Atlantic Cities

The Latest Fantastic Transportation System That Will Never Be Built

All remaining points for ambition go to the ET3 company — slogan: "Space Travel on Earth" — for its proposed airless transport tubes capable of slinging travelers around the globe at anywhere from 370 miles per hour (for local trips) to 4,000 m.p.h. for intercontinental ones. That's Beijing to New York in two hours, for those keeping score at home, borne on the power of vacuums and hope.

The maglev tube system is frictionless, according to the company's website, which enables its sleek passenger capsules to coast at the desired speed after an initial acceleration with electric motors. (For more juicy technical details, head over to Gizmag.) A pair of tubes carrying the six-person capsules can handle the same capacity as a 32-lane freeway, says ET3. Which leaves just one unanswered question: Can you point us to the café capsule?

The concept's a wild one, but not too wild for the U.S. Patent Office, which issued patent number 5950543 to ET3 in September of 1999. Recognizing the obvious financial burden, the company is selling sub-licenses for $100 a pop to Chinese investors who want a share of the action. Though it must be said the company's 2003 cost analysis, estimating construction at an optimistic $2 million a mile, seems to have misplaced a zero or several.

ET3 has seven more years to raise the money and build the trial system before its patent expires, and we certainly wish the company luck against tall odds. But fear not failure: if anything's true in the history of urban transportation, it's that one fantastical transportation scheme always deserves another. Last year I surveyed a number of amazing city-to-city transport systems for The Infrastructist, sadly now defunct, and I'll resurrect a few of them here — the link may be dead but the dreams are not.

Robert Goddard beat ET3 to the idea of tube transportation by a cool century. The so-called "father of modern rocket propulsion" sketched out a vacuum tube that suctioned travelers from Boston to New York at 1,200 m.p.h. in a 1909 issue of Scientific American. Goddard's early maglev system ultimately earned a patent of its own [PDF], in 1950, though not before the inventor's death.

The 19th century had a few super-rapid transport visions of its own, albeit of the less convincing variety. In 1892 bicycle mogul Albert Pope spoke publicly about an electric bike-train that would whisk travelers from New York to Boston at 200 mph. Pope could have wrangled a few $100 sub-licenses of his own that day; his listeners agreed the idea "was the coming system of the future," according to the Boston Globe. Plus, at that speed, you don't need to bother with a helmet.

Meanwhile in the Midwest, just a few years earlier, officials in St. Paul, Minnesota, drew up plans for an impressively precise system of rail lines extending outward from the city — including the St. Paul & London Intercontinental Doubletrack Railway. An 1871 graphic of the system, pegged for the year 1900, lives on in the Minnesota Historical Society:

Popular Science compiled a gallery of futuristic trains two autumns back that included a Parisian flying train (ca. 1919); a Scottish monorail powered by airplane propellers at both ends (ca. 1930); a Soviet submarine-train that did a slick 180 m.p.h. by land then dislodged from the rail and dipped into the water (ca. 1934); and a two-headed train that cut the travel time between New York and Boston to three hours (ca. 1956).

Little did they know Amtrak would easily accomplish that feat in just — oh right. Maybe it's time to give those plans another look-see.

Only the Japanese can propose a seemingly impossible transportation system with a straight face. Their latest is a maglev train called the Chuo Shinkansen that will glide between Tokyo and Osaka at speeds eclipsing 300 m.p.h. The full line, approved by the government last spring, is expected to be completed by 2045 at a cost of 9 trillion yen:

Hopefully by then Americans can travel by tube in just a couple hours to go see it.

Images courtesy of U.S. Patent Office, Minnesota Historical Society, and Wikipedia user Hisagi via Creative Commons.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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