A New Era in Transportation?

The United Nations, rejecting the tiresome politicking that originates mostly in the United States, has pronounced publicly that unless the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is reduced, planet Earth will become a dangerous, even a deadly, place for all of its inhabitants. On the same day on which I read this voice-of-doom announcement, I read columns by experts who proposed ways of reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases. One was a man who proposed turning railways into glorified tramlines. The other was a man who foresaw a new Age of Airships. Both writers were recognizable as experts because of what they left out and the tedious stuff they put in. Public opinion is rarely swayed by endless details and abstruse formulae. Non-experts respond more readily to scenes painted urgently with a larger brush. No thinking person can deny that railways would be more efficient if the electricity that drives locomotives came from overhead wires rather than from onboard diesel-powered generators. Locomotives whose drive motors are fed from an external source rather than an internal one are lighter, faster, more powerful and easier on the rails. They can also produce power themselves by the use of regenerative braking and by carrying roof top solar panels. The streetcars that were familiar sights early in the 20th century were non-polluting in use. Their sources of electricity, however, mostly coal-fed power stations, were major sources of air pollution. The proponent of the tramline locomotives solves the problem by saying the electricity that drives the new locomotives must be produced by non-polluting sources – hydro, wind or solar. This would create a secondary problem even larger than electrifying the tracks. What is not immediately clear in this expert’s proposal is the location of the corridors in which the glorified trams would operate. Canada has only two coast-to-coast railway companies. Electrifying only their main lines would be insufficient. The history of Canadian railways in the immediate past has been marked by the dismantling of their branch line systems. Not only would more corridors be required, but the existing branch line network would need to be expanded. This could only be done at tremendous cost. Even in the short term, however, revamping the rail system would cost less than what Canadians pay now in constantly expanding and maintaining highways and secondary roads. It costs more to add a lane to an existing highway than it does to put rails on a new single-track roadbed. It is unlikely that consideration would ever be given to electrify the still necessary branch lines that would feed the high traffic electrified corridors. The solution here could be another breed of locomotive that replaced diesel-fed generators with fuel cells. Fuel cells produce electricity without combustion and their waste product is only water. The limits on their large-scale use consists primarily of the fuel used, which can range from alcohol through a number of combustible gases. The best fuel needs to be produced by processes that are cost efficient and non-polluting. The era of the passenger-carrying airship ended with the flaming crash of the Hindenburg at Lake Placid, N.J. on May 6, 1937. Long distance air travel became the preserve of fixed-wing, propeller-driven flying boats and, finally, land planes driven by jet engines. If Hindenburg’s lifting gas had not been highly flammable hydrogen, there would have been no disaster and development of rigid airships would have continued into the time of impermeable gas cells, carbon fibre, Kevlar and dependable communications and storm-avoidance systems. There are modern airships now and more are on the drawing boards. Hindenburg had a top speed of 82 mph. New designs promise to triple that speed. Passenger jets use tremendous amounts of fuel during take-off. Inert helium gas can lift a dirigible into the air with no expenditure of energy whatsoever. Airships can land anywhere there is space to set down. They require no airports and runways. Helium is compressible. The lift it provides can be regulated by pumping the gas back and forth between large gas cells and smaller pressure cylinders. Before the interest in re-inventing dirigibles began to grow, I visualized the new breed of dirigibles being a flattened cylinder with stubby, thick-cord wings and lift provided by helium that was controlled by expansion and compression, Ducted, electrically-driven fans in swivelling pods would propel the dirigible up and down, forward, backward and sideways. Power for the electric motors would be provided by fuel cells and by large solar panels on the airship’s upper surface. A reviving airship industry is on the verge of building huge load carriers that embody these features. Obtaining the necessary investment to change the mechanics of rail and air travel will not be easy. There are formidable political hurdles in the way. Behind the dissenting politicos are all the segments of the existing transportation system – people who build and profit by the building of aircraft and airports, locomotives, highways and highway haulers. The present policies of the Canadian government appears to emphasize trade and the neglect of the environment, which can only bring accelerating levels of pollution. We need to accept a better challenge.


This entry was posted in Air ship. Bookmark the permalink.