Could ultra light rail technologies solve America's transport problems?

The ultra-light Vectorr in action. Image: Flight Rail Corp.

America is home to 320m people. By 2050, it will have added 80m more. With population rise will come a corresponding jump in car travel – and with that, traffic congestion, delay, wasted fuel and polluted air.

According to Federal Highway Administration figures, Americans logged a record 3.1 trillion miles behind the wheel in 2015. Without an effective mitigation strategy in place, the negative consequences of all this will worsen. In other word, the US’s business-as-usual development paradigm of unabated roadway building is unsustainable.

Some think that high speed rail could hold the solution. It’s only now beginning to win support in the US – but it won’t come cheap.

Take the cities of the north east corridor – stretching from Boston to Washington DC, via New York and Philadelphia. Joe Boardman, the president of the national rail agency Amtrak, contends that the 456-mile long, quasi-high-speed connecting this region could be rebuilt and upgraded to world class standards. Such an upgrade would draw increased patronage, taking traffic off the roads – but in 2012, its cost was estimated at $151bn.

On 6 January 2015, the nation’s first true high-speed train route formally broke ground in California, in the agriculturally bountiful San Joaquin Valley. The 800-mile network will one day connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with eventual links to Sacramento and San Diego, too.

But the cost of the initial 520-mile backbone of the network is estimated to be a pricey $64b. These days, Uncle Sam seems to have neither the deep pockets for nor the inclination to want to invest in more endeavours like these.

Going ultra light

This is where less expensive but more advanced transit modes could fill the bill.

Take the proposed “CyberTran” system. It derives its name from conveyances – or “trans” – that can venture about autonomously, under the command and control of an onboard computer (hence the “cyber” reference). These, unlike traditional rail, would be dispatched on demand.

An artist's impression of the system in action. Image: CyberTran.

Such a system should be cheaper to run, which could help appeal to users. But at the moment it’s largely theoretical. As CyberTran chief executive Neil Sinclair admits: “For CyberTran to be credible to the first buyers requires that an operating system be demonstrated... Once a full scale system is demonstrated, the market will open up to UltraLight Rail Transit.”

A rival system involves the use of atmospheric propulsion. Flight Rail Corp.’s Vectorr system, invented by Max P. Schlienger, would use differential air pressure created by stationary power systems, to move cars along an elevated guideway. Unlike traditional rail, it can purportedly climb grades as steep as 10 percent, and is capable of operating at speeds over 200 mph.

Then there’s SkyTran, developed by a NASA spin-out company. Its own system would see distinctive tear-drop shaped pods would move around their network on a single overhead rail, propelled by magnetic levitation. This would be significantly cheaper to run than a traditional passenger railroad. In the words of Jerry Sanders, SkyTran’s chief executive:

 “At $14m per bidirectional kilometer, SkyTran’s capital cost is an order of magnitude (in most cases 20 times cheaper) than other rail systems... Furthermore, SkyTran uses electricity and does not rely on oil or unproven battery technologies that are difficult to scale.’”

The system should save on power, too. As executive vice president Christopher Perkins explains:

“Passive maglev requires no external power to levitate vehicles. Rather, the magnetic repulsion is produced by the movement of the vehicle over shorted wire coils in the track. Essentially, a linear motor that provides vehicle locomotion does double duty by inducing the levitation effect.”

An artist's impression of SkyTran in action. Image: SkyTran.

Presently, none of the three systems is up and running, though all three are working on pilot projects to demonstrate the technology.

These advanced transit offerings could revolutionise travel the way the train and motor vehicle did after they were first introduced. The key, though, will be getting the innovations beyond the drawings – to prove their efficiencies, and give people the opportunity to actually ride them.

But several important factors could help their causes along. Firstly, the price of gasoline will climb: when this happens, alternatives to conventional-mode travel and transport will begin to look ever more attractive. Secondly, as car travel miles grow, congestion will worsen – and advanced transit approaches could have a real chance.


That future may be closer than you think.

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.

 
 
 
 

Wild boar are moving back to Genoa, and not everyone is pleased

A wild boar, c1933. Image: Getty.

Crossing the Ponte Gerolamo Serra in the Italian city of Genoa, I spotted a small crowd clustered by the river wall. I approached, intrigued, and peered over the wall to discover the subject of their delight: a sounder of eight wild boars – the adults sheltering from the heat in the undergrowth, while the juveniles foraged among the foliage that grows in the river bed during the dry summer months.

In any other city, such a sight might have been surprising. But in Italy, and particularly in the region of Liguria, where Genoa is located, the population of wild boars has been increasing at such a rapid rate that these incidents are now common. Across the country, it’s estimated that the population has risen from 600,000 to 1m over the past decade.

But while wild boars may look comically out of place trotting about the city, it’s actually a natural result of the way people have migrated – and the wars they have fought – over the course of recent history.

Making a comeback

A species native to Europe, the wild boar (or “cinghiale”, in Italian) largely disappeared from its historical territories during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their decline was widely attributed to the combined effects of habitat change, competition for space and resources and, of course, hunting.

Wild boars were a prized quarry, revered for their ferocity – and the danger involved in pursuing them. According to local folklore from the region of Liguria, the last truly wild boar was hunted and killed in 1814, in the province of Savona.

After an absence of more than a century, wild boar began to return to Liguria, and to the neighbouring region of Piedmont. A further influx occurred during World War I, when it’s believed that military activities in the south-east of France forced parts of the population back into Italy over the Alps.

Although hunting fraternities were quick to augment this fledgling population with wild boars transported from elsewhere, the return of the species was primarily due to natural causes. From the 1950s onwards, traditional agricultural practices were abandoned as more and more people moved from rural towns into the cities. This meant that large areas of formerly cultivated terraces and pastures were rapidly overgrown, fast becoming dense secondary woodlands.

A city gone wild

This spontaneous “rewilding” has become a controversial issue in the region. Many conservationists and environmental organisations consider the region’s return to a “wild state” a success. But others believe that the encroaching wilderness signals a loss of traditional woodland knowledge and a reduction of biodiversity, associated with the pastures and meadows.


The province of Genoa is among the areas most densely populated by wild boar in Italy, with an estimated 25 boar per 10km². Rewilding processes have brought woodlands to the city limits, blurring the boundary between rural and urban areas. The species has expanded beyond the hinterlands, colonising highly urbanised, densely populated city spaces in Genoa, drawn by the abundance of food waste created by humans.

In 2009, the infamous boar Pierino made his home at Righi, on the outskirts of Genoa, where he was routinely fed with focaccia by enthusiasts. Today, a family of wild boar call the Albergo dei Poveri – a historical hostel for the Genoese poor in the city centre – their home.

But while their antics are often recorded and shared with glee on social media, the threats posed by the presence of wild animals has become a preoccupation for the city’s municipal administration.

Boorish behaviour

Wild boar have been involved in a number of traffic accidents, and have proven to be particularly dangerous when with their young, attacking dogs and even people. The city council in Genoa has put forward many proposals to reduce the number of animals in the city, ranging from forced removals, to sterilisation, increased attention to waste disposal and approved hunts. About 90 wild boar were reportedly culled in 2018.

Needless to say, each of these measures has been hotly debated. Animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose the proposals, and sometimes obstruct the authorities’ attempts to take action, often sending patrols to care for the animals, and even give them names. But other residents are displeased with the animals’ presence in the city, and have consulted with the council on how to address the problems that they cause.

And so Genoa continues to grapple with thorny issues surrounding the presence of wild boar in the city, with the city authorities seeking to resolve a polemical issue that embroils the lives of animals and humans alike. So far, a collective, coherent and communally agreeable strategy has proven evasive; one that considers the need for public safety, hygiene and health with the ethical responsibilities towards to wild boar themselves.

Meanwhile, the animals themselves continue to lounge and forage beneath the Ponte Gerolamo Serra and elsewhere, bringing a little of the wilderness into the city.

The Conversation

Robert Hearn, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.