Futuristic solar train, PRT pushed in Santa Cruz
- Published Tuesday, March 2, 2004, in the San Jose Mercury News
Futuristic transit systems pushed
Supporters tout solar-power rail, high-tech cabs
By Ken McLaughlin
Jump aboard the SolTrain <http://www.soltrain.itgo.com>, a solar-
powered, ultralight vehicle that can whisk 20 or more passengers
along an old-fashioned railroad track.
Or electronically hail a "personal rapid transit" cab to zip from
UC-Santa Cruz to the boardwalk in a few minutes flat.
As Silicon Valley bemoans falling ridership on its light-rail system,
Santa Cruz County is quietly becoming an incubator for Jetsons-like
21st-century transportation systems. Grass-roots groups say they've
seen the future of public transit -- and it's not near the chips.
It's near the beach.
"If it can't happen in Santa Cruz, a magnet for free thinkers, it
can't happen anywhere," said Ted Lahti, a housing developer who has
been working on the SolTrain project for a dozen years.
Skeptics dismiss the ideas as California dreaming. But go to the
grass roots and you'll find earnest, often successful business people
who argue that the Jetsons are closer to becoming reality than many
"We could have a demonstration vehicle running in 10 to 12 months,"
said Ron Powers, founder and CEO of Powers Design International
<http://www.powersdesign.com> in Newport Beach, a firm that has spent
$2 million to design a SolTrain prototype.
A futuristic cartoon show becoming a reality is all thanks to Silicon
The SolTrain would be powered by solar panels on the train's roof and
be charged at stations while passengers are loading and unloading.
The stations would most likely use solar-mirror technology developed
in the '80s to be installed on satellites for the Strategic Defense
Initiative, or "Star Wars," the proposed nuclear defense shield.
"Silicon Valley wouldn't be there if the people who built it lacked
vision," Powers said. "But our political leadership lacks vision on
Powers' 30-year-old company has designed vehicles for General Motors,
Chrysler, Nissan, Ford and the U.S. space station. "We shouldn't have
Silicon Valley engineers working at McDonald's when we could be
selling transportation technology all over the world just like we
sell computers," Powers said.
Lahti and members of his group, mostly students at the University of
California-Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, plan to present the
SolTrain idea at Thursday night's meeting of the county's Regional
Transportation Commission. The panel will be discussing a proposed
tourist train from Capitola to Aptos Village. The plan has raised the
ire of county residents who live near the Union Pacific tracks.
Many of the complaints stem from the "cement train" -- the string of
rail cars that carry coal and cement to and from the RMC Lonestar
plant in Davenport. Because of old tracks, the graffiti-scarred
freight train travels at 10 mph and shakes the tracks and the land
"And it's literally in everybody's back yard," said Marilyn O'Rourke,
a former Benicia mayor who lives on Sumner Avenue in Aptos.
Lahti thinks the SolTrain is the answer.
"Ninety-five percent of the complaints have to do with noise and
vibration," Lahti said. "The no-noise, low-impact SolTrain solves all
The transportation commission will discuss applying for $11 million
in state funding that would be used to help purchase the Union
Pacific right of way, which could also be used as a bike and
recreational trail. To get the Proposition 116 money, the county
needs a plan for a commuter or tourist train. Three privately owned
railroad companies -- Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway Co.,
Sierra Railroad and Niles Canyon Railway -- are vying for the right
to run the train.
The SolTrain and personal rapid transit (dubbed "PRT") have also
attracted interest in the city of Marina, now aggressively developing
transit-friendly commercial and residential projects on the old Fort
Ord site. Installing a PRT somewhere in Santa Cruz suddenly became a
serious possibility in December, when a Minnesota company wrote a
letter to the city council saying that Santa Cruz would be the
perfect small city to show the world the wonders of such a system.
Taxi 2000 Corp. <http://www.skywebexpress.com> said that if the city
granted rights of way, it could bring a system to Surf City within a
few years that would link UC-Santa Cruz, the vibrant downtown and the
The PRT cabs were designed by a rocket scientist who began
envisioning a magnetic monorail system three decades ago. It would
use Volkswagen Beetle-size cars that look like high-tech gumdrops to
transport up to four passengers at a time. Never having to wait more
than a minute for a cab, passengers would punch in a destination
"It's the new urban space race," said Jeral Poskey, Taxi 2000's
director of business development. "The biggest hurdle we face is the
notion that this is something that's 20 years into the future. But
the future is now."
When a prototype of the PRT cab was unveiled last summer at the
Minnesota State Fair, it was a smash hit. State and Minneapolis
politicians are supporting building a test track in downtown
The biggest PRT booster on the Santa Cruz council has been Ed Porter,
who teaches computer classes at Santa Cruz High School.
"Sometimes it takes 25 minutes to get across town," he said. "With
personal rapid transit, I could go anyplace in town in five minutes."
Kent Bingham, president of Entertainment Engineering in Burbank, said
much of the 21st-century technology is being created by the need for
faster roller coasters and other amusement park rides.
"We use the same motors on transit systems that send roller coasters
up vertically," said Bingham, a former Disney "imagineer" whose
company designed the new monorail on the Las Vegas Strip.
Although skeptical about PRT, Mike Rotkin, Santa Cruz vice mayor and
a member of a city council that has endorsed the SolTrain, said that
Santa Cruz might end up giving it a chance.
"The line between wacky and visionary is thin," he said. "But if the
private sector comes to us with an offer to build the whole thing
without public funds, we should be ready to do it."
If you are interested: The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation
Commission will hold a meeting Thursday, March 4 on whether to use
Proposition 116 funds to acquire the Union Pacific right-of-way. The
meeting begins at 7 p.m. on the fifth floor of the county government
center, 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz.
For information on the SolTrain, go to http://soltrain.itgo.com or
message at <tedlahti@...>. For information on Taxi
2000's "personal rapid transit" system, go to
Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@... or (831) 423-3115
[BATN: See related:
Column: PRT advocate woos SJ Metro columnist
Is Santa Cruz PRT monorail just pie in the sky?
Santa Cruz focus of "Personal Rapid Transit" push
Solar train prototype makes maiden run in Felton (6/13/2001)
Monorail-like Palo Alto people mover proposed (1/10/2001)
Palo Alto presentation on "personal rapid transit" (1/5/2001)