Staying Up Is Hard to Do

Capacify has introduced readers to some distinctly odd forms of transport over the years, from missile mail to quick-turnaround aircraft with swappable passenger pods; from seagoing trams to transporter bridges. I like to bring you the good, the bad and the ugly of the logistics world, and today is no exception as we look at Brennan’s Gyrocar: monorail, the hard way.

When you design a train to run on a single rail, you’ve got inherent instability to deal with. One solution is to hang the cars beneath the track, as seen in the venerable Wuppertal Suspension Railway, or the H-Bahn at Düsseldorf International Airport. (There are others.) If you don’t mind supporting the whole length of your track on a series of elaborate pillars, this solution is fine.

Wuppertal suspension railway

Looking for a townhouse with a view of lots of girders? Look no further than Wuppertal!

If hanging down from an overhead track doesn’t appeal, another way to achieve stability is by straddling the guideway and using additional wheels that don’t bear the weight of the vehicle, but keep it steady. The Lartigue Monorail system featured a pair of guide rails on each side for just this purpose. The top rail was supported by a line of waist-high trestles that marched across the countryside and made it just about impossible to construct any sort of level crossing, so you’ve got a fairly impractical mode of transport here.

The Lartigue Monorail, Ballybunion

The Lartigue Monorail, Ballybunion

Strange but true: freight cars on the Lartigue Monorail were split down the middle like panniers, and loads had to be balanced. A farmer taking a cow to market would have to balance her with two calves, then split up the calves and put one on each side for the return journey. Nothing says “technical limitations” like having to give livestock an entirely needless tour of the countryside, but the Lartigue Monorail carried passengers, freight and bemused cattle between Listowel and Ballybunion from 1888 to 1924.

Image from the Simpsons TV show reporting mono = one, and rail = rail

With me so far?         [image: Fox Broadcasting]

Modern straddling monorails are in a sense descended from the Lartigue system, using guide wheels to ensure they stay upright, with a certain amount of friction and wear-and-tear as you might expect. So far so ordinary… but there is another way.

Why not gyro-stabilise your monorail, to keep it atop a much less substantial rail? That’s what Louis Brennan (1852–1932) proposed. Not just to keep it upright, either: if you’re clever (and Brennan clearly was) you can use the gyroscopic force of precession in your favour. He patented an arrangement whereby a pair of contra-rotating gyroscopes helped his machine to balance, and to return to the vertical when subjected to a load.

When it encounters a curve, Brennan’s patented gyro mechanism causes the car to lean into the bend, just as a cyclist would. In effect, to those on board the train, the banked turn wouldn’t feel like a turn at all: their weight would keep on pressing directly down through the floor of the vehicle. That offers a considerable improvement over conventional railways, which in some cases have to feature a bend radius as large as 7km, in order to keep the passengers comfortable. Brennan used to give demonstrations in which a scale model would make its way along a tortuously twisted piece of gas pipe, as described by Cleveland Moffett, a journalist for Munsey’s Magazine:

“As she comes closer we hear the low hum of her hidden gyroscopes (they will be quite noiseless in the larger model), and are struck by the car’s remarkable width in proportion to her length. She suggests a trim little ferry-boat, and is utterly unlike any known form of railway car. Now the track curves sharply to the right; she takes the turn with the greatest ease, and leans slightly toward the curve. Now the track turns again, and she glides behind the bushes. Coming out on the other side, she enters bravely on the approach to a mono-rail suspension-bridge, a wire rope stretched over the valley that falls away between two small hills — seventy-odd feet of tight-rope-walking for the little car. Straight across she runs from side to side, — no wavering, no tipping, — and then straight back again as the assistant reverses her; then out to the middle of the rope, where they stop her, and there she stands quite still and true, while the gyroscopes hold her. This is something never yet seen in the world — a mass of dead matter, weighing as much as a man, balancing itself unaided on a wire!”

Child riding in Brennan's model gryocar

History does not record how much pocket money Brennan had to pay his children for their part in monorail demonstrations

I found that old scale model in the chaotic part of the National Railway Museum that they call the Warehouse. Somewhat neglected and missing its cab, it alerted me to the existence of this strange mode of transport.

Brennan Gyrocar model

Detail of the Brennan Gyrocar model at the National Railway Museum [image: Stephen Holland]

Brennan imagined his full-scale vehicles would cross gorges on a ‘bridge’ consisting of a single steel cable, and ascend gradients of up to one in five. The guideway upon which it ran was simple – just a round ‘pipe’ shape on sleepers, far cheaper that the elaborate Wuppertal or Lartigue types. This will have been what attracted the British Army Council, the Durbar of Kashmir and the India Office to the idea, and they all reached for their chequebooks.

Brennan’s Gyrocar at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

Brennan’s Gyrocar at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

A full-size prototype railcar (12.2m by 3m) was completed and running by October 1909, and it was first shown to the public at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910. The monorail car took up to fifty passengers at a time on a short ride. Among those who tried it was Winston Churchill, MP, who would have been around 36 at the time. The gyro monorail had proved itself a workable technology… but there the story ends: no commercial system based on the technology would appear in the years that followed. Still, Brennan’s gyrocar had been demonstrated something like 63 years before the Advanced Passenger Train prototype rolled out – another tilting train concept meant to reconcile the conflicting requirements of curves, speed, and passengers’ comfort. Despite running on conventional tracks, the newer tilting train was plagued by technical troubles, and was withdrawn from service (although the Italians later managed to make the concept work, and called it the Pendolino).

For the gyro monorail, some problems clearly remain. For one thing, you can’t detect the presence of a vehicle on the track (for safety and signalling purposes) by the usual means of having the train itself complete a circuit, so an alternative way to ensure the line is clear would have to be found. (Hardly an insurmountable task nowadays.)

A bigger problem, of course, is that when your gyroscopes stop spinning, the gyrocar ceases to balance. This might seem to be a little bit worrying if your Brennan gyro train is on an elevated section, or perhaps crossing one of Brennan’s single-wire minimalist suspension bridges over a gorge. Actually, it’s not necessarily all that bad. Travelling on a straight section (such as that bridge) a single working gyro would be enough to keep a car upright: it’s only on curves where you need the contra-rotating pair in order to balance correctly. Also, gyroscopes that lose power take quite a while to spin down to nothing, so a gyrotrain driver with instrumentation ought to be able to take corrective action in good time.

The most significant limitation of the gyrocar technology isn’t apparent from the demonstrator on which our future Prime Minister rode. All the gyrocars ever demonstrated have been exactly that: cars, and not trains. Brennan’s paired gyroscope arrangement has to feature in every section of the train, with no such thing as a passive ‘trailer’ unit, since even if it doesn’t provide traction the coach or wagon must still feature powered gyros, or it won’t be able to balance. The rolling stock for such a transport network would cost a fortune.

But you know what? I’d love to see one.

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The Place Where an Ape is a Bee

We just had a holiday in Italy, where one of the things we always do is play “Spot the Ape”. If you’re familiar with Italy you will have seen the tiny three-wheeled vans and pickups made by Piaggio, and if you’re familiar with Italian you’re probably itching to tell me that it’s not an ape, but an apé. (Tell that to Wikipedia…)

It’s a key difference, because in Italian ‘apé’ means ‘bee’. These funny little vehicles were the worker-bees that laboured to reconstruct Italy’s postwar economy at a time when few could afford a conventional commercial vehicle. The famous Vespa (‘wasp’) scooter had arrived in 1946, an innovative mobility solution for a country with finances that were every bit as ruinous as the roads: a year later, aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio (1891–1981) adapted his Vespa, giving it two rear wheels and a box for cargo. The Apé was born.

Early Apé with no cab, seen in a museum.

In the wild, Apés never look as clean nor as well cared for. [Image: Flickr user “monkeyhel”]

The Apé was just about perfect for its time and place. In the 50cc variant, the Apé didn’t need a registration number and driving one didn’t require a license – rather like the arrangements in France with the VSP or voiture sans permis rules for microcars. Even the most powerful Apés in the early years had only a 125cc engine so it was never going to set any speed records, but low gearing made it ideal for hauling loads up the steep streets found in so many Italian hilltop towns. Its small size made it perfect for negotiating narrow lanes and tight bends, and for parking in awkward spots while making deliveries.

Apé Pentaro with a baby elephant on board.

If three wheels wasn’t enough for you, there was the Pentaro variant…

1956 was a significant year for the Apé. The model C finally lost its Vespa-style saddle and acquired a car-like seat. They also offered an Apé with an enclosed cab for the first time, and an electric starter was an option. (Hold out until 1964 and you could even get one with a heater in the cab. To this day, a steering wheel remains an optional extra: most have handlebars.) The vehicle was diverging from its Vespa heritage, but it remained an affordable alternative to a conventional van. People did all kinds of quirky things with the Apé… and they still do. If you see one in the UK, the driver is almost certainly selling artisan coffee – but in Italy they were used by people in trades of all kinds.

A 1963 model Apé

A 1963 model Apé. What’s not to love?

The Apé is being made under license in India; I’ve seen them used as airport runabouts in Dar Es Salaam, and they’re popular in Portugal, too. Although auto rickshaws (‘tuk-tuks’) are found in dozens of countries, most aren’t Apés, and are nothing to do with Italy. Even so, these three-wheelers are a practical format that won’t go away.

It appears that the Apé is becoming a rarity in modern Italy, and that’s a shame for those of us that always look out for them. (Bonus points for an Apé with two people squeezed into the cab together.) The disappearance of the Apé is a sign of progress, of a kind: people can afford four wheels instead of three, and the traffic moves a bit faster than it used to, at least in between towns: in urban areas we all crawl at the same speed. I can’t help wondering if there isn’t an Apé-shaped space in our modern logistics networks. Any of the light vans that call at my house to deliver small packages could be replaced with an Apé. (Preferably an electric-powered Apé that departs with a hum instead of a puff of exhaust smoke, but… whatever.) So many of the things that get hauled that final mile are lightweight packages: it’s absurd, but instead of picking things up while I’m at the supermarket, I save money by getting all my toiletries from an online retailer – despite the obvious cost of delivery to my door. Some people are doing the same thing with groceries, and it’s only a matter of time before most of us decide that it’s cheaper to cut Sainsbury’s (etc.) out of the loop.

And then? Perhaps the world is ready for a resurgence of the Apé.

Ape panel van

Cyber Mischief and Cyber Attack

It’s recently been revealed that Nissan’s small electric car, the Leaf, is vulnerable to computer hackers. Not very vulnerable perhaps, but a prankster only needs the VIN number of the car (displayed clearly through the windscreen on most vehicles) to call up your vehicle and monkey with its climate control, using nothing more than a web browser. They can also access information about recent journeys.

Having your heating or air-conditioning switched on while the car is parked up doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but these are electric cars: their range is limited at the best of times, and the last thing you need is somebody running down your battery for laughs.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that a supermarket cashier was cheerfully telling me that his Leaf could be programmed so that it’s nice and warm when his shift finishes. It made me think, wow… maybe these electric cars are beginning to carve out a niche for themselves. Having the vehicle warmed up and ready to go is a nice little gimmick that my humble diesel could never manage.

It’s around a hundred years since cars first acquired circuitry. Before that, you had to make to with hot tube ignition, and later a magneto – both dependent upon enthusiastic work with a starting handle. Then along came the 1912 model Cadillac, with its electric starter. Everything changed once cars had a supply of electric current: in addition to keeping a battery topped up, electricity offered practical lights, a horn, an electric means of ignition and so on, through to electric headrest adjustment and all the bells and whistles of a modern car.

Inevitably, the economics of providing electrical (and later electronic) systems in a car improved. Electronic control systems proved to be simpler, cheaper and more reliable than their mechanical predecessors. Cars acquired systems for emissions control, and anti-lock braking – later mandated by law – and if you’re going to have all that computing power in a vehicle, it’s logical to let it work like a computer. Cars acquired diagnostic sockets that allowed a mechanic to investigate faults (and which locked drivers into paying top dollar for servicing at manufacturer-approved centres, for a time). But then, if you’ve got communications gear such as a cellular antenna and a global positioning system on-board, why not integrate it all? That allows the car manufacturer to ‘mine’ your data, and learn things such as how their vehicle performs, and how customers use it. It’s a bit of an invasion of privacy, but it’s a fabulous way to turn all your customers into unpaid test drivers. We have to assume that drivers’ data is regularly being mined today, at some level of abstraction.

Here at Capacify, we strive to accurately portray a range of business concepts. This is how data mining is done.

Here at Capacify, we strive to portray business concepts in accurate and useful terms. Here, you can see how data mining is performed.

And if you can receive data from cars, maybe it’s a good idea to be able to send data to cars, as well. Updates to the navigation system require such a capability… but it could also be handy to be able to patch a hypothetical fault in your firmware without the usual formal recall for work at an approved service centre (and all the bad press that this entails).

It’s amazing to think that all this capability comes about for free, piggybacked onto other functions that a modern car needs. Computing really has improved to the point where it’s more expensive to leave functionality out. (There’s also the question of designers mistakenly leaving in a ‘back door’ as a result of using off-the-shelf components or code segments that have other applications…)

As Nissan have found out, sooner or later, somebody figures out how to hack your system. In their case, it was security researchers Scott Helme and Troy Hunt. Hunt is said to have informed Nissan of the vulnerability, but after a month with no news of a fix he went public with a demonstration in which a Nissan Leaf in the UK was accessed from Australia.

It doesn’t exactly presage armageddon, but we can expect this kind of thing to become increasingly common as machines get ‘smarter’. Nissan aren’t software developers or security specialists: they just wanted to make a competitive car with some neat features, such as allowing drivers to ensure their car is at a comfortable temperature with a smartphone app… but they messed up. They’re not alone, either: this article reports how a 2015 Jeep Cherokee could be hacked remotely, manipulating the in-car entertainment and windscreen wipers, and even shutting the car down.

VW Beetle cutaway

No word yet on whether my other car is safe from the hackers…

More worrying is the tale of security researcher Chris Roberts, who appears to have hacked into airliners while on board as a passenger. He exploited a weakness of the in-flight entertainment systems to interface with critical systems on aircraft such as the Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A-320, making fifteen to twenty such incursions from 2011 to 2014. Roberts has been interviewed by the FBI, but hasn’t been charged with a crime. It appears he’s not welcome to fly with United Airlines anymore, though.

Screenshot that appears to show access to aircraft systems

The control system of a jet airliner seems somewhat… retro. [Image: Chris Roberts]

What of the supply chain, and the Internet of increasingly connected things? Lars Jensen, CEO of CyberKeel, found serious vulnerabilities in sixteen out of twenty ocean carriers surveyed. The motive and opportunity exist for theft of data, fraud and perhaps terror attacks.

“No opening is too small,” says Carole Boyle at Strategic Sourceror. Information that would once exist on a physical clipboard is now in cyberspace, and shared widely. Where businesses collaborate, the security is only as good as at its weakest point, while differences of time zone and asynchronous communications may mean that organisations are slow to notice when their security has been breached.

Citing a data breach at US retailer Target, John Mello suggests that the supply network is a particular point of vulnerability for corporations. A supplier’s credentials, normally used in legitimate business-to-business communications, can be used to gain access to much of a network… and the hackers only have to find their way into one supplier’s account to achieve this, while a large corporation will have to audit the security of hundreds of vendors.

computer screen reporting cyber attack

Remember the good old days, when all you had to worry about was the wrath of former employees?

Like Nissan, you probably didn’t think you were in the cybersecurity business… but it turns out that we all are, from now on. Next time you install a free game on your smartphone, you might be wise to ponder if it really is a bargain, or if it contains a piece of malware that will snoop on your SMS messages, and perhaps suppress or spoof a two-step verification attempt from a web-based service that you depend upon.

Seven Easy Steps to a Greener Cruise Holiday

Our paper on the carbon footprint of cruise holidays continues to attract a good deal of interest (link to paper and slides), and that’s satisfying to see. Still, it only tells part of the story. The paper described our work to calculate the carbon footprint of a cruise holiday, but that’s a partial job, for two key reasons.

Firstly, there are other forms of environmental hazard: sustainability doesn’t begin and end with climate change. For this reason, Christine and I are working on a follow-up study. Secondly, though… it’s ever so easy to criticise something without having a workable alternative to propose, isn’t it? We showed that a cruise holiday involved somewhat over four times the contribution to climate change of a hotel-based holiday, but we didn’t actually say how to make cruise holidays ‘greener’.

We have to keep in mind that a $36bn industry isn’t going to change overnight, and particularly not if the changes mean that you have to stop using expensive assets that have a design life measured in decades… but there are some things that a cruise operator could do. Not tomorrow: that would be unrealistic, but perhaps next season. Here’s seven things that could make a cruise holiday ‘greener’ – and that passengers could look for when choosing their next cruise.

1. Travel Less, Visit More.

As you might expect, persuading up to 100,000 tonnes of metal to move through the sea requires a lot of energy. Cruise ships get through much more fuel when sailing than when in port or at anchor. Cruise itineraries often include ‘sea days’, where passengers don’t get to go ashore because the ship is travelling non-stop towards some distant destination. For some passengers, sea days are alluring: days when you’re guaranteed to be out of reach of e-mails from your boss, or phone calls from your relatives. Lazy days meant for working on your suntan, getting blind drunk or whatever. Other passengers, though, prefer a more varied and cultural experience.

Sunbathers on a cruise

Baker [2013] reported that sunburn was the most commonly treated ailment on cruises… although sexually transmitted diseases came in at number 2. Lovely.

A typical cruise ship, while underway, will be burning through multiple tonnes of Heavy Fuel Oil per hour. Consumption of around 125 tonnes per day can be considered normal, and DEFRA [2012] report emissions from HFO consumption to be 3766.5 kg CO2e per tonne, so that’s 470 tonnes of CO2e a day. Naturally, emissions are higher on days of non-stop cruising, and lower on a day spent in-port when the ship is essentially a floating hotel. Thus, the itinerary is a major determinant of the carbon footprint – and a quick way to slash the contribution to climate change. The environmental benefits of an overnight stay in port (two days in one place) should already be obvious – and it also means a reduced spend on HFO for the operator and more opportunities for the host community to do business with the passengers, so extended visits are win-win.

On the other hand, perhaps you believe that in a port city like Genoa or Piraeus there are only enough entertainment possibilities to keep visitors amused for around six or eight hours… which is a little bit rude to the passengers and the host community alike!

2. Higher Occupancy is (Somewhat) Greener

Whether it’s half-full or crammed with passengers, the energy used by a cruise ship won’t vary significantly. When moving up to a hundred thousand tonnes of boat, a few tonnes of passengers and luggage isn’t going to make a measurable difference, so it makes good sense to offer attractive deals that fill unoccupied cabins. The costs associated with the boat and its crew are largely fixed, so the incremental cost of an extra passenger is almost zero – and even a deeply discounted cruise sees the typical passenger shopping on board, buying drinks, and losing money in the casino…

Thus, there is a good business case for discounting to fill up a cruise ship. It’s arguably greener as well, given the fuel usage discussed in point one. (The no-frills airline that everyone loves to hate, Ryanair, used to claim their sustainability performance was better than that of other airlines because their load factor was better.) Of course, a ‘deep green’ would argue that low prices encourage increased consumption… but that’s another story.

It remains true that it would be better to have 200 cruise ships at full occupancy than 300 operating with moderate occupancy. The trick, of course, is avoiding the worst aspects of a price war. It’s more profitable to use a cruise ship than to leave it mothballed, and information from statistica.com suggests there are 296 cruise ships in use… but if we could avoid building any more for a while, it might actually improve the profitability of the industry, by reducing oversupply.

3. Go a Little Slower

A cruise ship isn’t built like a Type 23 frigate, and it shouldn’t be manoeuvred like one. Forcing that big hull through the water demands a great deal of energy: give the water more time to move aside and your fuel bill will be slashed.

A ten percent speed reduction could mean a twenty percent fuel saving… with a corresponding reduction in the vessel’s carbon footprint, and perhaps less wear and tear in the engine room. It’s really just a matter of marketing a realistic itinerary. The industry doesn’t need to compete on speed: a good, modern boat with lots of amenities is a destination in itself, and a passenger who really cares about getting places fast is going to fly instead of cruise, so why not take time to smell the roses along the way?

4. Scrub that Sulphur

The emissions from ships’ engines can be very bad for public health and the natural world. Heavy Fuel Oil may contain as much as 4.5% sulphur by weight, and combustion results in emissions of sulphur dioxide. That’s bad news for people with asthma or chronic lung or heart disease, and it’s a major source of acid rain as well.

‘Sweeter’ fuels are available, at a price, but Kalli et al [2009] suggest that an exhaust scrubber is the way to go. Particulates will also be trapped by this relatively simple retrofit, and it’s a cheaper way to cut sulphur dioxide emissions than buying low-sulphur fuel. With the expansion of sulphur emission control areas, cruise operators might be forced to abandon some of their traditional itineraries if they can’t clean up their act, so addressing the problem makes a lot of sense.

Current and anticipated Emission Control Areas

Current and anticipated Emission Control Areas


5. Watch that Whale!

One can only imagine how upsetting it was for passengers of Princess Cruises’ Sapphire Princess in July 2010, when a female humpback was found dead, pinned in place on the bow of their boat. This might seem like a freak accident… except that a finback whale was caught and killed on the same ship’s bow in the same way, one year earlier. In all, Princess Cruises were involved in three such cases in a decade [Gordon, 2010], the most recent two occurring after a legal case in which Princess Cruises pleaded guilty to “failing to operate at a slow, safe speed while near humpback whales”, and paid fines and restitution totalling $755,000 [Hunter, 2007].

Obviously, nobody in the cruise industry sets out to harm endangered species (and as Laist et al [2001] shows, ships of virtually all types have been involved in whale strikes) but whale-watching is marketed as one of the attractions of some cruise itineraries, and thus cruise ships deliberately sail in waters where whales are to be found. Smaller vessels that take people out to view whales for a few hours generally adhere to better guidelines: they approach whales only slowly, and from a direction that doesn’t cause stress. They keep noise to a minimum (shutting down the engines) and they don’t dump anything in the water. They typically limit access to a third of the total daylight hours: all very different to whale watching on a cruise ship.

Dead whale, pinned to the bow of a cruise ship

Dead whale, pinned to the bow of a cruise ship [Reuters / Daily Mail]

It may be possible to turn whale-watching into a paid excursion, transferring passengers that want to see whales up close into tenders. Thus, the cruise line stands to get some more money while keeping the big boats away from our large mammalian friends.

6. Plug in

Although the biggest requirement for energy comes from moving the boat, a great deal of electricity is required for other purposes on-board, such as air conditioning, lighting and entertainment. Even if the boat is moored, one or more engines will still be running in order to supply the boat with electricity. Typically, vessels in port use marine distillate in place of HFO because it burns a lot more cleanly… but it also costs twice as much.

“Cold Ironing” is the industry term for obtaining electricity from a shore-based source. Using a land-based supply greatly reduces air pollution from ships, and could substantially reduce the carbon footprint as well (if generated by a nuclear or renewable source). It requires that the port has infrastructure that allows visiting vessels to ‘plug in’, but this is becoming more common, and it has the potential to reduce a ship’s energy bill considerably [Sisson and McBride, 2010].

Hurtigruten have taken things a step further, and are exploring the potential for battery-powered propulsion. “I will be disappointed if we don’t have a vessel with battery propulsion within 10 years,”  said CEO Daniel Skjeldam [Nilsen, 2016]. Even if it has to be a ‘plug-in hybrid’… imagine that!

7. Promote Local Food

Part of the appeal of cruising is the idea that everything is taken care of. The full cost of the holiday is known in advance, and there’s no need to obtain five different kinds of currency… we get that. But can you imagine how disheartening it is for host communities is to see a swarm of tourists heading back to the boat to have their lunch? What’s wrong with sampling the local food? So many cruise tourists leave the boat (carrying a bottle of water), have a look around a market or something… and then stampede back to the boat because it’s lunchtime!

The more adventurous souls who have lunch ashore get a far better holiday: they spend more time at each destination, meet local people and sample more varied cuisine. Their holiday is a more memorable one, perhaps leading to repeat business… and critically it gives something back to the host community, who have put up with increased congestion and so on.

The cruise line that champions local food might actually save a little money, too.

And Finally… A Pinch of (Sea) Salt

In their ‘Ten Signs of Greenwash’, Futerra warned that being the cleanest in a dirty industry doesn’t indicate sustainability. There are no bragging rights to be had for being the greenest Formula 1 team, or the most sustainable cigarette manufacturer. With the cruise industry, we have something similar. In our research, Christine and I have already established that a cruise holiday is far from ‘green’… but I wanted to show that there are some things that can be done, in the near-term, that would lead to measurable improvements. It all comes down to what the informed customer wants. And for that… we will have to wait and see.

References

Baker, D. (2013) Cruise passengers’ perceptions of safety and security while Cruising the Western Caribbean, Revista Rosa dos Ventos, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 140–154

DEFRA (2012) 2012 Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors for Company Reporting, online available: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2012-greenhouse-gas-conversion-factors-for-company-reporting [date accessed: 7/4/13]

Gordon, S. (2010) Whale found pinned to Princess liner is the third in a decade, Daily Mail, 20th July 2010, online available: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-1298928/Dead-whale-pinned-Princess-cruise-ship-iin-Alaska.html [date accessed: 25/11/2013]

Hunter, D. (2007) Cruise line agrees to fine over whale death, Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), January 24, 2007, pp B1

Kalli, J., Karvonen, T. and Makkonen, T. (2009) Sulphur content in ships bunker fuel in 2015–A study on the impacts of the new IMO regulations and transportations costs, Centre for Maritime Studies, University of Turku. Helsinki: Ministry of Transport and Communications

Laist D.W., Knowlton A.R., Mead J.G., Collet A.S. and Podesta M. (2001) Collisions between ships and whales, Marine Mammal Science, 17, 35–75.

Nilsen, T. (2016) Hurtigruten of the future will operate on battery power, Barents Observer, online available: http://thebarentsobserver.com/industry/2016/01/hurtigruten-future-will-operate-battery-power [date accessed: 05/02/16]

Sisson, M. and McBride, K. (2010) The economics of cold ironing, online available: https://www.broward.org/Port/MasterPlan/Documents/PTI Cold Ironing Economics.pdf [date accessed: 02/02/16]

A Very Peculiar Patent

I’ll be off to Malaysia for a teaching commitment tomorrow. I frequently enjoy the comfort of an Emirates A380, but boarding the aircraft is not an appealing part of the journey.

At Manchester Airport, A380s always depart from Gate 12, where the ‘holding pen’ for passengers isn’t really big enough for the superjumbo, despite the addition of a funny little overflow room. I’ve never yet seen any evidence that the good people at Manchester Airport actually know how to get everyone aboard an Airbus A380 in a timely manner, and their efforts can get a little bit frantic as the time of departure draws near.

That’s where a recent patent for Airbus (filed in February 2013 and approved in November last year) comes to the rescue. Patent US 9,193,460, catchily titled “Method for Boarding and Unloading of Passengers of an Aircraft with Reduced Immobilization Time of the Aircraft, Aircraft and Air Terminal for its Implementation”, proposes a detachable cabin module that passengers would be able to board before the inbound aircraft arrives at the gate. The outbound pod takes the place of the inbound pod and as soon as the aircraft has refuelled it’s up, up and away. Cleverly, pods may have a different configuration, such as altering the blend between economy and business class seating. 

Airbus modular aircraft

An illustration from the Airbus modular aircraft concept [US patent 9,193,460]

It’s to be hoped that the removable pod concept allows better cabin cleaning than present day efforts, too.

Higher aircraft utilisation is the best way to achieve profit. It’s one reason why low-cost airlines managed to run rings around their full-service counterparts in the 1990s, remaining profitable while charging a fraction of the ticket price. Put simply, an aircraft doesn’t earn money while it’s on the ground, so airlines are looking to minimise the turn-around time: hence the Airbus patent.

As ideas go, passenger pods aren’t really all that new. Back in March 1960, Mechanix Illustrated ran a cover story that showed a passenger module detaching from a doomed airliner, with parachutes streaming behind it. “Escape pods can prevent needless air crash death,” the article announced.

Mechanix Illustrated cover

Mechanix Illustrated cover,  March 1960

Internal arrangement of escape pods, Mechanix Illustrated

Tough luck if you were visiting the galley or the washroom at the moment of separation, by the way.

There was also the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane (or, for the military, the CH-54 Tarhe), a helicopter that could carry a variety of cargo pods. It first flew in 1962.

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

Far from being outdone, Boeing recently came up with a monstrous freighter that could be taxied into place above a row of shipping containers, after which it would squat down into place like a hen settling on a clutch of eggs. US 9,205,910 is dated December 8th of last year.

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Too bad that the most famous pod-swapping modular aircraft of them all had arrived way back in 1964, albeit only in a TV show…

Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2 and a selection of pods.

There really is nothing new under the Sun, is there? Well, it worked for Malcom P. McLean, back in the 1950s, when he was looking for a more efficient way to load and unload freight from ships… so why can’t the “box that changed the world” also work for air transport?

Of course, if Manchester Airport won’t invest in decent facilities to accommodate five hundred passengers in comfort while they wait to board an A380, they certainly aren’t going to invest in a special gantry that lifts tubes full of people and clips them into aircraft… which renders the Airbus thing a little bit pointless.

Airport terminal equipped with pod swapping machinery

Airport operators are going to love paying for all this extra infrastructure… [Airbus illustration from US patent 9,193,460]

Meanwhile, perhaps the neatest idea to cut turn-around times was the flip-up cinema-style aircraft seat. If fitted on the seats adjacent to the aisle, it meant that the passenger need not hold up everybody else while he or she tries to get organised before sitting down.

Those haven’t seen the light of day, either.

No way to treat an old lady

As I departed Kuala Lumpur recently, our ’plane taxied past a very forlorn looking Boeing 747. It’s abundantly clear when a ’plane is never going to fly again: grime accumulates on all the upper surfaces, while the tailfin is painted in a drab, uniform colour that conceals the branding of the aircraft’s former owner – because a ’plane at the end of its life is a poor advertisement for the airline. Often, the nacelles are left gaping after the engines have been removed, too.

That ’plane, and two others like it, are in the news this week: Malaysia Airports have taken out newspaper advertising, inviting the unknown owners to claim their aircraft within fourteen days or see them disposed of.

Malaysia Star newspaper notice

Eviction notice: substantial landing and parking fees are owed.

It’s easy to talk about the end-of-life for vehicles, appliances and the like, but it’s more complicated for aircraft. Some are parked up in deserts for years, where the dry conditions minimise corrosion. In a changeable business climate, the hope is that some will return to service later on. Others are are stripped of valuable parts (nowadays, that mostly means engines) and then broken up for scrap. Where an aircraft is stranded at an airport, though, with parking charges accumulating daily, it’s simply not possible to be sentimental: if a buyer can’t be found an excavator or two will make short work of the ‘Queen of the Skies’.

Boeing, boeing... gone in 3-4 days [image: Daily Mail]

Boeing, boeing… gone in 3-4 days [image: Daily Mail]

This is going on all the time, and the recycling rates are actually quite impressive… but the speed with which Boeing 747s are now disappearing from our airports and our skies is surprising – and the 747 isn’t just any old aeroplane. When the 747 goes, it marks the end of an era. This was the ubiquitous ’plane that became a unit of measure in its own right. (What would British journalists do if they couldn’t describe the size of things by inviting comparison with Jumbo Jets, football pitches and double-decker buses?)

For a machine that first flew in 1969 it’s had a good run, with 1,519 aircraft delivered – at a present-day list price of over $350 million a pop. Not bad for a machine that can trace its roots back to 1963, and design work done for a military project where Boeing didn’t succeed: it was the requirements of the CX-Heavy Logistics System that gave the later 747 its distinctive ‘hump’ – originally because of the need for a cavernous cargo bay on the main deck, with front loading. The contract for the military transport aircraft went to Lockheed, as the C-5 Galaxy… but some aspects of the CX-HLS design can still be seen in the DNA of the 747.

An early campaigner for the large passenger jet was Pan Am’s president, Juan Trippe. He saw large capacity aircraft as a solution to airport congestion (sound familiar?) and ordered the first twenty-five, back in 1966. Back when the 747 only existed on paper, that is – and when the company didn’t have a plant big enough to assemble it, either. The difficulties they had to overcome were staggering… but they managed it, and 747s began to carry passengers in 1970.

Forty-five years is a long time in aviation, and even with a relatively recent upgrade in the form of the 747-8, it seems that the writing is on the wall. Just two were ordered this year, and none at all the year before. Peak production occurred in 1980, with 73 aircraft delivered; peak orders were 122, in 1990. With just twenty outstanding orders, now, Boeing probably won’t be able to keep the production line open for much longer.

So what new aeroplane has stolen away the market for the 747? Actually, it’s an aeroplane that’s already twenty years old: the Boeing 777. It’s smaller than the 747, but not by much, and it incorporates two engines (with very large turbofans) instead of four. That means airlines save on fuel usage and maintenance costs, as well as paying a lower price to acquire a ’plane. I was in a 777 when we taxied past that clapped-out old 747 in Kuala Lumpur. Thus far, Boeing has delivered 1,355 of the smaller jet, and there are hundreds more on order. This is the ’plane I used to refer to frequently when teaching Concurrent Engineering, thanks to Karl Sabbagh’s book, 21st Century Jet: The Making of the Boeing 777. (Boeing called it “working together”, but it was classic Concurrent Engineering, and the result was a world-beating aeroplane.)

Formerly, when an older aeroplane was no longer wanted for use on passenger routes, it stood a good chance of putting in a few years of service as a freighter. Now, that’s by no means guaranteed. Again, the 777 is the culprit. The freighter variant of the 777 scores over the 747 for the same reasons as it does in passenger usage, but there’s also the issue of belly cargo capacity for passenger flights. A passenger airline can squeeze 202 cubic meters of freight (or luggage) into a 777-300ER, as well as carrying passengers, so that’s a valuable additional revenue stream.

By contrast, an upper deck full of passengers on a 747 (or an A380 for that matter) adds weight, but does nothing to improve the cargo capacity… and you’re still stuck with those four expensive engines.

Relative size of the 777, 747 and A380

Relative size of the Boeing 777 and 747, and the Airbus A380

A dedicated freighter benefits from larger doors and the option of flying routes and times that aren’t attractive to passengers, but there’s no opportunity of cross-subsidy: the freight must pay its way, every time. This article in Supply Chain Brain described the air-cargo freighter as an ‘endangered species’… and that means fewer freight conversions, and faster retirements for converted aeroplanes now in service. All this accelerates the process by which the 747 will become a rare bird indeed.

Even at a time when oil is crazy-cheap (Brent crude is under $40 a barrel as I write this), it seems that for most applications four-engined aircraft are out, and two-engined is the way to go. There’s only one customer I can think of who absolutely demands four engined aircraft, and that’s the U.S. Presidential Airlift Group. They recently brought their replacement process forward, to ensure that they would still be able to obtain 747s: this purchase was the source of the order for two 747s in January of this year.

The simple fact is that engines have come a long way since the 1960s, and nowadays two are plenty. ETOPS (Extended Time On Partial Systems) rulings determine what routes an aircraft can fly, taking into account distance from airports that might be diverted to in an emergency. If you’re an industry insider, you probably refer to the standard by its other name: Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim. It’s an important historical detail because of the US Civil Aviation Authority’s “60-minute rule” of 1953: that the flight path of twin-engined aircraft should not be farther than 60 minutes of flying time from an adequate airport. Thus, in the 1960s and 70s an airline wanted three- or four-engined jetliners if it was to cross oceans and the like, but this requirement is now greatly reduced.

Some 747s will still be in service for a good while yet. Some will find niche jobs such as the former Virgin Atlantic 747-400 recently announced as due for conversion into an airborne satellite launcher… but many are disappearing. Air France, once a major user of the 747 has only a single 747-based service on their schedule this winter, going between Paris and Mexico City. Passengers reports (available on SeatGuru, if you’re feeling nerdy) include failed in-flight entertainment, and a recent cancellation due to engine failure: symptoms of an aircraft approaching the end of its useful life.

Sure enough, Air France just announced that a special tribute flight on January 14th next year will mark the end of the 747 era for them. British Airways have chosen to refurbish eighteen of their Boeing 747-400s… which is a nice way to say they’re halving the size of their present-day fleet. That’s another batch of 747s for the breaker’s yard, then. Perhaps some of them will find new life, one way or another…

The 747 Wing House

American architect David Randall Hertz Turned a former Pan Am 747 into ‘The 747 Wing House’, in the Santa Monica Mountains.

 

Need affordable yet distinctive accommodation in Stockholm? Look no further than the Jumbo Stay hostel...

Need affordable yet distinctive accommodation in Stockholm? Look no further than the Jumbo Stay hostel… it’s handy for the airport, too!

 

Table featuring an upcycled turbofan

Or you could always make some furniture out of aircraft parts…

 

Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China will continue to operate the updated 747-8s that they bought more recently, but the price of oil won’t stay low forever: not least because its current low level is preventing oil industry investment, and that hints at a future shortage.

If, presently, we see another price spike like the one that peaked in July 2008… what would you make out of an unwanted 747?

The Broadest Railway Gauge… Ever. Ever.

In an earlier article, I wrote about the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, which I found to be wonderfully quirky, with elements of boat, railway and gantry crane about it. This time, though, we look at what you’d get if you could crossbreed a seaside pier, a pleasure steamer, and a tram.

Magnus Volk had already had a success with his Electric Railway in Brighton. It opened in 1883, the third such railway or tramway in the world, the first in the UK and the oldest surviving one. In the summertime you can still go for a ride along the same seafront track, in a funny little yellow carriage.

With a successful passenger transport business in place, Volk wanted to extend the line eastwards, but found that he would need to ascend to clifftop level – a costly and difficult proposition.

So what do you do?

You build your railway in the sea, of course! (In this, Volk may have been inspired by the Pont Roulant, a ‘rolling bridge’ that ran on submerged rails, across the harbour entrance at St Malo in France. That wasn’t self-propelled, though.)

Volk had two 825 mm gauge tracks laid down on land that was exposed at low tide, running all the way to the village of Rottingdean, some 4½km away. These were no ordinary narrow gauge lines, though: they ran parallel, the whole way, and the vehicle that was designed to ride on the rails straddled both – giving it a gauge of 5.5m.

The tram itself was called ‘Pioneer’, but most people called it Daddy Long Legs – and at 7m, they certainly were long. Pioneer’s main deck was 13.7m by 6.7m, and featured a glazed cabin with leather-upholstered seating, and a second promenade deck on its roof. Because it was technically a seagoing vessel, it had to have a qualified captain at the helm, and was equipped with life preservers and a small boat on davits. (In this pre-Titanic era, it seems you weren’t obliged to have enough lifeboat space for everyone…)

Poster advertising Pioneer

A Sea Voyage, on Wheels. Six pence.

At 46 tonnes, it may have been the biggest thing that the Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company ever made. A single trolleybus-style cable stretched along the whole of Pioneer’s route, providing power at 500V (DC). Current was returned via the rails, and via the sea itself when the tide was high. (This was long before anybody ever muttered those killjoy words, “Health and Safety.”)

Equipped with a pair of 25hp (18.65kW) motors from General Electric, Pioneer was horribly underpowered, and struggled to push its way through a high tide. It wasn’t very well streamlined, but it was tremendously popular.

Volk’s sea tram, underway

They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to…

The railway opened on November 28th 1896, but there was a terrible storm a week later that caused Pioneer to slip her moorings and roll away down the track. Pioneer ended up lying on her side, badly damaged. Repairs began straight away, but it wasn’t until the following July that the line reopened. Nonetheless, 44,282 passengers were carried that year.

Presently, shifting of the stones beneath the track’s sleepers forced a closure for repairs in the middle of the tourist season. Then in 1901 the council announced construction of a beach protection barrier that would have forced Volk to divert his line in order to avoid the new obstacle. He chose to close up shop instead: the world’s only seagoing tram was moored at Ovingdean Gap until 1910, when the whole lot was cut up for scrap. Today, all that remains of the railway is some of the concrete sleepers, visible at low tide.

This 3D modelled reproduction gives some idea of the scale of the Pioneer. [Animation by Delaney Digital]

Clearly, the Brighton to Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway never worked very well, and it didn’t bring in enough money to justify costly track alterations… but if it had somehow avoided the scrap man’s oxyacetylene torch, what a wonderful tourist attraction it would make today!

Inadvertently, in the process, those Victorian engineers built the widest railway ever. The tongue-twisting Lärchwandschrägaufzug in Austria has a broader gauge, at 8.2m, but that’s a funicular railway, and basically a repurposed goods lift that now carries tourists. If you feel that a funicular qualifies, then there’s the ship-lift at the Krasnoyarsk Dam, with a track width of 9m… but is either a ‘railway’? Hardly. Disappointingly, I can’t cite the Montech water slope either. It’s a mind-boggling contraption that uses a pair of permanently connected diesel locos on either side of a canal, working to to raise 1,500 m³ of water (and boats)… but the whole thing runs on pneumatic tyres, not rails.

So… for my money, Volk built the widest railway the world has ever seen. His 5.5m dwarfs even the Nazis’ daydream of connecting all their conquered territory with the 3m gauge Breitspurbahn – itself monstrous when compared to the 1.435 m (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) of our standard gauge.

The idea of using water where the land doesn’t offer suitable geography has recently popped up again, with the Thames Deckway project. The proposal is for a 12km, floating toll path running from Battersea to Canary Wharf, for cyclist commuters during rush-hour and tourists at other times. Although expensive, it appears to be reasonably benign in environmental terms: one of those ideas to file under “so crazy it might just work”.

Thames Deckway concept

Thames Deckway concept [image: River Cycleway Consortium]

I’d much rather relax with a Pimm’s on the foredeck of the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, though.