On a clear, sunny day at a vineyard in the Northern California town of Ukiah, a most unusual train chugs through a field of barely budding syrah grapes. Well, it doesn’t chug so much as whoosh, because this train—actually, a one-sixth scale train—doesn’t rely upon a diesel engine or electricity to get around. It uses vacuum power and heavy duty magnets.
The 89-year-old man who built it believes it could change how the world moves.
That man is Max Schlienger, an accomplished engineer who owns the vineyard and leads his family-run company, Flight Rail Corp. Its sole product, the Vectorr system, uses a propulsion method like no other: Between the rails lies a PVC pipe, 12 inches in diameter, connected to a pump that can draw all of the air out of the pipe or fill it. Within the pipe you’ll find something Schlienger calls a thrust carriage, which is connected to the train with powerful magnets. This carriage is about the size and shape of a large watermelon and moves back and forth through the pipe under vacuum power, bringing the train with it.
This weird but clever product works something like the vaunted hyperloop, but rather than shooting a pod full of people through a tube it shoots a carriage through a tube. And, like the people behind hyperloop, Schlienger remains convinced that it represents the future of transportation. “We’ll get someone, somewhere, to say we want to do it,” Schlienger says. “And we’ll put all our energy into it.”
Schlienger stands well over six feet tall, with a rod-straight back, a nice head of white hair, and bright blue eyes. He still drives his GMC pickup, and during a drive across his vineyard pointed out the varietals he raises: cabernet, sauvignon blanc, merlot, syrah. In a good year, he harvests 500 tons, selling them to wineries.
After enlisting in the Navy at 17 at the tail end of World War II and serving on a submarine tender, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native spent several decades as an engineer, specializing in metallurgy, high-strength magnets, and nuclear waste management. He holds 24 patents for things like a “rotatable plasma torch,” a “system for feeding toxic waste drums into a treatment chamber,” and, of course, a “magnetically coupled transportation module.” After selling his metallurgy company in the 1990s, Schlienger started raising grapes. Why not, he figured. He had the room, and it would be an interesting change after a career working in labs and factories.
But Schlienger is no Diocletian, quietly tending to his farm after a lifetime of hard work. Grapes are a sideline. What he really wants to do is bring the Flight Rail train to life.
Back to life, actually.
The Atmospheric Railway
Schlienger is reprising an idea railway engineers in England and France floated in the 1820s and ’30s, when people called it the “atmospheric railway.” If you could separate the locomotive and its fuel from the rest of the train, you’d make the train lighter and the system more efficient. The system worked a lot like the Flight Rail, but instead of magnets a piston connected the thrust carriage and the train. The engineers lined the slot with leather to maintain the seal, and coated the leather with tallow to protect it from the elements.
The problem is, the tallow attracted rats. For this and other reasons, the atmospheric railway didn’t work all that well, and never caught on. “Had they had the high-strength magnets that we have today, they probably would have done the same thing we’re doing now,” Schlienger says.
Schlienger grew up loving model trains, but never imagined a career on the tracks. Then, one day about 20 years ago, he says, he thought of using vacuum power to move a train—without any idea people had tried it before. (His son discovered the old atmospheric railway in a book of failed inventions, which somehow discouraged nobody involved.) He’s been working on it ever since. But unlike every media-trained startup founder, he doesn’t cite a definitive “a-ha” moment that showed him the way. He simply found the idea interesting. As problems arose, he’d ponder them, solve them, and move on, building one model after another to test his theories.
About two years ago, Schlienger figured he was well enough along to build a one-sixth scale system to really shake down his idea. He built the train (which could fit one prone person, but isn’t meant to) to demonstrate the benefits of moving the power source from the train to the track. The Flight Rail easily scales a 10 percent grade, far steeper than conventional trains can handle. It runs quietly, eschews ugly overhead power lines, and can use renewable energy to drive the pumps that create the vacuum. (For now, Schlienger uses a diesel generator.)
Schlienger images Flight Rail lines running along highway medians, or anywhere else you might want to move people or stuff. He leaves those details to others. For now, he simply wants to prove there’s a better way of powering trains. “Everyone else is tied into the standard gauge railroad trains that we have today,” he says. “I think that’s a stagnation point in the way people think.”
The Practical Fight
Schlienger looks nothing like your typical tech visionary, and Ukiah shares little in common with Silicon Valley. But he shares the Silicon Valley ethos that says if there’s a better solution, use it. It’s the same kind of thinking that prompted investors to pump billions into hyperloop and got Musk jabbering about his traffic-killing maze of tunnels. It’s why the dream of supersonic commercial air travel persists, and people keep pushing the idea of flying cars.
But those visions are all built on a certain amount of blindness to reality. Hyperloop may be as fast and efficient as its proponents say, but that doesn’t make it practical. Musk’s tunnels could end gridlock, but he’ll never get the permits and permission needed to pull it off. Cracking the speed of sound isn’t hard, but making it commercially viable is. And flying cars can’t take flight without navigating a regulatory labyrinth.
Schlienger and his family realize the Flight Rail faces many challenges. Yet he persists, running his prototype a few times a week to sort out the control system. The next step is building a full-size prototype. That requires a huge investment, and answers to the intractable issues that come with any huge infrastructure project: right of way issues, environmental reviews, local political battles, funding.
Yet Schlienger remains confident. When his father died in 1993, Schlienger says, “He told me to just keep going on it.” Still, he knows he must rely upon his sons to carry the project forward, to justify the years of time and millions of dollars spent so far. “I think it will be worth it,” he says. “It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will be worth it.”
Spoken like a true disruptor.