Imagine a national transit system that runs on solar energy and wind power. Now imagine that it consists of recycled airplanes speeding along elevated tracks. It might sound like a vintage Disneyland ride updated for modern ecophiles, but an American company is working to make this vision a reality.

The company, Mass Tram America, is the brainchild of ex-Boeing engineer Ben Missler. He has set out to combat traffic congestion and pollution with a new mass transit monorail system that uses recycled airplane fuselages to transport people and cargo, creating a “highway in the skyway.” Though it currently exists only on paper, Missler hopes to launch a pilot project by 2011.

“The idea behind Mass Tram America is to provide a low-energy, low-cost elevated monorail system that adapts to the existing infrastructure and helps take some of the stress off of freeways and Amtrak,” Missler says.

The project will recycle decommissioned Boeing 727, 737, and 757 planes, which are normally scrapped for metal. After being stripped of their wings, engines, and tails, the converted passenger cars will, according to Missler’s design, be equipped with solar cells and battery storage and attached to a tram. The cars would travel beneath a single rail, suspended by cables that are connected every 1,000 feet by support towers housing wind turbines or photovoltaic cells. According to Missler, the system could be integrated with existing bridges and freeways.

Missler hopes the cars will travel at about 150 miles per hour. At that speed, a non-stop trip from New York City to Los Angeles would take about 15 hours. That’s slower than Europe’s TGV train, which zips along at nearly 200 miles per hour, but faster than existing U.S. trains. The system is designed to run on solar electricity, wind power, fuel cells, and a special braking mechanism that stores excess energy, exacting a lesser toll on the environment than cars, trains, and airplanes.

Missler’s monorail could run entirely on  energy it creates. Tram cars would run primarily on regenerative breaking and rechargeable batteries. These batteries would be charged by the electricity created from photovoltaic cells on the tram itself and at transfer stations, as well as through energy collected from wind turbines built at tram transfer stations in high-wind areas. The regenerative breaking system would collect the vehicle’s own kinetic energy and feed it directly into the tram’s drive mechanism. Backup hydrogen cells would be used when needed.

Though Missler envisions a national transit system in the tradition of Amtrak and interstate highways, for now Mass Tram America has more modest goals. The company is currently working on a proposal for Oregon representatives to build a prototype train from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia above the existing freeway, Interstate 5. Mass Tram also has its eye on Oregon ski resorts Troutdale and Mt. Hood. Linking the two could be a boon to skiers who have difficulty getting to the slopes when the highway washes out, Missler says.

At an estimated $8 million to $12 million per mile, Missler says, the system will cost less to build than most major urban transport systems because all of the necessary components already exist. In comparison, the Westside Extension of the Metro Purple Line subway in Los Angeles, currently in the planning stages, is expected to cost at least $353 million a mile; and the price tag for Denver’s Light Rail Southeast Corridor extension, which opened in 2006, was $23.1 million per mile.

Mass Tram must overcome several obstacles before its airplane-cum-train cars appear in your neighborhood. Some critics doubt the cost estimates and question whether communities will welcome the necessary sky towers on their land.

“Mass Tram America’s proposed tram route from Troutdale to Mt. Hood would likely have to go through the Columbia River Gorge Scenic area, which is adjacent to Troutdale,” said Robert Canfield, Troutdale City Councilor, in an e-mail. “I doubt the Columbia River Gorge Commission would allow such an intrusion into this environmentally sensitive area.”

Still, Troutdale mayor Paul Thalhofer is willing to listen. “It is an interesting concept, and we’d be open to anything if it makes practical sense,” he says. “But so far they haven’t shown us something that would work. Still, in my day we heard about things like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Star Wars, all of which sounded pretty far out at the time, but are less far off now. We can’t limit our thinking by saying it won’t work.”

Others say that while Mass Tram might be successful on a small scale, constructing a national system may be too grand an endeavor. Traditionally, monorails have run short distances. Seattle Center Monorail, built for the 1962 World’s Fair, spans one mile, and the 14-year-old Strip monorail in Las Vegas extends about four miles. Even Japan’s popular Tokyo-Haneda line and its metropolitan Osaka route run a mere 11 and 15 miles, respectively. “[Mass Tram] would only make sense if you have a very dense traffic corridor and it runs between two big cities in a distance of more than 300 miles and less than about 800 miles,” says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. “Even still, it would be expensive to build the infrastructure, and it would require government subsidies. No transit system pays its own way.”

At this point, the designs for Mass Tram America are still being finalized and the company is looking for more investors. But the little startup has big plans: Missler hopes to build a national system within two decades of launching the first prototype.

Story by Dianna Dilworth. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Up, up, and away
A new transit system would confer old airplane into speedy, eco-friendly trains.