Patrick Crozier of essential Transport Blog commented a while ago (see my post on Trucks-on-Tracks) and then again at "yes but" --- which post of his asked Why? Why is Sucher so enthused or even bothering to comment on these trucks-on-tracks. His implied criticism: "Why bother with buses-on-tracks when you can put buses-on-roads?" And how/why would Sucher see them being used in a metropolitan transport system? Why not simply build another highway corridor? Or allocate an existing highway lane to bus rapid transit, which would appear to serve the same purpose?
Very fair questions. (At least I think that's where he was going.)
Summary answer: these wondeful dual-mode vehicles
• might allow more intense use of existing rail lines and
• might permit more complete service (greater penetration to areas just beyond walking distance of stations) and especially when you
• simply can't build another rail or road corridor.
Let's review. As you can see from the photo, this wonderful vehicle is dual-mode ---
--- it goes on road and track. Railroads use them as a convenient vehicle to inspect track, deliver fresh pizza to road crews etc. My surmise was (and though enthusiastic for the technology I did pose it as a "What am I not seeing?") that buses bases on this technology would be useful in certain circumstances. I am not posing the bus-on-track as a silver bullet to solve all problems --- just one option for here and there.
Here's the first one.
Use existing heavy rail lines more intensely.
Might be tough as these lines are often already very busy but maybe, just maybe, in special circumstances they might be just theticket.
The road from Vancouver BC to the Whister ski resort, for example, is a nasty, narrow, turny 2-lane with sheer drop-offs down cliffs to the frigid waters of Howe Sound. (But at least there are guard-rails which is not what can say about some mountain roads of New Zealand where a 1000 foot drop is often not even protected by a marker; hardy folks those kiwis.) Much as I love to drive, I do not love driving down that Whistler highway in a snowstorm at 4PM on a Sunday afternoon.
So while that highway is not without its pleasures,* its danger had been (and continues to be) a consideration in the planning of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It seemed to me that more intense use of the rail line from Vancouver through Whistler by use of buses-on-tracks could be part of the solution as the current road is so constrained by rock and water that widening it to 4-lanes will be very, very expensive.
Use existing light rail lines more intensely.
Then there is possible use in a metropolitan area. I think the questions far above offer their own answer: "Why not simply build another highway corridor? Or allocate an existing highway lane to bus rapid transit, which would appear to serve the same purpose?"
Building a brand new highway corridor in a democratic polity is very hard to do; you gore a whole lot of oxen and these oxen have very widespread ownership. I would wager it would be impossible in the Seattle area and many other metros, too, to establish a new freeway short of a police state. Simply building another limited-access road to accommodate BRT strikes me as impossible.
So that means allocating existing freeway lanes to BRT. I think that is tough, as well. (We'll see. I have some friends who claim it's a piece of cake.)
So, what's left? Existing rail lines. No I do not mean freight/Amtrak etc lines of Burlington Norhern or The Chesapeake. These lines are very busy right now and from what I gather they simply do not really have a lot of excess capacity. Moreover, the rail companies are difficult to deal with and because they are very much creatures of federalism, in some ways they have powers superior to local and state governments.
But there have been a fair number of urban "light rail" lines built in the past 20 years: LA, Washington DC., San Diego, Portland (Oregon) and others. My hypothesis (and it is now only languid musing) is that such lines are under-performing their capacity. They certainly have had virtually no impact on urban congestion. One way to increase their utility is by changing the kind of vehicle which rides upon them. And I suggest that a dual-mode bus is one possible solution.
In Seattle for example we are just about to build Sound Transit. I don't think too much of the plan and I am not alone; but it appears that it will be built. I don't think it will be very successful in attracting riders. My main criticism of it is that the distance between stations is fairly great and that one has to either drive to a station or walk there. As I live close (about ten blocks) but not close-enough to walk to where a station might be built in the year 2020 or so, I doubt if I would ever use it. Now if the system was not based around fixed-rail trains but around dual-mode buses, which might get off the rail line and cruise along neighborhood streets, then get back on the rail line for the long haul, well maybe then you can put those light rail lines to good use.
So that's my theory, Patrick, albeit imperfectly stated but this post needs to get out of the draft bin. Blast away!
*I had a rather magical time driving it one night: it was about midnight, we had left Seattle late and once past Squamish and rising into the alpine, the heavy rain turned to heavy snow. There was no one around. The car ahead of us must have passed at least ten minutes before --- a long time on a busy highway, in what is essentially a suburb of Vancouver. The snow as falling so fast and thick that there must have been a good 6 inches of untracked on the highway; it was like skiing deep powder in a car -- just a smooth, unbroken sheet of white ahead of us. We saw not another car in either direction. Then suddenly, coming towards us there appeared a covey of 4 bigg snow-plows, orange beacons spinning atop their cabs. They passed and again alone, with nothing but our trusty Subaru to move us to shelter. We laughed. We wondered what the snow-plow drivers knew that we didn't. They were all going down the mountain while we were breaking trail upwards. It was a magical drive. Just as we turned the bend to Whistler the snow stopped and we could see the lights of the sno-cats grooming on the slopes.