no funding was available to continue. Dearian privatized the concept and Sinclair took over when Dearian died in 2005. Since then, Sinclair has focused on networking, building public and private business contacts and fund raising. CyberTran has filed 10 patents and has conducted numerous studies on mass transit.
The prototype system will be demonstrated in Richmond in partnership with the city and its industrial allies. CyberTran, stresses Sinclair, is a vision of sustainable transportation -- a system that is powered by renewable energy and serves as a blueprint for smart growth and development.
Sinclair calls CyberTran a "transportation Internet" that is much more flexible and adaptive than the traditional “hub and spoke” transit configuration. Unlike a typical train, CyberTran passenger cars are not physically connected to each other. The driver-less, computer-controlled cars hold 20 people and operate autonomously, stopping only at the stations the passengers select.
Sinclair says he's doing everything he can to put CyberTran on the fast track, but, as his late partner Dearian once said about the snail’s pace of realizing their dream, “It makes you want to throw yourself in front of a glacier!”
Yet, the Richmond (Calif.) West County Times reports in a recent article that CyberTran is on the brink of completing what amounts to 30 years of work on its new transit technology.
CyberTran technology provides a rail system that allows passengers to plan their destinations around their personal schedule. The proposed sleek, bullet-shaped 20-passenger vehicle has “cushy, charter-bus style seats, facing forward in rows” with all of the flexibility and comfort of current rail vehicles, while making personalized service levels a reality, Sinclair says.
The raised track includes an electric third-rail for vehicle power similar to many urban mass transit technologies, but the track is light enough that it can be incorporated into buildings and structures so stations can serve passengers with the greatest amount of flexibility. CyberTran’s computer-controlled and lightweight rail cars are powered by solar panels that line the track. Stations are aligned as off-track sidings so cars can continue moving on the main line while others are loading and unloading passengers offline, Sinclair says.
Among other recent positive developments is CyberTran’s new signed agreement with the i-GATE IHub Initiative, which will support its technology implementation and development. In September 2011 it had signed its first public-private partnership with the city of Richmond.
Times reporter Alexis Kenyon writes, “The partnership with i-Gate is just one of a long list of endorsements for CyberTran. The company is in initial phases of securing additional city-based partnerships in Northern California. In the last several months it has also garnered public affirmation from politicians like Senator Barbara Boxer, Congressmen George Miller and a growing number of transit experts.”
i-GATE is a public-private regional partnership of 10 cities, two national laboratories, universities, research institutions, and more than 30 additional venture capital, angel investor, economic development, and industry partners. As a State of California designated iHub (innovation hub), i-GATE supports the growth of new technology companies and creation of jobs in clean energy, green transportation, and high performance computing.
Together larger facilities like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC Berkeley can provide “young entrepreneurial green transportation” access to more advanced technology and industry connections, I-Gate’s website says.
“There’s a certain marketing value there, and there is value of technical resources,” notes Sinclair. “These places have very strong teams of consultants and engineers who have their own lab capabilities to assist us in problem solving—which is very attractive.”
“Rail transit is an important part of the transportation picture,” says Sinclair in an i-GATE news release. “We have developed CyberTran technology as an application of all of the best attributes that rail technology has to offer, including ease of use, seamless operation in urban and rural environments, connection between regional centers, and stations that are adjacent to the mainline so that the vehicles can bypass stations where no stop is necessary.”
This last point, according to Sinclair, is a major distinction of the CyberTran rail technology. By using a station layout that allows stopping vehicles to get off of the main line, travel times for passengers are dramatically decreased with the elimination of unnecessary station stops.
CyberTran wants to build a low-speed test track at Richmond, at a cost of about $25 million. Sinclair says he'd also like to build a high-speed test track in partnership with the cities of Davis and Lathrop, Calif.
The high-speed test track is proposed as a five-mile continuous figure eight loop that will allow CyberTran to validate the application of its rail technology at speeds up to 150 miles per hour.
The CyberTran vehicle and rail technology have already been tested in low-speed environments of up to 60 miles per hour on closed loop tracks and on a 1/32nd scale test track at Richmond with speeds modeled in excess of 160 miles per hour. With a full-scale high-speed test facility, CyberTran will be able to demonstrate that the technology is appropriate for use in urban and rural transit environments, Sinclair says.
According to i-GATE, CyberTran’s plan for the high-speed test track includes almost $100 million dollars of investment and will result in local and regional construction and manufacturing jobs in design and assembly of the track and vehicles. By demonstrating the ability of the system to operate across the spectrum of low- to high-speed environments, CyberTran hopes to demonstrate the potential for use of the technology as a connector between current mass transit systems across California, the U.S., and overseas.
At a projected cost of just 20 percent per rail mile of traditional rail technologies -- and due to the designed ability to operate in built-out urban centers with minimal impact -- Sinclair is working with several members of Congress to find funding for the high-speed test track within existing transportation appropriations.
“There are a lot of compelling reasons why we should want to reduce our consumption of petroleum. This is a problem. If you understand the problem well enough, the solution becomes obvious,” observes Sinclair.
Non ultra-light systems are virtually impossible to complete anymore, he says. “New York City has the highest mass transit ridership. That’s because it was built around a subway. Imagine trying to install that system today, the cost, the disruption.”
Cost is the number one problem, says Sinclair. A new 17-mile BART line from San Francisco to San Jose to Fremont is estimated at $7 billion. “Second, even when they get built, they are not very efficient. Stopping at virtually every station means an average speed of 15 miles per hour in some systems. Finally, the parking lots at commuter stations here fill up by 7 or 7:30 a.m. When people can’t find a space, they drive to work.”
Sinclair says mass transit works in New York City because of the concentration of people. In Los Angeles, with the freeway system, people are so spread out that transit lines have to be long and stops more sparse.
“I think CyberTran is especially appealing to today’s communities. It easily accepts new locations and that has proven to encourage development of neighborhoods. The infrastructure is much less costly to build and maintain since our cars are so light. It’s easy to raise the track and put it on columns, which minimizes right-of-way and easement issues. Mathematical modeling enables you to easily change schedules. In fact, CyberTran is a closed loop network. You don’t need transfers,” says Sinclair.
Lower costs. Less pollution. Stronger local resources. More healthy people. A formula for community growth. More accessibility to the rest of the country and the world. To some, that sounds like a marriage made in heaven…er…mass transit.