California AutoRail

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    From the middle of August 2011 to near the end of September Tulare County lay under assault by a layer of polluted air that the local weatherman listed as "unhealthy for sensitive people". With lungs ruined by a near-fatal encounter with pneumonia in 1996, I qualify as an element of the set "sensitive people"; thus, I spent the month not getting enough sleep (waking up in the wee hours of the morning panting for air) and getting progressively ground down. Most of what caused my distress came from internal combustion engines, thousands upon thousands of them, driving cars and trucks over the roads and highways of Central California. Dreaming of relief, I conceived the following idea as a means of reducing the air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Basic Idea

    Imagine someone who wants to drive his car from Los Angeles to Visalia, halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno. He drives to a strange-looking toll plaza and pulls up to a toll booth. Facing a device that resembles the self-checkout computer appearing in some supermarkets, he inputs his destination, pays the fee (either by credit card or cash), and receives a receipt. He then drives up a ramp onto a platform.

    When instructed by the lights arrayed alongside the platform, he drives his car forward, down a ramp, and onto a carrier that rolls on rails that emerge from under the platform. The ramp has lowered onto the carrier when the carrier gets into position and locks its brakes so that the car can drive straight onto the 30-foot long carrier. The car's front wheels go through the carrier's rear wheel-wells and into the front wheel-wells. Those front wheel-wells slide forward until the car's rear wheels settle into the rear wheel-wells and then lock into place. The carrier's rear safety gate rises and locks into place, the ramp lifts up, and the carrier rolls forward on its track as an empty carrier emerges from under the loading platform and takes its place.

    With our driver's car on board, the carrier rolls through what looks like a railroad marshaling yard, with multiple tracks merging into one track that leaves the entry area. Our driver can now turn off his car's engine or simply let it idle if he wants to run the air conditioning or other electrical devices. The carrier moves along the exit track, accelerating as the track goes into a tunnel or onto a flyover that brings the exit track onto the median of Interstate Highway 5. Guided by the system's computer, the carrier goes through a switch that merges the exit track into the track that runs down what used to be the leftmost lane of the freeway. Driven by an electric wheelset similar to those found on streetcars and drawing electric current from a third rail, the carrier reaches its cruising speed of over 100 miles per hour.

    On the southwest side of Sylmar I-5 merges with I-405. In order to cross the northbound lanes of I-405 the northbound track on I-5 either goes through a tunnel or on a flyover that takes it onto the median of I-405, whence it merges into the northbound track on I-405. Under the guidance of a statewide computer network, the carriers accelerate or decelerate to make space for the merging of the two streams of northbound traffic.

    After blasting through the Tehachapi Mountains in less than an hour, the carrier comes out onto the flat landscape of the San Joaquin Valley. Some minutes later the carrier comes to the place where I-5 splits off from CA Hwy 99, heading north to Bakersfield while I-5 veers to the northwest. At that place an active switch shunts carriers onto I-5 or onto Hwy 99 in accordance with instructions from the computer that tracks all of the carriers in the system. Our driver's carrier gets shunted onto Hwy 99, which passes five miles from Visalia.

    Passing through Bakersfield and other towns along the highway, the carrier will pass through active pick-off switches that, if activated, would shunt the carrier into an exit plaza. Some two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, ten miles north of the City of Tulare, the carrier comes to a pick-off switch that shunts it onto eastbound Hwy 198, the freeway that passes through the City of Visalia.

    An array of lights mounted on the carrier's front safety gate spell out messages to our driver. It tells him that the carrier is approaching the Visalia Terminal and that he should turn on his car's engine in preparation to exit the AutoRail system.

    Somewhere on the west side or the east side of Visalia the track veers into the median and either goes into a tunnel or onto a flyover that takes it off the freeway without interfering with other traffic. Where once lay a field or an orchard our driver sees the exit plaza. On that field the track splits into many tracks, each of which goes under a platform. Switched onto one of those tracks, the carrier stops just before it goes into the space under the platform. The carrier's forward safety gate goes down, the platform= s ramp descends onto the carrier, and our driver puts his car into gear and drives up the ramp, onto the platform, and onto the exit road. From there our driver proceeds to his destination.

    Now let's look at this system in more detail.

A Mature Nineteenth-Century Technology

    Railroads have been part of our culture for almost two centuries now and electrically driven railroads for more than a century. We have collectively had enough experience with the systems of steel wheels rolling on steel rails that we can simply assemble this system without carrying out a lot of research and development.

    The modern railroad originated in England in the 1820's and came to the United States in the 1830's. With the first run of the Stockton and Darlington railroad at the end of 1825 all of the basic concepts came together - a steam-powered locomotive pulling a train of carriages, all rolling on paired rails on flanged wheels. Over the next century the technology evolved with improvements to track, locomotives, and carriages along with the development of scheduling, signaling, and switching. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century trains on some lines could consistently reach speeds as high as one hundred miles per hour or more. The Twentieth Century added its own advances in railroading technology, such as

    1) Diesel-electric propulsion. The locomotive that we call a diesel actually uses a diesel engine to turn an electric generator and then uses the generated current to drive the electric motors that turn the locomotive's wheels. Not as romantic as the steam locomotive, the diesel gives us a more efficient and safer alternative.

    2) Welded rail. The great ribbons of steel on which trains run used to come in forty-foot lengths with pairs of holes drilled in the web near each end. As each rail was added to the track the track layers would attach it to its neighbor by steel plates that lay against the web and spanned the joint between the rails and then bolt the rails together through them. Slight up and down movements of the rails at these joints as trains went over them led to the wheels bumping the higher rail and thereby producing the once-familiar click-clack. Now track layers butt weld the rails together to make one miles-long rail. This practice eliminates the joints and, thus, the click-clack of wheels going over the joints. It also extends the life of the rail.

    3) Rail clips. These consist of anchor plates into which track layers insert thick W-shaped springs that press against the foot of the rail to hold the rail in place. Where spikes require wooden sleepers into which gandy dancers can pound them, rail clips can hold rails to concrete sleepers or to a concrete pavement into which the anchor plates can be bonded.

    One of the fundamental mechanisms that enables the operation of a railroad is the switch, a device that determines which of two tracks a train will enter. The essential component of a switch consists of two rails formed into a tongue that slides from side to side to determine which way a train will go as it passes through the switch. Because we intend traffic to move in only one direction on the tracks, the AutoRail system will need simpler switches.

    Where two pairs of rails merge, as in an entry plaza, the switch needs no moving parts. Only where two tracks diverge, as where the track comes into an exit plaza, do we need active switches. Those switches don't need the fully moving tongue that we find in standard railroad switches. We only need vertical plates that rock back and forth, alternately blocking the flangeways on one side of the track or on the other at the points end of the switch.

    The other fundamental moving part of a railroad consists of the vehicles that roll on the rails. The concept of a track extending between cities brings to mind the image of a long train of carriages drawn along the track by a powerful locomotive. But in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and well into the Twentieth some lines of rails between cities carried inter-urban trolley cars. The AutoRail system will have the character of those latter systems.

    The carriers on the AutoRail system have the same basic form as does the traditional streetcar. Fundamentally a carrier consists of a chassis riding on electrically driven wheelsets. On the chassis safety barriers rise waist-high on the sides of the carrier, preventing the doors on the car or truck from opening, thereby keeping the occupants safe. Safety gates fore and aft can tilt up and down to let the vehicle board and disembark. Each carrier also has a GPS locator and an identification number that it can transmit continuously into the computer guidance system, thereby enabling the system to keep track of the carrier's location and to manipulate switches to divert the carrier onto the tracks that take it to its destination.

    The first obvious power-providing system has the carriers drawing their power from a third rail, as the subways of New York City do. Third rail systems use direct current electricity, which does not propagate well over long distances. Thus the power must come into the system as alternating current in a coaxial cable (to prevent electromagnetic radiation) and then pass through rectifiers to power short segments of the third rail.

    That option is expensive, both to build and to maintain, and dangerous. Even if we put the third rail on the median side of the track, which seems an obvious thing to do, the exposed electrified rail nonetheless presents a danger to any people carrying out construction, maintenance, and repair on the system from the median.

    In addition, sparking between the third rail and the pickup shoes sliding on that rail will create ground-level ozone. Heavy traffic on the route might generate enough air pollution to negate one of the basic benefits of the system.

    We could also make the carriers able to draw their power from fuel cells, thereby promoting the growth of a hydrogen-fueled economy. In this case the hydrogen fuel, either compressed or liquid, will ride in tanks built into the underside of the carrier's chassis.

    Of course, we hope that the electricity that comes into the system, either directly or through production of fuel, ultimately comes from a non-polluting source. The production of electricity, where I have anything new to say about it, will provide the subject matter of other essays.

    Even a mature technology, when put into new forms and given new uses will not work precisely as we imagine. Thus, before this plan goes too far, the California Department of Transportation will have to build a test track, presumably in the desert, to put the system and all of its components to a severe test. They will want to make certain that they will have a robust system that will not fail catastrophically. They will also use the test track to develop techniques for maintaining and repairing the system.

The Entry Plazas

    At these places cars and small trucks get onto the carriers. From a distance it might resemble a strange merger between a toll plaza of the kind drivers in New York encounter on approaching bridges and tunnels and a railroad marshaling yard. The road leading into the site splits into a number of lanes and each lane goes to a toll booth. When a car or truck pulls up to the toll booth an arm extends until a lower sensor touches the vehicle's door; then the arm presents to the driver something resembling the ticket-vending machines used by the Los Angeles light-rail trolley system. The driver selects a destination from a menu and pays the toll, then the machine programs the destination into the carrier waiting to receive the vehicle and turns the boarding light green.

    We build the entry roads over tunnels through which the rails run. The roads end at ramps that take the cars and trucks down onto the carriers as the carriers emerge from the tunnels and pause to take their loads. As each carrier comes into its waiting position and sets its brakes the ramp descends onto it, allowing the vehicle to board the carrier. Once the vehicle has settled into position on the carrier the ramp lifts up, the carrier begins to move forward, and the safety barrier at the carrier's rear rises up and locks into position.

The Routes

    We don't intend this system to replace existing roads and highways, but rather to augment them. We want to apply it only to high-traffic routes, such as I-5, in order to make it economically viable. The following routes seem rather obvious:

    I-5: initially running the 360 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Eventually it would extend the full 740 miles from Chula Vista, near San Diego, to just north of Yreka, at the Oregon border.

    Part of this route includes the Ridge Route, which has a maximum grade of 7% (7 feet of vertical rise or fall per 100 feet traveled horizontally) where the highway comes out of the Tehachapi Mountains south of Bakersfield. A typical car weighs about 4000 pounds. If the carrier weighs 6000 pounds, then to go up a 7% grade the carrier must exert about 700 pounds of thrust, which doesn't require a motor as powerful as the ones we see on railroad locomotives. We note that this system can use steeper grades than the standard railroad can, simply because we don't intend to run trains on the tracks.

    Hwy 99: OK, maybe there won't be a spur going into Visalia. Instead, our driver will have to get off at the exit plaza in the City of Tulare and drive the remaining ten miles up Mooney Boulevard to Visalia. This route extends roughly 280 miles from where the highway splits off I-5, a few miles north of where I-5 comes out of the Tehachapi Mountains, to Sacramento.

    I-15: from Los Angeles to Las Vegas seems like a good high-traffic route, though one that would require some cooperation with the State of Nevada. But even if the rails have to end at an exit plaza and begin at an entry plaza on Ivanpah Lake at the California-Nevada border, the distance covered from Los Angeles, roughly 210 miles, would make the system worthwhile to people driving to and from Vegas.

    I-10: extending roughly 225 miles from Santa Monica to Blythe, this is the western end of the most heavily traveled highway in the world. But where do we put the entry and exit plazas in Santa Monica? I-10 ends just north of Santa Monica's city hall and convention center, so that area would not be available for the plazas. We would have to build the plazas farther east.

    Other routes may become feasible in the future, but these four seem like the best possibilities for creating a viable, high-traffic AutoRail system in the State of California.

The Exit Plazas

    Where the carriers go to release their loads. These closely resemble the entry plazas, lacking primarily the toll booths. They will also contain the facilities for refueling the carriers (if they use fuel cells).

    Approaching its destination, a carrier must go through an active switch that diverts it off the main track and onto a flyover or into a tunnel that takes it into the exit plaza. Because the carrier must stop to let its cargo disembark, the exit track splits into a series of tracks in order to accommodate the traffic coming in to the plaza. The carrier must thus go through a series of active switches.

    In this case a switch consists of a pair of diverging tracks with flangeways cut into the rails to enable the carrier to get onto one of the tracks without derailing. The active part of the switch consists of vertical plates that rock back and forth, touching a rail or moving away from it. Where the plate blocks a flangeway, the flanges on the carriers' wheels get pushed toward one track and away from the other. Thus the switch diverts the carriers coming into it and does so rapidly.

    Shunted through the yard, the carrier comes to the entrance to a tunnel and stops. Its forward safety gate tilts down and the exit plaza's ramp comes down, enabling the driver to start his vehicle and drive off the carrier and thence out of the exit plaza.

    The carrier then goes through a tunnel under the freeway or under the road that crosses the freeway to get to the entry plaza associated with the exit plaza. Here carriers wait to be assigned their next duty. If too many carriers come into the exit plaza for the entry plaza to use, then some may be sent out empty and either directed to an entry plaza where they are needed or sent to the maintenance shop.


    How will we pay for this? We might think that a state-run utility could rely on the state's tax revenues for the construction and operation of the system. But in California we finance infrastructure projects through the sale of state-backed bonds that get repaid, with appropriate interest, from revenues brought in by the system itself. In other words, the State of California has replaced the collective investment of tax revenues out of and then back into the state treasury with state-mediated private investment.

    For such investment to succeed we want to maximize the ratio of revenues brought in by the system to the cost of building and maintaining the system. That goal promotes a system restricted to the routes of highest traffic and, therefore, of highest possible revenue.

    What will the system cost? At this stage we can only offer the most simplistic of guesstimates and anticipate that someone will make the figures more accurate as the proposal evolves.

    For our worked example, consider I-5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a distance of about 360 miles. To construct a standard railroad track costs, as of 2011, $2 - $5 million per mile, so, if we anticipate paying the maximum to lay the AutoRail, then this stretch of the track will cost $1.8 billion. If this length of track serves 100,000 carriers and each carrier costs $50,000, then we add $5 billion to the cost of construction. And, of course, we have the costs of building the entry and exit plazas and the computer network that runs the whole thing.

    If the system charges users $5 per 100 miles and if each carrier averages a speed of 100 miles per hour, operating for a cumulative 6000 hours per year, then each carrier brings in $30,000 per year. For 100,000 carriers that makes an income of $3 billion per year. Note that the 6000-hour figure assumes that each carrier will spend about 100 days per year in maintenance, repair, and other down time.

    Also note that on the roughly 360 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco 100,000 carriers would form an array of 280 carriers per mile, 140 each way. If we make each carrier twenty feet long, the carriers will cruise a little less than eighteen feet apart. Obviously the system will have to operate under the control of a statewide network of computers with plenty of redundancy for safety.

    I don't have the means to produce good estimates of operating and maintenance costs. Someone will have to determine those costs when the plan gets formalized.

    As implied above, this system will be a state-owned, state-run utility. That fact will likely make the greed glands in some people's brains begin to drip extra venom: the common wisdom in our free-market economy tells us that the state can't do anything right and that private enterprise can do no wrong. The common wisdom is, of course, wrong. To prove and verify that statement ask who built our highway system in the first place and continues to maintain and improve it. If the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) has the collective competency to build and maintain the state's highways, then it seems reasonable to assert that it has the collective competency to build, operate, and maintain the AutoRail system.


    Laying the rails is the easy part. We already have a robust railbed in the existing highways. All we need to do is to drill holes into the concrete, mount rail clips in the holes, and then attach the rails to the clips. We gain an additional advantage from laying the track on already existing highways: we can run trucks carrying workers and supplies on the roadbed, running the wheels on one side of the truck between the rails and running the wheels on the other side of the truck on the outside of the track. That ploy lets us avoid closing the other lanes of the highway during construction.

    But before we can lay track, we must first establish the guard rails that separate the rubber-on-concrete lanes from the steel-on-steel lanes. By taking this step first we provide safety for the track layers.

    Because we want to double-track the system, bringing the necessary materials to the construction site follows a simple plan. We load rails and other construction materials onto carriers and send the carriers up the line to the end of the track. There workers remove the materials from the carriers and then use a crane to move the carriers onto the opposite track, on which they return whither they came. The workers then use the materials to extend both tracks.

    Harder and likely more expensive than laying the track is the construction of the entry/exit plazas. Certainly the tunnels in which the tracks run can be built by the cut-and-cover technique. The loading and unloading ramps will provide the most challenging part of the construction. The rest is simply standard road and railroad yard construction.

    Building the carriers and providing maintenance and repair gives the state an opportunity to make some repairs to a seriously damaged society. We hope that the work is done in California, ideally in a depressed neighborhood, such as South-Central Los Angeles. The work requires a wide range of skill sets, from relatively simple manual labor to highly-skilled clerical work. Thus this institution seems to provide an excellent way to raise a community out of the economic doldrums in which it has been stuck for decades. This system is ideal for bringing jobs to an area where private business simply will not go.


    Because no construct ever achieves perfection we will need to provide the means to carry out regular maintenance on the AutoRail system. To reweld cracked rail, to replace broken rail clips, to service the expansion joints that enable the rails to respond to changes in temperature, to ensure the smooth, continuous operation of the system we need to devise a means of carrying out that regular maintenance.

    We won't be able to use section gangs in the traditional way. First, they can= t repair track without taking it out of service. And second, even if they could, they can't work between passing trains: the traffic is continuous. But we will, nonetheless, use something like a section gang.

    Consider what must happen when a length of track requires maintenance or repair. Clearly the section gang must first set up a bypass on the freeway median strip. They will set down jacks that will hold the bypass track and then lay the bypass track, section by section, upon them. When they have the bypass track leveled and secured, they will inform the system= s computer, which, if it has not done so already, create a pause in the traffic to allow the workers to lay down the diverter sections. Those sections end in plates that lie flat on top of the main track= s rails so that the sections can lift the carriers up and over the rails to get the carriers onto the bypass track. The bypass track will then lift the carriers high enough that the workers and their equipment can go under the bypass to gain access to the main track in order to carry out the required maintenance or repairs.

    Eventually the system may use robots to carry out maintenance on the track. Looking like giant steel centipedes, the robots will ride to their worksite on a special carrier. The system will space out the traffic and slow it to let the carrier drop the robots and their supplies between and beside the rails, then it will speed up and return to its base. Crouching close to the ground, the robots will carry out their tasks as traffic passes over them. Once they have finished their labors, they will call for the robot carrier to come and pick them up, simply reversing the procedure by which the system deployed them. We find the chief advantage in this use of robots in the fact that they don't have to establish a bypass track.


    We recall that the infamous Mr. Murphy said, "If anything can go wrong, it will." It sounds cynical or pessimistic, but, in fact, it gives us the basis of an important engineering principle. Good engineering practice looks at how a system works, certainly, but it also looks at how that system can fail. By anticipating potential failures engineers can devise means of preventing those failures.

    The worst disaster we can have consists of any phenomenon that essentially cuts the track. A landslide, for example, may knock the rails out of their clips and thereby distort the track, making it unusable. In that case we will need to get cars off the disabled section of the line. Those cars coming to an exit plaza upstream of the break in the line can simply be diverted onto that plaza. Cars already past that exit plaza must be backed up the line to the associated entry plaza and let off their carriers there. Because the switch is a passive merging switch, shoes will have to be placed on the track to fill the flangeways and thereby divert the carriers onto one of the entry tracks. To facilitate this, we might put entry/exit plazas roughly every twenty miles. The one at Lebec would be small, of course, while the one in San Francisco would be large.

    Something like a Chinook helicopter will fly the repair team and its equipment to the site of the break. There the team will quickly establish a bypass track so that traffic can resume its flow. Then they will clean up the site and repair the track.


    I was 65 years old when I conceived this system, so I have little doubt that I will not benefit from it. By the time that the state government has put its imprimatur on the plan, by the time the voters have authorized the necessary bond sales, by the time the state has sold enough of the bonds to begin construction, by the time the lines along I-5 and Hwy 99 have been built and put into operation, by that time, I expect, I will be dead.

    No, I don't expect to benefit from this system. But younger generations will gain from it. They will benefit from lower rates of respiratory disease and other diseases enabled by pollution's weakening effect on the human body.

    Not only people and animals will benefit from the cleaner air. Ground-level ozone and other pollutants also affect plants. In spite of ongoing efforts to pave over the San Joaquin Valley with subdivisions, shopping centers and roads, this area remains one of the most productive agricultural regions on Earth. We still depend on this land for a large amount of our food. Allowing air pollution to inhibit plant growth in this area seems like a very bad idea to me.

    In addition the system will diminish the amount of gasoline that we burn in California. If a car can travel forty miles on one gallon of gasoline, then by riding AutoRail between Los Angeles and San Francisco that car will save over ten gallons of gasoline. Likewise, it will extend the range of electric cars, such as Chevrolet's Volt.

    Further, this is not a rich man's toy. If a poor man had to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for example, perhaps to pursue a possible job, then AutoRail would offer him a special benefit. Poor people tend to drive clunkers that do not get forty miles to the gallon. If our man's car gets twenty miles to the gallon and gasoline costs four dollars per gallon (as it will likely do in the near future), then gasoline cost alone will set him back $72. The $18 he will spend on AutoRail gives him a savings of $54 and saves us from the extra pollution that his relatively inefficient engine would emit.


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