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.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.