Saturday, July 13, 2013
Getting Automated Rail Running In 6 Weeks
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.
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."
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about keeping driving jobs being a good idea, though I am quite sure this is one of the reasons we still have this outdated technology.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.
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.
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.