Trains, ideally the high-speed variety, are going to play an important role in our transportation future. Especially if they don't ever have to stop.
Passenger trains are more energy and resource efficient than their four-wheeled and jet-fueled brethren, and make for a comfortable way to travel. But they still pose risks, as the recent tragic derailment in New York City shows. According to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the leading culprit in the cause of the accident is excessive speed, likely coupled with human error. The train was moving too fast as it came around a notoriously treacherous bend.
There are a number of reasons that trains end up traveling at excessive speeds. But a common one is that the trains are simply running late, and the conductor is trying to make up for lost time. That lost time is likely incurred by delays. According to a 2010 University of Illinois paper called Determining the Causes of Train Delay, the "operational causes" of delays were primarily due to problems with "acceleration, braking, reduced speed and dwell time."
And here's one way to streamline all of the above: Build a train that never stops. That was Chinese designer Chen Jianjun's idea as far back as 2010, and the idea remains interesting today. This video explains how the concept works:
In 2011, the design firm Priestmangoode undertook a similar idea, with a smaller 'tram' car that moves up alongside the primary train carriage. Dezeen takes a look at the vision of 'moving platforms' here:
Either one is a tough sell, clearly, and would require ambitious (and expensive) new technology to pull off. But it's also a reminder that there's still ample room for technological improvements in some of our oldest transit staples. No stopping would mean no in-station "dwelling" and an infinitely more predictable schedule in general. Trains would slow down to pick up the passenger 'pods' at the same rate every time, and would only halt for good at the end of the line.
If an entire fleet of trains were outfitted with this technology, each train could be super-efficiently synched up with all others, and there'd practically be no reason for delays at all, barring maintenance and repairs. Nonstop trains would also save a boatload of energy, reducing the costs of acceleration and deceleration—and it'd shave hours off of the total travel time on a long voyage. It would require a high degree of automation—which would reduce the margin for human error—but that's well under way as it is.
In fact, there's ample well-established technology waiting in the wings for mass adoption—automated piloting, mag-lev rails, regenerative braking and so on—that could drastically improve train transit. All of the above could help cut back on the problems that face the train travel today. A mode of travel, I should add, that is still much, much safer than driving.
Of course, implementing any of it would be expensive and time consuming. Major public works projects, really. And since rail is typically a highly subsidized and government-managed industry, it's a perennial hard ask in terms of investment, given the conservative political climate of recent years. So our trains continue to age and wear down, despite massive demand and higher-than-ever ridership. But with each high-profile disaster—four people were killed by trains over the Thanksgiving weekend, while eight died in car crashes in Missouri alone—train travel takes a hit. Meanwhile, our cars are just turning into giant networked trains, anyway.
With skyrocketing emissions, congested roads, and evident demand, it's about time we showed trains some more love. California is the only state building a new, high-tech train, and that's a shame. That's why the slightly-goofy Hyperloop is an encouraging step in the right direction. Let's get our big "disruptive" tech brains working on transit, and not just into Earth's orbit.
Let's upgrade our trains. Let's try to build mag lev rail in DC. Let's try to build a prototype for hyper-fast pneumatic tube transit. Let's try to build a train that doesn't stop.