1. The ULTra Personal Rapid Transit system. The technology behind Personal Rapid Transit is decades-old and there has been one nearly sort-of implementation on the go for a while, but ULTra is a small example of the real thing. Imagine, if you will, a bus system where the buses are little automatically-driven cars that only hold four people; you go to a station, hail a bus, probably only have to wait seconds rather than minutes for it, get in, tell it where you want to go, pay for your ride and then you are driven there along the tracks. That's personal rapid transit; flexible routes, one vehicle per party of passengers, shorter waiting times, less waiting all around. It probably can't cope with as many people as a tram or light railway system, and it's probably best suited for short-ish distances, but it's much less fuss than a bus. The first full implementation of the technology will arrive at Heathrow Airport, hopefully next year.
The first system will start small, merely being transport from two stations in an airport car park to the brand new Terminal 5. If it proves successful, then expansion of the system is possible; links from one terminal to another are the obvious next step, as are links to other airport car parks; links to airport hotels nearby have also been mentioned, and perhaps other neighbouring parts of London may then want to get in on the action from there. Of course, the technology might prove disappointing in practice; the Morgantown system struggled in the winter and while a Heathrow winter shouldn't be nearly as bad, that remains a significant challenge. You can get more details about the system at the official site. I note that costs are estimated at GBP 3 million to GBP 5 million per kilometre of track, so considerably less than traditional fixed light rail.
I have very high hopes for this technology and think it has a good chance of catching on. It isn't cheap, so may be best-suited for high-end applications like well-funded airports; I note that the likely next implementation is Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, an attempt to throw US$22 billion at creating a best-practice highly ecological planned city. We also read that the town of Daventry is considering a GBP 80 million system as the town plans to expand from 23,000 people to 41,000 people in the next half-generation, but I doubt the economics is going to work out there. Personal rapid transit is certainly not cheap, but I think it may prove that it can work well, especially for "last mile" issues, for systems with considerable budgets.
2. It's always delightful to hear of the Space Adventures company taking passengers up to the International Space Station, but that feels much closer to what NASA does than to what I would think of as relatively accessible space tourism, of the sort that you or I might participate in if we won a suitably sized lottery. It's particularly thrilling that one of the next two scheduled travellers will be Richard Garriott, "Lord British" of Ultima fame. However, as that has now been and happens adequately frequently - possibly twice this year - I'm looking to Virgin Galactic as being likely to be at the forefront of "real" space tourism, having made SpaceShipOne work. Unfortunately the trail went slightly cold when an explosion at a spaceport - yay, I get to use the word spaceport! - killed three, but it has been speculated that the required fifty test flights may start in June. Hopefully confirmation that things are on track will follow before long, and perhaps it may only be years, not decades, before we have sport in space.
3. OK, so with the global oil price being as it is, everyone knows that fuel-efficient cars are wonderful things. The Automotive X Prize (I refuse to write "prize" in all-caps or to name the sponsor) will make fuel-efficient cars very, very cool. The mission is simple: "design viable, clean and super-efficient (i.e., 100+ miles per US gallon) cars that people want to buy". The that people want to buy part is the really clever bit. There are 100+ mpg cars already - indeed, solar-powered cars are already known technology. The Automotive X Prize represents a far clearer path towards being able to being able to buy a 100+ mpg car for, say, a good year's salary within the next five or so years than any other initiative I know. (I may be able to afford one, second-hand, within fifteen years.) I'm confident that the technology will be there to produce 100+ mpg cars by the time the race starts; it's seeing how teams will meet the "Teams are required to submit a business plan which clearly demonstrates an ability to produce 10,000 vehicles per year" criterion that will be the major technical challenge. Hopefully someone will turn a winning business plan into fruition.
4. Transport in London. Following developments about, ta-ran-ta-raa, transport in London is a slightly moving target. Sure, the official source is easy to find, but it doesn't contain proper analysis and prognosis. For years, Transport Plans For The London Area was the Daddy of sites and I would check weekly or monthly, even on a metered call through a 14k4 modem, in case there had been updates. Once it had lain dormant for half a decade, I found Always Touch Out; though it has been updated only a handful of times in the last 18 months, I still check it worryingly close to daily. My current source of choice is the London Connections blog, but I fear it will gafiate after having been discovered by me just like the others have done.
I digress. In London, the Docklands Light Railway is proving quietly triumphant; the London City extension seems to have worked well since opening and the developments coming in the future are set to be as glorious, (Really, the only thing it needs is an observation that the system has so much to it and its stopping patterns are now so complex that the DLR map could probably do with different colours for different lines. Not likely, I fear.) Croydon's Tramlink is working out wonderfully in practice and has bags of potential for expansion. We all miss Stephen Parascandolo, though. London Overground: build in the East London Line, perform the East London Line Phase II extension to take over the South London Line and that's
Pity that London elected "Blithering" Boris Johnson as Mayor, really. While it'd be pretty Bohemian to object to the alcohol ban on public transport, Boris doesn't seem likely to favour Ken Livingstone's rather progressive proposed reforms to the London Congestion Charge and seems to take a small-government view to public transport in general, which is not what works. Boris didn't really seem to have much transport policy other than "Bendy-busses bad, Routemasters good..."
5. The Airbus A380. It's a rough time to be a modern air flight geek, and getting rougher as oil prices and jet fuel refiner profit margins both surge. It's not a vintage time for aeroplane developments; while the Boeing 787 is worthy, it's not very interesting. On the other hand, the Airbus A380 is wonderful and my gut suspicion is that in twenty years or so, history will treat it kindly. As aeroplanes go, it scores well in terms of fuel consumption, in terms of ride noise and in terms of potential to be decked out with interesting things at the pointy end. It will take a particularly switched-on airport to be able to deal with many hundred, instead of several hundred, passengers per flight, but I think passengers will vote with feet and wallets to endorse this being the way ahead. Besides, this trip report from a passenger in "Suites" (i.e. First, but given a fancy name in an attempt to claim "better than First" status) class, seat 1A, on the inaugural Singapore Airlines flight from Heathrow to Singapore makes my heart flutter.
6. The Transport Innovation Fund seems to be the main way to push local governments into following London's lead with road pricing. Manchester is clearly the second most interesting city for transport in the UK, with today's announcements spelling out what the city can expect in the future. Manchester's road pricing scheme will be slightly different by virtue of - at least, to begin with - only charging for journeys at the most congested times of day, and there's a remarkable degree of investment going into the already rather good Metrolink tram system, having been hokey-cokeyed in and out of the budget several times already. Pretty sure that today's announcements translate pretty directly into a go-ahead for Phases 3a and 3b. Needless to say, I approve in principle of road pricing with revenue redirected to public transport, even at the national level.
7. The Mass Rapid Transit system in Singapore is probably the most exciting slow-burner to follow in the world at the moment, simply because the government are prepared to throw money at it in a rush towards expansion, and no end in sight to keeping announcing further expansion. (If PRT takes off - see issue 1 above - one might expect Singapore to take a very keen interest fairly quickly.) Singapore takes a pretty hardline pro-public, anti-private transport approach already, with permits to run private transport always proving expensive to obtain through the government's auctions. A tip of the hat to Singapore's Changi airport, too.
8. Airport expansion. Gee, that was a link worthy of a local radio DJ! The airport expansion project that is probably most exciting to me at the moment is that taking place at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson: a consolidated rental car facility in 2009, with a second people mover to reach it; a new international terminal, possibly in 2010 or 2011, to eliminate the craziness of international travellers having to recheck their luggage after landing; possibly, just possibly, the South Gate Complex after that to add 70 more gates and run the five runways even harder still. See, that's how hard you can push an airport when you have five runways and are actually using them - no wonder they're forecasting 115 million passengers per year by 2015. With the systematic shift from queueing at check-in to mass acceptance of use of automated booths, I can see it working acceptably well.
Possibly this 115 million figure is in the back of the mind of the designers of the Al Maktoum International Airport, to be more grandly known as Dubai World Central: six big old runways, three terminals (including two [!] luxury terminals) and designed for 120 million passengers when fully built. "The latest estimates by the government of Dubai peg the price tag ((of the airport)) at US$ 82 billion." Gulp.
With this in mind, London Heathrow has a lot to do if it is to retain its status as world's busiest airport by international passenger traffic, which takes us to the matter of the potential third runway and sixth terminal. I understand that there are plenty of good reasons not to support the further development and expansion of air flight, and continued increases in oil prices might make us vote with our wallets even if we do not vote with our conscience. With all that in mind, and the success of Eurostar and the general principle of replacement of air transport with rail transport, I do not have a considered opinion if the fight for the UK to retain the status of host of the world's international passenger traffic number one is a desirable one to keep fighting or not. Regardless of whether runway three and terminal six are good ideas or not - and I'm really not sure - they would, at least, be dang-diddly cool, and I fear they may be the only way for the likes of Durham Tees Valley and Manchester airports to retain their direct links.
9. You probably haven't had reason to hear of the Tees Valley Metro even if you live in this neck of the woods; it's a fairly unexciting, low-tech railway upgrade. Read the technical report (.pdf format) if you're interested. Essentially Network Rail need to sink £90 million into essential maintenance and renewal in this neck of the woods over the next ten years or so, but for only £140 million or so of slightly different replacements, they can install a brand new system using much of the same infrastructure. The plan would be to get rid of the slow, ropey old Class 142s and replace them with a fleet of nippy new tram-trains.
In this way we could have much greater acceleration between stations, improved ride comfort, no need to roll slowly through the more industrial parts, a doubling of the service to a just-about-turn-up-and-go once-every-15-minute-in-the-peaks frequency, we could stick some stations in at slightly more relevant locations (compare with South Bank station served by 48 trains weekly, British Steel Redcar station served by 10 trains weekly and Tees-Side Airport station served by 2 trains weekly...) and still run a service from Saltburn to Darlington with 25% cut off the journey time. That's got to be good for passenger numbers, surely? The Tyne and Wear Metro was really just a similarly fairly modest upgrade from the conventional heavy railway that already existed, but it did so much for interest and pride in using public transport in the area (especially with the local Passenger Transport Executive's heavy focus on integrating bus and metro services to trigger the magic "multi-modal transport" buzzword) that perhaps we might see the same effect again.
It's quite a modest proposal, and not in the paedophagous Swiftian sense, by virtue of requiring no new track-laying, no new bridges or tunnels and nobody is talking about any sort of street running at this stage. (Indeed, some people already argue it's too modest - there's talk of upgrading a second line, running North-South from Hartlepool through Stockton and Middlesbrough to Nunthorpe, and I don't think this second line has been included in the original proposal.) My gut feeling is that this is the sort of thing which might get turned down with heavy hints of "look at road pricing, then the Transport Innovation Fund will talk" and we're back to point six above. We shall see. Fingers crossed, though; in some ways it's similar to the tram-train trial on the Penistone (Train) Line which is going to go ahead, though it doesn't have the Penistone Line's advantage that the tram-trains might eventually neatly follow off the train line and onto the street-running Sheffield tram lines.
10. I have little but love for the X Pri - oh, go on, X PRIZE - people and the Lunar X Prize is the most ambitious and thus most wonderful of the lot. (So far.) Launch, land and operate a robot on the Moon, get it to drive half a kilometre and send back high-definition images. Do all of that by the end of 2012 without government funding and win US$ 20 million. (Do it by the end of 2014, it's only worth $15 million.) Second place wins $5 million, and there are $5 million of bonus prizes available as well (because who doesn't love a bonus prize?) for some extra achievements.
It's very hard to know how successfully the offer of the prize is stimulating work into the field. "With the Ansari X PRIZE, the X PRIZE Foundation established a philanthropic model in which offering a prize for achieving a specific goal stimulates entrepreneurial investment that produces a 10 times or greater return on the prize purse and at least 100 times in follow-on investment and social benefit." I don't know whether that holds true in practice or not, but it's a lovely principle and I do hope it properly works - not just to encourage spaceflight and automobile efficiency, but also genome investigation technology and hopefully dozens of other global social goods as well. Nice to see the Mprize as one of two imitators of which I know and doubtless dozens of others of which I do not yet know; I'm not sure whether Aubrey de Grey really is onto something with his biogerontology or not, but even if he turned out to be trolling, he'd still be lovely.
Outside the top ten, there are other light rail developments elsewhere in the UK. The proposal for trams for Edinburgh did not get killed off, and even the first stage seems to be made of the right stuff: the initial route will link the airport, the main railway station, a major sporting venue, a major shopping centre, a conference centre, galleries, a park-and-ride facility and the local parliament building, let alone several residential districts, with plans for expansion to serve hospitals, schools, universities and all sorts more. Pencil in another huge success for 2011.
Nottingham's local tram system, Nottingham Express Transit, has also got off to a strong start. Phase two of development consists of an extension and a new line. Funding has been approved but there are still some route concerns and the Transport & Works Act Order to get the ball rolling is not quite a formality. Decision next year, service possibly by 2013. Elsewhere around the UK, expansion plans have stalled due to lack of funding in Sheffield and Birmingham, Tyne and Wear want funding for renovation rather than expansion, Merseyside trams might be back on the agenda again and there are a number of systems up for discussion in Belfast.
Further afield, the METRORail light rail system in Houston, Texas looks set to burst into bloom with all sorts of expansions popping up all over the place in the next five years. This is exciting for those of us with connections to both the US and the energy industry, for the intersection of the two points more firmly at Houston than it does at some of the places you might expect.
I am convinced that conditions are right in the UK for an expansion in coach (specifically, long-distance bus) service. It's interesting to see the growth of Stagecoach's Megabus brand in about four years. They have customer-friendly prices and customer-unfriendly policies, in the low-cost carrier tradition, but I've yet to hear a bad word about them. I took their London-Birmingham service once and found the coach to be very good, actually better than the National Express equivalent, though I am put off by their web site when it says "megabus.com operates a range of vehicles, most have on board toilet facilities, where this is not the case rest stops will be provided on our longer journeys" - "no loo" is a bit of a deal-breaker for me, sadly.
The levels of comfort on National Express could kindly be described as "in keeping with their occasional super-cheap £1 funfares", and I enjoyed it when a particularly honest driver said "this is National Express, not the Orient Express". Nevertheless, the NXL shuttle coaches apparently have a higher standard of comfort, not that the NXL shuttle services go near me. I still think there's a gap in the market for a more comfortable coach service - specifically, one which filled a typically narrow British coach with only three seats width rather than four (so 2-1 rather than 2-2, if you will), supplied proper air conditioning, a more reliable standard of on-board toilet facilities and hopefully was driven in a less stop-start fashion.
The Railteam alliance between European train operators sounds extremely promising, and I'm glad to be able to book Eurostar tickets with connections at both ends - so, for instance, I'm being quoted Darlington to Amsterdam for £284.50. Sometimes you can get remarkably cheap domestic connection prices this way. I definitely think there is plenty of room for improvement in ticketing even among the Railteam partners. High-speed Rail in the UK doesn't seem like a terribly hot topic at the moment; while there are plenty of positive studies, the Eddington Transport Study from a couple of years ago may have dampened enthusiasm severely and the Intercity Express Programme to replace the fleet rather than the lines, with no explicit commitment to increase line speeds other than a remark that such flexibility would be "desirable", may be as far as the government is willing to go with government borrowing seeming more problematic than it has done for some time.
I am a sucker for Virgin airlines. Virgin Atlantic gets the entertainment right, the sweeties right, is a bit cheeky and gets other aspects of service to at least an acceptable standard. If you're a big kid - and, let's face it, lots of us are - then that's all you need. It's not a terribly complicated formula; in the US, JetBlue have more or less independently discovered it for themselves (with the twist of quite a lot of legroom) and made lots of fans.
As well as Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson has his fingers in a number of other aviation pies: Virgin America, Virgin Blue operating regionally alongside Pacific Blue and Polynesian Blue in Oceania and long-haul Australia-US airline V Australia, Virgin Nigeria and a share in Malaysian low-cost long-haul operator Air Asia X. Virgin America has the same sort of bread-and-circuses funky spunk; I'm not sure about the others, but I'd guess they would do so as well. Branson has also been associated with an interest in a low-cost carrier in India and there's always plenty of speculation about what's going to happen to bmi whose ownership is subject to a number of put and call options all set to be acted upon in the next year.
In short, there's a great deal of potential for a fairly considerable global network of Virgin-branded airlines. Many countries are quite defensive about their airline interests, and Sir Richard Branson is currently limited to owning 25% of Virgin America. The EU-US Open Skies Agreement radically opened up access to Heathrow to US airlines, but part of the deal was further loosening of US airline ownership regulations in 2010. Wait and see. It's possible that all the airline owners everywhere might get strangled if oil prices rise further still, which would probably end up with Emirates owning everything, for they probably have the deepest pockets. (OK, maybe Emirates and Ryanair. Maybe.)
A heck of a lot of airlines have gone bankrupt so far in 2008; I think there was one week which saw five or six by itself. I am particularly disappointed to see Eos, MaxJet and SilverJet all go under, being operations which focused upon purely higher-than-economy-class operation between the US and secondary London airports (first class to Stansted, super-premium economy to Stansted and business class to Luton respectively). To be fair, SilverJet also operated Dubai - Luton, and they might be bought out by one of their investors for another go, but once an airline appears to go under once, customers may be put off giving it another go.
There seem to be three primary causes for the failures. Certainly oil price rises leading to extremely expensive jet fuel didn't help. American Airlines' service from JFK to Stansted airport seemed to be there purely as a spoiler and has been withdrawn since the other two Stansted airlines went under. Lastly, there's the possibility that the theory that "London - NYC has a higher quantity of premium traffic than any other route, so there's scope for a premium-only airline to grab some of it" may be flawed. The argument in favour of its being flawed is that while there is very much premium traffic from LHR to NYC, so much of it is tied down by rigid contracts between major companies and well-established airlines, including Virgin, that there's not actually much left that could be moved around at the discretion of companies who are large enough to be able to fund premium travel but small enough to need to try to save a few bucks on it.
Nevertheless, there are still three narrow-body transAtlantic ventures left, to my knowledge. L'Avion flies between Newark and Paris Orly. (O RLY, YA RLY, SRSLY, etc.) Apparently it has more similarities to SilverJet than to anything else. British Airways is going to take advantage of the aforementioned EU-US agreement to fly between New York's JFK and Paris Orly under a new brand, OpenSkies; strangely, they'll be offering small slabs of three classes (J, W and Y) in 82-seat aircraft and will be code-sharing with l'Avion as described above. OpenSkies have ambitions to expand to other continental European cities, probably starting with Brussels.
Lastly, British Airways are also looking into starting all-business narrow-body services from London City Airport to New York; London City is so narrowly packed into the Docklands that the largest aeroplane that can service it is the A318, which will have only 32 business-class seats on it. Fuel capacity becomes a problem; Eastbound flights are OK, but Westbound flights will need a refuelling stop. It is believed that this will take place at Shannon Airport, because Shannon has US border preclearance services and thus passengers might be able to make a very swift departure, as if having travelled domestically, upon arrival in the US. A very interesting attempt; we shall see whether or not people feel the convenience of being able to fly from LCY exceeds the inconvenience caused by the longer, interrupted, flight.
I was delighted that the winner of the Big Lottery Fund's "The People's £50 Million Lottery Giveaway programme, through a convincing plurality in a public online vote, was the Connect2 project promoted by Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity best known for the National Cycle Network, which consists of ten thousand miles of segregated cycle paths and quiet roads up and down the country. It is said that over half the country lives within a mile of the network. Meg and I used to live within about fifty yards of National Route 65 as it passed through Middlesbrough; now we live within two hundred yards of National Route 1. The £50 million of Big Lottery Fund, er, funding will be added to nearly £100 million of local authority money to permit 79 extra cycleway schemes to go ahead. Near me they'll be building a viaduct for a cycle path in Durham and three bridges for cycle paths to link the soulless but chic (and identity theft-prone) modern dormitory estate of Ingleby Barwick with nearby Yarm, Eaglescliffe and Thornaby. OK, they're not going to benefit me directly, but I can't help thinking they're excellent uses of lottery money. Hurrah!
My favourite piece of motoring gadgetry for a long while is the Advanced Parking Guidance System, developed in 2004 and finally appearing on the Lexus LS 460 L, first produced in 2006. Essentially, it will parallel park the car for you. I am a pretty lousy driver at the best of times - very probably considerably worse than when I was learning, as it's not a skill that I have occasion to practice on a frequent basis - so this would be a very considerable convenience, as well as out-and-out cool. I am not sure whether the eight-speed automatic gearbox or the continuously variable transmission would be neater.
The LS 600 h is a hybrid - plus points for that! - but the five-litre engine still means that this definitely isn't a car suitable for the Auto X Prize, by a factor of about four and a half. All the advanced safety systems sound incredibly sweet; again, I shall have to hope that they start becoming standard in not just ultra-luxury cars, but luxury cars within five or ten years and high-end-but-nothing-too-special cars within twenty years or so. All the features and aids make the Lexus the sort of car that drives Jeremy Clarkson up the wall, even though he admires the basic power of the beast; how could you improve on that?
Maglev - magnetic levitation, usually for trains - is not having such a happy time of things at the moment. Human error caused a fatal accident on the test track of the Transrapid system in Germany; the proposed track in Munich from the city to the Airport has been cancelled due to escalating costs and longer-distance lines are off the agenda. Transrapid's technology is used in the Shanghai Maglev; the service is proving a fascinating curio and funding was found to extend it from a 19-mile 71/3-minute journey to a 100-mile 27-minute journey, but public protests with radiation concerns caused work to be suspended.
I still love the high-speed moving walkway at the Montparnasse Paris Metro station, but it has been almost five years since it was put in place and nobody has made significant motion towards making a second one anywhere. This does not bode well for the technology. Then again, if it can be 34 years from the Morgantown People Mover to PRT at Heathrow Terminal 5, we should never say never.
I can't get too excited about the dual-mode vehicle designs - cars that can drive around roads as normal, but can also be driven onto rails and then transported on the rails using power supplied by the rails themselves. The theory is that this offers the freedom of a car when off the rails, but the power savings, safety and lack of attention requirement of a railway when on the rails. The most advanced technology to this extent is probably the RUF system from Denmark, but somehow it doesn't grab my attention.
Lastly, little has been heard about the Segway Personal Transporter over the last couple of years; two new models were released, then all the Segways ever made (sadly fewer than 25,000, so only barely more than the number of Sinclairs C5 ever produced) were briefly recalled for a software upgrade. I had high hopes for the Segway, much like I had high hopes for maglev trains, much like I have high hopes for Personal Rapid Transit, so clearly my record in such predictions is not the greatest. I am convinced that the technology involved with the Segway is brilliant and will be able to be used for something spectacular, but the Segway doesn't look like it's going to be the killer application. Dean Kamen may pull another rabbit out of his hat yet.
What am I missing? :-)