Originally published on EV Obsession.
It might sound like something that comes straight out of a nightmare, but China is working on a trackless electric train. Our curiosity peeked, we had to bite. What exactly is a trackless electric train?
What is a Trackless Electric Train?
Essentially, a trackless electric train would be a train-like formation that can run on tracks and get off to continue on roads, right? Maybe it could use tires and metal wheels, such as some of the French metro system? Well, yes, but this trackless electric train is not really any of that. This out-of-the-box concept is really a bus-like, tram-like train that takes the best of a metro railway system and multi-bus units and does away with tracks altogether.
Developed by China’s CRRC Corporation, responsible for the country’s high-speed trains and hailed as one of the world’s largest train manufacturers, the “trackless electric train” concept was first unveiled by the company in June. It is now being tested in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province.
How Does A Trackless Electric Train Function?
This new concept, called the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) system, has a maximum speed of 43 mph (70 km/h), with a capacity of up to 300 passengers in a three-carriage formation.
The system borrows from existing technologies. As you can imagine, a trackless electric train needs no tracks. This is one of the biggest selling points CRRC hopes will convince cities to buy and implement the project. The associated costs of laying down tracks are expansive and require separate lanes. However, most roads can feasibly be expanded and/or use median lanes to fit public transportation. So the logic goes, at least.
With a range of 15 miles (25 km), a battery pack powers it until it reaches a specific station, where it can then recharge. Recharge time is estimated at 10 minutes for another 15.5 miles (25 km). The trackless electric train uses a special pantograph type of system, which is activated when stopped. Pantographs are what electric locomotives use to pick up energy from the catenaries stretched above the rails carrying electricity. If the concept sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because Siemens, Scania, and Volvo have been developing a similar idea, only in their case, the pantographs rest on trucks hauling cargo. They use electricity on roads with catenaries and switch back to diesel on regular roads. You can read more about that program on our sister publication Gas2 in this article from Steve Hanley.
One of the benefits of this above-mentioned system is that roads already exist, as well as light poles that could potentially stretch catenaries to feed electricity to the electric–diesel hybrid trucks.
The idea of metro systems having battery packs big enough to power them for short trips isn’t new either. The Nice, France, metro system drops its pantographs before going through the downtown area. It is then powered by its own batteries. Once it is out of the downtown, catenary-less area, it raises its pantograph, recharges, and continues onward normally.
Ultimately, this trackless electric train system is really a hybrid between a tram and a bus. Its guiding system works on virtual railways tracks that measure 3.75 meters (12 ft) wide embedded in roads. So as to not confuse pedestrians and other vehicles, those tracks are painted with dotted lines, delineating them from normal lanes. Another thing the “trackless electric train” reintroduces is that it runs on rubber wheels, something we’ve seen in the distant past.
Michelin developed a special train that ran on its own tires, which made for a more comfortable ride than straight metallic ones. This “automotrice” (powered carriage) gave birth to the rubber tire metros in Paris, operated by the RATP, the Paris transit authority. This latter system finally answered the flat tire problems the Michelines underwent, amongst other things. It mostly gave them superior acceleration and heavier workloads.
See this video in French for a better idea of the Michelin “automotrice.” Budd also licensed this technology in the US last century.
Back to the future, this CRRC concept makes a lot of sense in many ways. For one thing, municipalities could adopt this for a fraction of the cost of a metro/tram system. No need to plot and lay rails, although there would be a need to update the road infrastructure. Those guided systems would have to go underneath the road structure.
Consider the cost of a subway in China, estimated at $82 million (~400—700 million yuan) per kilometer, and that these trackless electric trains/streetcars would cost $2 million (~150–200 million yuan) per kilometer, according to Channel News Asia.
Final Thoughts on Trackless Electric Trains
Although diesel–electric locomotives have been running hybrid systems since the 1930s, the adoption of the electric drivetrain and electric motor for personal and now public transportation has opened the door to more possibilities than previously thought. It shouldn’t surprise too many to see old ideas revisited while combining the best of all worlds. In this case, the trackless electric train is really a hybrid bus and tram designed to be incorporated as easily as possible within cities.