humane computing

29 June 2007


I start this blog with a post more technical than computer centered.

In January, an article in the German edition of Technology Review (as well as one in Spiegel) made me interested in a novel rail system called RailCab, which is developed at the University of Paderborn here in Germany. It is a combination of techniques which will hopefully make transportation a lot more comfortable, ecologic, flexible and economic.

The main advancement is that trains won't drive on schedule but on demand and that they will drive you to your destination without changing trains or even stopping to let others do so.
To achieve this, the RailCabs are lightweight, small - suited for 8-10 passengers and about the size of a mid-sized motor home - and have active steering to switch track on special passive switches. They are fully computer controlled and need no driver.
Because RailCabs drive from end to end without stop, they only need modest traveling speeds (about 160km/h) to achieve high average speeds. Conventional high speed trains like the TGV, ICE or Shinkansen loose their ecologic advantages because of the air resistance at very high traveling speeds (around 300km/h). To further reduce air resistance, RailCabs join in dynamic, contact-free convoys (about 20cm distance).

The second innovation is the longstator linear motor. This motor is known from the Transrapid magnetic levitation train. It works like an unrolled electric motor where electricity is not turned into rotating motion but into linear motion. RailCab combines this linear motor with conventional steel rails of conventional size. Because the linear motor is used for propulsion and braking, RailCabs could, if needed, accelerate, break and climb steep tracks roughly as good as road vehicles of similar size. This is unlike normal trains, which use steel wheels on steel tracks for traction and tend to slip in these situations.

Besides the active steering, which by the way allows small bend radii like a tram, the chassis also incorporates a tilt module to allow higher speeds in bends. These two active components are both used to implement novel suspension techniques for high traveling comfort.

Existing Rails can be upgraded to also allow RailCabs to drive on them by adding the longstator and replacing the rail switches with dual-mode models which allow active and passive steering. Because RailCabs are lightweight, tracks and bridges can be cheaper than tracks for conventional trains. The linear motor also makes overhead lines unnecessary, which looks a lot nicer and is very aerodynamic. To make smaller side tracks cheap, the longstator between the tracks can be replaced by a sheet metal plate to form a short stator linear motor.

Its decentralized nature is one of the aspects of the RailCab system that I like most. Since January, I imagine RailCabs driving on every disused Track, of which there are a lot over here in Germany. I imagine small stations, even private ones, in every town quarter. I imagine how it would be to travel from a smaller town to the other side of the country without having to wait for connecting trains or stopping in every village. I imagine getting home from an evening out at any time I want.

I really hope, the system will be built somewhere soon. Not only because it is incredibly cool and futuristic, but because it is sensibly designed with vision towards the needs of the average traveler and with the environment in mind. It is no gazillion-euro project that is only wanted by politicians and business people aiming at prestige.

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At 17 May 2008 17:18 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Peter,
Your article is great! I am interesting in railcabs too. The only problem that I do not speak German well. Your article was useful to me and I like yours style of writing.
Thank you.
Wish you good luck!

At 17 May 2008 17:39 , Blogger peterpan said...

Thanks for your compliment.
English information on RailCab is indeed quite scarce.


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