Thursday, August 03, 2017

Could China’s “Trackless Train” really beat light rail?

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Could China’s “Trackless Train” really beat light rail?

The quest to concoct a workable rubber-tired replacement for steel-wheel light rail transit (LRT)—on standard steel rails—seems eternal. Several variants of running a “tram on tires,” typically with some configuration of a center guiderail, have been developed.

Such systems have been installed in a handful of cities such as Nancy, Caen, Padua, Tianjin, Shanghai, and a few others—with very limited success. (The Caen version, plagued with reliability problems, is scheduled for conversion to standard steel-rail LRT by 2019.)

Despite such technological experiments, nothing so far has emerged to decisively substitute for bona fide LRT. Even despite a slowdown in U.S. LRT startups (mainly a result of the Federal Transit Administration freezing new rail starts not already approved for funding), LRT expansion has been booming worldwide.

ZhuzhouNevertheless, hopeful inventors keep trying—the latest iteration being an offering from China. In early June, railway rolling stock manufacturer CRRC debuted a “wireless” and “trackless light rail” system for the city of Zhuzhou rolling on supposedly “virtual rails”. The new line is slated to stretch 6.5 km (about four miles).

You can watch a short promotional video on YouTube:

Actually, like previous iterations, the Zhuzhou “trackless train” is merely an elaboration of bus technology, involving an electrically powered, multi-articulated bus designed to resemble an LRT car. Sensors enable the bus to follow dashed lines painted in the roadway (although promotional photos and videos also show a driver with a steering wheel).

Periodically recharged lithium-ion batteries provide power. The bus is rated at a maximum speed of 70 km/hr (about 42 mph), and designers claim it can travel 25 km (about 15 miles) after a ten-minute charge.

In reality, there’s nothing particularly new about any of this technology. Multi-articulated buses have been operating in a small handful of cities (e.g., Curitiba) for decades. Battery power with recharging stations is an emerging propulsion technology now being deployed not just for buses but also for several new streetcar-tramway-style LRT projects, such as Oklahoma City’s new streetcar.

Optical guidance involving pavement striping has also been around for a while, albeit with less than stellar performance. It’s been tried and abandoned in several systems, including Las Vegas’s “MAX” BRT.

The length of the Zhuzhou three-unit articulated bus is just over 100 feet, and promoters claim it can carry up to 307 passengers. How comfortable that would be, even with air-conditioning, is dubious. (Exaggeration of effective carrying capacity by transit rolling stock vendors is commonplace.)

One of the designers’ nominal goals is to speed up public transportation development in major cities. But the emphasis of their promotional argumentation seems competitive—focusing on supposed advantages over steel-rail transit technology. Its developers assert a measly $2 million per kilometer capital investment cost for their invention (about $3.2 million per mile). So could this really become a replacement for true LRT?

In evaluating this technological LRT “replacement,” it’s first important to realize that installation costs of new “gadget” technologies are commonly lowballed by vendors. An investment of $3.2 million per mile would barely cover the cost of rolling stock, much less right-of-way, civil works, trackway (or a paveway), a signal and communications system, power, stations, and maintenance facilities. Especially in today’s cultural environment of “alternative facts” and rampant bombast, lowball cost claims need lots of scrutiny ... and skepticism.

How would capital costs actually compare? As already noted above, LRT systems can be designed to operate free of an overhead contact system (OCS), just like the Zhuzhou bus.

However, the relative merits and costs of “wire-free” power vs. OCS have yet to be fully evaluated. While OCS can be eliminated, a power system is still needed to supply the recharging facilities. Propulsion batteries would also need to be replaced periodically, adding to long-term cost. Operational factors, such as particularly heavy passenger loads with A/C, or very steep grades, may require the higher power delivery of OCS. (The challenge of steep grades on future routes was a key factor in Cincinnati’s decision to install OCS for their new streetcar starter line.)

The Chinese promoters claim the “trackless” system could run on ordinary streets with other traffic, and seem to presume zero cost of right-of-way. But even in a mixed-use street lane, experience suggests reinforced pavement construction typically would be necessary to handle the considerably heavier rolling stock and intensive roadway wear-and-tear.

In reality, the trend both in China and the U.S. is to segregate transit in exclusive lanes—thus, a dedicated paveway for buses and track lanes for LRT. A fair comparison of investments would consider the full lifecycle costs of reinforced pavement vs. steel trackage.

Such a comparison would need to include issues of energy consumption (affected by differences between pneumatic tires on pavements vs. steel wheels on rails), vibration (also impacting ride quality for passengers), reliability of vehicle guidance (particularly at higher speeds), as well as right-of-way maintenance costs and economic life. Vehicle maintenance (especially pneumatic tire replacement vs. steel wheel truing) also needs consideration. As this plays out, the comparative costs over years of service and eventually facility lifetimes would provide the basis of an adequate comparative evaluation.

One wonders how many transit agencies and their policymakers will carry out this kind of scrupulous extended process, instead of making superficial judgments over what’s claimed to be a cheaper cost and greater ease of installation for the rubber-tired “trackless light rail” system. In any case, it’s clear that, in the eternal quest to find a viable competitor to LRT, the devil, as usual, is in the details.

















Lyndon Henry

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, investigative journalist, and transportation consultant currently based in Central Texas. He holds a Master of Science in Community & Regional Planning, with a focus in Transportation, from the University of Texas at Austin, 1981. From 1973 to 1989 he was executive director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, and presented the original proposals and feasibility studies for light rail that led to the inclusion of rail transit in the Austin-area planning process.. From 1981 to 1985 he served as a transportation consultant to the Hajj Research Centre at King Abdul Aziz University, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a transportation planning consultant on several other transit projects in the USA. In 1983-84 he was a member of the Austin-Travis County Transit Task Force which recommended a transit authority for the Austin area. That agency, eventually named Capital Metro, was created in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, Mr. Henry served as a board member and vice-chairman of Capital Metro. From 1990 to 1992 he was an Adjunct Faculty member at St. Edwards University, teaching a course in public policy. Since 2000 he has served as a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and from 2002 to late 2011 he served as a Data Analyst for Capital Metro in Austin. He is also a member of APTA’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee and Light Rail Transit Technical Subcommittee.

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