Trackless trains: Is that the future? 2

Trackless trains by definition have no wheels nor do they rely on rails upon which railroad wheels roll, as is the case with conventional rail systems, the exception being the Tubular Rail passenger application, in this case the understanding being that the plan is to employ rails (and rollers which, according to the plan, are to substitute for wheels) only not in the traditional sense. For a closer look, see Tubular Rail here.

So, are trackless trains in our future? And, if so, why trains without tracks?

In context

“The point of all mobility – and transportation is included in that broad context – is to get from Point A to Point B. That’s it – nothing more, nothing less. But what matters most is what happens transiting-wise between points. In moving from place to place, the experience more often than not is less than optimal or ideal, as many can attest,” is the opening thought in the post “TIFFS: Transportation, mobility on a slippery slope?

In “Trackless trains: Is that the future? 1” discussed were such considerations as: Ease of use, efficiency, speed, safety, affordability and sustainability and in that order.

Today, the discourse shifts to environmental impact. Though, what this discussion really filters down to, what it narrows to, is energy. Yes, energy.

Transportation pollutes. Vehicles, aircraft, trains, sailing ships, they pollute. Aviation contributes between 2.5 and 4 percent of all the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutant emissions. Trains emit about 2 percent of global GHGs. Road-based modes, meanwhile, produce the lion’s share: In the neighborhood of 23 percent.

It is important to note that all kinds of schemes have been put forth to seriously lower greenhouse-gas-emissions footprints, but has anything in this ongoing challenge the world is facing today really caught on?

So far: no. It’s going to take time.

In Scandinavia, there’s been limited success. In Norway, zero-emissions vehicles constitute 35 percent of the automobile base. That’s but one country only. That more countries have not gotten on board to the same or higher degree no doubt has to do with a strong adherence to the “go-with-what-I-already-know and/or what-I-am-currently-comfortable-with” notion.

That’s cars. How about trains? In Europe and Asia especially, trains are embraced much more so than in Canada, Latin America and the United States. Since it is difficult to predict what the future will be, this all could change.

A big plus is in the area of energy and this is where trains, trackless or otherwise, can really shine. Where energy savings is concerned, this could have corresponding implications for the environment hence the environmental tie-in.

A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany

In “Conventional High-Speed Rail Vs. Magnetically Levitated Trains: Was Maglev Ever In Contention?” a published Nov. 22, 2011 California Progress Report online contribution (editor’s note: This post is no longer available for reading online) transportation engineer Dennis Manning provides commentary on the energy efficiency of maglev. He stated, “‘Efficiency is tricky. Conventional [rail] is probably more efficient below 200 mph, but less efficient as the speed rises. This is assuming the same load factor. If maglev enjoyed higher ridership then the per passenger mile efficiency would rise.’”1

Among the host of trackless-train features, what separates them from the rest of the pack is low energy draw or demand.

Comparatively speaking, they are purportedly far more energy efficient than conventional trains as well as maglev, all else being equal. This is one of the reasons why there is this large and accelerated push to get these mobility systems commercialized, or so it would seem.

Imagine traveling at speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour with the greatest of ease. This while emitting no pollutant emissions to speak of. Eliminate the rails and wheels and all of the friction due to rolling resistance just disappears.

On getting there

The technology is obviously here. Finding the best ways to harness and redistribute the energy, and package or configure the product and market the service have been the more elusive parts. Half the battle may just be the part that provides patrons the ability to ride. Thus far, no one has been afforded that luxury, that is, outside of the magnetically levitated (or maglev) train application. The current versions though are energy inefficient, relatively speaking.

The expectation is that some version will one day reach commercialization. That being said, development and testing with regard to the few trackless train prototypes is ongoing, all of it, progress.

Exactly what is driving the research, development, testing, refinement, retesting, tweaking and so on and so forth, this with a determination to not give up, is difficult to put a finger on.

But, when (not if, but when) that practical product and service does come to fruition – the ultimate payoff, attention to and celebration of that event, will ripple throughout the world. Make no mistake.

And, whether that eclipses all other transportation breakthroughs and whether such is the ultimate destination that was discussed in Part 1, we’ll just have to wait and see. Here’s wishing all taking part in this great journey, smooth (to use a pun) sailing ahead.


  1. Alan Kandel, “Conventional High-Speed Rail Vs. Magnetically Levitated Trains: Was Maglev Ever In Contention?” California Progress Report, Nov. 22, 2011

– Alan Kandel

2 thoughts on “Trackless trains: Is that the future? 2”

  1. You say that it’s difficult to put a finger on what’s driving the R&D, etc. with regard to the few trackless train prototypes (naming Hyperloop, Tubular Rail and Aeroslider as examples) but it’s not clear that any such development is ongoing except for competing versions of Hyperloop. It’s been nearly 30 year since I first heard Tubular Rail’s inventor speak in public and I only learned of the Aeroslider this week. As far as I know, those concepts are just ideas, not hardware prototypes.

    The only high-speed maglevs in commercial service — the 15-year old Transrapid in Shanghai and the “Chuo Shinkansen” under construction between Tokyo and Nagoya in Japan — might not be environmentally perfect, but they certainly demonstrate the potential for non-contact travel.

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