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Page last updated at 03:00 GMT, Tuesday, 18 October 2011 04:00 UK

Can train technology reinvent the wheel?


Click's Peter Price looks at the evolution of driverless pods

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

Rail transport has not fundamentally changed in the 200 years since the invention of metal rails but a new wave of transport ideas - from ones already in development to "concept" contraptions - could change the way we commute forever.

A personal car that drives itself automatically to your destination may sound like science fiction but new "pods" at Heathrow Airport in London have achieved just that - taking passengers from car park to terminal quickly, easily and driven entirely autonomously.

The idea of Personal Rapid Transit, as it is called, is to make public transport more personal, allowing on-demand journeys at the push of a button, all controlled by computers and lasers rather than a human.

The system has been heralded as a solution to transport congestion in years to come. And this is not the only futuristic idea for public transport that has been developed.

Ground effect "Aero-Train" CGI prototype
The Aero-Train is said to drive more like an aeroplane than a train

One blue-sky idea is the Aero-Train - a plane-like vehicle which travels at up to 350km/h (220mph) just 10cm above the ground.

The vehicle uses a technology known as ground-effect which removes the friction that makes conventional rail transport less efficient and uses aerodynamics to reduce drag.

Its speed relies on aerodynamics similar to those used in a plane or a hovercraft, using the air as a cushion to prevent it from touching the floor.

While currently in prototype, developers at the Tohoku University in Japan have already demonstrated the idea and hope it can be in public use by 2020.

But there are trains in use right now that never touch the ground.

Maglev trains, most famously in use in China between Shanghai Pudong International Airport to an interchange with the Shanghai Metro, operate just centimetres from the track's surface.

There's a momentum in the industry that steel rail is a juggernaut that can't be stopped. It's here to stay
Richard Anderson, Imperial College London

The train is held from the ground by a magnetic field - the term maglev is short for magnetic levitation - and powered by motors that, without as much friction, allow it to go at very high speeds.

Maglev trains have been tested to run up to 581km/h (361mph), according to Guinness World Records, quite a pace considering there is no contact between the train and the ground.

Japan is planning to connect Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka by maglev train by 2027 but the first train of this kind was actually used in Birmingham, UK in the 1980s.

Travelling over short distances to Birmingham International Airport at low speeds, it never quite contested the test-run speeds of more modern iterations. It is no longer in use.

What was once widely considered the successor to high-speed rail, maglev networks has struggled with investment in recent years, especially outside of east Asia.

'Steel juggernaut'

So is reinventing the wheel likely to change public transport forever?

Some people think that changing opinions within the industry is - to mix metaphors - akin to turning a tanker around.

Maglev trains lessen friction by being held centimetres above the track

"The steel wheel on steel rail has been in existence for nearly 200 years and it hasn't fundamentally changed in all that time," says Richard Anderson, managing director of the Railway and Transport Strategy Centre at Imperial College London.

"There's a momentum in the industry that steel rail is a juggernaut that can't be stopped. It's here to stay."

And that is where most governments are targeting their funding. While the future of public transport as a whole is one of much debate, high-speed rail seems to be close to widespread global adoption.

Around the world more and more high-speed networks are appearing, costing billions to develop with the promise of improved infrastructure and vast economic benefits.

The UK plans to spend around £32bn on a new high-speed rail network connecting London with Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and then Scotland.

A consultation has been completed, with some critics saying the network risks "being a vast white elephant that is out of date before it is even completed".

It's [high-speed rail] the largest capital project this country will ever have engaged in and it is money, frankly, that could better be spent elsewhere
Geoffrey Robinson MP

But elsewhere, a conference in New York has already looked at plans to spend $600bn (£380bn) and China already operates 16 high-speed rail lines.

So what can high-speed rail offer?

Surprisingly, it seems like speed may not be the most important thing about implementing new networks at all.

"The thing about high-speed rail is not so much speed as capacity," says Mr Anderson.

"The best metros and trams around the world provide mass transport - they move lots of people very efficiently. The advances in technology are going to be important but, after safety, the amount of people that can travel is vital."

And safety is the one thing that causes most concern among commuters.

With the general definition for High-Speed Rail being around 150mph (240km/h), any minor malfunction could lead to catastrophe.

Speedometer on a high-speed train
Many high-speed solutions have failed to deliver the speeds promised

In July this year, 39 people died in China when a high-speed train ran into the back of another which had stalled. This was meant to be impossible because of the electronic safety system that was in place.

But in general, driverless public transport is believed to be around 30% more reliable than if it was being driven by a human.

Recent examples include an entirely automated North East MRT Line in Singapore, the last station of which opened earlier this year. It remains completely underground and is entirely driverless for its 20km (12.4 miles) route.

Lesser known is that a significant part of the London Underground network has been automated to some extent, including the Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines along with the Docklands Light Railway.

"Most modern metros are automatic, which increases reliability," says Mr Anderson.

"This is because you're cutting out a certain level of human involvement which inherently causes problems."

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