2017 is a year that has been full of emerging and innovative transit technologies. Here in BC we’ve seen demonstrations of many new transit technologiesi, such as battery-electric buses, low-floor community shuttles, and next-gen GPS tracking systems among other technologies.

Recently, one new emerging transit technology has caught the attention of several onlookers here in North America and around the world, including at least a few prominent decision makers. In China, CRRC Corporation is introducing a new “trackless train” technology. The technology is oriented around a bi-articulated transit vehicle that is a hybrid between a bus and a train, and an optical guidance technology that uses painted “virtual rail lines” on the roadway to tell this transit vehicle where to go.

The official English title for the new technology is autonomous rail rapid transit or ART.

China has been notorious for emerging transit technologies with questionable practicality and origins (such as the controversial “transit elevated bus” from last year). However, this system is being funded and developed by China’s CRRC Corporation, which is now the largest rolling stock manufacturing company in the world, formed through the merger of two other large companies.

CRRC without a doubt enjoys its strongest foothold in Asia, manufacturing transit vehicles for systems in China, Malaysia, and other Asian cities. However, CRRC also enjoys a strong global presence, having catered to transit systems in numerous cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, London, and Melbourne among others. In fact, CRRC has a presence here in Canada – it is building a manufacturing plant in Moncton, NB to service its expansion into the North American market.

This credibility has allowed CRRC’s trackless train to enjoy a number of high-profile endorsements from decision-makers around the world. Trackless trains have been pitched as a potential transit solution in major cities, such as Sydney and Miami. In fact, just last week, these trackless trains were pitched as a solution for Edmonton’s transit woesIn a city that has faced numerous problems with extension of their Light Rail system at street-level, I’m not surprised that their City Councillors are looking for other transit alternatives.

‘It feels the possible perfect hybrid between bus rapid transit and light rail transit’ – Edmonton Coun. Andrew Knack / “Are trackless trains the solution to Edmonton’s transport woes?”

View CRRC’s concept “trackless trains” video below:

What makes this possible

While the vehicle is a road vehicle and technically more of a “guided bus”, CRRC corporation is marketing the technology as a “trackless train”. At first glance, this “trackless train” indeed looks nothing like a bus. CRRC’s bi-articulated transit vehicle looks more like a light rail tram both on the inside and outside, and boasts a tram-like carrying capacity. The vehicle will also be completely electric (battery-electric technology), and it is designed to be capable of supporting driver-less operation.

The main ingredient that makes this system with super-sized buses possible is the guidance system that utilizes painted lines on the roadway to keep buses on a fixed alignment. Each individual set of wheels can be automatically steered to follow these painted lines. The vehicles can safely accomplish tighter turns, with less horizontal clearance than what a standard bus requires.

As a result, the vehicles can be significantly longer than standard buses. CRRC’s concept videos show a bi-articulated transit vehicle, which has two articulations as opposed to just one. Thisvehicle carries up to 307 passengers. By comparison, regular 60-foot articulated buses can carry up to 120 people.

While CRRC’s system is far from being the first in the world to use painted lines to guide vehicles, its application in enabling significantly longer transit vehicles is something that has not been seen yet.

The concept video also shows that the vehicles could become even longer triple-articulated transit vehicles, which is made possible because of the guided navigation system that keeps the vehicles on a strict alignment. It would even be possible to platoon them together into multiple-car road trains operated by a single driver, similar to how light rail vehicles can be coupled into multiple-car trains.

CRRC’s concept video is quick to draw comparisons with conventional Light Rail technology, showing that ART offers numerous advantages compared to Light Rail. Right off the bat, the “trackless trains” are shown running on existing roadways. This is a key advantage of BRT systems: they can run on exclusive dedicated lanes, but can also run in existing roadways, with the dedicated lane infrastructure phased in gradually.

Like buses, the trackless trains will have the ability to change lanes and move around stopped or parked vehicles – a privilege that is not enjoyed by mixed-traffic streetcars.

One of the interesting things I found interesting in the original concept video is in how it shows buses detouring around areas that have been closed due to accidents. This is one key advantage of Bus Rapid Transit over Light Rail that I have been quite keen to point out. The video shows a bus turning off of its route to avoid an accident-congested area, and returning to its route once it has passed the incident.

On light rail corridors, accidents can actually block the track and leave light rail trains completely unable to get through – forcing closures of the area and inconvenient detours onto shuttle bus bridges. In a city where there is a high crash rate and accidents are on the rise, I think this is an important consideration we must make for a new transit system that is expected to be fast, frequent and reliable.

Of course, more than anything else, CRRC’s “trackless train” system is likely to enjoy the same cost advantages as Bus Rapid Transit systems. The infrastructure required to support trackless trains is less intensive and can be built gradually – significantly lowering costs.

You can see this in how every station in the video is shown to be a fancy station, complete with a full-length covered waiting canopy, fare-gates and fare machines, level boarding platforms, and even platform screen doors. These are luxuries that you can afford when relatively inexpensive stations become the largest cost component on a transit project.

On Light Rail projects, the cost of the stations is completely overshadowed by the high costs of the track and supporting infrastructure. Consequently, many of the light rail systems I have ridden on feature simple stations that are not fully sheltered or feature minimal amenities. From what I have seen from project renderings, the proposed LRT stations on Surrey’s Light Rail system will be relatively amenity-frugal.

Closer to home…

While CRRC’s “trackless train” concept is primarily gaining momentum in Asia, there are already numerous transit systems here in North America and elsewhere around the world that use comparable and in some cases identical technologies. In fact, one such system is operating right here on our west coast.

When the city of Eugene, Oregon built its Emerald Express (EmX) bus rapid transit system, planners made sure to incorporate as many advanced BRT features as possible to allow EmX to offer a high-quality operation that is comparable to light rail. Dedicated bus “tracks” were built in road medians, and BRT vehicles were equipped with doors on both sides – allowing for centre platforms and boarding from the left side.

In addition to these systems, EmX incorporated one previously unseen feature: a magnetic guidance system.

EmX uses magnetic markers embedded in the ground to guide buses, which are equipped with magnetic sensors, to remain on their dedicated rights of way. This has the interesting effect of allowing buses to be driven for long distances with absolutely no hands on the steering wheel:

The system also ensures that buses consistently stop at the correct spot when docking at a BRT station – as well as accelerate and decelerate more quickly when approaching station. This allows riders to enjoy level boarding: as with trains and trams, the buses can be boarded from the platforms without ramps. This streamlines the boarding process for those with wheelchairs and mobility devices, and passengers do not have to endure lengthy boarding processes where ramps must be deployed.

“Buses using the magnetic guidance system consistently stop within two inches or less of their mark, according to the University of California at Berkeley, which oversees the technology.” “Sensing and processing units on the bus obtain information from the magnetic markers in the road, which act as reference points.” Magnetic Bus Idea to Test In Oregon – Planetizen

Thanks to the relatively low costs of BRT, Eugene’s EmX system is consistently expanded, and impressive considering the small size of the metropolitan area it serves (approx. 350,000 people, comparable to the size of Victoria). Buses consistently run every 10 minutes during day-time hours. With the opening of the West Eugene EmX extension last month, the system now extends to a length of nearly 21 miles (approx 33.5 km), serving 40 stations.

Eugene’s EmX map shows an expansive transit system connecting several regional town centres.

The end of the line for light rail?

It is worth noting that ART is now more than just a concept video: an actual “trackless train” system is already being tested in Zhuzhou, China – the hometown of the CRRC branch developing the system.

I have for a long time drawn attention in my home city of Surrey, BC (which is trying to build a Light Rail system) to the shortfalls and issues of Light Rail technology. These shortfalls are particularly visible when light rail is used on street-running alignments.

That’s not to say that all “light rail” systems are likely to be made obsolete by this technology. “Light rail” is a broad term – it can apply to everything from a mixed-traffic streetcar to a regional-express-rail system that is using light rail specs and vehicles rather than heavy rail vehicles.

Many light rail systems leverage exclusive rights-of-way that enable them to be fast, competitive and versatile in their cities. Calgary’s critically-acclaimed C-Train system is generally located off of streets except in the downtown core, and is treated as if it were an urban railway, with absolute priority given at railway crossings.

This “trackless train” system may not necessarily be able to replace those high-capacity light rail systems. It will also certainly not replace metro systems and grade-separated rail – which offer service levels beyond what any surface “trackless train” system will be able to provide.

But, in a modern world full of incredible emerging technologies, “trackless trains” may soon have a distinct identity in the selection of different transit systems. Its potential to displace an existing, long-utilized conventional technology (light rail) is rooted in the system’s many advantages, versatility and considerably lower cost.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

New “trackless train” technology could make light rail obsolete
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