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Tunnel Vision


Boston to Brussels. Fast. Very fast. Less than three hours fast. This is Frank Davidson's dream. A cement tube strung between the continents, with passengers shuttling back and forth at speeds of up to 2,500 miles per hour. "The idea is not new," said Davidson '48, who recently retired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a researcher. Author Jules Verne suggested it in 1895. Rocket pioneer Robert Goddard was issued two patents for it in the first half of the twentieth century.

In theory, the concept is really quite simple. Construct a series of tubes, tug them into position, secure them roughly 150 feet below the ocean's surface, pump the air out, elevate a train using magnets, and race it through the tube with alternating magnetic polarity. The vacuum eliminates air resistance, and the magnetic levitation (maglev, as it is known) eliminates friction. As a result, the amount of energy it would take to increase the speed from 100 to 200 miles per hour is the same amount it would take to increase the speed from 1,500 to 1,600 miles per hour. The only limit to the train's speed would be how much additional gravity--how many g's--passengers would be able to comfortably endure.

"It's not the engineering that will stop it," said Davidson. It's the price--perhaps as high as $30 billion--that might make this tube a mere pipe dream. Additional problems, such as the curvature of the earth and the risk of terrorist attacks, make the plan unfeasible, say some scientists. Yet Davidson persists. This is not the first idea of his that has been scoffed at. In fact, Davidson once suggested a tunnel connecting France to England. People laughed then, too.

In 1956, not long after a particularly uncomfortable ferry ride from Boulogne to Folkestone, Davidson was musing with a friend about the possibility of a railroad tunnel under the Channel. This conversation resulted in the creation of Technical Studies, Inc., which within three years would produce the technical specifications for a Channel tunnel. Though many other tunnel and bridge ideas were proposed, the Technical Studies design was ultimately used as the basis for the final design.

Despite his triumph with the Channel tunnel, and his ease in talking about moving icebergs to cure droughts or building islands to solve overpopulation problems, Davidson is quick to point out that he is not an engineer. He is a lawyer who operates at the intersection of engineering, public policy, and law. His father, Maurice Davidson, was active in New York City politics as head of the City Fusion Party and later served as a New York City water commissioner. As a child, Davidson witnessed the value of law and engineering working together. As he points out, "you can't build too much if you can't get permission." His big thinking is not limited to engineering projects: He also advocates a school of public policy and engineering. "Perhaps Harvard Law School would be interested," he said.

As to when the transatlantic tube may open, Davidson won't speculate, but he says that the concept could work. He points to a gathering of tunnel enthusiasts at an MIT conference in 1985. The highlight, according to Davidson, was the acceleration of a Ping-Pong ball to supersonic speeds through a 900-foot tube. If Frank Davidson has his way, this Ping-Pong ball will be the forerunner to a transportation revolution.

--Michael Rodman

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