The Need For Clean Speed
A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article about the Otto Celera 500L, a small plane that can travel at commercial airliner speeds with 1/8 the fuel. The big advantage such a plane could bring to the market is low emissions (relatively speaking) while giving even better speed and convenience than commercial air travel. The thing is, we’re addicted to moving fast. Nobody wants to spend more time traveling than they have to. Time is money, right? But air travel does have downsides, such as noise, pollution, cost, and infrastructure. Now we know that climate change is also a big downside.
Japan struck a balance on this decades ago with the Shinkansen network, commonly known in English as Bullet Trains. With speeds of up to 200 MPH, electric power, and easier integration with other transit, there’s a lot to like about them. For longer trips, like from Aomori to Kagoshima (going across most of Japan), a plane is still 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 car travel.
But, if high speed rail only had upsides, it would be in use everywhere. The big downside is that it takes a lot of money to build the infrastructure these trains use. High-quality rails that can handle 200 MPH speeds, grading, tunnels, viaducts, the trains themselves, and electrical infrastructure all make it pretty expensive to not only build, but to operate and maintain. If you’re going to move fast, you’ll need more than just a quick vehicle. You need the space to move it. Unlike cars, a 220 MPH train needs to make only relatively gentle turns and can’t have any sudden elevation changes. After all, it’s supposed to be a train and not a rollercoaster.
Even in Taiwan, a neighboring country with high population density that used to be Japanese territory, the business model for Shinkansen trains had to be reworked several times and government costs were far higher than anticipated.
The US hasn’t been as lucky when it comes to getting high speed rail built. A California bullet train is years behind schedule and billions of dollars 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 barriers to construction. This leaves the US with only one high-speed railway, Amtrak’s Acela. In theory, it can go 165 MPH and would barely qualify as high speed by global standards. In reality, it usually only runs at an average of 70 MPH.
Satisfying The Need For Clean Speed Without Tracks
There’s one fantasy scenario that could make high speed rail problems basically go away. Imagine if there was a big mass of perfectly flat land, owned by nobody, and that connected most of the world’s largest cities, even in the United States. Rail planners could easily and relatively cheaply build a high speed rail system if such strips of perfect land existed.
It turns out that such a fantasy place exists, but it’s not land. It’s the ocean. Obviously, we can’t build train tracks on water (well, not easily), so to take advantage of the flat space that connects most major cities and go fast, we need to do something other than build trains. Boats are the obvious alternative, but they have too much water drag to get up to any serious speeds. This has left our species with the question of how to take full advantage of this ideal setting (the ocean) without going so slow.
But this is a problem that people have been working on for a long time, leading to a really neat solution the Soviet Union came up with: the Ekranoplan.
One early solution to the problem of speeds was to put hydrofoils — small wings — under boats to lift them out of the water and reduce drag. Speeds improved, but were still only about 70 MPH at best (which is still pretty damned good for a boat!). To go faster, Soviet scientist Rostislav Alexeyev came up with the idea of moving the wings out of the water and onto the sides of the boat. But it wasn’t a seaplane. The wings take advantage of the ground effect, or a cushion of air that tends to develop beneath aircraft when flying close to the ground.
This made for a design that was not only more efficient than aircraft, but also far faster than boats. But this was the 1960s Soviet Union, and nothing big and expensive could get funding unless you could articulate a possible military use, so that’s what Alexeyev did. Unlike normal planes, the Ekranoplan was very happy flying right next to the surface and could literally fly below the radar, above sonar and sea mines, and could go in places with very shallow water, like a seaplane. It could even go on beaches, and potentially drop tanks and personnel after a stealthy approach.
The final design, the KM (some call it the Kaspian Monster), weighed over 200 tons and had 10 jet engines, but 8 of the jet engines were only used for takeoff, and were shut off once the Ekranoplan had generated ground effect. Only two engines were needed to move a massive, massive load.
Sadly, the design didn’t go into mass production because flying close to salt water was hell on 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 isn’t always a nice, flat place that’s friendly to ground effect. In anything but the most calm and smooth of seas, the monstrous KM Ekranoplan just couldn’t get up to speed and float over the surface properly. This limited its usefulness to inland seas like the Caspian, Azov, Black, and Aral (at least before the Aral got destroyed by poor water management).
In Part 2, I’m going to explore the further progress on Ekranoplans the Soviet Union made, and then share the story of an electric American design that could make it a viable solution to passenger transport and even some military uses.
Featured image by Regent Craft.