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Mass Transit Invention Goes Above and Beyond

By Kevin Wilcox

A concept for a lightweight form of mass transit that can be easily integrated into the existing urban fabric has won a competition by MIT's Climate CoLab.

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The c-Train cars would have wheels on their tops and bottoms, and thus could ride on or below a single set of tracks. © Jacob-Innovations LLC

September 27, 2016—An inventor from Massachusetts and an engineer from India have teamed up to develop an innovative new concept for mass transit that employs lightweight cars running either atop or suspended below elevated rails that are supported by steel ribs stretching from one side of the street to the other. The concept, known as the Caterpillar Train, or c-Train, recently won recognition in the Transportation 2016 competition held by the Climate CoLab, a project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.

The Climate CoLab sponsors a series of competitions each year that draws entrants from an online community of more than 75,000 of the world's leading experts on the science and policy of climate change, as well as business leaders, students, scientists, policy makers, and many others from all over the world, according to Thomas W. Malone, Ph.D., the director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"Together these people are developing and evaluating proposals in a series of contests, each focused on a different aspect of the climate change problem, from how to generate electricity with fewer emissions, to how to adapt to rising sea levels, to how to change public attitudes about climate," said Malone, who provided written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. The goal is to develop better, more integrated solutions to climate change, he explained.

The concept of the c-Train was born when inventor and designer Emil Jacob, the owner of Jacob-Innovations LLC, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noticed trolley catenary wires suspended over a street while stuck in traffic. "…I kept looking at the trolley bus electrical wires and wondered, 'What if a minitrain can be built to run on rails as thin as the two electric wires?'" Jacob said in written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. So he contacted a friend, Ashwani Kumar, a Ph.D. student at Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMART), and general manager at the Centre for Railway Information Systems with the Ministry of Railways in India, who worked through the engineering challenges of the concept.

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Lightweight track supports would minimize the visual impact of the system. © Jacob-Innovations LLC

The design is an elegant, lightweight attempt to address issues that have hampered elevated mass transit in the past-namely, access, cost, comfort, speed, frequency, and air, noise, and visual pollution. In their solution, each small, composite car will have 10 rows of two-person seats, each row with its own door. The cars will travel via wheels on oval, pipelike tracks and can switch seamlessly between riding atop them or being suspended beneath because there are wheels on both the tops and the bottoms of the cars. This enables the system to provide two-way transportation from a single track, minimizing the visual impact.

"We are hoping for progress in material science and designs that will allow the arches to be made, at least in part, from transparent or semitransparent materials to further reduce the visual impact on the urban landscape," Jacob said.

Kumar, who also provided written responses, said, "We are suggesting small electric motors on every axle. Having a total of 10-12 (double) seats, there might be an axle with a small electric motor under every seat." However, the optimal design and placement of the motors would be determined by future research and development, he said.

The team believes the c-Train has several key advantages over more conventional light- or heavy-rail commuter transit systems. The support system for the rails more closely resembles bent streetlight posts than traditional train infrastructure, for example. In addition to the reduced visual impact of such a system, the stackable trains would require less space when siting a depot, and the system's lightweight, modular design would make maintenance easier and faster.

Passenger entry and exit at stations would be faster because each row of seats has its own door. This means less downtime at stations and the ability to run more trains spaced more closely together. The designers also foresee the system being easier to integrate into existing urban centers, as it could be built along narrower streets. And they anticipate it will cost significantly less than conventional systems—perhaps as little as $2.7 million per mile compared to $20 million to $50 million per mile for light- and heavy-rail systems. This lower cost could mean that the trains could be deployed more widely, servicing more neighborhoods directly, according to Jacob.

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Two-level stations would feature individual doors for each pair of seats, speeding the entry and exit process. © Jacob-Innovations LLC

The team is now working to advance the concept into a pilot project and has targeted several cities in India. However, the team needs to raise funds and collaborate with engineering companies first. The c-Train could showcase innovations in structural, electrical, and mechanical engineering, as well as material science and architectural design, Jacob said. And it could be created to be assembled on-site from premanufactured parts. "For example the c-Trains can come in small enough parts to be brought up by workers in elevators at the stations and/or at the vertical depots and assembled directly on the tracks in a matter of hours," Jacob said.

In addition to transportation, Climate CoLab competitionsin 2016 focused on a variety of other climate-change topics, including energy supply, waste management, land use, adaptation, shifting human behaviors, and aviation. Judges evaluate the contest entries based on novelty, feasibility, potential impact on climate change, and a compelling presentation.

One of the biggest challenges in judging the entries is the variations of scale, according to Laur Hesse Fisher, the project manager at Climate CoLab. Some of the entries are quite specific to a single location while others are globally focused.  This, however, is actually an advantage for Climate CoLab.

"We run contests that not only seek individual solutions, but also strategies for how solutions—local, national and global—can be integrated together," says Fisher. "We're not just looking for the stellar, next big thing, but how that fits into a suite of other work that is being done."


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