Off the rails: mag-lev personal rapid transit

by Trond on 21 August 2011 · 5 comments

I have not been thinking about blog posts much over the last week and a half: on the 11 August my closest friend died and his memorial service was a week later. However, I have received a guest post from a new contributor to the Stubborn Mule: Norwegian academic Trond Andresen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. I met Trond last year at the CofFEE conference in Newcastle where he was spending time pursuing his research interests in macroeconomics. However, as will become evident in the post below, Trond also has other rather different academic interests and was inspired by the recent Train in Vain post, to write about a rather radical alternative to high-speed rail.

I am a Norwegian control systems lecturer recently back from a ten-month sabbatical in Newcastle. I have had one-year stays in Australia on two earlier occasions. My first stint was in Sydney 1997-98. I then experienced the city’s grave congestion and environmental problems due to car traffic. Thirteen years later it is even worse.

I have also tried the very slow railway service between Newcastle and Sydney. It hasn’t improved either. From 1997 I remember the debates about intercity high-speed rail and magnetic levitation trains. But this didn’t lead to anything.

Today however, there exists a new and proven – but largely unknown – technology that in one go can solve both the in-city and intercity transportation problems, and it is much cheaper than high-speed rail. That technology is maglev-based personal rapid transit (M-PRT). Computer-controlled small two-person streamlined pods run on a guideway six meters above gound. The guideway is carried by utility poles. The structure is very slender and much less intrusive than the Sydney monorail, because each pod weighs maximum 300 kg. It may be quickly erected along some main thoroughfares, and gradually extended to create a dense city network. One will not anymore depend on a few large stations, but can instead access the system at any of the many hundreds of network nodes (resembling elevated bus stops) you will have in a city like Sydney. A pod hangs under the guideway, and slides along it without wheels and no contact; an extension of the pod inside the guideway levitates it by magnetic repulsion. This is a new, simpler and cheaper type of maglev technology than that used in the very expensive German Transrapid, which was part of the Australian debate in 1997.

Maglev and the absence of wheels give two crucial advantages: very low maintenance requirements, and speeds up to 240 km/h (pods will of course cruise at a much slower speed in a dense city). This translates to impressive intercity timesL Newcastle-Sydney 0:45, Katoomba-Sydney 0:30. Canberra-Sydney 1:30. And between cities you don’t need to travel via central stations, you go directly and nonstop from suburb to suburb. Erecting lines between cities and towns is easy and fast because very little is needed in the way of earthworks: the guideway is on poles 6 meters above the ground. Nature is left largely undisturbed, and traffic and animals may cross freely under the track.

A bidirectional M-PRT line has the same capacity as a freeway with three lanes in each direction (like the new M2). Since there are no chauffeurs needed in the system, tickets may be quite cheap. And energy use per person even at top speed is low, on a par with high speed rail.

This technology should be included in the ongoing discussions. It is far superior to the alternatives.

I research and write about this in cooperation with the  American inventor, Doug Malewicki. But my engagement in this technology is purely academic: while I am the Norwegian contact for SkyTran, which currently has a research agreement with NASA to develop the concept, I have no commercial ties to the company.

Note that this is not Sci-Fi, or eccentric dreaming from some “futurist”. All parts of the system have proved to work, and you might check out the first “flight” of a full-size prototype at NASA’s Ames center, downloadable from here (my uni web site in Norway, guaranteed virus free!).

I gave a talk about the system at Sydney University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies early this year, see presentation here (you find it as the second entry from the top). I was also interviewed about this on the ABC Science Show In spite of these openings, it is really an uphill battle to get radical new solutions out there in the public domain. I tried several times during my Australian stay to get something into the Sydney Morning Herald, but they didn’t even respond.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Zebra August 21, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Hi Trond – very exciting out of the box (or off the rails) thinking. The model in the video does indeed look quite futuristic. I wonder though how disabled people in wheelchairs or the elderly who use mobility aids would use this? The current design does seem to be optimised for the sort of person who would easily manage to fit into a compact car. I know this is (possibly) a poor design feature not a criticism of the whole concept which seems quite sound and does seem to solve, at least in part, the major cost of building new rail these days which is the purchase price of the land. I reckon somewhere like a Olympic or Expo city would be a good place to start though I cant help thinking about the monorail episode on The Simpsons….

2 Trond Andresen August 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm

For wheel-chair-bound people: a purpose-built version of the vehicle combined with a simple platform-like lift at most stations, operated by an assistant which may be summoned 5 minutes before by SMS, and who is employed by the company for that purpose, circulating in the system and helping such passengers in all ways.
For people who are able to use stairs: they have tested a mock-up with old and frail people entering an exiting. When entering, you sit down sideways and then swing your legs 90 degrees. Worked very well for them. See the impression of vehicle and “portal” (station) on (btw, start with and go through the presentation, it is good).

3 Jordan August 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm

This looks like a particularly exciting PRT possibility, hopefully it gets built at scale in some city in the world soon so we can see how it works in practice.

“For wheel-chair-bound people: a purpose-built version of the vehicle combined with a simple platform-like lift at most stations”

If the idea is to have tiny, modular, cheap access everywhere, surely having such accessibility at “most stations” is going to add massively to the capital costs? Have you considered instead trying to design a pod that can act as a portable wheelchair lift?

Also, I’d as a PRT advocate I’d be interested in your thoughts on Brad Templeton’s comparison of PRT with his own preferred innovation, automated cars:

4 Dan August 30, 2011 at 10:44 pm
5 Zebra October 19, 2011 at 10:35 am

Check out this article on the driverless pod network at Heathrow T5.

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