Proposed: American Carmakers Should Get into Trains

15Aug08

The highway paradigm seems to be dying; and even if it weren’t, it should.  Trains are a much more efficient and enjoyable way to travel, in most situations.  Chasing the highway paradigm may be the death of American carmakers.

It seems likely that prices of steel, aluminum, rubber, concrete, and other materials used in production of automobiles and highways will continue to rise as global consumer demand continues to swell.  While such materials become more expensive, Americans’ ability to afford them will continue to decline.  Americans are increasingly competing for jobs against developing nation workers who earn a fraction as much.  Governmental tax bases are eroding.  It is uncertain that federal and state governments can ever catch up with the massive overhand of accumulated bridge and highway projects on which maintenance has been deferred.

There is an alternative.  It centers around an extensive national rail system, built initially on one dedicated lane on existing limited access highways, and perhaps coordinated with bus networks, car rentals, and bike lending arrangements.  The purpose of this alternative is to get ahead of the curve by making a bold commitment to sensible transportation that fits people’s needs more affordably.

The automakers’ role in this system would be to design and build family-sized cars that can ride on the rails at high speeds in computer-controlled convoys.  Propulsion for distance travel could be supplied by engine units, just as with today’s trains, thus allowing each car to get by with a small electric motor and battery for short-distance hookups.  The cost of a vehicle would plunge as engines and transmissions vanished.  Railcars could still be stylish, but with a greater emphasis upon comfort (with e.g., spaces to eat and sleep) and aerodynamics.

Streamlining would be especially useful for those instances when users would travel in convoys of one, accompanied only by an engine unit.  Users might have the option of traveling common routes in groups or alone, the latter being managed by computerization to insure maximal spacing between vehicles.

There would be various possibilities for construction of the rails.  They might be made of steel or other metals, or possibly of plastics.  Alternately, cars could be guided by one or more steering troughs in place of weight-bearing rails.  As another possibility, concrete barriers and/or electronic sensors could provide channels in which these vehicles and convoys would travel.  There are enough possibilities, in any case, to suspect that engineers could develop something requiring far less space, maintenance, and material investment than today’s highways.

Besides being less expensive, such an arrangement would be incomparably safer and more pleasant.  Breakdowns, road rage, pollution, traffic congestion, junkyards, and other maladies of the present arrangement could be studied and minimized.  Falling asleep on the way home would be fine.  Drunk travelers would not kill pedestrians.  Thousands of lives and incalculable pain and suffering would be eliminated.

For some years, as the network of rails began to spread, hybrid systems would be needed to link the high-speed rails with lower-speed local travel.  Auto manufacturers could design trucks, ferries, or motorized docking units that would tow, haul, or mesh with railcars to provide short-distance transportation from rail stopping points to travelers’ destinations.

This proposal would enable American automakers to start over again, to a considerable extent, with a blank slate and an opportunity to engage in better long-term planning than the shortsighted market has permitted in recent decades.  There would be target dates, some years out, by which specified phases in both the rail network and the railcars of the future would have to be complete.  The mediocre maintenance reputation earned by many American cars would be largely reset, since so many of the most expensive components in today’s carswould have been substantially altered or eliminated.  It would not matter anymore whether Toyota makes superior engines, because railcars would not have engines as we know them.

There is nothing inevitable about this proposal.  It does seem possible to keep breathing life into the model of the individually driven automobile running on asphalt or concrete roads.  That model comes with enormous costs and detriments, however.  At bottom, we love it sometimes, but it is getting old.  It is possible to imagine a new day and a better way in this consummately important set of industries.

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