2010-04-07

Transportation

I was so unbelievably bored during my flight to Oslo this morning I spent some time thinking about trains again.  In part prompted by the pathetic state of the train service in Norway and in part by the inconvenience, discomfort and over-all misery of air-travel.

I've been thinking about trains for a few years now.  In my not so humble opinion almost everything about trains is wrong.  I find it odd that trains have not changed significantly in 100 years.  Most trains still have the same basic (flawed) design.  In addition the way trains are operated is unnecessarily limited.

What depresses me is the stubbornly short-sighted approach we have taken to railways.  Right now there is much talk about fixing the current ailments of our railways.  Sadly there is very little talk about attacking the problem at a more fundamental level:  having a fresh look at the problem and in light of the past 100 years of innovations actually building something that reflects our current technology AND attempts to solve problems rather than just patching up the old rubbish.

Norway can afford the research and development effort needed to bring about radically different train systems.  But in essence, we insist on behaving like some odd third world country.  We piss on our innovators and lean heavily on our fortunate winnings in the lottery of natural resources.  The government would never be prepared to inject the needed capital.  And they would make damn sure nobody else is tempted to do it either.

Deep down I know it would be futile to take a weekend to write down my thoughts on how to fix trains.  But I still hope I'll find the time to do it anyway.

And yes, the train from the airport was delayed this morning.  Causing me to arrive late for my meeting.  Trains in Norway are a joke.

3 comments:

  1. Cool feature for trains: Create a low-pressure tube for the trains. This eliminates problems with snow, pollution and wildlife crossing the tracks and at the same time reduces air resistance for the trains.

    (I think I saw the idea when someone was speculating on the feasibility of a tunnel under the English Channel in the 80's :-))

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  2. Tubes have too many spectacular failure modes :)

    Short version:

    The rail system needs to be cheap, easy to deploy, extremely easy to maintain, robust with regard to the particular problems we have in Norway (cold weather, elevation changes, ground movement during seasonal changes etc). Also, the vehicles themselves and the propulsion system needs to be cheap to mass produce, has to be durable and exceptionally simple.

    Key words: overhead encapsulated rail with propulsion system (motors) above rail, vehicle is monocoque design in lightweight composites with damped, flexible mounts (vehicle can disconnect from on-rail propulsion system), multiple size vehicles (2 sizes of person carrier, freight pod etc), canard wings w/independent real-time control to generate lift at speed (for stability and to lessen load on rail), no timetables (think "packet-switched" + nagle-like algorithm + traffic predicion/planning and dynamic pricing), regenerative braking with surplus energy being fed back into grid or battery banks along the rail near braking zones, autonomous / driver-less operation.

    main challenges: make manufacture of vehicles extremely cheap. necessitates innovation in automation of manufacturing carbon composites (modern airplanes use composites, but the production process isn't as efficient as it needs to be). Durable propulsion system assembly.
    Tripod design for rail with automatic height measurement and adjustment (in-vehicle and in-rail sensors).

    My original idea for vehicle design would not work for long-range trains because you need toilets :-). This is why I came up with the idea of making the propulsion system mounted to the rail overhead rather than the vehicle to save sprung weight and thus have larger vehicles. Also gives some flexibility for being able to load vehicles "off-line" since disconnecting vehicle from propulsion system should be simple enough to automate.

    Sustained cruise speed needs to be around minimum 300-350km/h to be viable alternative to

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  3. Have gotten a lot of feedback on my ideas on transportation both in email and from people who are DM'ing me on Twitter and even calling me or dropping by to discuss it.

    I wish I had time to write and diagram some thoughts.

    I've seen a few good ideas and a lot of bad ones. The bad ones seem to follow the same pattern: they pay too much attention to existing technologies within their field and are not curious enough about what can be learned from other fields. The way to make real strides forward is not to merely pick from the existing inventory of solutions in one field, but to look at fundamental problems and source solutions from a much wider spectrum of fields -- innovating and inventing where no good solutions exist.

    To design trains I would probably look to people who have done aerospace work, material sciences with emphasis on carbon composites, production automation and design of industrial robotics systems. Perhaps even technology companies that do development work for racing teams since these are by nature heavily interdisciplinary and they are apt to come up with, prototype, test and deploy technology in ultra-rapid development cycles.

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