Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Any Future At All?

I've started many posts to this blog with something like:  "It got me thinking."  I guess that's what's supposed to happen in the blogosphere.

Today, I read an article published by Railway Age and written by Frank Wilner.  The topic of the article is two very new pieces of tech that could make the railroads obsolete in 10 years.  You may link to the article [here].  Prognosticators are more often wrong than right--it's the old 50-50 chance with a little thrown in on the "against" side because of the inherent risk in trying to predict an unpredictable future.

Nonetheless, I agree with the basic thesis, and that is this:  You've got to stay ahead of technology if you want to stay in business.  There was a time when railroads, and Passenger Rail railroads in particular, were always ahead of that curve.  In fact, they were the cutting edge of technology in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Not so today.

I've often marveled at how the basic concept of wheels with flanges running on gauged track has not changed since the 1850s.  Science has certainly developed better materials for the wheel-rail interaction, and maybe that's what has kept the basic engineering viable a century and a half later.  In all fairness, monorail (in the 1940s - 1960s) and maglev (more recently and continuing) have promised the same thing that Musk's "hyperloop"--as mentioned in the article--promises for Passenger Rail.  Basically, it's higher speeds, greater safety, and greater comfort.  Neither mono- nor mag-rail has panned out.

The other tech mentioned in the article, the 3-D printer, has the greater probability of putting pressure on railroads through the lowering of demand to ship parts, particularly small, light parts.  But this is for freight rail to worry about.

Passenger Rail is in dire need of a high-tech innovation that is incremental, rather than all-or-nothing.  (The 3-D printer is an example of incremental--a logical and progressive extension through generations of engineering refinement starting with the line-printer and up through dot-matrix to now.  The hyperloop is all-or-nothing, requiring a radical change in almost everything engineered around transportation needs today.)  People like change, but they don't like radical change.  The general Public may ride a bullet-train-like high-speed railroad today, but I'd bet the farm they won't allow themselves to be shot through the ground in tubes yet.

It took eleven years after the Wright brothers for air travel to be come a commercial enterprise, but it took another 35 years for it to become a competing form of passenger transport.  It was advanced, cutting edge tech, but it was too "out there" for the average passenger.  I still believe it was largely because of WWII and the number of military personnel who were exposed to flight during that period that airlines of the 1950s took off as they did--pun intended.  "If we could do it during wartime, then it's a piece of cake with nobody shooting at us!"

I keep hoping that those incremental changes I talked about will keep people riding Passenger Rail for the short term, so it won't die out as a transport mode before something realistic in the way of high tech comes along.

©2013 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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