Most people familiar with the matter at all would admit that British public transportation is a farce. A disjointed network made up of fare robbing trains and lumbering buses makes the car the vehicle of choice for most. Door to door convenience, an infinitely variable timetable and ample luggage space, are but a few of the benefits of the car. Yet rather than attempt to improve upon these attributes, current public transportation policy attempts to create balance by crippling the car. The thinking goes something like this: “People are using their cars, therefore we must make car use more difficult and less attractive.” If this thought process persisted throughout engineering, then the internet would craw to encourage people to go outside, while microwaves would only heat to a tepid temperature to discourage ready meal use. Public transportation is stuck in a rut, but there is a solution.
Narrow, automated, electric, silent
Trains and buses have three attributes above all others which hinder them. Firstly, their gigantic size, a corridor flanked by two rows of two seats makes them over 2.5m wide. Wideness makes them heavy, heaviness makes the foundations for their roads and tracks expensive, this expense makes expanding the network unviable. Therefore, while buses and trains remain the size they are, the car will reign and compelling public transportation will elude us.
A solution to this ailment is obvious: make a narrow vehicle. A slender two-seat-wide vehicle, not requiring a centre console would be slimmer than a car. Thinner means lighter, and as road damage is proportional to the 4th power of a vehicle’s axle weight, a lighter vehicle requires less rigid foundations for its roads, reducing both maintenance and construction costs. The bill of materials would fall, but so would engineering expense. Bridges could be narrower, more elegant, and only a single lane width, making steel spanned flyovers at roundabouts affordable.
Initially, these narrow vehicles, like trains, would run on dedicated routes. These new roads need not be much wider than a cycle lane and could be installed alongside traditional roads; like the A40 between Oxford, Witney, and Cheltenham with minimal disturbance. Alternatively, they might be built upon disused railway lines. The vast extent of these disused lines is shown in the in the supporting document. In time as automation improves, the vehicles could branch off their dedicated lines and run on roads with traditional traffic. Bridging a gap which no other transportation system can.
Buses and trains aren’t large because big is better, but because they are designed to safely move many passengers with minimal drivers. Their conception and design remains in the Victorian era. Each vehicle runs on a fixed route, at fixed times, with fixed fees. But none of these are necessarily positive and they aren’t required for an automated vehicle. Adapting the route, the stops, and the timings to the people on the vehicle would be achievable with the right data. Since smartphones are ubiquitous, the vehicles could use Uber like interfaces where passengers state where they wish to go at what time. The network could then feed back a best compromise route to the user; factoring in network load and where other passengers are going. Many smaller, automated vehicles would be far more effective than a few larger ones. They stop less thus maintaining a higher average speed; resulting in quicker journeys, a more comfortable ride, and reduced energy use. Furthermore, they can be rapidly redirected to areas of high demand. In the future, if they travelled on the roads, with normal traffic, the vehicles could carry people door to door, rather than bus-stop to train station to bus stop in an endless concertina of inefficiency.
Buses, trains and cars weren’t conceived in the battery era. So looking at current designs and thinking ‘how do we electrify these’ won’t work well. It might produce good vehicles, but it can’t produce great ones. As Tesla showed at their ‘Battery Day’ batteries can be rigid and therefore be structural, of course this approach isn’t new, in Formula 1 the engine has been structural since the Ferrari 158, introduced in 1964. Components and design must complement each other they cannot be tacked on. But this requires thinking about the use cases of vehicles; batteries are heavy, they lower the centre of gravity. This means electric vehicles could go round bends faster than their combustion engined counterparts, before sliding and tipping. This stability combined with an appropriate a tilt-system, like the Advanced Passenger Train, would produce an enviable ride quality. Which is something that buses upon British roads can never provide.
The concept is simple: a narrow, electric, automated vehicle. If presented correctly, receive enormous backing from the public.
Flying Ferret Q & A
Q. What is the biggest advantage of these?
Two vehicles can fit side by side in a standard with carriageway. This means you can have duel directional running on a road in the width of a single bus lane.
Q. Do these vehicles run with existing traffic?
Not in with the first iteration, but as the concept progresses they will.
Q. Do they need a driver?
The vehicles will be fully autonomous at inception. The first vehicles will likely run on dedicated roads, thereby reducing complexity of implementation.
Q. How is it so small?
It is barely longer than a car because it doesn’t need a long bonnet or boot.
Q. Aren’t these just like a small bus or train?
No, they are an autonomous on demand vehicle like an Uber. But they will stop at set locations like a bus or train. These vehicles wouldn’t run to a set timetable. Instead, it is envisioned that people select where and what time they would like to travel in advanced via an app, then the network built upon a number of machine learning algorithms would plan which vehicles should stop where to pick up which customers. The customer would then be told their precise time of departure and arrival and seat.
This is different to trains and buses where each train or bus travels and stops at specific places and times. This vehicle would change its stops and routes based on who it is picking up and where they are going in order to minimise travel time.
Q. If these don’t run on the road where do they run?
The vehicles should initially run on simple routes preferably built on disused railway lines. But there is also scope for building routes next to current active railways or roads.
Q. Why on disused railway lines?
There are many groups around the country attempting to reinstate their disused railway lines with light or normal rail. However, as rail costs in excess of £10 million per mile, it is unlikely many of these groups will achieve their aim. By piggybacking off their projects, this vehicle could be launched faster with good public support.
Q. But what’s wrong with light rail?
Light-rail has all the drawbacks of normal railway and then some. The vehicles are expensive and difficult to maintain, they are built in small batches so there aren’t economies of scale in their production. Tracks are expensive to build and maintain, while tunnels and bridges have to large and therefore costly.
As many disused railways have been partially built upon, re-routing them will be necessary. As trains can’t travel up steep gradients and require large radius turns they can’t simply be rerouted or viaducted through towns. Neither can they be run alongside roads as their footprint is large. Cost of construction is therefore prohibitive.
Q. Why not just build guided busways?
Earlier this year I saw the Cambridge guided busway in person and immediately erupted in laughter. What they had produced was an expensive concrete track with reduced functionality. Sure, the buses are guided so the driver doesn’t have to steer, but what is the point of guiding a bus if you still have a driver? They had spent $180 million on 16 miles of track which would carry a peak of 20 buses per hour. But more typically 6 buses per hour. Assuming an average of 8 buses per hour for 14 hours a day you get 112 buses per day each way, so ~220 buses per day both ways. ~80000 bus journeys per year. Assuming a design life of 50 years with a total of 4 million buses running on it then the cost per bus journey for the busway is £45!
What this shows is the capital cost of dedicated tracks/roads must be minimised. Asphalt roads are cheap to build and maintain, especially if they don’t have to be designed for heavy vehicles – it isn’t the car that ruins roads, but the HGV, bus and tractor. The Flying Ferret’s roads won’t need deep foundations, or bridges that need to support 44 tonne HGVs. Everything about making a small vehicle makes sense.
Light, narrow vehicles means that viaducts can be small and elegant. This is essential for any modern transportation system which will require many viaducts to fit in around what is already built.
Q. How will infrastructure costs be kept to a minimum?
For advice about keeping costs down, I suggest talking to historic canal and railway restorers. They are reinstating miles of infrastructure for pennies.
Q. What else about small vehicles makes sense?
A small vehicle can provide a more granular service. For example, the network – after analysing ride requests- could send a ten passenger vehicle to a stop in Witney, then travel directly to Oxford with those ten passengers, as it knows that it doesn’t need to stop again. This reduces travel time. That vehicle instead of going directly back to Witney could then be rerouted somewhere else on the network, depending on load.
Since the vehicles are on demand and respond to load, when the network is quiet, many can be parked up at strategic locations to be charged, while a few keep running. This vehicle will maintain a much high average speed than a bus, which means fewer vehicles can achieve the same capacity factor.
Q. What are the advantages of automating these vs buses and trains?
Buses and trains are established, they have drivers and unions. It’s going to be difficult to remove the drivers from them as the unions will strike and make it difficult.
Q. Why is this better than a bus on a road?
Buses will always have to sit in traffic due to the crowded nature of our road network; for which adding new bus lanes is unfeasible. Conversely, this vehicle’s carriageways, being narrow, are possible to add to the current road network. They could simply be built on footpaths, with the those footpaths then placed on viaducts above to carriageway.
Since these vehicles need only 1.4 meters tall, the footpaths need not be more than 1.6 meters above the ground. This compares favourably with traditional traffic which would require footpaths to be elevated 4.5 metres above the ground.
Q. What other problems does rail have?
One of rails greatest downfalls is line usage. Let’s take the UK’s most up to date railway HS2. It will have a maximum design speed of approximately 240mph and a maximum throughput of 18 trains per hour. To keep the maths simple let’s say 15tph. At 240mph, with 15tph, there will be a four minute gap between each train, which equates to a distance of 16 miles. So for every 400m of train there is 16 miles of empty track. This problem exists because railed vehicles have long stopping distances. A train requires ~1000m to stop from 70mph vs 100m for a car. Because of this inbuilt inefficiency any delay in a rail system compounds. The system has no buffer for breakdowns and other issues. Which is why when one train is delayed they all tend to be.
Vehicles with tyres can follow much more closely than railed because their braking distance is shorter and they can accelerate rapidly. They can also go up steeper gradients and are easier to maintain than a tracked equivalent. This negates the need to have such a large margin of safety in stopping distances, which allows for many smaller vehicles to run more closely.
Q. If they are single tracked won’t they get stuck behind each other at stops?
All stops will have duel track sections of line with adequate acceleration/retardation zones so the vehicle can leave and join the line at speed.
Furthermore, the network will know the location of all vehicles at all times, this means that Ferrets shouldn’t need to stop and wait, but can adjust their speed in anticipation of slow downs.
Q. People don’t like buses, why?
Buses tend to have an uncomfortable ride because of their large, heavy wheels, with high unsprung mass, which require stiff suspension. Furthermore, their acceleration both longitudinal and lateral is inconsistent, this is uncomfortable for passengers. Unfortunately, due the the declining quality of UK roads there isn’t an easy solution to this.
Q. How is the ride of these different to a car?
Suspension set up: Car suspension must withstand potholes, speed-bumps and aberrations in the road surface, curbs, tight corners and cobbles. Since the automated vehicles will initially run on dedicated lines the handling characteristics can be optimised to be like a train, providing a smoother more relaxing ride.
The Flying Ferret could also be engineered with a tilt system to improve passenger comfort. I have spoken to one of the hydraulics engineers on the Advanced Passenger Train, I’m sure he would give further advice on implementation of a tilt system.
Q. How loud are they?
Very quiet. Firstly, these vehicles are electric; however, since road noise is mostly due to tyre + road interactions, not engines, the routes for these can be surfaced with a smooth, small aggregate tarmac – which would further reduce the sound. Examples of the variations in road noise can be observed when transitioning between different road surfaces while driving, where car cabin noise varies dramatically.
Q. What about seats?
The seats in these vehicles are more like front car seats than upright train or bus seats. To reduce weight they might be made of net or of kevlar. The seats on the intercity 125 were originally designed to be made of net; however, at the time football fans tended to carry around Stanley knives and had a habit of cutting seats.
As this vehicle would have cameras and would know the identity of every passenger, this wouldn’t be an issue as problem passengers could be banned from the network and charged for damage.
Q. Will they need seatbelts?
Potentially, it depends how close the vehicles follow and their maximum retardation.
Q. What about storage / disabled people?
Because these are on demand vehicles, the network could contain specialised units tailored to people travelling to airports, people with disabilities, or mothers/ families with children.
The advantage of this is that most vehicles could serve the commuter function and have high capacity/ passenger density, ensuring the network always maintains a high efficiency.
Q. Will there be an option to buy adjacent seat / sit next to same sex for nervous passengers?
Some people want to have a seat to themselves, a function could be added so that they can pay a significant premium for that privilege. It’s likely the same passengers would consistently purchase the seat next to them. The network could learn that and factor it into its planning.
Q. How fast are they?
To be better than the car, their average speed must be faster than the car. Long straight routes should have a compelling speed.
Q. How can this platform be integrated into the larger network?
Current transportation systems are generally built around a spoke and hub designs. That is that you need to get to the centre of the network to get onto different routes. This is limits effectiveness of the system as travel between nearby towns can be impossible or arduous. Take for instance a journey from Banbury to Fairford shown in the figures below. The trip by public transportation takes longer than a flight to from London to Greece. Interestingly, a 22 mile long, single-track railway once linked Oxford and Fairford.
Q. Why has nobody done this before?
Only now are automation, electrification and computing power sufficient for this all to work.
Q. What else needs to be solved?
A non-exhaustive list of things to think about are: charging points, dedicated gritters or snowploughs for cold weather, winter tyres, parking for people travelling to stations, school routes, how to clean robotically, station and vehicle design to stop rain ingress, who owns vehicles or routes, open lines / level crossings in built up areas.
Q. What other things could be looked at?
A pantograph powered version of this vehicle could be built, which could reduce, or eliminate, the batteries. This increase infrastructure capital costs, but reduce vehicle construction costs and complexity. They would be lighter and therefore might be useful for dedicated viaducts where cost and weight is paramount.
The Extent of The Beeching Cuts
Many of the railways that the UK once had were torn up in the 60s and 70s. The routes they ran along have been forgotten about. Below is are figures comparing pre and post Beeching cut railway networks. The railways post-Beeching cuts were designed to make travel to London easy. Routes that ran perpendicular to the London routes were largely ripped up. This is why public transportation doesn’t work, people can’t get between medium sized towns on trains.
The Flying Ferret could relink these smaller towns, by building duel-directional routes on disused railway lines.