E&T weighs up the opportunities and challenges offered by Nowait - a pioneering solar-powered rapid transit system that hasn't yet departed the drawing board.
As planners in Asia's booming cities scramble to build new mass transit projects, Sweden's Nowait promises something truly innovative: the continuous train, with the highest capacity of any public transport system yet devised.
The train runs in fact on a continuous loop, 10km long, and comprises hundreds of interlocking carriages, with the head and tail ones joined up. This single train takes up the whole track length. But it's far more versatile than a moving walkway, trundling at a steady few miles per hour for its whole length: Rather, because of its ingenious design, carriages move slowly inside a station, allowing easy passenger access, then speed up between stations to travel at normal public transit speeds of 40km/h. This concept of continuous embarkation, apart from being convenient for travellers, permits the throughput of an impressive 80,000 passengers an hour.
But will it ever get off the ground, how does it actually work, and will it stand up to any challenges?
For all its promise, Nowait is at the very beginning of its journey. The company, Nowaittransit, occupies small offices in the Ideon Science Park in Lund, Sweden: they share it with a local firm which designs air conditioning units for saloon cars using the Modelica simulation software, the same program used to model Nowait.
Jan Tuszynski, head of systems design, insists that the Swedish-designed software package is fit for purpose:
"Apart from designing thermo-hydraulics, [the software] is often used for creating vehicle stability systems - one Formula One business uses it - and when designing nuclear power plants," he tells E&T.
And the board seems capable enough, boasting a wealth of experience from international engineering firms. That said, one of the company's presentation videos leaves a lot to be desired - a reminder that video presentations are also an art form. Gert Andersson, the president and chief concept man, admits: "We are just small potatoes".
Yet there is something inspiring about the plan. The set-up makes use of two beams for every carriage; one beam holds the carriage, which is joined to a second, 'distance' beam. When the train is travelling between two stations, the distance beam at full stretch separates the carriage at a distance of several metres. As the carriages approach one of the stations in the system, widening tracks force the beams to fold up, to concertina, bringing the carriages closer to each other at a 90° angle with respect to the platform. Further, the tracks run at a higher elevation through the station slowing the carriage down as kinetic energy is converted to potential energy. This potential energy is converted back into kinetic energy when a carriage leaves the station.
So, running continuously and all of one piece, this 10km long train is as slow and as fast as it needs to be. The doors, located on the short end of the carriages, open as they turn to face the platform, along which run moving walkways. Along the platform run moving walkways at about 3km/h - the same speed as the train. Passengers step onto the moving walkway effortlessly and are then stationary with respect to the train: it is then easy to climb in through the open doors. As the train moves towards the end of the station, the doors close, the track narrows, the elevation falls away and the train speeds up again. No braking or revving. Running on solar power and using lightweight simple carriages, it would be, promises Andersson, cheap and extraordinarily energy efficient.
Understandably enough, the biggest concerns relate to safety. Tuszynski says the designers have to eliminate the risk of disabled, elderly or heavily laden passengers falling over on the walkways or getting stuck in doors as the train moves towards the exit. There are also problems with oscillations of the beams and carriages that have to be solved on the test track.
However, says Professor John Preston of the transport unit at Aberdeen University, even if the technical and safety challenges are solved, there are social, economic and structural issues just around the corner. "Inventing a public transport system - and there are many ideas out there - is just the beginning," he says.
"The new system has to be right for the characteristics of a particular location. The economics have to work, and so does the social psychology of the area. The tickets have to be priced right. It has to link the right areas together. There has to be a need for the system".
The lessons of the Las Vegas monorail, which opened in 2004, are worth heeding. Its carriages, plastered with logos from the city of gambling, wind between the lavish themed hotels that line the Strip, the perfect antidote - it was claimed - to the notorious traffic jams of the city's main thoroughfare. The trains, though, often run empty. Passenger numbers are 60 per cent fewer than forecast - and the monorail company's shares are down 90 per cent from their long forgotten high.
One reason for this could be the pricey $5 charge for tickets. But the underlying problem is the simple fact that the company miscalculated tourist psychology: it turned out tourists would rather walk down the Strip. Furthermore, the route was less than appealing, passing by the ugly backs of the hotels and inexplicably missing out on the airport.
For all its shortcomings, the monorail was at least constructed. Professor Preston points to factors that could impede project such as the Nowait from getting even that far.
"There are also socio-economic issues. Stakeholders, such as taxi drivers and local transport officials, have to be brought on board, because no one wants to be out of a job, and people are conservative by nature: local authorities have invested in a stake in the status quo and may not want to buy into a new system - local authorities are usually committed to what they have got. Then there is the small matter of planning permission."
Demolition for a faster future
Nowait is an elevated railway, and many buildings would have to be razed for it to be built. Andersson accepts it's never going to be a choice for Europe's old, beautiful cities, for Prague or Paris, with the old street plans and public sensitivity about eyesores. "There are a lot of entrenched stakeholders as well," Andersson adds. Instead he is looking to emerging markets.
Asia and the Middle East are undergoing a railway building boom. All the sheikhdoms are building public transport systems to see them into a post-oil future when their economies will depend on services - and monorails, bullet trains and metro lines all feature on their shopping lists. Such places are considered perfect for western railway technology giants like Alstom and Siemens, because the heat and sand make for frequent replacements, and these countries don't have their own manufacturers, making market entry easier and reducing the risk of idea theft.
Many westerners are reluctant to invest in Asia for fear of the possibility that their best products will be imitated by a local rival who will then squeeze them out of the market.
But Andersson is skipping the Middle East for the moment in favour of South Korea, where he worked as an expatriate engineer for 11 years. He has the contacts in city governments and finds the Korean go-ahead attitude attractive. Korean people have, he says, an appetite for novelty.
"Koreans are an unbelievably dynamic people," he continues. "Just think about the progress they have made in the last 40 years. They are very zestful, not at all cautious like the Japanese."
The company hopes to sell the project to Busan, the country's second city with a population of four million. To say that this city, bigger than Berlin, is well-known would be something of an overstatement. In the classic book on contemporary Korea by Bruce Cumming, the southern port - one of the world's busiest - merits just one mention.
The 'Lonely Planet Guide' is hardly enthusiastic: "There's a noticeably absent cosmopolitan feel in this port city known for raw fish and a harsh dialect that people in Seoul sometimes find incomprehensible. Underneath the drab urban landscape created by an unimaginative use of concrete, quirky people jump the queue, shout while conversing and giggle at the sight of international travellers."
Planning permission for a high elevation rail system in Busan, says Andersson, is not a problem.
Monorail, Maglev and walkways compete
One of the things Nowait has to contend with is the fact there are plenty of other systems out there - and many are well established.
The instant-boarding advantage of Nowait is also shared by the high speed walkways and escalators either extant or being rolled out. There are already 260,000 walkways and escalators around the world and 10,000 more every year: perhaps the most famous is the longest one - Hong Kong's outdoor escalator and walkway system that is 800m long, rises 135m, and links the central business district with the Mid-levels residential area. The airport moving walkways that every traveller one has experienced tundle along at a modest 3km/h, but the Trottoir Roulant Rapide at Montparnasse station in Paris moves at 5km/h (it was originally 12km/h but this proved too fast). Thyssen is launching a walkway that travels at 7km/h.
Of more traditional trains, Monorail is a potential competitor, long established, with lines in Tokyo and Malaysia (alongside the aforementioned Vegas system) and a vast system just given the green light in Bombay. Like Nowait, but unlike regular railways, monorails cannot skid off the rails; they are relatively inexpensive compared to light railways; and they require little space both horizontally and vertically.
Magnetic levitation, or Maglev transport, despite recent setbacks, offers quieter and faster alternatives to monorail. The most famous example is the Shanghai airport Maglev line, which achieves top speeds of 430km/h. But it's expensive: at the other commercially operating line, in Japan, the construction costs were as much as $100m per kilometre.
Andersson believes Nowait's advantages over the high-speed walkways is that Nowait can cover bigger distances - up to 10km from A to B, if the loop is compressed into an oval. Nowait has a much higher capacity than Monorail - the latter's is 20,000 an hour, a quarter of Nowait's. Its advantage over PRT is that "Nowait offers mainly a mechanical solution, operating without signal systems and sophisticated computer control for route selection of the individual PRT car." It also has a much higher capacity than PRT's 4,000.
Jan Tuszynski doesn't think walkways are much of a rival: "The trottoir at Montparnasse station reminds me of Communism. It's a good idea but it is not working. We have been there and the system was switched over to the higher velocity only for demonstrations of its capabilities. Then it was switched down again. Just try to solve Cairo's or Beijing's problems with walkways!"
Professor Preston is philosophical: "Nowait is certainly an intriguing concept," he says. "It could be part of the future mix in public transport."
Andersson's next move is to try to secure the funds to build a full-scale verification line tied to a conditional commercial contract. The cost will be a few million euros, the Swedish government has promised to match funds from private investors. A spokesman for the Busan city authority told E&T it would make a decision over the Nowait in the next few months. If the system gets Swedish railway agency certification, granted under very strict criteria, Tuszynski hopes to allay fears about passengers tumbling about on the platforms and getting stuck in the doors.
"We are pretty confident we have the superior system," says Tuszynski. Andersson adds: "The big railway technology companies are going to hate us."