Radical railways: Top 10 transportation systems of the future


June 18, 2012

What will be pulling into the station in 50 years time?

What will be pulling into the station in 50 years time?

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Public transport systems offer many advantages over the personal alternatives when it comes to getting large numbers of people from A to B in style and safety - less congestion, less pollution and lower costs for starters. But while we certainly see plenty of impetus on the personal transport front here at Gizmag, fresh concepts for the future of mass transport don't seem to enjoy the same level of exposure, despite the fact that many cities around the world are still saddled with public transport infrastructure that's been in place for over a century. There are some radical plans in the works, however, and the 21st Century will undoubtedly bring with it a raft of people moving projects that redefine our notion of public transport. So just what will be pulling into the station in 50 years time? Read on for our pick of the most tantalizing concepts out there.

1. Superconducting vacuum trains

While fast, frictionless maglev train systems have been operational for decades, they haven't exactly become ubiquitous - perhaps because of the cost of the systems, or perhaps because there is no compelling need to replace the already widespread and workable conventional railway infrastructure. Either way, the idea is not about to fade from our collective imagination and several maglev of the future concepts have been floated.

The Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) system envisions superconducting maglev trains operating in evacuated tubes at speeds of up to 6,500 km/h (4,039 mph) on international trips - that's New York to Beijing in two hours! The proponents of this system say that ET3 could be 50 times more efficient than electric cars or trains.

Terraspan goes even further than ultra-efficient mass transport with its vision for a network of superconducting tunnels. As well as providing infrastructure for "Terraspan trains," this network would also facilitate zero loss transmission of electricity to our homes.

A 500 km/h (310 mph) vacuum train project has also been proposed for Switzerland, but as the Swissmetro site outs it: "So a far-advanced technology of and for the next generation remains in the drawer."

2. String theory

Another high-speed rail concept that aims to present an alternative to conventional systems without the astronomical price tag is Anatoly Unitsky's String Transport System. The concept is based on the use of what look like heavy-duty above ground electrical wires, but instead of carrying power, these high-tension wires become the support for carriages.

The proponents of the system see big advantages in terms of cost (somewhere between three and 10 times less expensive than a railway, maglev system, monorail system or motorway) and efficiency (an 80 kW (107hp) motor would take a 20-person passenger vehicle up to 155 mph (250 km/h)).

3. Reversing roles

Taking the above ground rail concept further (and then turning it on its head) is Robert C. Pulliam's Tubular Rails. In this system the trains themselves carry the tracks, while the wheels and motors are contained in elevated rings that the train passes through at speeds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph). Because the design would cause minimal disruption to existing infrastructure and the technology is readily available, Tubular Rail estimates that construction costs could be 60 percent less than conventional urban train networks.

4. Sharing the street

This is definitely one of the most interesting public transportation concepts we've encountered over the years when it comes to reducing urban congestion, while making use of existing infrastructure. The "straddling bus" would roll on stilts above traffic using small tracks positioned between lanes of traffic while passengers get on and off at elevated bus stops. The result: additional people carrying capacity for urban roads, no disruption to traffic and no need to build completely independent track systems. Seems like a win/win, but at this stage we're not aware of any progress on the expected pilot program.

5. Human-powered mass transport

Another outside-the-box approach to transport that deserves a place in our top 10 is the Shweeb. This human powered monorail system uses bicycle pods suspended from tracks to create a very efficient option for getting from A to B.

Currently you can ride the Shweeb at the Agroventures in New Zealand where you can reach speeds of up to 45 km/h (28 mph) under your own steam. The idea is not limited to adventure parks though. Shweeb picked up a US$1 million investment from Google in 2010 as part of Project 10^100 and the company says it will soon be announcing the planned location of the first Shweeb built for public use.

6. High-speed, alternative energy

The quest for more efficient transport systems doesn't necessarily have to come at the cost of speed. The SolarBullet project is a campaign aiming to bring high-speed (we're talking 220 mph (354 km/h)) trains to Arizona using tracks equipped with solar panel carrying canopies that would provide the 110 megawatts of electricity that the system needs to run. The project is currently in the R&D; phase but faces several hurdles (not the least of which is an estimated US$27 billion pricetag) before construction of the planned Tucson to Phoenix line can get underway.

While on the subject, solar isn't the only alternative energy being considered for powering train networks. The T-Box envisions turbines incorporated into tracks that could be used to harness wind energy from the train as it whooshes overhead.

7. Power from the road

While contactless systems that allow personal electric vehicles to recharge on the go are gathering momentum, these systems also hold potential for making mass transportation greener and more efficient. A real-world example of this technology has already been demonstrated in the form of a trackless "train" developed by researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). The pilot project in Seoul’s Grand Park in Gwacheon City involved running an engine and three passenger cars using power supply infrastructure buried under the ground in sections of a 2.2 km (1.36 mile) long track.

So why not just charge the electric train at the socket? The advantage here is that the vehicle can operate with a battery that's one-fifth of the the size of batteries installed in electric vehicles currently on the market. While this means gains in efficiency, this needs to be weighed against the loss in efficiency caused by contactless charging, which in the KAIST experiment peaked at 74 percent. KAIST hopes to commercialize this technology within the next few years.

8. Ditching the driver

These days we think of road and rail transport as completely different things, but this distinction is set to become a little muddy as technology marches towards 2050. One of the benefits of public transport in general is that it avoids the inherent chaos of personal transport where the decisions are made by individual drivers. "Follow-the-leader" systems are looking to solve this problem by using a lead vehicle that's wirelessly linked to a series of other cars or "carriages" which follow its path autonomously. The system retains the flexibility of purely private transport (i.e. vehicles can leave the train so that you don't all have to end up at the same destination), the only additional infrastructure required is the computers that link the vehicles and the benefits for road safety, decreasing congestion and reducing vehicle fuel consumption are obvious.

This best of both world's idea sits in the "very near future" category - a European project dubbed SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project has been in progress since 2009 and was recently successfully demonstrated on public roads for the first time.

9. Orbital Maglev

Some future transport concepts have loftier goals that just getting us to the station on time. While space tourism based on more conventional rocket ships is a fast growing infant, there are also plans afoot to use "space trains" to launch passengers into orbit.

Like the EET discussed above, the Startram system would use a superconducting, magnetically levitating train capsule in a vacuum tube. The difference here is that the final 12 miles (20 km) of the 1,000 mile (1,609 km) long track would point upwards, launching the "carriage" into low earth orbit. If that's not futuristic enough, the plan sees the skywards pointing launch tube itself being held in place by magnetic levitation!

Conceived by Dr. George Maise along with one of the inventors of superconducting maglev, Dr. James Powell, the potential of this system to significantly reduce the costs of putting commercial cargo (and space tourists) into orbit is attracting serious discussion.

10. Space Elevator

Another long standing and noteworthy concept that aims to democratize the process of getting off the planet is the space elevator. First theorized over 100 years ago, the idea of the space elevator is to use a cable tethered to a base station to send "climbers" into orbit at a fraction of the cost of rocket-based launch systems.

While there are a variety of designs, the key component of a working space elevator would be a thin tether made from lightweight material (carbon nanotubes are the prime candidate) that stretches from an anchor point or base station on or near the Earth's equator to a point some 60,000 miles (96,560 km) into space. The Earth's rotation and a counterweight on the upper end of the cable would keep the line taught and climbers (likely powered by solar energy) traveling at fast train pace would be sent up this futuristic beanstalk to deliver cargo and people into orbit and back.

According to the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC), the cost of transporting cargo in this way "will be significantly reduced in price to the realm of dollars per kilogram compared with over $20,000 per kilogram today."

This is an idea that could well become reality before the curtains are drawn on the 21st Century - in fact, Tokyo-based construction company Obayashi Corp. has stated plans to have a 96,000 kilometer (59,652 mile) space elevator capable of carrying 30 passengers at a time operational by 2050.

Have we missed something? If you know of any mass transport concepts we've overlooked that have the potential to reinvent our urban and intercity journeys in the future, we'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

This article is brought to you in partnership with the new Acura ILX

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007. All articles by Noel McKeegan

My favorite transportation system has always been Doug Malewicki's "Skytran" system. It uses lightweight, individual two or four passenger maglev pods that run on lightweight tracks. It's "on demand" which means very little waiting, and can take you where you want to go, non stop. The cost is also a fraction of light rail and far less visually intrusive.

This thing has been around for a number of years now. I don't know why it hasn't been tried out, even on a limited scale such as at an airport.


Why is it that zipline transit corridors are not part of the discussion. Talk about cheap to build and gravity being the power source. Of course there are weather related problems with such a system, but thats when other systems could kick in.


We're only one step away from Star Trek transportation!

Nicolas Zart

Terraspan is actually a power storage system and transmission system that doubles as a transportation system.

The actual implementation designs call for a High Voltage D.C. power backbone which builds out from multiple points along its diagonal subsurface distribution from Eastern Canada across NorthEastern US to L.A. and NorthWest Mexico. Superconductivity is added as it becomes economic to each section and is updated by being switched out to the HVDC backbone.

Each one of the build outs distributes alternate power from wind, solar or other sources earning its keep in POWER LOSS savings with-in three to five years.

The Huge, Ultra-Safe Transport Cars initially will transport freight alone as they prove their ability to operate reliably at thousands of miles per hour. At these speeds free of the weather and terrorist threats these cars store immense amounts of potential energy that they can return to the Grid or absorb from the Grid in milliseconds, more can be added at will to create terawatt storage UNLIKE ANY FULL GRID SYSTEM PROPOSED TODAY.

Like the great national highway system which was originally built to support national emergency needs, Terraspan can respond to emergency needs in North America in a way no other systems have the capacity or speed to respond.


I think Skytran is by far the best way to way, can handle just a few passengers to quite many. LAX or John Wayne to Los Angeles and Disney Land would fill a huge gap at a minimum cost.

Leon Gray

The straddling bus, unfortunately, is unworkable. It brings more problems than other solutions.


There's an elephant in the room that should be recognized and that's the need to move our physical bodies to different locations at all. Virtual reality technology will get to the point where it's difficult to tell the difference between being there in the flesh vs being virtually there. Think about how much we can save if we don't have to do the daily trek to and from work or to other cities. Of course there will always be a place in our hearts for getting to a beach or such for recreation but "rush hour" is a purely work-driven problem and one that probably isn't usually necessary.


Don't we need to clarify the transport problem each system is trying to resolve? A quick guide & dirty view of our transport requirements would be: 1 - Intra-City journeys (i.e. shopping, commuting) 2 - Inter-City journeys (weekend breaks, business meetings) 3 - Extra-City journeys (not the best name, but journeys to low population density places, such as the beach, foest where infrastructre costs need to be kept low) 4 - Inter-Country journeys (holidays, business, jet set lifestyle...!) 5- Inter-Planetary/Space (not yet, but category for Sky elevator & orbital maglev)

Now we can set about tackling each of them, and any potential cross over. However doubt any single system will cover all these requirements.


My favorite solution: jitneys, which simply go back and forth on a busy thoroughfare (such as Wilshire Blvd in LA), picking up and discharging passengers at any point along the way. You may be riding with two or three strangers for a short distance, but it's not a problem in cities where I've used them. And there's no need for laying track.

Now add to that two wrinkles: recycling vegetable oil (restaurants currently pay someone to pick up their used oil; where is that being used now? Why not distribute it to gas stations for pumping into our cars?) as fuel for diesel engines, and autonomous vehicles like the ones Google is developing.

Rich Mansfield

No mention was made of Louis Brennan's gyroscopic single-rail railway!?! To my mind THIS concept has advantages over that Straddling Bus. Who wants to traver through a "mobile cavern"? The single-rail concept of Louis Brennan could occupy a single rail, and yet be elevated above the roofs of automobiles, and even travel down the median strip of a two-way highway.


OK... If the revolutionary, planet changing, quantum leap in transportation, ET3 gets trumped by a Pomegranate de-seeder… This new contender just went from zero to 2nd place in a couple hours!

If you haven't voted yet, time is short! Do you want seedless pomegranates or the ability to travel around the world in less than 6 hours?

Michael Jordet

Surprised not to see the Aqua=Terra T.W.I.N.S. (Trans-Web Infrastructure Network System) projects ( here.

Aqua=Terra Planetary Holdings, LLC

with the space elevator or the launch tube - one hit from an asteroid or stray airplane and it's a pile of nanotube junk falling back to earth.


The best mass transit device that is in use now is at airports. The moving walk ways, where you are moving the person him or her self, plus the belt. That is the most efficient way to travel. Not every job will allow a virtual offices, or work places. We also need a form of transportation that will allow us to carry groceries and large purchases. Until we update our power generating devices away from coal anything that is driven by electricity is actually going to pollute more than the cars we have right now.


Straddling bus and the Superconductive vacuum trains seem a real good and posible alternative but i doubt they will be the x factor in our near future, bureaucratic bumbling akin to the current California boondoggle of a "bullet train" from LA to San Francisco in less than 3 hours.

Now its 2 to 3 times longer, cost 3 to 4 times more and isn't entirely a bullet train no now it used a combination of current old tech (about 150 years old) to the bullet train tech about ( 60 years old) which doesn't work economically without much subsidies anywhere it exists.

It is this type of wasted time, money and effort that will cause these systems to never get built. Unless you get a place like China (Straddle Bus is their idea) where they don't waste that much time if they want it they build it... thats why Shanghai's skyline looks so amazing and was done in a historical time line, blink of an eye, what a difference!

Consequently to me the announcement made by Cadillac to offer a self driving car by 2014 is a real and major hint as to what and where we are really going. Bureaucracy as usual will take forever, but business will cease on it so look to the 18 wheelers folks... They will really be the 1st sign that our traffic woo's are destined 2 be a thing of the past, And of course we will have bigger fish to fry.

All of this is, IMHO :)


I reckon we're closer to quantum teleportation than a lot of these!

Tristan King

While we're on blue sky public transport solutions, check out the Cartercopter, a vertical takeoff and landing hybrid rotor/wing aircraft that can depart from and land on a helipad and has the economics and fuel efficiency of a winged aircraft.


The big problem with some of these magnificent ideas is that in the main, they are located in places where there is already many transport services and their viability depends upon their ability to capture a large enough volume of the traffic from the existing ones. In Australia, arguments are still raging about the viability of a VFT service between Brisbane and Melbourne, competing with very cheap but tedious plane services. My interest is in using pre-existing concepts in new ways. For instance, I have suggested using the time-space between VFT trains for regular freight services. A goods train would leave the terminal immediately after a VFT and pull off the main line just before the next VFT catches up on it. With the proposed hourly service between these cities, I estimate we could triple the traffic - and service regional centres to boot. I am also looking at Meccano-style elevated railways to open up the huge Australian outback to agriculture, biodiversity protection, carbon capture and so forth. The beauty of an elevated railway is that it has minimal impact on the land it travels through. More on my blog at if anyone is interested.


The list is missing the very simple, very amazing ADHOC: Uniform Acceleration for half the horizontal trip, followed by uniform Deceleration for 2nd half, doubles travel time when distance quadruples. A tube-traveling capsule may safely momentarily reach top speed at mid-point, subject to comfortable fixed acceleration/deceleration throughout the trip. Cargo, and perhaps even people transport that becomes relatively faster for longer distances.

Gideon Samid

As soon as we have an ultra-quick 2-Hr LA-to-NY transportation the government will add 2 hours of security requirements at each end.

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