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George McGinnis, Walt Disney, And The Underground Train Of Tomorrow

Odds are that if you’re reading this, you’ve put together a school project at one point or another. Maybe it was your elementary school science fair, or maybe it was your doctoral dissertation in particle physics. Either way, you’ve spent some time working one one of these projects. Maybe you won a blue ribbon for your idea, or received an award or some grant funding. But did any of you get a visit from Walt Disney and a decades-long career as an Imagineer?

George McGinnis did.

This veteran Imagineer, responsible for EPCOT Center’s Horizons attraction as well as many others, got his big break in 1966 when, as a student at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, he was pursuing a B.S. in Product Design. For his senior project, McGinnis drew up a proposal for a high-speed train system to serve the northeastern rail corridor of the United States. That same semester, he had also submitted the design in a contest sponsored by the Alcoa corporation.

It lost, coming in second place to an all-aluminum garden cart.

Thankfully, for George, he had way better things than Alcoa on the way. You might say a great big beautiful tomorrow was in store, because Walt Disney was about to build a city of the future and he was personally going to recruit McGinnis to help out.

What’s always amazed me about Walt’s intentions for EPCOT was how prescient they were about problems that still plague our cities and urban areas. Key to the entire project was innovation in the field of transportation; the idea was to get cars off the roads, replacing them with a series of peoplemovers, monorails, and trains. While the jammed freeways that concerned Disney so much in 1966 would unfortunately only become more of an issue over the next 40 years, that just makes the efforts of Disney and his Imagineers seem unexpectedly timely.

The same could be said of McGinnis’s train proposal, which directly addresses problems currently being hashed out in 21st century America. Many issues, from geopolitical conflict to global warming to simple expense, have forced people over the last several years to re-examine the American dependence on gas-burning automobiles. Faced with melting icecaps and $5-a-gallon gasoline, many drivers have turned to our nation’s rail system.

The problem facing this trend is that, after years of neglect and underfunding, the American rail network is woefully behind the times. Aside from the vast swathes of the nation that are completely without access to rail transport, even high-traffic corridors on the coasts are operating on obsolete infrastructure that prevents an adequate level of service. Amtrak’s most advanced train, the Acela line, is the only high-speed rail service in the nation, and even that is typically forced to operate, on the average, at about half of its maximum possible speed. Although it’s by far the nation’s fastest train, its reliance on legacy track that winds through heavily populated areas forces the Acela to operate at speeds far below typical “high-speed” specifications and far, far behind advanced rail service in Europe and Japan.

What’s remarkable about McGinnis’s proposal is how forward-thinking it was in addressing these problems. His proposed train route which, like the Acela, would run from Washington, D.C. to Boston with stops in Philadelphia and New York City, would use underground tunnels. This would allow for straight, fast routes that did not depend on winding legacy track or grade crossings in populated areas. While this might sound like an expensive fantasy, it was based on a report by the Rand Corporation that estimated that advances in tunnel boring would reduce the expense of such a project enough that tunneling costs would intersect with those of land acquisition for an above-ground project by as early as 1970.

A diagram of McGinnis’s proposal shows the route of the transfer shuttle as it leaves the station and descends to the main rail line, 500 feet below ground

The greatest innovation of the plan, though, was how it would deal with the loading and unloading of passengers and cargo. As rail passengers know, train service is pretty useless unless it provides for stops at multiple locations along the route. At the same time, the constant starts and stops a train has to make at smaller urban areas practically negate the point of high speed rail.

McGinnis’s proposal solved that issue by designing a train that wouldn’t stop at every station that it serviced. While the train would indeed stop in major cities like Boston or New York, in smaller towns like Providence or Wilmington, riders would board and disembark via a separate vehicle, powered by linear induction, that would actually match the speed of the moving train, physically dock with it, and transfer passengers and cargo via a large turntable mechanism. Thus, high-speed trains could service a number of stations along its route without ever breaking its stride. Let’s take a closer look at how it would work.

A close look at the High Acceleration Transfer Shuttle illustrates the rotating, semicircular compartments, with passengers seated on the upper level and baggage stowed below

Let’s say you were a passenger waiting to board a train in Baltimore. Upon entering the station you would scan your ticket or credit card, which you would then keep. Upon reaching your destination you would scan your ticket or card again, and only then would you be charged the appropriate amount for your trip. Your luggage would be checked and loaded aboard one of nineteen containers, each coded for different destinations. Remember that this was 1966 – imagine how this could be achieved today with RFID tagging technology. The baggage containers would then be loaded aboard the lower level of the transfer vehicle.

After taking escalators or elevators down to the train concourse, riders would board the transfer vehicle through elevator-style doors; they would not see the exterior of the train itself. Each compartment in the transfer vehicle would have two doors, three feet wide, which would allow for quick boarding. Loading time would be a brisk ninety seconds.

The High Acceleration Transfer Shuttle would consist of two, semi-circular, 39-person compartments. The wide-body coaches would allow a spacious 3-2 seating configuration in the transfer vehicle, with a three-foot aisle. With an unusually wide seven-foot track gauge and fourteen-foot-wide coaches, the train would provide a smoother ride than current rail vehicles; this extra stability would be needed for the safe transfer of passengers.

The seats in the transfer vehicle would be pitched by 29″, and would automatically swivel so that passengers would always be in the most comfortable position to compensate for the g forces caused by acceleration and deceleration. To ease the effect of riding in a windowless underground train, McGinnis suggested the transfer vehicle feature “television and music.”

Once loaded, the transfer shuttle would move forward onto a track that would lower to a 20% downward slope. Not only would this sloping track help the vehicle reach the main rail line, 500 feet below ground, but it would make use of gravity for a “freebie” 4.4 miles per hour per second of acceleration. The sloped acceleration would reduce the possibility of discomfort to passengers, and would allow stations to be built closer to the surface instead of at the level of the mail rail line.

After waiting on the ramp for no more than thirty seconds, the train would accelerate to 200 mph in eighteen seconds and over only half a mile of track. This would be achieved via linear motors, a concept that would later be used in attractions as diverse as the WEDway PeopleMover and the Rock N Roller Coaster at the Hollywood Studios park. McGinnis saw linear motors as the best way to achieve the precise level of acceleration control needed to match the speed of the transfer car with that of the High Speed Train. It also allowed the high rate of acceleration – 0.5g, or 11mph/s – needed for the proposed system.

McGinnis’s model shows the Transfer Vehicle (l) coupled with the High Speed Train (r). The transfer turntable is mid-rotation in this picture, moving new passengers onto the train and disembarking passengers to the transfer shuttle.

The quick acceleration of the transfer shuttle would allow it to match the velocity of the High Speed Train. It would pull alongside the train’s Loading Car, located at the center of the train. This Loading Car would be very similar in design to the Transfer Car, with guests intending to disembark from the train seated in an identical semicircular compartment. As soon as the speeds of the two vehicles were matched, a pressurized seal would deploy to couple the Loading Car (on the main train) and the Transfer Car. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Once linked, the Loading and Transfer Cars would form a full circle. This turntable would then rotate 180 degrees around a common center between the two vehicles. Thus, the boarding passengers aboard the Transfer Shuttle, along with all their luggage, would be moved aboard the main train. All the disembarking passengers from the High Speed Train would be moved aboard the Transfer Shuttle. And it would all take place in eight seconds.

Once the compartments had rotated, the trains would decouple. The High Speed Train would continue to its next stop, without missing a beat. Having just boarded, we would leave the Loading Car to make space for passengers preparing to depart at the next station. We would then find our seat in the appropriate coach; the Loading Car is located at the center of the train to minimalize foot traffic on either end of the train. Beneath us, our luggage would automatically be moved by a conveyor system into storage along the lower level of the train until it was ready to be retrieved when we disembark.

The trains, like the transfer shuttle, would be spacious and comfortable. Each coach would hold 180 passengers, in a 3-3 seating configuration, with either three or four coaches on each side of the Loading Car for a total of six or eight coaches per train. Like the transfer shuttle, the aisle in the coaches would be three feet wide. This would reduce traffic and make it easy for riders to quickly reach the Loading Car to disembark.

Passengers approaching their destination would be notified to proceed to the Loading Car by a paging system. For transfer points fifty miles apart, this would give passengers a five-minute window to walk to the loading car. For transfer points twenty miles apart, they would have a two-minute window. Disembarking passengers would enter the transfer compartment that had just been vacated by the newly-boarded riders, the train would couple with the Transfer Shuttle, and the turntable would engage. Riders, along with their luggage that had been automatically retrieved from its storage in the train, would find themselves once more on the transfer vehicle.

The transfer would take place over half a mile, and for safety reasons the vehicles would then have a mile for emergency braking if needed. Then the uncoupled trains would separate, as the transfer vehicle would decelerate over a half-mile of track, this time sloping upwards at twenty degrees. The upward slope would assist in braking, as well as returning disembarking passengers to station level. The shuttle would have gone from 200 mph to a full stop in eighteen seconds.

After the sloped track behind the shuttle was raised, the vehicle would take sixty seconds to return to the station. All told, the entire circuit from loading, to coupling, to transfer, to return would take only two minutes. After ninety seconds for passengers to disembark the transfer shuttle, the vehicle would be ready to re-load and do it all again.

The plan was rather ingenious and addressed a number of issues that face current transportation systems. First, it would provide the benefits of rail travel – large capacity, fuel efficient vehicles that reduce traffic load on roads and the accompanying air pollution and automotive fatalities.

The underground train system would add a number of efficiencies that rail services currently lacks, as well. Trains could now complete with air travel on a speed basis, and they would be more energy efficient from not having to decelerate and accelerate at every station. Maintaining a constant speed would also reduce wear on rails and equipment, allowing for longer operational lifetimes and lower costs in the long term. Increased speed would allow for more trips per train, reducing the need to invest in extra rolling stock.

The plan would have additional benefits to urban areas. Without the need to obtain above-ground rights of way, stations could be placed in built-out urban areas. McGinnis, in his proposal, cited the benefits of preserving city cores and reducing growth pressure on large cities. These mid-city terminals could also be used to transfer passengers to other, local forms of transportation.

It’s an ambitious plan and something that sounds familiar to anyone well versed in the plans for EPCOT, but for McGinnis it was just a school project until the acting president of the Art Center brought it up in a conversation with Walt Disney. John Thompson, who had previously served as editor of the Ford Times, had similarly introduced Walt to another future Imagineer of renown, Bob Gurr, more than a decade earlier. This time, he later related to George, he told Walt, “McGinnis will bring his train over on his back to show you.”

Wouldn’t you?

McGinnis (l) and Bill Mitchell, Vice President of Styling for General Motors

McGinnis’s project had already received some attention; it had been inspected at the Art Center by Bill Mitchell, Vice President of Styling for General Motors. In a funny coincidence, Mitchell and McGinnis had graduated from the same high school in Greenville, Pennsylvania (albeit eighteen years apart). They shared a love for cars, too, in those high school days, but even this brush with executive celebrity probably couldn’t prepare McGinnis for when John Thompson told him that Walt Disney wanted to see his train.

Sure enough, Walt came to the Art Center to see George’s project. With him, he brought Gurr, Dick Irvine, Roger Broggie and John Hench – future legends, all.

So, no pressure.

Thankfully things went perfectly – almost. McGinnis’s model was a working one; equipped with micro-switches, tiny motors with friction drives would turn the semicircular transfer compartments on the train. It had always worked perfectly… until Walt pushed the shuttle and it jammed. As McGinnis would later say, “My hand never worked so fast unjamming it.” Walt, perhaps deciding to take it easy on a nervous student, simply remarked, “This would have to be fail-safe.” “Yes, sir!” McGinnis replied, and quickly pointed out the built-in emergency braking distance on the diagram.

That glitch aside, McGinnis’s demonstration must have gone well; after Walt left, George Jorgensen, head of the school’s Industrial Design Department, told McGinnis that Walt wanted him to come up to visit WED Enterprises and ride the test track for the then-under-development WEDway PeopleMover. Walt’s visit to the Art Center marked the first time that McGinnis had ever heard of Progress City, and now he was being asked to come help develop its transportation system. While McGinnis was, in his words, “elated,” he had in his head the vision of full-sized trains, not the model vehicles he eventually was to design for the Progress City diorama that would serve as the finale for Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress. He would design them, though; transportation systems for Progress City and later EPCOT, from Peoplemovers all the way down to golf carts.

George McGinnis’s “golf cart of the future” for Progress City/EPCOT

One amusing aspect of the tale is how, as always, one could say that “Walt works in mysterious ways.” On the way back to Glendale after viewing the train proposal, Bob Gurr would later tell McGinnis that Walt had remarked offhandedly, “We can use another Industrial Designer at WED.” Sure enough, George got his invitation to come tour the department and take a look at the PeopleMover prototype, after which Walt handed him off to Dick Irvine who took him into his office and invited him to become an Imagineer. As Irvine would tell him during that first interview, “Nothing goes out the door without Walt’s approval”.

Talk about the ultimate quality assurance.

And so McGinnis became an Imagineer, taking over a cubicle surrounded by a handful of prominent art directors. Later he would get an office next to Gurr’s, which he calls “one of the most important things to my career at WDI.” His list of subsequent projects is long, but includes Space Mountain, Horizons, Dreamflight, Splash Mountain, the Indiana Jones Adventure, Kilimanjaro Safaris, and appropriately the WEDway PeopleMovers at Walt Disney World and the Houston Intercontinental Airport, and the Mark V and VI monorails.

All from, perhaps appropriately, a “toy” train.

Incidentally, McGinnis still has his train model – he says it’s out in his garage with his old 1971 Datsun 240Z, which he used to drive to his office at Imagineering every day for twenty years.

Nothin’ like the oldies!

He assures me it still runs great.


Special thanks to George McGinnis for his kind assistance in the preparation of this article. Those interested in reading his original project proposal can download it here.

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9 comments to George McGinnis, Walt Disney, And The Underground Train Of Tomorrow

  • philphoggs

    What a great concept, and thanks for sharing the story.

  • beaglelady

    A fascinating story! I love reading about the history behind the magic.

  • DrJamba

    Since the Rand Corporation will likely want to be paid to spec out the cost of this Boston-NY-Phil-Balt-Wash High Speed Rail project, is there anyone out there who might be in a position to estimate the costs for building out this system?

  • Thanks! Glad everyone’s enjoying it.

    As to cost, I have no idea. I don’t even know if the cost of digging and building above ground ever intersected as predicted. I do know that tunnel boring has come a long way. I’m sure it would be pricey in the extreme, though. Enough that no government would have the nerve to greenlight it despite long-term benefits…

  • Anna

    Very interesting, I really enjoyed it!! I love the forward thinking, if only the government would actually do something about it.

  • Spokker

    If building an underground train between Boston and Washington was viable it would have been done already. The key issue here isn’t whether the technology is there, but cost. Even if we had the money for it, it’d be a giant waste of money because you don’t need to tunnel to achieve that kind of operation. It would be much less costly to grade separate the streets from the rail and exercise eminent domain to straighten out the tracks.

    This type of drama is playing out with the high speed rail project in California. Wealthy homeowners on the Bay Area Peninsula want the train underground. However, if there is a mandate to put the train underground it simply won’t get done. It’s not cost effective. It would cost less to buy out all the homeowners.

    You only go underground in dense urban areas for relatively short stretches. Even in New York, a lot of the subway is above ground.

    However, McGinnis is motivated for the right reasons. His motivation for preserving the urban core and curbing urban sprawl is right on, and it’s sad these efforts didn’t start back then.

    That transfer vehicle sounds like a huge liability though.

    Steel wheels on steel rails are our best hope for high speed rail in America. Forget maglev, forget monorails. Let Disney build those. When it comes to public money, we need to go with steel.

  • Well, even McGinnis told me that he knew at the time his proposal was strictly blue-sky – a conceptual exercise that wouldn’t ever actually be feasible. And, of course, it was based on economic and technological projections that may or may not have come true in real life.

    As you say, the idea about preserving urban cores is key, and a reason I love this proposal. The transfer vehicle, while a far-out idea, I find to be a great “EPCOTty” idea for how to provide TGV-type speeds over a large distance with the ability to service a number of stops.

    So you’re right, cost would prevent such a project. But it’s cool to think about…

    I just want more, faster trains. Everywhere.

  • walter

    It’s kind of funny, but the movie “Escape from New York” opened with a scene that took place on a nationwide high speed rail system.

    We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars here, and the transfer tunnels would have been extremely hard to build, as it would be an incline and a launch box would have been needed to be dug for the TLMs to work their magic, which means some city land would need to be used for that purpose, along with new stations and connections to local transportation (I laughed at the diagram; it show Providence with a rapid transit subway!)

    Still, the tunnel cost would probably be similar to trying to build a true high speed rail line in the Northeast that still serviced the centers of the dense cities of the region. Just imagine trying to negotiate a new surface right-of-way through Greenwich, Connecticut, or through Manhattan. His idea for transfer vehicles is a very good one, though, that could have potentially been used in existing inter-urban rail.

    As a long term plan, much like the interstate highway system, it could have hypothetically worked, and like the highway system, may have created enough development to make it’s costs worthwhile.

  • […] Michael Crawford at Progress City, USA relates the project the brought George McGinnis to Walt Disney. […]

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