Episode 1: Reinforcing Road & Rail

Technologies transforming travel

Adam's Weekly Blog

Re-inventing road and rail

Re-inventing road and rail

One hour off the plane from London to Chengdu in China and I find myself...
One hour off the plane from London to Chengdu in China and I find myself travelling around in a Perspex tube on a prototype of a new kind of train which the developers claim might travel at up to 800 kph (480 mph).

For the moment I had been given control of it travelling at 12 kph, which seemed fast enough as I could not work out how to stop it and the red button just made it go faster and faster.

This new Super Maglev train is one innovation that is part of an effort to rethink mass transport – how to move as many people around as cleanly, efficiently and fast as possible.

And it is not just rail – the future of the car, too, requires some bright ideas.

In the pre-motor car world, communities were contained by their environment and the limitations of their geography. Access to affordable private transport offered ordinary people new freedoms.

The irony is that the success of transport technology has meant so many of us now choose to travel in our own cars that there is not enough space to accommodate us all.

In 1968 the average speed of traffic in Central London was 12.7 mph. Thirty years later, as cars developed new technology that enabled them to travel at well over 100 mph, they were actually only going at 10 mph on average.

So despite 30 years of technical development, car travel within many cities has got slower.

Although the motor industry continually try to sell us new versions of their products, that go faster, smoother and are more comfortable, there are some even at the top of the industry who think it is time for a massive re-think.

Bill Ford, great grandson of Henry Ford, told me in an interview for Horizons on BBC World News, that he feared that as more and more people bought cars they would become less and less useful.

He pointed towards an infamous traffic jam in China in August 2010 when drivers were stuck for 10 days in a line of traffic.

Extreme maybe but how do we meet the urban demand to move around without causing gridlock?

That is exactly what we have been looking at in this examination of new transport ideas.

Back at the University of Chengdu in China the Maglev train they are allowing me to experiment with would rely on the extremely ambitious idea of encasing the train in a vacuum tunnel.

Friction is the enemy of speed.  The theory is that lifting trains off the tracks using existing magnetic levitation technology and running them in a vacuum would eliminate drag and allow them to run at super high speeds, on small amounts of power.

We visited Oakridge National Laboratory in the US where they are working on a 3D printed car. It is lighter than traditionally built cars and should therefore be more efficient.

At the Technology University of Munich we filmed developers who are working on a new kind of vehicle which they say will not just take you to a train station or the airport but right up to the check in desk inside the terminal.  Then it will go and find its own parking space to recharge.

The technology and the ideas are impressive.

The disappointment is that the answer to our growing transport concerns does not just lie in building cars and trains which are faster and more confortable.

As the world’s burgeoning middle class use their new wealth to buy millions more cars and travel millions more miles, we may also have to re-imagine our infrastructure, our right to individual transport and the way we move round our cities.

New car models roll off the production line every year; new transport ideas are much rarer but much more important.
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