Tubular Rail, the Valley of Death and Helping a Hurt Ohio
"Trackless Train" Company Wins State Support for Ohio Supply Chain in Bid for DOE Energy Funds
TR technology as Cool as "Making a Rock Float."
by John Michael Spinelli
June 2, 2009
COLUMBUS, OHIO: Officials from Tubular Rail, the "trackless train" company from Texas, had reason to smile last week. After eights months of seeking an audience with Gov. Ted Strickland's development staff to introduce them to the company's patented technology that reorganizes the essential elements of conventional railroads by eliminating the need for tracks or bridges, a letter of general support from Ohio was issued that signaled state officials are ready to help the company build an Ohio supply chain for both its transformational prototype and for the next generation of trains it believes will become the fourth transportation industry, after trains, cars and planes, that promises to become a new standard for America and the world.
With the understanding that "a significant portion of the components for both the demonstration and commercial system can be sourced in Ohio," StevenSchoeny, Director, Strategic Business Investment Division, affixed his name to a letter than informed company officials that "the Ohio Department of Development is prepared to work with Tubular Rail and your suppliers in Ohio to take advantage of Ohio's economic development programs to build your supply chain capacity."
The announcement Monday by General Motors that it was entering bankruptcy court where it will reinvent itself in a final turnaround effort to remain a viable auto-manufacturer in the U.S, makes the hunt for new jobs that much more compelling. Ohio has everything to gain and nothing to lose from taking an interest in the birth and development of a new industry, as Tubular Rail thinks of itself.
Combining GM's announcement yesterday that its future reorganization plans will cost Ohio another 1,000 jobs with Tuesday's announcement by NCR that it will relocate its headquarters from Dayton to Georgia, taking about 1,300 jobs with it, and adding it to the dour backdrop that more than 300,000 jobs have been lost on the watch of Gov. Ted Strickland, elected in 2006 on the campaign promise to turnaround Ohio, solidifies the expectation that the state's unemployment, now above 10 percent, will continue to tick upwards.
And now that John Kasich, a former Ohio Congressman and investment banker, has declared he will challenge Strickland in 2010 and whose campaign slogan is "A New Way, A New Day," the race is on to see which man can best restore jobs and prosperity to a once mighty industrial state bobbing in a sea of red ink.
GM's bitter-sweet news makes Ohio's rough road to recover even rougher. The Hobson's Choice now, exacerbated by an imploding economy that has triggered a range war in Columbus over how to balance the budget by the next fiscal year, which starts June 11, pits Democrats, who want to fill a current and growing budget gap with billions in one-time stimulus funds, and Senate Republicans, who are ready to wield a big ax and lop off even more state-funded programs, better syncing future state expenditures with expected shrinking revenues.
Amid this economic turmoil in Ohio, Tubular Rail has submitted an application to the federal Dept. of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, which is offering up to $20 million per project for new energy ideas that are so "transformational" they will "disrupt the status quo" so much that a new industry standard will emerge.
From the DOE grant guidelines: "Often, a technology is considered transformational when it so outperforms current approaches that it causes an industry to shift its technology base to the new technology. The Nation needs transformational energy-related technologies to overcome the threats posed by climate change and energy security, arising from its reliance on traditional uses of fossil fuels and the dominant use of oil in transportation."
With their Ohio letter in hand, company officials added the Buckeye State to the list of team members located in Texas and Ohio that it hopes will catch the eye of DOE grant staff.
If Tubular Rail is passed through to the next round of the , when a full 150-page application will be completed,
"This project effectively creates a 'fourth form' of transportation, one that will have the impact today that the locomotive, Model T and Kitty Hawk had in their day," according to Robert Pulliam, inventor of TR technology and president of the company.
Pulliam, born and raised in Detroit but now residing in Houston, Texas, said the two mile prototype system will be proof-positive that a new "Green" industry addressing Green House Gas emissions, oil imports, infrastructure costs and job creation is upon us.
Tubular Rail's goal, according to Pulliam, is to build a transportation system that reduces the cost of installation and the affect of infrastructure impact, yet achieves the energy efficiencies inherent in steel railway systems.
Pulliam said the "Pecos Project" will be a full-scale operating system to test and prove all components, reconfiguring the essential functional elements of the rail-bed and train. It reverses orientation of steel rail and steel wheel by ingeniously putting the rails on the car and propulsion on the supports or O-Ring stanchions.
The stated goal of the program is to take an "immature technology that promises to make a large impact on the ARPA-E Mission areas...and develop it beyond the 'valley of death' that prevents many transformational new technologies from becoming a market reality."
As stated in its grant guidelines, DOE's goal is to provide funding such that a company like Tubular Rail, which already has preliminary engineering and patents in hand, can overcome the later phase of the "valley of death" by funding the technology (component, system, hardware, software, or other) that must be matured to the point that it can transition into industrial development and deployment.
The Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, which performed work for Tubular Rail, contrasted and compared TR technology with current convention railroad technology. "We strongly believe in the spirit of Tubular Rail and would like to see the project receive funding soon," theThayer report concluded. It added, "An improvement upon conventional technology is necessary because existing technologies for high-speed and urban transit are expensive, difficult to build through populated areas, and more environmentally unfriendly. In summary the basic advantages of Tubular are an initial investment 54 percent less than the competition,operations 450 percent more efficient than conventional technology and emits 35 percent less CO2 than other forms of transportation." Simply put,Thayer said "Tubular Rail is a viable option for the future of the rail industry".
What does all this mean for Ohio? Jobs, jobs, jobs. Ohio, by agreeing to have its name added to TR's list of potential partners, puts itself in a prime position to seize the day on the birth and development of a new transportation industry. Although TR's prototype will be built in Texas, Ohio can still be home to another Wright Brother's Kitty Hawk moment, TR's 1st commercial passenger.
With daily announcements of job losses battering the spirit of state leaders, workers, their family and friends and the communities they live in, any lift Tubular Rail can give to the Birthplace of Aviation should befacilitated no matter the cost. But helping TR out means state leaders and the citizenry at large need to re-think how they think about rail. Locomotive engines guided by tracks in the ground have been around for a long time. But the new paradigm, as invented by Mr. Pulliam, takes those relationships apart and puts them back together differently, but uses readily available technologies.
Frank Sonzala, a TR board member from San Antonio who is also a proven entrepreneur and patent holder, says the simple concept behind the company's game-changing technology is tantamount to "making a rock float." With Ohio sinking like a rock, it's letter of support is one small step for a state sinking beneath the waves of the Great Recession, but one giant step for Tubular Rail.
John Michael Spinelli is a Certified Economic Development Financing Professional, business and travel writer and former credentialed Ohio Statehouse political reporter. He is registered to lobby in Ohio and is the Director of Ohio Operations for Tubular Rail Inc. To send a tip or comment, email email@example.com