Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Plain Trains and Automobiles

Sprawling problems can easily spring from narrow vision. Just look at the postwar history of North America; in the last seventy years, the United States and Canada have hitched their destinies firmly to the automobile. Despite recent rumblings to build new and expand existing mass transit systems, my own gut feeling is that the economic abyss we're staring into is going to lead to a maintenance of the status quo for as long as the slapheads in power can get away with it.

The good thing about speculation is that it doesn't cost any money - though, of course, that inevitably leads to good ideas not being followed up on because politicians quail at the cost or "safety concerns," like GO-ALRT of the 1980s or the original plans for the Los Angeles subway. But it gives us a platform from which to jump when these things do become possible, and transportation is one of the more important things we can speculate about.

Last week, the Union Pacific Railroad revealed an experimental convertible rail car, the trademarked AutoFlex, designed specifically to transport vehicles. It's modular inside and can vary between bi-level and tri-level in order to accommodate vehicles of varying sizes. Presumably, this will be used for freight transport, since that's pretty much the lifeblood of the North American railway network at this point - transporting vehicles from factories to points-of-sale may be cheaper and more efficient if done by rail rather than road.

I know there are people who believe that the railway's time is over, that it will never approach its former glory and that private cars are a far more efficient means of getting around. Personally, I don't have much truck with that sort of viewpoint. What North America really needs in the years ahead is a coordinated improvement of its transportation networks - not just, as we had in the twentieth century, a monomaniacal focus on the road network to the detriment of everything else. The idea behind Union Pacific's new car opens new possibilities for the road system and the rail network to work hand-in-glove.

Working in concert, they can be stronger than they ever could alone.

After decades of experimentation, speculation and anticipation, electric vehicles are at last starting to make headway in the automotive market. Most of them are hybrids, to be true, but pure electrics aren't totally unheard of - I even saw a Tesla Roadster on the road in Toronto a few weeks ago, and its utter silence likely would have been even more stunning if I hadn't been drunk at the time. As petroleum becomes more expensive, it's likely that electric vehicles will capture more and more of the market share.

The biggest problem with EVs right now, though, is range. You can't just dump in a new charge the way you can fill a tank with gasoline, though the "1920s radio" model, where a depleted battery is swapped out for a fully-charged one, is effective and used at Better Place recharge stations. Additionally, future EVs may have more in common with the Smartcar than the SUV - small may be in style in years to come, but small isn't necessarily advantageous for long-distance trips.

This is where the railway could come in. If you're of the mind to go from one end of the country to the other, but you want your car at both ends, you just drive it to the railway station, park it in one of the train's car berths, and relax as you ride the rails to your destination. Since the train doesn't have to worry about highway traffic - assuming passenger rail ever gets meaningful signal priority over freight - or finding a hotel at night, you may end up arriving at your destination rather earlier than you would have if you'd driven. Once the train does pull in, all that's left is for you to get back behind your wheel and pull out.

I'll admit there's stuff to be worked through, here. But this is the sort of thing we should be thinking about more. We can't expect to find our way into the future when we're only thinking about what's been done in the past.

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