For years now, the railway of tomorrow has literally been running in circles. The most you could see was a pair of small gray rail cars on a field just behind the university in the city of Paderborn in the western German state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Day in and day out, they ride along on their circular track, sometimes steering out of each other's way using a track switcher.
As mundane as that may seem, something great is taking shape here, engineer Joachim Lückel confidently assures. "We are building a better Transrapid," he says, referring to Germany's high-speed magnetic levitation train.
But there is little here to suggest any relationship between the so-called Railcab and the Transrapid, one of Germany's most impressive engineering achievements. Only a real connoisseur could see the magic happening here. Indeed, the most thrilling recent development was that the two unassuming and driverless cars drove in a convoy for the first time.
Ten years have passed since Joachim Lückel, professor of engineering, came up with his life's work: He foresaw small, speedy, gondola-like cars, swarming about everywhere on the old railway tracks, whooshing off on their own by the thousands -- all across the country. And anyone who wants to go anywhere simply calls and orders one.
In the past, developments in public transportation often focused on the expensive train transportation -- traditional passenger trains, high-speed rail and magnetic levitation trains that move the masses. But Railcab is part of a new trend of developing relatively fast, highly efficient and cost-effective individual transportation systemsthat could radically change the way we travel in the future.
In Lückel's brave new world, there is neither a control center for the cars nor a fixed schedule. That's too old fashioned. Instead, the customer calls, and the next available vehicle rolls up, ready for service in the way we use taxis today. And the journey continues towards its goal, without any stops or changes of train.
In Paderborn, a kind of fusion between a car and railway transportation is emerging. Using satellite navigation, every car on the track network finds the quickest route to its goal. Along the main routes, the Railcabs form convoys. One after the other, they hurry along, moving closely but not directly together so that they can save energy by traveling in the slipstream. Before reaching their goal, the individual cars part from one another, while the rest of the group rolls on without slowing down.
Engineer Lückel, a skilled automobile expert, quickly found allies for his project. Seven departments, from engineering to electro-technology, joined to form a consortium whose very name reveals pride in the future: New Rail Technology Paderborn.
In at least one regard, the Railcab is similar to the Transrapid -- they both use the same method of propulsion. Solenoids, electrically charged in succession, run between the tracks and create a traveling magnetic field that propels individual cars along. The motor basically sits in the track, thus making the vehicles light and relatively inexpensive. If estimates are correct, Railcab cars won't cost any more than an automobile of the same size.
Graphic: Driverless trains
In the meantime, though, the old railway networks will continue to cram hundreds of people in long trains with limited schedules -- just as they have for the past 150 years. But the old way of train travel is already growing tiresome for many. While it may be bearable to use trains to travel direct from one city to another, the annoyance level climbs when a person has to visit less densely populated areas. Depending on the starting point, even a trip to Paderborn, a city of about 142,000 residents, can require transfers between trains and lead to missed connections.
The only thing more old-fashioned than passenger trains are freight trains, which link to one another as laboriously as ever: The cars roll from the marshalling humps toward the shunting where they have to be coupled with great effort by hand.
But in Paderborn, engineers have even come up with a remedy for that problem: With little fuss, refurbished freight cars could be incorporated into the lines of rolling Railcab convoys. "Even small loads of goods could arrive at their goal quickly, and usually without reloading," says Trächtler. "That would provide the first real competition for heavy trucks."
For all their pioneering spirit, the researchers were careful to avoid the pitfalls of the almighty Transrapid, which they consider to be the icon of a dinosaur technology whose days were over before they ever began.
"Just consider the amount of energy that's required to levitate a massive train like that," says engineer Lückel. "Today, that's already Stone Age technology."
Railcabs employ the tried and true wheel, and they don't try to break any speed records -- not that those mean much, anyway. On its 30-kilometer route in Shanghai, Lückel estimates, the Transrapid requires the first third to get up to speed, and the last third to brake; in between, it briefly reaches speeds of 430 kilometers per hour. "High top speeds aren't economical," says Lückel. "It's the average that counts."
Railcabs can travel at an average speed of about 160 kilometers per hour, but they also move without stopping, which can reduce travel times. And most important, they don't need any new tracks: They can operate on the existing track network, including urban commuter rail lines. A customer could board a Railcab in a suburb of Hamburg and travel without pause to visit grandma in Nuremburg.
The only thing needed is the addition of custom track switchers that enable the Railcabs to make swift track changes on their own. Old block signal technology, with a drive and moving parts, would be unable to react quickly enough to safely manage track switches if a fast-moving Railcab in a convoy were to swiftly turn out of the group. Instead, the Railcab relies on what engineers call a "passive switch" technology. The track switcher has no moving parts and the direction is instead determined by the Railcab shuttle itself. A slight turn of the wheel is enough to determine whether a Railcab turns left, right, or proceeds straight ahead.
But wouldn't an exchange of track switchers alone be so expensive as to turn off all possible investors? "We could also start small," says project director Trächtler, "on individual routes or in certain regions." For the transition period, his team has already devised special track switchers that would fit with the old or new railway.
The cost of running the Railcab system remains unclear. In the long term, researchers assert it would be cheaper than current railway systems. But no one has really tested it. There isn't enough money for that in Paderborn, and Germany's national railway, Deutsche Bahn, isn't participating in the project.
"We are not doing any basic research," says Deutsche Bahn's spokesperson for technical matters, Christine Geissler-Schild. And large companies like Siemens are doing their best to keep mum, as long as the most powerful main client shows no interest.
It almost seems as if, over the past several decades, the Transrapid consumed all of Germany's innovative spirit. Is it too late for a new railway? Only a few years ago, a project like Railcab would have been totally impossible. The computer technology simply wasn't advanced enough.
"What we are planning," says Lückel, "is basically a kind of Internet on wheels."
In the digital network, of course, data packets don't need any block signals to whiz along the lines. Losses are taken into account. Sometimes, data arrives garbled; it is then discarded and requested again -- a factor that would obviously be impossible with a physical entity like passengers.
The engineers at New Rail Technology Paderborn have come up with an ingenious steering system that depends even more than the Internet on decentralized intelligence: The individual cars move autonomously, like independent agents. They negotiate detailed routing commands on their own; and the gondolas handle the choice of route. The central hub doesn't interfere -- instead it provides useful information like reports about traffic on individual sections of the network.
Researchers insist that all this is doable today. As always, the devil is in the details. For example, the promise of an on-call Railcab loses some of its appeal because at this point one car would hold 10 people or more. Wouldn't that be just like a group taxi without any of the creature comforts of private travel? "It would be better to have two-seat cabins, of course," admits Lückel, "but we haven't been able to scale down our technology yet."
The consortium is recommending a mixed-mode operation in the early stages: Some cars would travel along the main routes according to a schedule. Anyone who wanted a Railcab right away, and for themselves alone, would then have to pay a more expensive fare.
Shortcomings or not, there does appear to be interest in the Railcab. Transportation experts from London have already flocked to Paderborn, and there has even been an inquiry from as far abroad as Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. For now though, the engineers at New Rail Technology will just have to wait and see if there is political will for the product in Germany.
But the engineers aren't sitting idly by. As they wait, the Railcab developers are concentrating on efforts to make travel more comfortable. They are working on a computer-controlled suspension system that would use sensors and an onboard computer to intercept every little bump in advance and compensate for it. And that would leave passengers with a lot less to complain about.