I read about this a couple of years ago and it intrigued me – mainly because of the naysayers who said it wouldn’t work – it actually didn’t but not because of the reasons put forward at the time!
Very simply, a mass transit system that would straddle a two lane road to allow vehicles to pass underneath and as such would not be a blockage like buses or trams are in some cities. A reasonable idea given the ever increasing density of the world’s cities and it was called the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB – companies must have a three letter acronym for marketing). Running at speeds of around 40 mph (64 kmh) on rail lines it could carry 300 passengers which in theory could mean less cars on the roads or at least a fast link from an outer suburb into a city centre to move larger quantities of people quicker.
What the Critics Said
The base comments were that it couldn’t possibly work because:
– It wouldn’t be able to get under low bridges.
– If a tall vehicle wanted to use the same road, how could it?
– How could it change lanes without hitting cars?
– How could it go around sharp corners?
– It would be too expensive to lay new rail lines.
These questions show why the modern western human race is going backwards. None of these are show stoppers, rather complaints from narrow-minded people who are unable to see that this idea was trying to fix a modern city problem: congestion. In cities that are built on a grid structure, one of these buses could easily travel in a straight line delivering passengers to different stops. Drivers would be taught (as they are in cities with trams) that it is not a good idea to attempt to argue with them and in some cities large vehicles are already banned from certain streets or during normal work hours, so that wouldn’t be a problem.
Sydney has just had some new light rail lines installed on a straight street and yes it was expensive, however it didn’t stop the project.
What Really Happened
The TEB-1 vehicle was tested in a coastal town in China and all seemed to be going well. A 300 metre track was laid and the 72 foot long bus was loaded on to it for the start of a promising life. The idea was first floated in 2010 and investors were sought to make it a reality. In recent years there has been a load of cash available for technology investments and this project was ready to absorb it.
The company behind the project, Huaying Kailai, had a successful marketing message that attracted both public and private investment. They were telling anyone who would listen that they would get an annual return (ARR) up to 12%. At that time in China, peer-to-peer lending was averaging 13.3% ARR (source: China State Media and Bloomberg), so the project looked OK. The developers of the bus had also announced that five cities had signed agreements to build rail lines suitable for their use. One report in the Global Times, a Chinese media outlet, suggested that the Indian Government were also interested in licensing the products.
Clearly the early investors were starting to want their 12% ARR and there was some agitation that the whole project was a scam to embezzle funds. Some even went to the company’s offices to try and get their money back after they read negative reports about the project. In July last year, 32 members of the company were arrested on suspicion of illegal fund raising. The prototype and test track were dismantled and binned by the Government.
There were reports that investors were unhappy that they had put their money into a product that had no new leading-edge technology. It is possible that investors assumed that the bus would be technologically advanced – yet it was simply a traditional rail carriage in a new design!
It is true that in China, technology companies have been able to float with massive amounts of private investment and even some non-technology companies have rebranded themselves to take advantage of the desire for the Chinese people to become investors – often with major losses happening.
Huaying Kailai was a technology company and they did build a product that could have worked. A local Government paid for the test track, however the bus itself was constructed by the company and clearly it was able to run on the rail line and do what it was intended to do. Importantly, Huaying Kailai had bought a patent from the Chinese State Government to make this happen, so they were initially interested and supportive presumably until someone in the Party ranks grumbled that they weren’t getting their expected return.
Huaying Kailai was owned by a finance group who did raise capital from public and private sources for a range of assets and they could have fallen foul of some laws that surround financial investing in the peer-to-peer market. Perhaps the investigation was started by a disgruntled local Government official who had been an investor. Clearly the State Government was behind them for a while, so something made them change their minds.
It is a pity, because for many cities this type of transportation could work well and allow cars to use the same roads just as trams can. Importantly though it would allow for through roads to keep flowing whilst the bus stops and starts. Although there were lots of critics pointing out design flaws in the prototype – it was just that, a prototype that was used to help the designers improve their product. How many concept or prototype cars ever reach the market with no modifications? I suggest none.
You have to applaud the designers in trying to figure out an ever growing problem. Today the top three Chinese cities have a combined population of 55 million people. It is unsustainable to have cars transport that volume of humans! Public transportation has to be part of any solution, and one that can share the same real estate as other transportation methods should be considered.