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The track to nowhere
March 11, 2013 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Travellers passing through the Beauce region in France may have noticed this strange, lonely concrete structure raised on pillars over the fields. This is the 18-km long elevated track built in the 1960s for testing the Aérotrain (WP, video compilation turn off your speakers unless you love Queen), a propeller or jet-and-rocket driven high-speed (400 km/h) monorail that was supposed to revolutionize train travel (a visit by Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell). However, the French government preferred the less expensive and less futuristic TGV and the project was mothballed in 1975. The Aérotrain's inventor, Jean Bertin, died a few months later. All Aérotrain prototypes were destroyed except one.
posted by elgilito (32 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is like lost footage to Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451.
posted by GuyZero at 3:45 PM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting that. I can't believe I went though my entire boyhood without thinking up the concept of a jet propelled hovercraft jet train - at least in lego. But I do worry that it might not have scaled too well.
posted by rongorongo at 3:47 PM on March 11, 2013


I so want to go on a ride on one of these!
posted by sammyo at 3:48 PM on March 11, 2013


Today was so much cooler when it was the 60s' future!
posted by Dr. Send at 3:52 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


This monorail would totally solve Seattle's traffic problems, at least along the stretch between the Space Needle and the shopping mall ten or so blocks away.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:52 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Zut alors! TGV indeed!
posted by TedW at 4:02 PM on March 11, 2013


Also on the "except one" prototype - what is this - a train for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read... if they can't even fit inside the building?
posted by GuyZero at 4:03 PM on March 11, 2013


Seattle's traffic problems

From what I've seen in my visits to the West Coast, we badly need one of these things running the entire length of the Five.
posted by localroger at 4:05 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Today was so much cooler when it was the 60s' future!

Even with the crazed computers and the Soviet Union still standing around!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:09 PM on March 11, 2013


Even with the crazed computers and the Soviet Union still standing around!

I'm all on board for building Colossus. With modern tech the whole thing should fit on a FPGA.
posted by localroger at 4:14 PM on March 11, 2013


I knew these things existed, but I haven't ever seen video of them in action.

The noise from these would probably be horrendous and stupefying. If you think a regular train is loud, imagine one with screeching 70s era "what noise pollution?" turbojets or turbofans ripping along at 400+ kph at ground level.

The hover train or flying train concept has a lot of merit, though. With either enough forward velocity or a high pressure air source like a turbofan or turbojet and a nice track design you could easily float even the largest of trains and basically use a nearly frictionless air bearing. And pneumatic or magnetic air bearings are certain a mature technology in use today.

It's conceivable that you could electrify this with magnetic propulsion or even an electric turbine or fan, and it might be cheaper and less complicated per mile than maglev.

The next step beyond the aerotrain is the vacuum train. Same concept but instead of a track it uses a vacuum in a long tube. It could be propelled by a simple pressure difference on either end of the tub, or electrically, or with 60s era rockets.

A related mechanical idea is the foil bearing, which basically uses the viscosity of air as a lubricant.
posted by loquacious at 4:29 PM on March 11, 2013


Let's not forget that the "less futuristic" old TGVs have been cranked up to 574.8 kmh back in 2007
posted by rongorongo at 4:31 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting that. I can't believe I went though my entire boyhood without thinking up the concept of a jet propelled hovercraft jet train - at least in lego. But I do worry that it might not have scaled too well.

I didn't make a rocket train with lego, but a friend and I made lego rocket cars once with the larger end of Estes off the shelf rocket engines in the C and D ranges.

We launched them at a local park that had a triangular airstrip at the heart of it. They weren't very large cars and we had no concept of downforce, so instead of rolling much they basically leapt straight into the air and smashed themselves to bits over about a quarter of a mile of tarmac scattering lego parts the whole way until the motor was free to go pinwheeling or spiraling into the sky.

The old RC plane guys over on the other leg of the airfield were not amused by this at all. I remember on one of the launches there were a few planes I could see in the sky and when a big D class motor fired all the RC planes kind of "flinched" and did a little wing waggle as their pilots on the ground heard the rocket from their stand and flight strip about a quarter mile away. A couple of them came over and chewed us out after that.

However something else my brother and I did a few times was string up fishing line or thread between distant trees, glue a straw or launch rod tube to model airplanes with rocket engines in them down the line. Those stayed on course rather well, but they tended to explode when they met the tree at the other end.
posted by loquacious at 4:48 PM on March 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you're going to fit a jet engine onto a train, is there anything gained by not going the whole hog, getting rid of the tracks and making it into an airliner?
posted by acb at 4:57 PM on March 11, 2013


This monorail would totally solve Seattle's traffic problems, at least along the stretch between the Space Needle and the shopping mall ten or so blocks away.

Oh man, like I need more noise in Belltown. That would be a hell of a ride, though.

It's already rather thrilling like a dodgy carnival ride since it's basically an old electric bus doing 60 MPH on a foot-wide beam of concrete 30-40 feet above the ground.

I still flinch sometimes when I'm crossing the road underneath and it sneaks up on me and suddenly there's something big and metal moving in my direction at freeway speeds. I also don't like to stand under it when it passes if I can help it because it throws a bunch of rain off the track, and if a part or wheel fell off and it you it might ruin your day pretty good.

I do wish it had more than two stops, and that it was part of Metro. I might actually ride it then, but the track is so short that unless you live within like 200 feet of either end of it you might as well walk to the farther station instead of walking to the nearer end.

There's a lot of screwy almost but not quite perfect things about Seattle like that. The 2nd ave bar row in Belltown should actually be alongside the monorail, and the monorail should have a bunch of stops along it and run at least to Queen Anne's bar district. Then it could slog up to Pike/Pine and connect downtown and the Convention Center to all of that *plus* Seattle Center. Just make a big L-shaped two-track loop with trains running in either direction at the same time.
posted by loquacious at 5:01 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you're going to fit a jet engine onto a train, is there anything gained by not going the whole hog, getting rid of the tracks and making it into an airliner?

Lots. It's more efficient because lift = drag, so it can move a lot more weight, passengers and cargo per mile/fuel.

Much less time embarking/debarking. No landing/takeoff patterns, taxiing and time, much better traffic control, lower skill required to pilot, less room for error, less likely to be hijacked. Much less affected by weather or visibility, no atmospheric turbulence.

More passenger amenities and room, too.

You could also use a turbine to power a generator to make electricity just like diesel-electrics do today with plain old traction motors (and also like the all electric "less futuristic" TGV with traction powered truck and wheel sets on all cars) and I think some train engines have done that, but you might as well go all electric like the TGV or Shinkansen.
posted by loquacious at 5:09 PM on March 11, 2013


Ah, if they had only integrated the Monorail with the Bubleator.
posted by sammyo at 5:14 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, who the fuck doesn't love Queen?
posted by item at 5:17 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I didn't love Queen, but I do now.

Also, needs more graffiti. (That was really great - thanks!)
posted by sneebler at 6:02 PM on March 11, 2013


I'd like to be able to buy a ticket on one of those with a transfer to an Ekranoplan ferry, please.
posted by notyou at 6:34 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


All Aérotrain prototypes were destroyed except one.
In Pueblo they have The Rohr.
posted by unliteral at 6:35 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is cool, thanks for posting this!
posted by carter at 8:55 PM on March 11, 2013


There's some neat graffiti on this part of the tracks.
posted by zsazsa at 9:09 PM on March 11, 2013


And here at the end of the line, with the same figures.
posted by zsazsa at 9:14 PM on March 11, 2013


Monorails! Why do people like monorails so much? People should shut up about monorails until they invent a compact, economical way to make this with a monorail.
posted by ryanrs at 10:30 PM on March 11, 2013


What's it called?!
posted by orrnyereg at 12:04 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Monorails! Why do people like monorails so much? People should shut up about monorails until they invent a compact, economical way to make this with a monorail.

Right. As far as I know the Seattle monorail only has one switch in the Seattle Center station, and I think it might not even actually be a switch and may be just a service elevator, lift or crane.

In my case I'm only talking about monorails because one goes whizzing by my apartment all day long, not because I think they're efficient transit.

It would be a lot more entertaining and fun and less useless if it just happened to line up with the primary drinking and entertainment districts in the area and if it wasn't just two stations with a half a mile of dual track between them.

Imagine a dual track that was roughly shaped like rubber band with loops on the ends. Now bend that loop into a rough L shape or triangle and overlay it between Seattle Center, Belltown, Downtown, and Pike/Pine on Capitol Hill. Maybe relax the L and have one leg of it overlaying North Broadway, Denny, Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. Maybe even extend the track and loop south to the stadiums and picking up First Hill or Beacon Hill on the way back to Broadway/Pike/Pine.

Total number of stations would be like 15-30 stations, max, and no switches needed except for a small service and storage yard.

Now put about 8-16 trains on that loop and run one half of them clockwise and the other half counter clockwise, with all stations boarding from the center of the track. This way passengers could take the train in either direction at their whim or depending which arrived first - they're all going to the same stations anyway and the ride and view is pleasant and there's no traffic or switching because it's a dedicated one way track.

Now run it past 2 AM with stations connecting to major connection points for Seattle Metro and ST bus and rail, and make it as cheap as Metro or accept transit cards and transfers. Or maybe even make it free, especially if it was closing time or something.

This would basically create the world's best drunk/party train. It would be a thing of beauty and glorious revelry for conventions like Comicon, or holidays like NYE.

I know monorails suck as large scale public transport, but something like this would be awesome and actually useable for a group of neighborhoods and a metro core like Seattle.

It might actually help with existing bus traffic, too, with potential savings and traffic load.

A massive amount of the local bus traffic (say, less than 5-10 stops) in this exact overlay is extremely local traffic where residents get on in various places downtown so they can take the nice electric buses up the steep hills. These particular buses (The 2, 3, and 4. The 8. The 10, 11, and 12. The 49 and 43 and more) tend to mainly empty out at major points up and down Capitol Hill. Denny, Broadway, Pike/Pine, Madison, with the remaining smaller fraction of riders of any given bus being actual crosstown traffic leaving this described area. The same is somewhat true for downhill travel but with a reduction due to the people willing to choose to walk downhill instead of waiting for a bus.

I argue that as far as Seattle's topography is concerned, a simple continuous "people mover" loop like this would be a pretty great thing. It doesn't have to be a monorail, but since it's Seattle it probably should be.

But speaking of ridiculous or unusual public transit - did you hear about the proposal for a gondola line up Denny to Capitol Hill? With Amazon blowing up right underneath where it's proposed to go it might actually happen at some point. Portland already has one, but it's smaller than the proposed build for Seattle.

Anyway, how do they switch maglev tracks?
posted by loquacious at 2:45 AM on March 12, 2013


Also, do they even use level junctions or diamond crossings that much any more? I thought they've fallen out of favor and are avoided as much as possible due to the increased derailment hazards from the number of gaps/frogs.

I would be really surprised if they used them on TGV, Shinkansen and other high speed rail outside of low speed service yards. They use swingnose switches for smoother and safer higher speed switching/crossing.
posted by loquacious at 2:59 AM on March 12, 2013


I’m glad elgilito’s made a FPP about this; I've been meaning to myself, ever since I heard a piece about the history of this on BBC Radio 4’s Making History. (Clip begins at 19m30s, though the other topics are also fascinating and worth a listen).

The French engineer who is interviewed also mentions the British version, the Hovertrain (which was also abandoned.) The one surviving prototype is in Peterborough.
posted by Kiwi at 3:37 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whenever I hear how impractical monorails are, I just have to sadly nod in agreement and point to the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, which has been just terribly unsuccessful for a hundred and twelve years now.

On the Aerotrain tip, I've got a call-out and a question—the call-out is that the monorail in Fahrenheit 451 was actually the nifty SAFEGE prototype, complete with its wonderful retractable stair that made stations unnecessary (at least in pre-ADA times).

The question, which comes to mind because I was trying to find a URL or citation, is if anyone has a link to the story of the guy who built himself a bicycle-based human-powered monorail to ride the old Aerotrain track. I've looked all over and my googlemojo is failing me. It's a nice coda to this story, I think.
posted by sonascope at 6:39 AM on March 12, 2013


Sonascope: here it is and here is the video. The names of the artists are Vincent Lamouroux and Raphaël Zarka. Zarka also made a replica of the original draisine. I wish I had included this in the FFP.
posted by elgilito at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


This monorail would totally solve Seattle's traffic problems, at least along the stretch between the Space Needle and the shopping mall ten or so blocks away.

If we just give people good coffee and good music, they'll get out of their cars...
posted by entropicamericana at 3:39 PM on March 12, 2013


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