Like a Cheetah

Last night, on the treadmill at the gym, I watched a bit of a National Geographic Special on the maglev train that connects Shanghai’s airport with its city center.  Most of it was about the engineering challenges of the project, and the many small dramas of solving them. At the end of the piece, we viewed the train from above as it rushed away on its elevated guideway, while the narrator said something like:  “But the future of the maglev train is very much in doubt.”

And I thought:  “Like a cheetah.”


That explained the déja vu I was feeling.  At some point long ago, I’d heard those words — “its future is very much in doubt” — in that same firm and resonant baritone, as I watched a cheetah — the world’s fastest land mammal — running into the distance from exactly this camera angle.

Finally I saw what the show was about.  We are meant to care for the maglev exactly as we’d care for a charismatic endangered species.  We’re to feel a specific motivating awe for the maglev because it’s sleek, fast, muscular, intense and yet, for all that, endangered, just like the cheetah.  We’re to believe that because this fast-moving yet inanimate object is the product of human engineers, the sentience of those engineers is there in the endangered thing itself, vulnerable to our judgment, just like the cheetah.

I don’t believe that.  I don’t care about powerful-but-vulerable transit technologies in the way I care about cheetahs.  What’s wrong with me?

18 Responses to Like a Cheetah

  1. EngineerScotty August 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    To add to your list–one ultrafast transit technology that’s already extinct:
    The Concorde.

  2. dale August 14, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Oh dear. What’s wrong with you? I’m afraid you’re showing signs of early-onset common sense 🙂

  3. Alon Levy August 14, 2009 at 11:47 pm #

    I rode the maglev train in Shanghai last month. It’s not really fast, once you consider check-in and wait time. The train takes 7 minutes to do 30 km, but you need to check in about 10 minutes before the train leaves, and then the train dwells about 2-3 minutes before letting you out. So overall it’s more like 20 minutes, which is the same as free-flowing highway speed.

  4. marco August 15, 2009 at 2:26 am #

    Another item for your list of endangered transit species: the Translohr

  5. Alon Levy August 15, 2009 at 10:27 am #

    Rubber-tired rail isn’t endangered at all. It’s alive and well in Paris and the rest of France, Mexico City, Santiago, and many individual lines in Japan.

  6. Stuart Donovan August 16, 2009 at 4:40 am #

    Stimulating post Jarrett.
    How does, for example, the billions of dollars poured into developing Maglev compare to investment in wheeled luggage?
    Innocuous wheels tagged to the bottom of our luggage have improved mobility for millions of people the world over.
    By most accounts wheeled luggage is a more effective transport technology than Maglev, yet receives little attention.
    Does this highlight a general need to shift the focus of transport planners away from “technology” and onto “service”?

  7. marco August 16, 2009 at 5:36 am #

    Rubber-tyred trams, in their first version, have been created as dual-mode vehicles, that were supposed tu run both on rails (as trains) and on ordinary roads (as buses). The only system that actually use this option is the GLT in Nancy, France, produced by Bombardier.
    A similar system exists in Caen, although the dual-mode option is not used in ordinary service.
    Both systems had experienced derailments, high maintenance costs and low ride quality: after these experiences, no other city wanted to purchase this system, and vehicle production has been discontinued.
    Translohr, implemented in Padua, Tianjin and Clermont-Ferrand uses a different rail profile, that doesn’t allow road-mode at all. Anyway, the system has kept the same disadvantages of Bombardier’s GLT, with no significant advantage:

    • Even if it runs on tyres, Translohr is still a streetcar, and it needs rails: its construction costs are comparable to the cost of a traditional streetcar.
    • It’s as comfortable as a trolleybus, and doesn’t offer neither the smooth ride of streetcars, nor the flexibility of buses.
    • Unlike ordinary trams, it cannot run on ordinary train lines.
    • In trains and buses, the vehicle’s weight guarantees the contact between wheels and road/rail. On rubber-tyred trams, vehicle weight is carried by rubber wheels, while guidance is guaranteed by steel wheels. Adherence is not guaranteed by vehicle weight anymore, so derailments are more likely to appear.
    • The special profile of Translohr rails caused several accidents to bikes and motorbikes sharing the road with streetcars.
    • Rubber-tyred trams are proprietary systems. if the manifacturer decides to discontinue the production of a particular vehicle (as it happened in Nancy an Caen), the city has no other option than demolish the whole network and rebuild it from scratch.

    At the moment, the status of the Translohr system around the world is:

    • Clermont-Ferrand: operational (1 line).
    • Padua: operational (1 line). Several accidents involved cyclists and tramway rails.
    • Venice: under construction (2 lines).
    • l’Aquila: suspended (1 line). Before the earthquake, construction was halted because of issues around the proprietary nature of the technology. After the eartquake, the tramway network was no longer considered a priority and construction has been suspended indefinitely.
    • Latina: under construction (1 line).
    • Paris: under construction (2 lines). Several oppositions to the choice of the Translohr.
    • Tianjin: operational (1 line)
    • shanghai: under construction (1 line).
  8. J.D. Hammond August 17, 2009 at 8:02 am #

    Every planner hates monorail by default, but can never articulate what, exactly, is wrong with monorails. I imagine my exasperation with this is not unlike your exasperation with BRT opposition.
    I wouldn’t make the claims that monorail partisans do that it can somehow be “profitable” in ways other transportation modes cannot. However, it’s demonstrated that it’s at least cost-comparable with LRT and provides higher levels of service. And the public, moreso than the planning community, is predisposed to like monorail. What’s wrong with that?

  9. J.D. Hammond August 17, 2009 at 8:04 am #

    Oh, and about charismatic megafauna: some are an evolutionary dead-end. Pandas have very little interest in reproduction and their diet is slowly poisoning them, yet we spend remarkable sums trying to sustain them because they’re cute. Meanwhile, frogs, sharks, bees and other animals are not nearly as large or cute but provide a vital ecological niche that is disappearing at alarming rates.
    So maybe you should care even less about the cheetah than you do about maglev?

  10. EngineerScotty August 17, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    The main things wrong with monorail is that the technology involved is usually proprietary; switching them is a pain, and they genenerally aren’t appropriate unless you have an elevated ROW. Transit planners aren’t ignorant of monorails; in most cases, they simply aren’t the best choice. As Jarrett will tell you, streetcars are far cuter than monorails these days. 🙂
    Yonah Freemark has an interesting take on the Disney monorail, and on the affect such touristy system have on public views of transit and transit technology.

  11. Teresa August 18, 2009 at 7:11 am #

    Oh, Jarrett, there is nothing wrong with YOU. 😉

  12. EngineerScotty August 18, 2009 at 11:40 am #

    Jarrett–you seem to have made a blog entry on monorails, which has subsequently disappeared. (A broken link to it still appears with this story).
    Was that your intent, or are there technical difficulties afoot?

  13. J.D. Hammond August 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    I’m guessing he used an image hosted on the Monorail Society listserv and Kim Pedersen may have sent a C&D. They enforce their copyrights very stringently and can be amazingly quick about it.
    Tho this might not have been what happened. I dunno.

  14. SpyOne August 18, 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    Actually, according to the handy “previous – main -next” navigation links at the top of the page, “on monorails” is to be the next entry in this blog.
    How it got picked as “You might also like” when it hasn’t been posted yet is beyond me, but that appears to be the case.

  15. EngineerScotty August 18, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    But it appears to be empty… it looks like it was deleted, but still has links pointing to it.

  16. Vonny February 4, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    […] See also Human Transit take on it and on technology driven approach in general like the monorail […] (it is manual trackball to since the automatic doesn’t seems to work)

  17. Bob Davis May 12, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    The negative attitude toward “monorails” can probably be traced to a number of causes. First of all are people like myself, who are railway enthusiasts, and look upon conventional railways as God’s chosen means of transport, and view other forms of guideway as illegitimate stepchildren (there was even a book about trolley buses titled “Transit’s Stepchild”.) In my case, electric railways are the ultimate development of transport; indeed, one of my retirement activities is working on preserved trams and interurbans at a railway museum, another is helping a support group that encourages construction of a light rail line through my old home town. On a more practical side, objections to “monorails” (and most of them are more accurately called “monobeams”) include: Cumbersome switching of routes. I challenge MR boosters to visit Chicago Transit’s Howard Street interlocker and explain how they’d do that with a monorail. “Engineer Scotty” listed some of the other objections to “monorail” for real-world transport. I remember back in the 60’s, when the BART system (Bay Area in California) was in the design phase. Supposedly the engineering team studied every possible mode short of Oklahoma wind-wagons, and settled on good old parallel rails, albeit further apart than standard (Mr. Brunel would be proud).
    And Engineer Scotty, Live Long and Prosper.

  18. Zoltán October 31, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    I remember when maglevs were proposed as a technology for HSR in the United Kingdom. I wonder quite how much time and money was spent going down the dead-end road of investigating that option.
    Now the plans involve segment-by-segment construction from the south with trains going as far as HSR will take them, then entering the regular rail network to proceed north. This is something that maglevs, of course, are quite incapable of.