Tracked hovercrafts and straddling buses

The Ministry of Transport’s 1963 Buchanan Report on the future of traffic in towns may have thought of jetpacks and hoverboards as a potentially real future for individual private travel, but it didn’t ignore public transport entirely.  Obviously, in 1963 the railways were obsolete, but the report suggested there was some scope for “multi-passenger units”, particularly ultra high speed devices on long journeys between dense population centres.

The most delightful is this fabulous art-deco “tracked hovercraft”.  Happy 1960s families, where the women all wear skirts and sit cross-legged and the men all read big important newspapers, drive their car into the bottom deck and sit in airline-style comfort on the upper deck.  It’s not clear whether “tracks” in this solution refer to rail tracks or to caterpillar tracks — the diagram appears to show elements that could be interpreted as either.  Perhaps it has both, for ultimate flexibility.

The report says:

It is possible, of course, if serious technological studies were undertaken, that a whole range of new ideas for moving people and goods in cities would be produced.  It is indeed to be hoped that we are not at the end of our ingenuity in the matter.  The bus, for example, for all its convenience, does not appear to be the last word in comfort.  The travelator seems to offer much scope for development.  Continuously operating chair-lifts might be used in a highly attractive way between points of pedestrian concentration to augment existing means of travel.  Conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, and pipelines might well be developed for the conveyance of goods, perhaps even justifying rearrangement of commercial processes to facilitate their use.

Monorails and moving pavements were the future of public transport in the 1960s — at least while we were waiting for our moon bases and space elevators.

Just some things to bear in mind when you consider the Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment Company’s (!) dream of the straddling bus:

Once upon a time, highly educated and expensive civil engineers were required to invent absurd transport solutions. Now all you need is an idiot who knows how to open photoshop.

For those unfamiliar with the city, Shenzhen neighbours Hong Kong; it was a fishing village right into the late 1970s when China created a “special economic zone” encouraging market capitalism here.  The city now has a population estimated to be 14 million squeezed into the limits of the SEZ, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  It’s an entirely new city, conceived late in the motorcar era, and full of the wide boulevards you would expect in modern car dependent Chinese cities.

Shenzhen is the future.  At least, it must feel that way to the people who live there.  The Chinese are in the middle of great change: social progress, economic development, and technological revolution.  This is their 1960s, and more.  They’re putting men into space to prepare the way for the space elevators.

They’re also struggling with the sort of problems that European cities were struggling with the the 1960s.  In the picture above you can see how this little city street is too narrow to accommodate conventional buses.  Conventional buses keep stopping and starting, and this causes congestion as Important People in cars have to slow down and move over into one of the other four lanes available to them.  Therefore there is a need to invent the straddling bus, which will not impair Important Motor Traffic — those SUVs and executive saloon cars can happily drive under it (albeit, only having been considerably shrunk in photoshop).

It’s a genuinely clever idea.  You might wonder whether they’ve considered safety, and turning cars, and height clearance.  Of course they have.  The engineers have thought of everything and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in Shenzhen.  Just as there was no reason why hovertrains and moving pavements shouldn’t work…

11 thoughts on “Tracked hovercrafts and straddling buses”

  1. If you want to see a real “Tracked Hovercraft”, there’s one at “Railworld” at Peterborough. The actual museum has an odd attitude to being open, but the RTV31 is sitting outside it on a section of track. Shortish walk from the railway station, at one of the outer reaches of FCC (though beyond the reach of the Network Railcard). Wierd thing

  2. That’s AWESOME! Just found the blog and will be following the posts here!

    I’m trying myself to pick Transit Sleuth back up here in Seattle. Lot’s of great things going on up here (albeit about a decade behind Portland, but working on straightening things out!)

  3. All of those ideas would be excellent ways to clear up congestion, implement effective and efficient urban mass transit, and yet allow almost any large city to easily implement it.

    Elevating the “bus” above the road, yet having it run on embedded rails, would allow it to progress quickly from stop to stop without worrying about the traffic below. Transmission lines could be easily raised, and the “buses” could run on schedule with the traffic lights, further increasing their efficiency. Of course a driver would be necessary in the event of a breakdown, etc.

    And bullet/high speed trains are incredibly efficient movers of goods, materials, and passengers across large distances. At incredibly efficient rates. It’s a pity these ideas are now written off as ridiculous.

  4. The main worry in China right now with this straddling bus is that people drive like maniacs, especially on the highways that it will be tested on. The picture above is photoshoped to a ridiculous level. The cars under the bus are, as you point out, visibly smaller than the other cars on the road. The traffic is also very neat and within the lanes – no one sticks to lanes like that on Chinese roads.

  5. Thanks everyone! Unfortunately, due to this post getting featured on the WordPress homepage (thanks!), this post got pummeled with spam — I hope I’ve managed to let all the legitimate comments through.

    Matt: the straddling bus is indeed an excellent engineering solution. I guess I’ll have to write a post explaining why it’s so utterly ridiculous — the real reasons are far more interesting than those that any commentator has so far raised.

  6. The image at the top appears to be either an early version of the UK’s Tracked Hovercraft (note the camel casing) or one of the French Aerotrains. Both were the same thing really. There’s little hovercraft-like pads under the train that ride over the “track”, you can see them in the cutaway image on the left.

    The problem with this system is that the air under the pads works great when you’re not moving very fast. It keeps lifting the train for as long as it takes to move out to the side of the pad, maybe on the order of a second. But imagine it running along the track at 250 mph, now the air is quickly left behind due to drag against the “rail”. So you need LOTS of air to keep it lifted, and you need to take that air from the surroundings and speed it up to the speed of your train (and it’s air pumps).

    This turns out to really kill the economics. Something like 50 to 70% of all the power needed to move it forward has to also be supplied to speed up this air. When the maglev designs came out the hovertrain went the way of the dodo.

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