The Chinese Tunnel-Bus, or Train, or Whatever

Old news, I know.

Chinese tunnel train image007 Chinese designers have come up with an innovative cost-effective public transport system: the tunnel bus.

The remarkable bus straddles two lanes of traffic, allowing cars to drive underneath while it carries up to 1,200 passengers.

It’s environmentally sound too because it runs on electricity, using a state-of-the-art charging system. Called relay charging, the roof of the bus conducts electricity and contacts special charging posts as it moves along.

Engadget links to a video in Chinese explaining the concept, which is pretty clear even if you don’t know Chinese.  A trial line is planned in Beijing, so we won’t have to debate it in theory for much longer.

But this is interesting:

It’s cost-effective because there are two ways it could operate: first off, special tracks could be laid into each side of
the road, like a tram.

Or secondly, simple coloured lines could be painted onto the road for it to follow automatically on conventional tyres. There’ll be a driver on the bus at all times, though.

I’m not sure how that makes it cost-effective, but it does have the effect of reducing the bus-rail distinction an almost academic quibble.

Either way, this is going to be a large structure resting on narrow wheels.  It could be on rubber tires but linked to an optical-guidance system (sensors on the vehicle responding to a painted line on the pavement) and the effect would be the same as if it were on rails:  a controlled path with little or no lateral motion.

So is it a train or a bus?  Who cares?


29 Responses to The Chinese Tunnel-Bus, or Train, or Whatever

  1. Leo @ HK September 10, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    The major issue anyone can anticipate is safety: you can’t control the cars underneath the bus/tram. If they crash each other or onto the bus deliberately, there is no way you can prevent it from damaging the bus, and hence seriously affecting its service.

  2. Cap'n Transit September 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    All I know is that it’s the stupidest idea I’ve heard in a long time. Presumably the bridges were built that much higher than the cars for a reason. If that reason is no longer valid, they could just deck over the highway and run trains on top.
    Honestly, Jarrett, at least five times in the past month I’ve been on a bus that took a big, unexpected lurch in some random direction. Intercity motor coach or big city transit bus or small-town minibus, high floor or low floor, new or old, it didn’t matter. If I was standing up it almost knocked me on my ass, and if I was sitting down I felt it in the same place. Usually it was part of an unpredictable series of lurches that made it impossible for me to read without getting sick to my stomach.
    Each time I felt that, I wished I was on a train, and I thought of you, and I couldn’t think of any technological innovation that would make that bus just as comfortable as a train. I can read on trains, no problem.
    Well, actually, come to think of it I also took the Acela Express recently and had similar problems with lurches and sickness. High-speed rail is definitely not going to solve all our problems…

  3. Joseph E September 10, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    This proposal is silly. Just give the bus a lane, or build light-rail if you are putting down tracks anyway, and want to get transit out of traffic.
    A vehicle that straddles other vehicles, with no separation, is a recipe for disaster. Imagine how often this would result in fatal collisions!

  4. Michael D September 10, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    This is a solution in search of a problem. Take away a damn lane of traffic and run regular trains or buses there.

  5. Jarrett September 10, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    @ all
    Folks, even a theoretically communist country with no direct obligation to voters is afraid to take away lanes of traffic, so much so that they’re considering this.
    Another objection is that it amounts to abandoning the ground plane to cars and trying to build pedestrian life one or two stories above, where this thing would stop. This could take us back to the 1970s vision of Minneapolis, if not to a full-on Blade Runner vision of vertically segregated cultures.
    So while I agree with the Cap’n that it’s possibly a stupid idea, it may be one of those irresistable stupid ideas …
    As for the Cap’n’s complaints about bus lurching, I haven’t yet ridden an optically-guided bus, but am advised they’re much better on this score.

  6. Rob Fellows September 10, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    I’ll need to see it. I assume it would be on tracks; I can’t see why it wouldn’t; and that would make the ride a lot more stable. It sounds to me more like taking a ferry, just because it would be a large open space with a lounge atmosphere.
    But — how on earth will they work out the treatment at roadway entrances and exits? Can you imagine being ready to exit and seeing this thing beginning to overtake you on the right side blocking your way to the exit – or more to the point, not seeing it? I just can’t imagine it yet.
    But if they’re really going to build this, I guess we’ll get a chance to find out! It’s clear that the Chinese will need to think of transit at a different scale than most of us are used to thinking in!

  7. Wai Yip Tung September 10, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

    This thing runs on major 3 lane highway. Two for the vehicle and an extra lane for taller trucks. It probably can’t make tight turns. I’d call it a train more than a bus.
    It probably too many problems to be practical. But let’s at least congratulate them for some audacious thinking.

  8. J.D. Hammond September 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    Bus? Train? Embrace the power of “death trap”!

  9. Theo September 10, 2010 at 11:53 pm #

    I think this idea, like PRT, is a great example of how cities think that technology, not smart planning, is the focus of public transit. Technology is great and holds great emotional sway, but the crux of any public transport system lies in the planning details of routing and frequency. A poorly planned system running on the fastest and most comfortable trainsets (e.g. Shanghai’s maglev) is useless, but a well-planned system running on average equipment is useful.

  10. Zoltán September 11, 2010 at 3:58 am #

    @cap’n transit
    In Leeds we have two guided busways, and though everything that could have made them amount to proper BRT is missing, they do provide a smoother ride than a lot of the streetcars I’ve encountered.

  11. Cap'n Transit September 11, 2010 at 5:57 am #

    That’s the thing: there’s always some new technology that will make buses really comfortable. When we have guided busways, or optically guided buses, then they’ll be comfortable. Well, there’s no plans to bring them to New York any time soon. We have the technology to make a smoother ride, it’s called rail.

  12. Zoltán September 11, 2010 at 6:07 am #

    Why are we taking this seriously at all? Bus, BRT, light rail, streetcar – they can all turn corners if they wish. They can all penetrate areas people want to go to away from highways of at least six lanes. This… cannot.
    Also: “it amounts to abandoning the ground plane to cars and trying to build pedestrian life one or two stories above, where this thing would stop”.
    Actually, it won’t even permit pedestrian life there. On the ground, those are coming to get you ever few minutes, with a driver too high up to see any pedestrians in the way. And there’ll be a highway there anyway. On the level of the stations, you won’t be able to cross, because two or three storeys of space have to be clear for the thing to pass.
    There will, in short, be no place for pedestrians to cross it’s path, and it can only completely sever parts of the city, or permit the most inconvenient pedestrian access.

  13. Zoltán September 11, 2010 at 6:29 am #

    Observations from watching the video:
    1. No, it doesn’t seem that pedestrians exist in the minds of those that thought this up. You don’t see any pedestrians circulating in the video, apart from in the stations, and it seems one must indeed take on four flights of stairs (two up, two down) whenever one wishes to cross the road.
    2. At all points of the video, cars seem to be moving significantly faster than the “bus”.
    3. “Shenzhen Huashi Future Car-Parking Equipment” is the name of the company developing it.
    So, I think we are indeed looking at a car-centred solution, a solution to the problem of keeping transit and pedestrians the hell out of the way of cars. And as both this “bus” and pedestrians will have difficulty going to where they want to go, they’ll probably succeed, by ensuring that there isn’t any transit or pedestrians at all.

  14. Zoltán September 11, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    A further thought:
    This thing will permit free-flowing traffic on plain road, but will block up junctions for periods of time when turning.
    Now, let’s put our traffic engineer hats on.
    What is the source of congestion? Plain road, or junctions? It’s junctions. Congestion on plain road is mostly just a condition of what’s happening at junctions downstream. The only thing that varies with road width is the distance that traffic tails back, but those tailbacks still involve the same amount of traffic being delayed to the same degree.
    So in blocking up junctions periodically, this could easily prove to reduce, not increase, road capacity, while being ridiculous and highly inconvenient to pedestrians. Meanwhile, a conventional segregated way (be it bus or rail) that has short tunnel sections underneath major junctions, like the sheffield tram here – – can have its own ground level space with minimal effect on road capacity.

  15. EngineerScotty September 11, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    There doesn’t appear to be a name for this contraption in English.
    I hereby propose “dualmonorail”.
    Not “dualrail” or “birail”, that’s just ordinary rail.
    My second proposal would be “land ferry” or “road ferry”.
    Should we have a vote? 🙂

  16. Digby September 11, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    When I first saw this I thought it was the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but had no one to say that to. Thanks for posting this, so I can agree with everyone else who sees more problems created by this “innovation” than solutions.

  17. ant6n September 11, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    I also thought it was strange how the whole blogosphere lit up saying that it’d be such a cool idea. Only few said it’s problematic (like the city fix); even the new york times (2 weeks later) seemed optimistic.

  18. Brent Palmer September 11, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    @EngineerScotty, maybe you could call it a straddle tram, or straddle bus if it’s optically guided on rubber tyres? (That’s not endorsement of the concept, though.)

  19. Brisbane September 12, 2010 at 4:41 am #

    So, how does this monstrosity cross intersections or junctions?

  20. TransitPlannerMunich September 12, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    The first feeling when I saw an article about this monstrosity some weeks ago was: “This is the Rosemary’s Baby of public transit!”
    Everyone with engineering background should feel right away that there is something fundamentally wrong with that thing.
    It is like “Maglev meets BRT meets King Kong”.

  21. Zoltán September 12, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    @Brisbane As you see in the video, all traffic is stopped by signals in all directions while the thing lumbers around the corner. This, of course, requires 100% timely compliance of vehicles and pedestrians or people will be killed.
    As I described seven comments up, this seems the undoing of any benefit of this thing, because junctions are the source of traffic delay and they’re what traffic engineers and modellers spend most of their time looking at. So adding junction delay so as not to reduce the width of plain road is counterproductive.

  22. ant6n September 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Maybe this thing would make more sense if one could create flyovers at crossings.

  23. GD September 13, 2010 at 2:30 am #

    I don’t know how to name this, but as a technology that is supposed to work within a flawed system (multi-lane streets cutting through the urban fabric not unlike freeways) this looks actually pretty smart.
    Unfortunately, implementing this certainly costly system would make it impossible to do away with the transportation structure that made the tunnel bus necessary to begin with.
    For longer distances, as shown in the vid, the thing would be too slowin any case

  24. Beige September 13, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    Honestly it has the look of one of those cool drawings a ‘designer’ makes to attract attention to himself, with no thought to actually trying to build the thing. See those all the time. Like all the drawings of ‘futuristic’ bicycles in which the simple hub in the wheel has been replaced with a hoop wheel and a probably-near-impossible-to-build device that holds the wheel from the edge. Sure looks cool, though. I am not expecting a serious attempt to build one of these.

  25. John September 13, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    I’m with Rob. At some point drivers will have to cross the path of the tunnel-bus/dualmonorail/straddle-tram to exit the freeway. I haven’t figured out how this will be accommodated safely all of the time.

  26. Jarrett September 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Re turning. On a highway where you’d seriously consider building this thing, you’ve already grade separated all the overpasses to make room for it, so when spending that kind of money you can afford to create a grade separated place for the thing to enter and leave the highway, probably by depressing the highway while the “track” on which the bus/train operates continues at grade or climbs a bit.
    This isn’t inconceivable in a situation where you have the kind of money to build grade separations but not the kind of money to just build underground rail transit or acquire a whole new ROW in an already built-up area.
    Still, I agree with the prevailing comments that this is technology-first thinking with likely limited application, and the potential to create a destructive illusion that the problem of limited ROW has been solved in the abstract and that we therefore no longer need to make hard choices about ROW.

  27. Alon Levy September 13, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    Jarrett, I’m still not convinced that the cost of the new grade separations is higher than the cost of building an elevated train. If you have a highway this wide, you can build trains above ground with minimal extra noise emissions.

  28. Tom West September 14, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Railed vehicles will always give a smooth ride, partly because they are laterially constrained, and partly because steel-on-steel has alower coefficient of friction than rubber-on-tarmac, meaning a bus can/will accelerate and brake much harder.
    I was a transverse seat aon a on bus running later yesterday, with a driver who used both pedals to the max… my back is still sore.

  29. Mike H September 16, 2010 at 3:57 am #

    > I hereby propose “dualmonorail”.
    I hereby call it moron-rail.
    The thing somehow manages to combine the worst features of buses, streetcars and grade-separated metros, and even adds some serious safety concerns all its own. I’ll give it capacity; the car is seriously big, but everything else seems to be just harebrained. I suppose it’s a good thing that it’s the Chinese trying this. They seem to build stuff extra double quick these days, so I expect we’ll have definitive proof that the idea is a total disaster soon enough.
    And no, it doesn’t have the effect of reducing the bus-rail distinction. Different sorts of guided buses are already in use several cities.