Submitted by Willi on Thu, 09 Jul 2009 - 15:41
Interview by Willi Paul
Internet access on the Suntrain doesn't spell a revolution! What is special about riding the train?
Quality of rider experience is one of the key priorities and driving forces of the Suntrain design, because unless this train system is competitive with automobiles for usefulness, convenience, comfort, and enjoyment, it won't successfully pull enough people out of their cars..
To be useful a railway needs to offer (unlike current U.S. trains) all the following: high choice of destinations, high connectivity, frequent scheduling, reliable scheduling, and reasonably fast travel times. Suntrain will offer all of these:
To be convenient it needs to offer "door-to-door service on one transaction" (somewhat akin to Federal Express) and get people to their ultimate destination, not just to a train station. This is accomplished by augmenting train service with coordinated shuttle vans and rental cars, The railway system needs to do this with minimal transfers and very little waiting. Suntrain will accomplish this.
To be comfortable, the train needs to offer nice seats (would anyone buy a car with hard plastic seats?), nice lighting, quiet riding, and smooth riding. Suntrain will offer all of these.
To be enjoyable the railway needs to take full advantage of the fact that, unlike cars and buses, a train is potentially a "building on wheels". People need to have a rider experience that is comparable-or in some ways superior-to what they get in a car. This includes being able to walk around, get food, socialize with new people, have uniquely great scenery, get office work done, sleep or nap comfortably, use a restroom. Suntrain will offer the full range of onboard amenities.
Who are the enemies of this vision? Or "Who will kill the Suntrain?"
Because Suntrain is "full service rail" and offers so many benefits to so many stakeholders, on balance there are actually very few who won't like it. From environmentalists to engineering firms to businesses of all shapes and sizes to car lovers (who want de-clogged roads) to tourists to senior citizens (who can't drive) to everyday citizens who just want to get around easily, the list of supporters for Suntrain goes on and on.
The opponents of Suntrain might include the trucking industry because many truck drivers will lose their jobs, .... though many could find new ones, better ones, working for Suntrain. Likewise, public transit agencies will resent the competition and challenge to entrenched authority, but practically all of their employees would be actively sought after by Suntrain because of their unique knowledge base. Car dealerships won't like Suntrain, but many of them are going out of business anyway.
Please explain why the Suntrain is a 'new paradigm' for California?
Overall, Suntrain would be a 'new paradigm' for California because it represents a sharp turn away from half a century of automobile dominance in California. This is a pattern that has adversely affected the state's urban and rural land development and has now emerging as an environmental disaster.
Suntrain could not only revolutionize transportation, it could greatly affect other areas of life as well. Because of the fact that there's a 'natural fit' between fuel-cell technology and trains, Suntrain would greatly encourage the spread of fuel-cell technology. This means Suntrain could act as a catalyst and shortcut to the much coveted "hydrogen economy".
Technologically, Suntrain introduces to the world a new type of rail vehicle, a 100% solar-powered, hydrogen fuel cell train car that is not only uniquely clean, but-by virtue of being "self-propelled" (no locomotives, overhead wires, third rails) is also uniquely flexible. This offers operational advantages that, in the end, could decisively thrust trains into the forefront of the American lifestyle.
How does this idea compete with the current train system in economic terms?
Economies of scale and a "critical mass" of high connectivity and choice-of-destinations give Suntrain a huge advantage over the currently existing U.S. train networks which are essentially piecemeal and small. Additionally, the unique flexibility of Suntrain railcars means that a railway system can be operated much more efficiently. Finally, Suntrain will have much more freedom to take advantage of multiple streams of revenue, not just revenue from the fare box.
How do you envision the state and local funding to work?
Suntrain would be a private/public enterprise (in that order); it would be initiated, built, and run by the private sector and regulated by the public sector. The funding split would be typically 60% private and 40% public, with the latter being divided between state and local funding. Relatively little funding would come from the federal government. Real estate development around stations would account for a huge portion of the the required funding.
Why should we get out of our green cars and ride the train?
Because when you consider how many cars there are in the world today, "green cars" aren't nearly green enough ..... regardless of what fuel source they use or how clean they run. There are simply TOO MANY CARS..... way too many. A gridlocked freeway of hybrid cars is still a gridlocked freeway. A sprawling parking lot of electric cars is still a sprawling, land-wasting parking lot. The fundamental problem with cars is that they are land-hogs, they take up far too much space, even the small cars. The carbon footprint implications of the runaway automobile infrastructure such as we have in this country, and are beginning to see in developing countries such as China and India, are absolutely horrendous. If we truly want pedestrian-friendly, ecologically-sustainable cities then we need to somehow drastically reduce the number of cars. Suntrain is the ONLY proposal we've ever seen that could potentially do this.
Why wouldn't 25000 new stations result in decay of the present downtown ecosystem?
It's actually just the opposite. I'm not sure where the number 25, 000 comes from (we project 2,400 for California), but as we see it, Suntrain would not only not 'decay' U.S. downtowns, it would revitalize them. Trains by nature encourage pedestrian-friendly clustered development around stations, cars by nature encourage sprawling urban amenities far and wide to the detriment of both pedestrians and bicyclists. Trains inherently encourage community and citizen interaction, cars inherently encourage individualism, sometimes hyper-individualism. All one has to do is go to Europe and see how abundant train stations there affect the urban fabric. Abundant trains are an urban designer's dream.
Railway travel still requires tracks. Is there a transportation type with similar potential that eliminates tracks?
No, there isn't. Inventors have tried for over a century to come up with a better system than standard gauge rail track and have clearly not succeeded. Every attempt out there for improvements on fixed-guide-way transport-from monorail to maglev to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)-has proven to be too expensive, too inflexible; or too lacking in rider appeal. In the meantime, steady improvements have been made to standard gauge track to the point that it now constitutes a uniquely sophisticated travel medium despite its simplicity. Many of the objections that people typically have with railway track will be solved with further refinements that Suntrain will introduce such as "landscape track", where the rail ties and rock ballast are hidden and only the steel rails are seen 'floating' above the vegetation. Also, because Suntrain uses fuel-cell vehicles, there are no dangerous electric 3rd rails or unsightly overhead wires. This greatly simplifies the process of building and maintaining tracks and makes their environmental impact much less.
Many rail related deaths have been in the Bay Area news lately. Please discuss how your concept deals with pedestrian and passenger safety.
It needs to be said upfront that the rate of railway-related deaths, which always get media coverage, is a tiny fraction to that of automobile-related deaths.... which area so common that they usually escape media coverage. It also should be noted that many of the railway deaths we read about have been suicides, which are almost impossible to do anything about other than to improve society and its institutions so that people don't become so unhappy.
Some of the more serious but rare accidents involving actual train crashes were directly due to either inadequate maintenance operations or train-operator error. These problems are in turn traceable to either insufficient budgets, training, or organizational coordination. These are things that Suntrain would have a great advantage over existing rail services because it would be operated as an integrated system, not a patch work operation. New equipment, rather than antiquated equipment, and unprecedented use of state-of-the-art information technology will also play a major role warn operators way beforehand if trouble is looming.
Discuss the passenger vs. cargo capacity of the Suntrain?
America currently has a very sophisticated freight railway system, but only for "long haul" (greater than 600 miles); for the medium and short-haul freight routes, trucks have taken the lion's share of the business away from trains in the last half century.
Suntrain could change all that because it is 'full-service rail' that can utilize its assets to do "double duty" when needed. This coupled with massive route connectivity, economies of scale, and the efficiency factors associated with self-propelled rail cars, means that Suntrain would have a unique competitive advantage. The bottom line is that a well run modern railway like Suntrain that employs multiple modes (including trucks and vans) and could easily out-compete the existing trucking industry.