'Nova' rides the new supertrains - into a potential controversy

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Who says a science program can't be gutsy?

''California, here she comes/the Atchison, Topeka and the Shinkansen'' is the theme song of Tracking the Supertrains (Tuesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings) , one of ''Nova's'' most outspoken and potentially controversial programs ever. It is informative, entertaining - and gutsy, posing questions about why the US seems to be pursuing a train system that is not the most advanced one available. While it's a balanced show - offering all sides of the issue a chance to state their case - it leaves pointed questions which need to be answered by those in authority.

Since 1962 the Japanese bullet train, also known as Shinkansen, has been zooming across Japan at speeds of close to 200 m.p.h. At the same time, British and French railroad engineers have been developing even more advanced trains - not yet operational - which travel by means of magnetic levitation (Maglev), allowing the cars to float above electromagnetic waves over guideways. These French-British trains travel at speeds close to 300 m.p.h.

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Yet only recently, the American High Speed Rail Corporation, after a $5 million research grant from a Japanese financier-philanthropist, Ryoichi Sassagawa, has decided to go ahead with a Japanese bullet (Shinkansen) San Diego-Los Angeles service (now operated by Amtrak), despite estimates by most experts that the Shinkansen technology will soon be made obsolete by Maglev. This eyebrow-raising ''Nova'' program hints at alleged conflicts of interest, involving some executives who held positions in both Amtrak and American High Speed Rail. The new American bullet trains will be purchased from the Japanese National Railroads.

In the program, writer-director-producer Theodore Bogosian says the decision to go with Shinkansen rather than Maglev was based upon fiscal and political considerations rather than scientific ones. He says it is evident to all that the supertrain of the 20th century is almost certain to utilize the principle of electromagnetic levitation.

If the contracts for the San Diego run prove unprofitable, he feels that it is the consumer who will foot the bill. In addition, there have been many ecological concessions that could prove to be controversial in California. Meantime, there is much current discussion of other short runs, such as a proposed service between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Will politics or state-of-the-art technology win out?

I talked with Mr. Bogosian and asked why the only surviving American train manufacturing company, Budd, was not involved in the new ''bullet'' program. He indicated that Budd, which now makes the slower Metroliners, is financially tied to a West German firm which, in turn, is involved in experimenting with the magnetic-levitation trains.

In this and other shows over the past ten years the WGBH/Boston ''Nova'' series has almost single-handedly wrested science from the traditional inertia of the classroom and brought it into the mainstream of popular television through public broadcasting.

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