Rail 971: The train wins out over big tech

Time to take a breather away from the crazy hurly burly of the day to day railway and pause a moment to celebrate the triumph of the train. For, tucked away in news buried under Conservative chaos and COP compromises, there have been developments in the tech world which have undermined innovations that were supposed to make rail, that banal 19th century invention, redundant.

But oh no, those clever people in Silicon Valley are proving, well, not so clever. Take autonomous vehicles, on which I wrote a book called Driverless Cars: on a road to nowhere in 2018. This was at the height of driverless car hype when its supporters were describing a world in which we would soon all be driven about in these clever cars. They would be safer, reduce congestion and enable car parks to be greened over. I kid you not, but I spoke at several conferences where these proselytizers, as evangelic as those besuited American twentysomethings who come to your door inevitably when you are in the shower, promised that ‘everyone in the room will be impacted by this fantastic innovation’. No longer would senior citizens be stuck at home, unable to get to their hospital appointments; no longer would supermarkets and offices have to provide hundreds of car park spaces; no longer would you have to own a car since we would all be using shared use vehicles instantly called by an app to our front door; and much more beside. In the course of trying to develop this technology, literally more than a hundred billion– yes billion – dollars have been wasted by a combination of tech companies and auto manufacturers.

I remember Mark Carne, who was chief executive of Network Rail  for four years in the mid 2010s, expressing fears that driverless cars would pose a threat to the railways as they would be used to drive up and down motorways without the need for any occupant to pay attention. In a vain attempt to dissuade him, I gave him a copy of my book. Similarly, I had discussions with several Tory ministers who were intent on pouring huge amounts of research money – up to £250m so far – into the concept despite evidence that it was unworkable and that, in any case, the private US tech companies like Waymo (Google) and Cruise were so far ahead that they were uncatchable.

Well the model perpetrated by the evangelists has all but fallen apart. Many companies, notably Uber, had already pulled out of the project since I wrote the book but in the past few weeks the whole idea that these things will be widely available any time soon has been blown out of the water. First, in October Argo AI, a company with 1,700 staff that was developing driverless car technology for Ford and Volkswagen, announced it was disbanding because the technology for operating truly driverless cars which could run in all conditions, roads and weathers, known as Level 4, was impossible to develop.

A recent article in Bloomberg Business News concluded driverless cars ‘can’t handle weather patterns trickier than Partly Cloudy [and] struggle with construction, animals, traffic cones, …and left turns [right turns in the UK]’. It’s a long list for a technology that has cost $100bn plus to develop and suggests that Carne was dead wrong about it posing a challenge to the railways.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s maverick owner, Elon Musk, has got into trouble because of his claims over the ‘Full Self Driving’ software he has sold to Tesla owners. The technology falls well short of ‘self driving’ and is, rather, a series of driver aids which enable the car to slow down automatically or change lane on a motorway but always require the driver’s full attention. Now the US transport regulator is examining accidents caused by over reliance on this technology and Musk, who once claimed that all his cars would be self driving by 2021 has had to rein back on the claims of what they can do automatically.

Musk also features in the other bit of recent bad news for the tech enthusiasts, the effective collapse of the hyperloop. Again, the bad news has been coming throughout 2022 as the technical limitations of the idea have become all too apparent. Hypeloop, remember, is a development of magnetic levitation but in a vacuum tube. While the idea of magnetic levitation has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, it has never really taken off – as it were! The idea of putting the vehicles in a vacuum tube emerged in the early 2010s and has been promoted strongly by, among others, Musk and Richard Branson.  The idea is to create a vacuum in a tube that will then allow the maglev capsules to reach speeds of up to 600 or even 700 kilometres per hour, using very little energy.

However, even the most cursory back of the envelope calculation wipes out any notion of the feasibility of the idea. For a start, vacuums are very hard and energy intensive to create and maintain. Secondly, the capsules would only be able to carry around 30 people limiting the capacity of the system because of the need to keep them separate to avoid risk of collisions. Even in the unlikely event that you could get 20 per hour, that would be 600 people, never enough to pay a return on the massive infrastructure costs, let alone operational expenditure. It makes no more sense than Musk’s plan to create settlements on Mars.

Yet, despite these inherent flaws and the lack of anything like a positive business case, about a dozen projects have been announced around the world but are all in the planning stage and none are likely to see the light of day given that recently the prospect of any working system has become even less likely. First, in February Virgin announced it was abandoning plans to create a passenger-carrying hyperloop system and made the 100 staff working on the project redundant. Then, early in November, it was revealed that Musk’s test tube for hyperloop has been dismantled with no explanation and the site is now being used as a car park. Instead Musk, when taking time off from destroying Twitter, is now focussing on his Boring Tunnel concept which involves the equally insane idea of building underground tunnels so that electric cars can run in them.

All this is important to the railways. They are always being written off as a technology that will soon have its day. However, even the most cursory examination of the industry around the world suggests the opposite.  Just contrast all the nonsense about hyperloop systems in urban areas with the reality. Today there are 205 cities in 61 countries which can boast of having a metro system and there are around a further 30 under construction. China where the first line was not completed until 1969 now has 48 cities with subway systems.

And at the other end of the scale, for the long distance journey, high speed lines are popping up everywhere. Already 28 countries (at a bit of a stretch) can claim to have lines and there are around 30 lines being constructed in the world including, I understand, one in the UK! Add in new freight lines, refurbishment of existing railways and station improvements often to a very high standard, and it is clear that the railways have not only survived into the 21st century, but are flourishing especially in the markets they serve best, such as regional travel between cities and urban journeys. For all the obsession with hyperloop capsules and driverless cars, this is the Age of the Train – as someone once said.


The Nobody Gives a Damn railway lives on


The Times recently reported on the sort of journey from hell that has become all too commonplace on the railway recently. One of their writers, Richard Crampton reported on how, on a trip to Stansted Airport which takes 54 minutes (rather than the advertised 47) the train stopped unaccountably without explanation for 10 minutes and then the guard announced it would ‘terminate at Bishop’s Storford’. The 200 or so passengers were advised to ‘liaise with platform staff at the station, except there were none. Nor any information about when the next train to the airport was due to arrive. Then an empty train arrives, but it is going nowhere, and another service does take them to the airport, though only Crampton’s broken Italian prevents a whole bunch from exiting at Stansted Mountfichet. Eventually, without explanation or apology, the train arrives at the airport 45 minutes late.

Given this was a service to an airport with many people anxious to catch flights, the lack of information was a disgrace.  This is not about strikes, signal failures or weather related incidents, but about poor management and neglect. All this is avoidable. I was on a Great Western in mid November when the train started 20 minutes late and the conductor gave a full explanation for the delay, and set out precisely why it had been impossible to gather the information before, and went on to advise people how to get delay repay. It was an object lesson in crisis management and is all down to customer care. To avoid haemorrhaging passengers, the railway needs to inculcate this sort of positive culture into its hard pressed employees at this difficult time. Even the worst situations can be made to feel better.


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