Pick your transit: Rubber or steel wheels. In the Bay Area and elsewhere, it seems necessary to declare your allegiance to either bus transit or rail transit, although train people will often pay lip service to their rubber-bound inferiors.
Now, thanks to some imaginative Japanese transit planners, we have the mode of transit to bring the warring parties together: The rail bus.
With retractable steel wheels, much like those freight railroad track inspection SUVs, this dual mode vehicle is being tested this month by transit company JR Hokkaido in the town of Fuji (near the mountain of the same name), if the web press accounts are accurate.
It was tested on a road and rail route of less than four miles, and I can’t tell from the online reports how well it went, but it sounds like a fascinating concept.
With little funnel-like ramps to guide the thing onto the rails, the little buses are, in theory, able to make that mechanical and socioeconomic transition without derailing or getting mired in civil rights lawsuits.
According to some further reckless Web research, I was able to glean that this idea, like so many in the field of mass transit, is far from new:
During the pre-World War II era, Germany, Japan and Australia attempted to develop such a system, but they couldn’t (put it into regular service). The major reasons were that they took too much time to change from one mode to another, and that it was too costly to develop the system.
Isn’t that always the rub? Rail costs too much to build, buses cost too much to operate. Here’s a mode that combines both of those features.
But seriously, one of the big drawbacks of rail is that it can’t feasibly serve our sprawling communities without some kind of feeder bus system. People would rather drive than be fed via bus, so you don’t get so many cars off the road.
With a hybrid bus/train, you can serve the subdivisions via streets and then seamlessly scoot down rail lines past the traffic that buses tend to get caught behind. Some would argue that busways and bus lanes accomplish this, too, but hey, you’re still riding a BUS, aren’t you?
This could be the way to convince suburbanites to ride a bus, of sorts. Just tell them it’s a train that takes them all the way home.
Dual mode vehicle photo from www.geocities.co.jp/SilkRoad/6920/rssp.htm.