There is no way that anyone can forecast the future with any degree of accuracy but it is possible to suggest a range of ideas that might become reality.
The transportation of people from A to B is determined by motivations. The need to go to a place of work to earn a living being the major one. Lesser motivations include recreational travel for holidays and shopping trips. Each requires a different transport service.
The provision of transport for commuters to and from their work places has become one of the major problems facing transport organisers today. Commuters require transportation for two relatively short periods on five days of the week. The transport service must be designed to cope with the peak demand for transport. This implies that there will be a surplus of the transport facility at other times. This is uneconomic and wasteful. The problem is made worse by the increasing dispersal of commuters. A part of the incentive for dispersal is the fact that existing transport services are relatively efficient and inexpensive in relation to the high salaries earned by the dispersed commuters.
If the cost of transport is increased, many of the commuters will demand (and usually get) a salary increase to match. However, this will put poorer commuters at a disadvantage and make it harder to recruit teachers, hospital staff and cleaners in the centres of cities. A secondary effect is to increase the pressure for higher house prices. Raising fares too much can cause other, more serious, problems without alleviating the commuting problem very much.
There is a way to reduce the distances that commuters travel and a way to reduce the numbers of commuters that have a focus in one particular area. It requires some social engineering that can be implemented over time.
Most commuters evaluate their situations in terms of their salaries and the direct costs of getting to and from work. They may not consciously think of the travelling time in the same terms but there will be an element that helps to make the commuter decide that a particular journey time is acceptable or not. I call this time the Personal Time Valuation (PTV). When this factor is included in calculations concerning commuting it becomes possible to compare alternative methods of transport on an equal basis.
It is fair to value a commuters time at the same rate as his or her employer does. The business of work for the commuter begins when he or she leaves home in the morning and ends when he or she returns in the evening. I have done some basic calculations that show how PTV affects the cost of commuting. For simplicity I have assumed that the commuter earns £20,800pa and has a fortnights paid holiday each year. This provides an income of £400 per week. A further assumption is that the commuter has a 40 hour week. The income is therefore just £10 per hour of work. The PTV will therefore also be £10 per hour. This round figure is reasonably realistic and makes further calculations easy. The following examples are based on rough estimations of fares or other direct costs and times. They show that direct costs form a relatively minor part of the cost of commuting. Waiting times in the examples include walking to and from bus stops etc.
A typical commuter journey would be around 25 miles each way.
A car travels at an average speed of 25mph from door to door. At a cost of 35p per mile the cost of the journey is £17.50 both ways. The PTV is £20.00 for the two hours total travelling time. The total cost is therefore £37.50 per day.
A bus journey at a speed of 15mph takes 1 hour 40 minutes each way. The bus fare would be around £5.00 return. Average waiting time for the bus to arrive and the time between bus arrival at the destination and starting work is assumed to be 15 minutes. Total time for each way is 1 hour 55 minutes giving 3 hours 50 minutes total travelling time. This gives a PTV of £38.33. With the bus fare of £5.00 the total cost of the journeys to and from work is £43.33.
A train journey will not normally be as direct as a car or
bus journey. It is therefore assumed that the train will only
take the commuter for 20 miles of the 25 mile journey. However,
the train travels at an average speed of 40mph. If a bus is used
for the remaining 5 miles at an average speed of 10mph with a
bus connection waiting time of 15 minutes, the net bus time takes
30 minutes. The rail journey also takes 30 minutes each way. The
net travelling time is therefore 1 hour each way. The train ticket
would cost around £12.00 return and the bus ticket would
cost around £3.00 return. The net cost of the two-way trip
is therefore £35.00.
The train is seen to have the advantage until two people share a car. Then the cost per person including PTV for two people is £28.75.
The personal time valuation does not appear anywhere in anyones accounts yet it is a major factor in the choice of commuting method and the distance commuted. In addition, the way a person values his or her time will be subject to the way it is spent. Time spent in a comfortable car held up in a traffic jam would be valued less than the same time waiting in the cold and rain for a bus. The time spent waiting for a delayed train on a cold and draughty platform would be valued more than the time spent waiting for a bus or being held up in a car traffic jam.
Since PTV has such an effect on commuting, it would be useful to consider how it could be included in someones accounts. For example, if a commuter had his or her fares and time paid for by his or her employer, the cost of commuting for an employers employees would then appear in the employers accounts. As all employers like to reduce costs they would look for ways to reduce them. The employer could recruit preferentially people whose commuting costs were lower. The employer could organise special transport for the employees or the employer could relocate to somewhere where commuting costs are lower. Just think of what Cadbury did at Bournville.
It would be a severe imposition on employers if they had to change suddenly to a regime where they had to pay for employees travelling costs and time. However, it is possible for a government to say that such a regime should be implemented in 10% stages over (say) ten years. This idea would gradually reduce the total distance travelled by all commuters to a much lower figure. This in turn would reduce the peak loads on all types of transport and save a large amount of energy in electricity and fossil fuel.
Revising Transport Systems
Trains are a nineteenth century invention. They use tracks with a gauge that is based on the wheel spacing of a Roman chariot. (The Romans made the best roads but they fell into disrepair when the Romans left. All later wheeled vehicles had to have the same wheel spacing as the ruts that had developed in the Roman roads. When rails were introduced, the coach builders who built the trucks used the wheel spacing that they were used to.)
Locomotives were expensive to build so they were made large and powerful. There was little cost saving in making them smaller. One large locomotive could pull a large number of unpowered coaches or trucks. This arrangement continued with steam trains until fairly late in the 20th century. The concept of the long train of many coaches became so well established that hardly anyone has considered that another way of using the tracks is possible.
Early trains had very poor brakes and the trains used today
are not much better. Research shows that a passenger train using
maximum safe braking can only stop at a rate of around 1 ft per
second per second. (1/32.2g) 1g = 32.2 feet per second per second.
The braking efficiency of road vehicles is measured as a percentage where 100% is a deceleration of 1g. A road vehicles brakes must be at least 50% efficient by law. Most road vehicles can decelerate with an efficiency of 80% or 0.8g. A Formula 1 car can decelerate at 2g or more.
These rates of deceleration have a large effect on the distance it takes to stop. (Highway Code thinking distances are not included in the following figures.)
|F1 Car||2g||60 mph||20 yards||120 mph||80 yards||100kph||19.7 metres||200 kph||78.65 metres|
|Car||0.8g||60 mph||50 yards||120 mph||200 yards||100kph||49.2 metres||200 kph||198.6 metres|
|Bus||0.5g||60 mph||80 yards||120 mph||320 yards||100kph||78.7 metres||200 kph||314.6 metres|
|Train||0.031g||60 mph||1,292 yds||120 mph||5,166 yds||100kph||1.27 km||200 kph||5.07 km|
The stopping distance is the critical factor that decides the minimum safe spacing of vehicles. Formula 1 cars, ordinary cars and buses can stop easily within the distance that the driver can see ahead but trains cannot. A bus or car driver will assume that the vehicle in front cannot stop much more quickly that he or she can so the following driver usually drives at less than the stopping distance behind the vehicle in front. Train drivers have no choice. Trains are usually spaced at much greater distances than the stopping distance. This is obviously very wasteful of track space.
It is not practical to improve the braking efficiency of conventional trains because the track could not withstand the force needed to stop a train much more quickly without being damaged. The energy that needs to be dissipated when stopping a vehicle is proportional to the square of the speed and half its weight or mass. A typical train weighs around 400 tons. A typical bus weighs around 5 tons. A typical car weighs one ton.
It is clear that the rate of deceleration for a train could be improved significantly if it weighed a lot less than 400 tons. For example, if a 12 coach train was split up (without a standard locomotive) into 12 separate self powered coaches weighing around 30 tons each, the deceleration could be increased to 12 times the rate of a standard train without damaging the track. If railway coaches did not have to be built to withstand the compressive forces that arise in the event of a crash, they could be built much lighter than 30 tons. Then it would be possible to have brakes that grip the track. These would be one-sided versions of the calliper brakes fitted to bicycles. Track brakes would have rollers to prevent wear on the inside of the track to maintain the gauge. If the weight of a rail coach could be reduced to around 12 tons it would be possible to achieve a deceleration rate of 0.5g to 0.6g without damaging the track.
Wear by a rolling wheel is approximately proportional to the sixth power of the axle weight. In other words a coach that weighs 30 tons causes 64 times as much wear as a coach weighing 15 tons. The electric current drawn by an electric train is roughly proportional to its weight when travelling at a constant speed on the level. The power lost in the electrical distribution system is proportional to the square of the current drawn. The power lost in the electric distribution system is reduced to one quarter if coaches are reduced to half their current weight.
From the point of view of the commuter it is much more preferable to have a single rail coach that leaves every five minutes to a 12 coach train that leaves hourly. Terminus rail stations would have to be rebuilt so that all tracks are loops. There would be no need for long cul-de-sac platform arrangements with single rail coach vehicles. Most of the current signalling would become unnecessary because the points would be changed by a computer in the drivers cab. The computers data would be updated frequently from a master computer using the mobile telephone network. The mobile telephone network electronics can locate a mobile telephone within a 50 metre radius. This information can be sent to the rail coach computers to ensure that correct spacing is maintained. As the driver would be able to stop the rail coach well within the distance that he or she can see ahead, accidents like the one that occurred at Selby/Great Heck cou ld be avoided. The ability to stop quickly would permit rail coaches travelling at 120mph to be spaced 15 seconds apart while allowing a good margin of safety. The track resource would be used more effectively and efficiently and would cost a lot less in maintenance.
A further gain in efficiency would be the ability to re-route rail coaches to suit a wide range of situations. The Beeching approach was to cut down on unprofitable lines to attempt to improve the overall profitability of the service. This has resulted in a general shrinkage of the rail service that cannot be easily undone. The bus example given above shows that buses cannot provide a satisfactory replacement for trains. With the clarity of hindsight it can be seen that in almost all cases where a Beeching cut rail service was replaced by a bus service, the bus service was eventually discontinued. The result was that the business that the rail service had gained from the unprofitable feeder services for the profitable services was just thrown away. The rail service became even more London centred than it had been previously.
There is one small comfort that may help to undo the losses caused by Beeching. The railway preservation societies have managed to make use of some of the sections of track that Beeching threw away. With their co-operation it might be possible to restore some sections of track that could be used again to make the rail system less London centred. As an example, good business could be obtained if there was a good rail coach service between Cambridge and Bedford or even Grantham to Newport. If coach operators like National Express can get business on routes like Liverpool to Yarmouth, the rail coaches should also be able to offer a profitable competitive service. Today I heard that Ryanair will be offering a service between Stansted and Torquay. Ryanair offers flights between Stansted and Glasgow for much less than the current rail fare. Last week I heard that Ryanair had ordered 50 more 737 aircraft. If a private company can see how to make money by investing millions of pounds on new aircraft while charging low fares it must also be true that a rail service could do likewise with track and rail coaches if it was really forward looking. (It would also be of great help if the rail service was operated by just one organisation.)
The Far Future
I once had to try to describe London to a small Welsh boy who had never seen a big city. I told him that you could be in a place like Lampeter where he lived and start in the centre where the shops are. Then you go out of the town. As you leave Lampeter you soon see the fields and open countryside. In the same distance in London you just see more houses. Then a little bit further on you see more shops. If you keep going you will see the same sort of thing again and again - houses and shops for nearly twenty miles. This simplified view of London is an indication of the transport needs of the city. People live in the houses and need to go to the shops and back again. What people buy in the shops depends to some degree on the method of transport they use. The limitation is frequently what can be carried in two shopping bags because public transport is so badly equipped to help people carry goods. The main alternative is the car. The car can carry anything except large items of furniture or white goods. There is no need for anyone to carry bags for more than a few yards.
This fairly basic example shows that there is a need for a transportation method that can compete with a car for shortish journeys when goods have to be carried.
Such a transportation system is in existence on a small scale
at Heathrow Airport. The Travolator enables people
to move without having to carry bags in their hands. A variation
on this idea is used at nearly all airports to return luggage
to passengers at the end of flights. The ideas for the system
are already in use but they need to be developed and expanded
to provide transport for people in cities. Any town or city that
first installs a travolator between a shopping centre and a bus
station will attract thousands of people who will just come to
see the novelty. If a small charge is made for using the travolator
it will soon pay for its installation and upkeep. If the travolator
is covered there would be no need for any other form of transport
along its route.
Variations on the travolator theme have been featured in science fiction stories since the time of H. G. Wells. Robert Heinlein envisaged a moving road that travelled at 100mph. In his short story The Roads Must Roll the 100 mph track was reached by using a series of strips spaced at 5mph intervals. There is an incident in the story that would not occur if his moving roads were correctly designed. This error might be forgiven because his vision of the future was seen from a 1941 perspective. Three commonplace things that we take for granted today were not even envisaged when he wrote the story. A 100mph moving road could float on a cushion of air quite easily. It would be almost frictionless so it would not need much power to keep it moving. A linear motor could drive it without any mechanical contact and a computer system could be used to monitor it for safety and maintenance purposes.
The current average speed for a car crossing London is of the
order of 10mph. A 10mph travolator system would be just as effective
without causing any pollution while removing the need for cars
or buses along its route. Access to the 10mph travolator would
be by 5mph travolators along the route. Higher speed travolators
would be very useful for longer cross city journeys. Specially
reserved sections of passenger travolators could be used for the
distribution of goods. Computer controlled crane-like grabs could
pick up tagged containers on the move and transfer them from one
travolator track to another at an interchange or to or from a
loading bay belonging to a large organisation.
Travolator systems have the advantage that they require very much less energy to operate than any other type of transportation. They move continuously so there is no need for timetables or having to wait. Hand goods can be put down on the track so they do not have to be carried. Giant intercity travolators like Heinlein envisaged would have shops, restaurants and lounges to provide services and comfort for the travellers.
The investment needed for a travolator system is huge but the dividends are likewise huge. Most of the need for road vehicles would disappear and there would be a corresponding reduction in pollution. The need for large quantities of fossil fuel to be imported would disappear too. The maintenance costs of a travolator system would be roughly the same as that for the road and rail services that the travolator replaces. The faster, long distance travolators would have to have security arrangements like those currently in operation at airports.
The travolator system does not need a super new technology that has not been invented yet. It could be started tomorrow if there was the political will to invest in it. Let Britain show the way to other countries. Set up a travolator running the length of Oxford Street in London and then you will find that people will come from all over the world to see it and ride on it. It would soon become a much bigger attraction than the Greenwich Dome or the Millenium Wheel.
I have offered descriptions of three ways to deal with transportation problems in the future in this essay. I have also had an article published on a related subject in Electronics World, November 2001 issue. It is called Making Trains Safer With Electronics. It deals with ways to make trains safer in the very near future.
Any or all of these ideas could be started on at any time after you have read this essay. No new technology is needed for any of them. All that is required is the political will to make a start. All of them could make an improvement to our current transport system and all of them could result in the use of less energy for transportation purposes. The French and the Japanese have their super trains. I know that most ordinary Britons would much prefer a super travolator system.
As a final point I would like to say that almost all measures that are designed to alleviate transport problems through increased taxation or toll or parking charges are ultimately counter productive. Transportation costs eventually become a part of the costs of labour and goods. Lower transportation costs would gradually make British goods and services more competitive in the world market. Higher transportation costs would make Britain less competitive. Personal time valuation is a major factor in these costs.
A version of this essay has been sent to Lord Birt, adviser on transport to Tony Blair.
Wilf James 25/02/02 wilf dot james at ntlworld dot com