Friday, 6 March 2009

16.20 Birmingham New Street – Utopia

I’m writing this while on a train from Birmingham to Penrith. I’m returning from an exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre. Of the various conversations I had, by far the most interesting was one with a retired coach safety test engineer. His career had been spent in the public transport industry but he was also an authority transport systems using magnetic levitation.

From what I could gather (and I haven’t had the chance to Google it yet) there are magnetic levitation train systems being trialled in Japan and Germany. These trials are based on a mono-rail system. Once the train is ready to go, the electro-magnets are powered up and the whole thing lifts just 10mm into the air. The power that provides the levitational force also provides high speed propulsion.

As levitation suggests, the train actually floats. This means no contact points, no friction and an incredibly smooth ride. In comparison, our current rail travel begins to sound pretty Victorian.

Obviously, these things cost enormous amounts of money to develop and introduce. Even if the UK government gave unlimited funds right now to a project like this, it would be 10 to 20 years before anything like this could be called a national network. There’s every chance it won’t happen in my lifetime – but then I said that about a black president.

As I have become very aware recently, I’m a sucker for Utopian visions. I go misty eyed at the prospect of a fairer society – where everyone is equal and we all work with each others’ best interests at heart. Put aside the fact that I don’t know what system could achieve this but to my mind, Utopia needs good public transport. It’s right there in my visions, clean cities, healthy citizens and mono-rail systems.

Obviously, my visions of Utopia aren’t my own. These visions come from my childhood interest in science fiction and the future – and even these are taken second hand from sources like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Anyway, the point is that these visions are probably the best part of a century old. And I don’t understand why we’re not there yet. Maybe it’s a lack of vision? Or maybe because my vision of Utopia is another man’s Orwellian nightmare?

And indeed, our communication networks are probably better and more mobile than even Fritz could imagine. Computers are developing incredibly quickly and have literally revolutionised my own creative pursuits. Mobile phones are delivering real connectivity and useful information on the move. In 25 years, phone batteries have reduced in size and charge time and increased in storage and output. They’ve made incredible advances in a relatively short period. So what happened to transport?

As Daniel H. Wilson, titled his book, Where’s my jet pack? Where are our mono rails? Where are our electric cars and hover boards? Why did these things fall behind? Okay, the car and the internal combustion engine have refined and become more efficient. Agreed, the train I’m sitting on tilts gently round corners to allow smooth travel (something British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train consistently failed to do). That’s all well and good – but it’s old technology.

As I write, I can hear and feel the diesel engines chug through the countryside and I can imagine the fumes they’re churning into the atmosphere. Some recent train service improvements have resulted in one or two speed records being broken. But these records were set in the 50s. How many other speed records, for anything, have lasted for sixty years in the modern age?

I dunno. Whether it’s the power of the oil industry, state cost cutting or restricted private enterprise, I just can’t say. But I’m getting older and there are certain things I’d love to see before I die. When it comes to transport, I hope I haven’t missed the magnetically levitating mono-rail to Utopia.

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