Government Decree On San Francisco Rail Opens Up New Possibilities

Wing Ship

By Harry Valentine 2019-05-22 21:41:05

The U.S. Federal Railway Administration (FRA) has canceled a grant of $929-billion from California’s high-speed bullet train project. This decision from Washington opens the door for a discussion on high-speed maritime passenger transportation between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 


The travel volumes between the Californian cities of San Francisco (metro population 4.7-million), Los Angeles (metro population 13-million) and San Diego (metro population 3.3-million) prompted the state government to develop a high-speed passenger railway line, to divert people from crowded intercity roadways. There is sufficient demand for fast passenger transportation to warrant hourly jet plane departures on the 500-mile San Diego – San Francisco and 450-mile Los Angeles – San Francisco links. Repeated studies have suggested a sufficiently large market to sustain the operation of high-speed passenger trains on the San Diego – Los Angeles – San Francisco route.

Cancellation of almost $1 billion federal funding toward this project opens the door to discussion on alternate technologies capable of providing high-speed passenger transportation along the San Diego – Los Angeles – San Francisco link. Given that these major metropolitan areas are also coastal cities provides opportunity to evaluate the potential for high-speed ground effect transportation vehicles to connect between the port terminals of the three cities, traveling a few feet above seawater and consuming a tiny fraction of the fuel of commuter aircraft and commercial jet aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320.

Environmental California

California’s state government is among the most environmentally conscious in the U.S. and is actively seeking to reduce consumption of hydrocarbon fuel and related carbon emissions. A high-speed electrically powered passenger train offering lower-cost transportation would simultaneously eliminate hydrocarbon consumption and carbon emissions while reducing traffic volumes along the main intercity roadways as well as increasing passenger congestion at Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego airports. Canceling the high-speed rail project has the potential to focus attention on an alternate high-speed transportation technology capable of, to some extent, achieve the same objectives.

A ground effect craft traveling above the sea surface will consume a third the energy of the identical cross section and weight of airplane flying at low altitude and at the same speed. Aerodynamic drag increases with the square of the speed and power consumption with the cube of the speed. Doubling vehicle speed incurs eight times the energy consumption. There are a variety of operational combinations whereby a wing-in-ground (W.I.G) effect craft could achieve very major improvements in terms of hydrocarbon fuel consumption and carbon emissions compared to commuter planes and commercial jet aircraft.

Competitive High-Speed Maritime

Commuter planes fly at 400 miles/hour at 10,000-feet elevation where air density is 10.1/14.7 or 68.8 percent that of sea level. Commercial jets fly at up to 550-miles/hour at 35,000-feet where air pressure is 3.46/14.7 or 23.55 percent that of sea level. A ground effect vehicle of equal cross section as a commercial plane and traveling at 200 miles/hour above sea surface would consume 1/3 x (200/400)*3 x 1/0.688 = 1/16.488 or just over six percent of the energy of commuter plane flying at 400 miles/hour at 10,000-feet altitude, or 10 percent of the energy of a jet plane flying at 35,000 feet.

Real world operating conditions would likely result in a ground effect vehicle consuming 10 percent of the energy of a commuter plane carrying the same number of passengers and 15 to 20 percent the energy of the equivalent size of jet plane. Ground effect planes are classified as maritime vehicles that by requirements of international maritime regulations have to be built to maritime structural standards. If a lack of federal funding cancels the California high-speed railway line, environmentally conscious State of California could encourage the development and implementation of high-speed ground effect planes between major coastal cities.

America’s Jones Act

America’s Jones Act requires that any maritime transportation vehicles intended for use in domestic American intercity transportation be built in the U.S. Both the Wing-Ship Company of South Korea and Tandem Wing Flair-Boat Company of Germany intend to build 100-seat versions of the 50-seat and 12-seat ground effect craft. They would have to seek a domestic American partner to build their technology domestically for future domestic operation between American cities. Both companies may be able to lease vehicles to American operators for testing and demonstration purposes on the San Diego – Los Angeles – San Francisco link.


While development of high-speed passenger railway lines requires massive right-of-way infrastructure investment, ground effect flight that operates between seaplane runways and seaplane terminals requires no such investment. Fuel accounts for some 40 to 50 percent of the operating cost of commercial jet aircraft. Ground effect flight that travels at the speed of a high-speed passenger train can consume less than 20 percent of the fuel of a commercial airplane. The technology has the potential to become cost competitive and viable along the San Diego – Los Angeles – San Francisco link, offering passengers fast and cost-competitive travel.

There is potential of turboprop powered ground effect craft to include engine exhaust heat recovery to improve engine efficiency. While such technology has been installed on a few helicopters, the design layouts of commercial commuter planes and jet planes, precludes the installation of such technology. A heat exchanger dubbed a “regenerator” is installed between the turbo-compressor and the combustion chamber to recover heat from the engine exhaust, improving overall engine efficiency by 20 to 30 percent to reduce hydrocarbon fuel consumption and improve the economics of ground effect operation. 


San Francisco: Ground effect planes could operate to and from the the seaplane terminal at San Francisco Airport and pass between the spans and under the decks of the Golden Gate Bridge and west side of the San Francisco – Oakland Bridge. There may be suitable alternative coastal locations for a terminal between Treasure Island, Oakland and Richmond. Upon departure from San Francisco, ground effect vehicles could accelerate westbound beginning in San Francisco Bay and lifting above water between Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge. Arriving planes would touch down to water after having passed below Golden Gate Bridge.

Los Angeles:  A suitable location for a terminal seems possible in the vicinity of the Los Angeles River near Queens Way Bridge in the Long Beach area. An alternative terminal may be possible near the World Cruise Center. Upon departure, ground effect planes would accelerate going eastbound within the protected waters inside the breakwater, lifting above water offshore from Seal Beach and Sunset Beach. Arriving planes would touchdown on water offshore from Sea Beach. 

San Diego: There may be scope to negotiate for terminal space near San Diego Airport in the vicinity of North San Diego Bay where numerous locations are possible at any of West Basin, East Basin and cruise ship terminal area. Upon departure from North San Diego Bay, the craft would accelerate to lift above water offshore from Cabrillo National Monument. Arriving craft would transfer from ground effect wings to hulls or hydrofoils in the same general vicinity.

Traffic Control

Safe operation of ground effect vehicles departing from points of origin and arriving at destination areas requires traffic control. Modern satellite technology can reveal the locations of other vessels in the area and port control usually manages the arrival and departure of vessels. Ground effect craft can be equipped with a reel-out reel-in scale model size of glider that would deploy above a preset speed and lift to an elevation of around 1,000 feet. Onboard cameras installed in the glider would give pilots        of fast traveling ground effect vehicles with a view some 25 to 50 miles ahead. 

Having a view of the location and movement of vessels many miles ahead of the ground effect craft would allow pilots and navigation computers to plot a safe course around and away from other vessels. The ability of some ground effect craft to rise to a height equivalent to 40 percent of the wingspan would allow such craft to fly above errant small recreational watercraft. The combination of port area traffic control, tethered glider with cameras and GPS assisted navigation could allow for high-speed operation of commercial passenger ground effect vehicles offshore along the California coast.

Electric Propulsion

Advances are underway in electrically powered aviation. The lower energy consumption of ground effect vehicles compared to commuter planes and short-haul commercial jets makes the technology a suitable candidate for future electrical propulsion. Ongoing development in battery technology offers greatly increased service life expectancy of 10,000 to 100,000 deep-cycle recharges and discharges. Advances in ultra-capacitor and super-capacitor technology provides a method by which to quickly accelerate a ground effect vehicle from hulls to hydrofoils to ground-effect wings when batteries blend in the provide propulsion for distances of up to 500 miles, or further than battery-electric commuter planes.

Much technology is currently being developed for future battery-electric commercial aircraft propulsion. That technology could just as easily be adapted for application in ground effect vehicle propulsion, except that ground effect technology would travel several orders of magnitude the distance. A storage technology designed to propel a commuter plane a distance of 150 miles could likely propel the same capacity of ground effect plane for over 500 miles. There would be scope to apply many of the advances underway in California related to battery-electric flight to ground effect travel.


The decision by the American Federal Railroad Administration to cut almost $1-billion of funding from California’s proposed high-speed rail project not only threatens the future of the project, it also opens the door to discussion about alternate transportation technologies that could provide high-speed passenger transportation with minimal environmental impact between California’s main cities. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.