The need for clean speed
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the Otto Celera 500L, a small plane that can travel at the speed of a commercial airliner on 1/8 of the fuel. The big advantage that such a plane could bring to the market is its low emissions (relatively speaking) while providing even better speed and convenience than commercial air travel. The thing is, we’re addicted to going fast. No one wants to spend more time traveling than necessary. Time is money, right? But air travel has drawbacks, such as noise, pollution, costs, and infrastructure. We now know that climate change is a big downside as well.
Japan struck a balance on this issue decades ago with the Shinkansen network, commonly known as Bullet Trains. With speeds of up to 200 MPH, power supply, and easier integration with other public transportation, there’s a lot to love about them. For longer journeys, such as Aomori to Kagoshima (crossing most of Japan), an airplane is always faster, and most routes over 1,000 kilometers tend to favor air travel. Below 750 km, getting on the train becomes more advantageous, and train travel is more popular on most shorter routes. At all lengths, the train almost always beats the car.
But, if the high speed train had only advantages, it would be used everywhere. The big downside is that it takes a lot of money to build the infrastructure that these trains use. High quality rails that can handle speeds of 200 MPH, leveling, tunnels, viaducts, the trains themselves and the electrical infrastructure all make it quite expensive not only to build but also to operate and maintain. . If you are going to be moving fast, you will need more than just a fast vehicle. You need space to move it. Unlike cars, a 220 MPH train only needs to make relatively smooth turns and cannot have sudden elevation changes. After all, it’s meant to be a train, not a roller coaster.
Even in Taiwan, a densely populated neighboring country that was once Japanese territory, the business model of Shinkansen trains had to be reworked several times and government costs were much higher than expected.
The United States has not been so lucky when it comes to building a high speed train. A California bullet train years behind schedule, multibillion dollar over budget, and faces the very real prospect of not being completed if support for additional funding runs out. Other projects, like the Texas Central Railway, are struggling with land acquisition issues and other construction barriers. That leaves the United States with only one high-speed railroad, the Amtrak Acela. In theory, it can go 165 MPH and would hardly be considered high speed by world standards. In reality, it usually only works at an average of 70 MPH.
Satisfy the need for clean speed without tracks
There is a fantastic scenario that could make high speed train problems go away. Imagine if there was a large mass of perfectly flat land, owned by no one, that connected most of the largest cities in the world, even the United States. Rail planners could easily and relatively inexpensively build a high-speed rail system if such perfect strips of land existed.
It turns out that such a fantastic place exists, but it is not a land. It is the ocean. Obviously, you can’t build railways on water (well, not easily), so to take advantage of the flat space that connects most big cities and to go fast, you have to do something other than build trains. Boats are the obvious alternative, but they have too much water drag to reach serious speeds. This left our species with the question of how to take full advantage of this perfect setting (the ocean) without going so slow.
But it’s a problem that people have been working on for a long time, which led to a really interesting solution that the Soviet Union came up with: the Ekranoplan.
One of the first solutions to the speed problem was to place hydrofoils – small wings – under boats to lift them out of the water and reduce drag. Speeds improved, but were still only around 70 MPH at best (which is still pretty darn good for a boat!). To go faster, the Soviet scientist Rostislav Alexeyev came up with the idea of moving the wings out of the water and to the sides of the boat. But it was not a seaplane. The wings take advantage of the ground effect, that is, a cushion of air that tends to develop under the plane when it flies close to the ground.
This resulted in a design that was not only more efficient than airplanes, but also much faster than ships. But that was the Soviet Union of the 1960s, and nothing big and expensive could get funding unless you could articulate possible military use, so that’s what Alexeyev did. Unlike normal planes, the Ekranoplan was very happy to fly right next to the surface and could literally fly under radar, over sonar and sea mines, and could go places with very shallow water, like a seaplane. It could even go to beaches and potentially drop tanks and personnel after a stealthy approach.
The final design, the KM (some call it Kaspian’s Monster), weighed over 200 tons and had 10 jet engines, but 8 of the jet engines were only used for take-off and were extinguished once The Ekranoplan generated a ground effect. Only two motors were needed to move a massive, massive load.
Unfortunately, the design did not go into series production because flying near salt water was hell for the engines, and flying the Ekranoplan was very difficult. It was also very, very difficult to turn, requiring a huge radius. Finally, we have to keep in mind that the ocean is not always a pleasant, flat place with good ground effect. In everything but the calmest and smoothest sea, the monstrous KM Ekranoplan simply could not pick up speed and float properly on the surface. This limited its usefulness to inland seas like the Caspian, Azov, Black, and Aral (at least before the Aral was destroyed by poor water management).
In Part 2, I’ll explore the progress the Soviet Union has made on Ekranoplans and then share the story of an American electric design that could make it a viable solution for passenger transport and even some military uses.
Image presented by Regent Craft.
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