Thursday, July 06, 2006

How About A Next Generation Rail Transport System

Revamp Nothing!

Simply explained, the philosophy of this blog is that you cannot achieve a true breakthrough in Passenger Rail transport by upgrading The Old on a limited budget. For instance, VIA Rail chose to revamp cars originally built for Chunnel service. They are nice cars and are being used on the service to the Maritimes. But with European buff strength (below North American standards) and with only moderately appealing amenities, they are nothing more than revamped Chunnel cars.

So how are we going to get to a Next Generation Rail (NGR) transport system?

Like the advent of rail transportation itself, NGR must be such a forward step in surface transportation that it outdoes anything else. Yet we at Passenger Rail believe that NGR, while it must be a forward step, cannot be a quantum leap. Neither can it be a revamp of current equipment.

In the 1830s, a quantum leap would have been going from horses pulling carts on rutted roads to internal combustion rail travel all in one step. None of the theory was unknown in the 1830s, but the technology was too complicated to be practical. In the 2000s, maglev comes to mind as a quantum leap.

So what can we do? Well, first we must realize that some of the boldest steps forward are based on simple engineering. We tend to throw technology at problems these days, and the end result isn't always well thought out. High speed rail is a good idea only if we do it simply. NGR will have to be steel wheel on steel rail. The concept of fixed guideways routing vehicles where needed with minimal friction/drag and with a minimum of computer intervention AND the possibility of falling back to the "all mechanical" mode when things fail - this concept cannot be beat. We dare you to try.

Second, we must also realize that the mingling of passenger and freight is a bad idea - an idea whose time has come and gone. We are not saying that they cannot share the same right-of-way, just that they cannot share the same track. Not even for a few hundred yards.

What we envision is similar to the concept of the limited access superhighway, a concept that, for road transport, is past its prime. It is a concept that hasn't yet been tried in any robust form for rail. Passenger Rail has only to reach passenger stations, while freight must reach customers where and when they are. So we can see a system with high-speed Passenger Rail on the inside of a wide easement, and freight rail on the outside. No crossovers touch Passenger Rails. It's either over or under to get to the other side, and in heavy traffic areas it could be double decked with passenger on top. (Remembering a freeway in Oakland and a bad earthquake, we hasten to add that proper structural safeguards must be installed.)

Revamp nothing: These should be new routes with newly laid track and contemporary engineering that uses all the advances that materials engineering has to offer. We allow for reuse of rights-of-way and easements, but don't just plop the passenger lines in the middle of old freight rails that were laid during the Truman Administration.

In future blogs: NGR as it applies to signals and control systems, passenger cars, and motive power.

We will soon have some thoughts about Positive Train Control posted on our sister blog, The Railroad.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -
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