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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Getting Automated Rail Running In 6 Weeks

For many years I've been pushing the idea that there is no real reason why rail transport cannot be fully automated. This would allow rail to run 24/7 at lower cost and most importantly with lots of single carriage units, which could be much lighter built like buses, able to leave every few minutes. It would thus greatly increase carrying capacity at reduced cost and turn rail into a popular mass transit system.

     However recently I had started thinking this was a technology whose time was passing because, the computer capacity to do this having existed for decades, has now improved so much that the enormously more complicated task of driving road vehicles automatically was about to make improving rail redundant.

     I have praised the DARPA road X-prize of $3 million which developed the first automated road system (and which they said would have cost $100 million and not necessarily been successful if done by conventional funding) so if you can't beat them, join them.

     I suggest offering a £3 million prize to whoever can retrofit a conventional train with automated or remote controls and run it on current track to the commercial timetable for 6 weeks safely and late no more than 75% as much as is average for that line. Note, for example, the recent Oxford University experiment which decided they could retrofit a car for about £5,000. Since trains don't have to worry about lane discipline or indeed tailgating an automated train should be much simpler. Making it simpler yet is the ability to remotely transfer information (as with the dongle currently connecting me to the net). While controlling and monitoring all road traffic would be impractical all trains total a far lower number.
Network Rail or Network Rail Scotland would be required to make facilities available. Perhaps the Dumbarton to Oban line would be a good testbed, particularly if this train was put on in addition to normal trains as might be necessary to assuage worriers. By making it a matter of law that they must facilitate the experiment, which would in turn make the carrier liable to pay damages if they drag their feet, we should cut through bureaucratic conservatism.

      In addition when the prize has been won and the train run for 6 weeks the carrier shall be under an obligation to do it with 2 trains for another 6 weeks, at negotiated commercial rates (which would entail them not being committed to using the same system if a competitor seriously undercut). And so on, so long as the 6 weeks trials were successful, at least as fast as retrofitting can be done. Thus after 54 weeks we could have 512 trains automated, if we had that many in Scotland.

      In addition to this there is a particularly valuable place for X-prizes in rail technology. This is because, while road transport is run bottom up, which facilitates innovation, rail has to be run from the top. This is why a car today is nothing like one in 1900 while trains are visibly very similar. Thus I suggest that 1% of annual public subsidy of rail, currently £3.73 billion , be devoted to technology prizes to catch up with the over a century of technological backlog. That would be £37 million.

     "Public subsidy in 2011-12 was £2.27 per passenger journey in England, £7.67 in Scotland, and £9.15 in Wales."
      So if overall subsidy in Scotland is over 3 times higher that is £900 million so 1% would be £9 million a year, easily able to fund the prizes.
      " If, as I strongly suspect, technology improved so as to make rail competitive again and the running subsidies could be removed contributions to the prize fund would have to be guaranteed, since anything else would penalise success.
     The next thing I would offer prizes for would be for cutting stopping distances of trains or single carriage units since line capacity obviously is inversely proportional to stopping distance. And another for designing a good through ticketing system so that you can buy a ticket that will take you to anywhere in the country from any station.
       I'm sure there are many other technological improvements possible and will probably think of some in due course but this seems enough to quickly revolutionise our entire transport system for a small fraction of what we spent on the Edinburgh trams.
      This could be done at a UK level but since rail transport in Scotland was, a few years ago, devolved to Scotland we could do it alone and give this country easily the best rail transport system in the world.

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"Line capacity obviously is proportional to stopping distance" - well yes and no. The safety gap between vehicles and grouped up vehicles ( trains ) is known as headway and is proportional to coefficient of friction available to arrest the vehicles motion. This is usually between the wheels and the track, but can be against a strip running parallel to the track. It should be obvious that the capacity of the track is then also proportional to the carrying capacity of the train, which can vary from a single passenger up to over a thousand. The number of times and in what periods of the day when thousands wish to make the same, or similar, journeys, is quite limited and the capacity avail;able to meet this peaky demand with minimum inconvenience means that excess capacity in some form or another requires to run only at some times of the day. Buses of all scales are much cheaper per passenger seated than railway rolling stock and can use a hugely greater network, and we have a persistent unemployment problem. Employing more bus, minibus and taxi drivers in vehicles whose energy and emissions are both improving would seem to tackle more problems for less money.
Agreed. One of the advantages of automated rail is that there is the driving capacity available at all times for single carriage units which have the same carrying capacity as buses (or even taxi sized units).

However I don't agree about keeping driving jobs being a good idea, though I am quite sure this is one of the reasons we still have this outdated technology. Centuries of experience shows that when you get rid of one job by increasing productivity you create the space for new, better paid ones. If we had an automated transport system whereby anybody could move cheaply and speedily around the country in far greater numbers than now the net effect in creating new jobs, as well as new wealth, would be massive.
"centuries of experience shows that when you get rid of one job by increasing productivity you create the space for new better paid ones". I think you need to do much more to justify that optimistic assessment. In large measure the more mundane tasks have been taken over by machinery, but the jobs available from free enterprise alone to the less skilled has not kept pace. It is not hard to see why. Once the essentials of life are satisfied, what remains is basically recreation and entertainment of many varieties.Whilst many will pay significant amounts to see the best performers work, they are not so willing to pay anything at all to the talentless, so in terms of mopping up all the displaced labour , even though the entertainment industry keeps growing, it will not provide satisfying wages to all those coming onto the jobs market. That leaves government and the armed forces. Governments have a perpetual difficulty in stopping their employees becoming more expensive in real terms, and the genuine product of these employees more obscure to measure.
The economic model you seem to be working with equates consumption and growth with prosperity. Even the grossest glutton can only eat so much, and wear so many clothes and own so many cars before it becomes an evident mania. War certainly consumes a frightful amount of production but also has hugely perilous possible outcomes.I am not against improving efficiency and availability of transport, but measures designed purely to displace people from jobs have a burden of proof that comparable jobs of greater utility will be forthcoming. Money and wealth are a lot more slippery concepts than they at first appear.
A couple of centuries ago 95% of the population worked and lived on the land. Now it is 5% but new jobs have been created in the urban industries that would have initially employed about 200,000 across the UK.

I grant the hours worked now are shorter and may fall further, but don't think that is a bad thing.

How we spend that money is a different question. As the samurai used to say a man can only sleep on one mat and eat one bowl of rice. Some of the extra will be spent on longevity. Currently the state takes far more of national income (50-75% depending how you count) than it could ever have done when most people were on the edge of starvation.

However if we are all to become as wealthy as billionaires today, and that is clearly possible, we will have to spend much of it on intangibles like Cern and space exploration.
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