If there's one staple of the holidays that doesn't exactly fill people's hearts with joy, it's the delays and agonizing waiting times that many have come to accept as the inevitable drudgery of the year-end travel season. You'd think we could come up with something to ease the pain.
A physicist, for instance, demonstrated that simply altering the process of how passengers are boarded onto airplanes can cut boarding times in half. Then there are, of course, the more grandiose game-changing ideas. A supersonic passenger jet in development is rumored to go from London to Sydney in as little as four hours. And, the supersonic "Hyperloop" transport tube, drawn up by Space X and Tesla Motors' CEO Elon Musk, would hypothetically blast riders from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes. The task of turning such promises into reality, however, will require the collective acumen and financial backing from some of the biggest players in the industry, as is currently the case with the supersonic jet, a collaboration between Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Gulfstream and NASA.
One particularly intriguing proposal that futuristic-minded engineers have batted around since the 1960s is the notion of a high-speed train that can transport and pick up passengers at various stops along the route without ever having to actually, you know, stop. A true express train from say, New York to Los Angeles, would offer a much shorter overall commute time and, without the constant stop-and-go, cut down significantly on fuel costs for train operators, which maybe—just maybe—would translate to lower fares for all.
So how would such a rail system work? Though various designs have been laid out and simulated, the principle behind each concept, from the 1969 blueprint of the "AT 2000" train to more contemporary models, is the same. While the train is moving at a constant peak speed, awaiting passengers are able to get onboard through an adjoining vehicle that docks to the high-speed train. Once the transfer is finished, the vehicle disengages as the main train stays in continuous motion.
UK-based design firm Priestmangoode has put forth a scheme called "Moving Platforms," in which city train or subway networks would be re-configured so that passengers can load onto a local train. That local train moves in a loop, which at certain points runs parallel to high-speed rail routes. The tracks and individual cabins would be built so that, as the high-speed and local train move alongside each other, a link can be secured momentarily, creating a kind of transfer gate for passengers to get on and off. To expedite the process, boarding passengers would be admitted using a RFID (radio-frequency identification) system that automatically scans and confirms their secured seat for the trip.
"There are big doors, there are wide doors, they're all the same level so you can seamlessly go between the two vehicles quite peacefully; there's no hurry," company director Paul Priestman told CNN, adding that the two trains "stay docked for the same amount of time that it would stop at a station."
However, the most difficult challenge about implementing such a system, besides cost, is that it involves having to essentially rework the infrastructure of entire public transportation systems of numerous cities just to accommodate connections for those who travel by high-speed rail. Futurist blog iO9 foresees a logistical "nightmare," especially when it comes to the potential for mishaps that snowball, like mechanical breakdowns coupled with missed connections and people carrying lots of luggage.
A less elaborate approach, unveiled in 2007 by Taiwanese designer Peng Yu-lun, allows passengers to make transfers through a pod module that sits atop a nesting structure positioned right above incoming trains. As the train moves through the station, the module would initially latch onto the front car and then slide along to the end car where it stays firmly attached until it reaches the next station. Upon arrival, it is then dislodged so that leaving passengers can disembark. The moving train will also simultaneously pick up another pod full of passengers at this location. Like Priestman's concept, there are no plans to further develop the idea.
"The big problem," according to the news site Taiwan Headlines, "is just precisely how the special boarding and alighting cars will be joined and detached from the main train. Peng says that those are questions that will require participation from experts in order to solve."
Judging from the status of these pie-in-the-sky projects don’t expect any major overhauls to our inefficient travel methods for a while. If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout my time covering innovation, it's that while there are numerous ways our lives can be optimized, any potentially positive improvement inherently involves costs and risks that investors often simply aren't willing to take. But on the bright side, we do now have a wide selection of mobile devices like tablets, smartphones and e-readers to keep us occupied during the most cumbersome of journeys.