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Hydrail and Sandy: Learning the Hard Way

Posted on November 1, 2012
By guest blogger, Stan Thompson

What you won’t hear, but should, in news coverage about Hurricane Sandy and transit service interruptions is that hydrail—hydrogen fuel cell/battery hybrid—subway trains would  be much less impacted by salt water flooding.

That’s not to say subway service could have continued.  Signaling, switching and many other essential but shut-down technologies would have prevented anything like “business as usual.”

But it’s likely that work crews could have made it to critical sites sooner if “third rails” standing in salt water were not a factor.  It also seems probable that at least a few emergency evacuations might have been effected underground if free-running, zero-emissions, hydrail equipment had been available to emergency responders.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from a transit planner in Europe interested in just these possibilities. I sent him links about hydrail demonstrations in Japan (and Spain: )

But the most relevant link I sent was this far-sighted statement from a mining CEO in South Africa—although the violent labor unrest there has since eclipsed their progress in leveraging wireless mining locomotive technology toward general hydrail manufacturing ().

After Japan’s tsunami, at least some trains—if only for emergency responders—might have been available in Tokyo if blackout-proof hydrolleys, like the ones tested successfully a few years back by East Japan Railways and the Government’s Railway Transportation Research Institute, had been commercialized:,

Thousands of passengers stranded on electric trains in India, stopped by the massive grid collapse there in July, might at least have made it to the next station if the hydrail train design that Indian Rail was developing a few years back had made it off the drawing board.

In the last decade, Congress paid for the development of a hydrail locomotive that doubles as a self-propelled power plant for electric restoration after hurricanes and other emergencies. Apparently it works just as planned; but still, years later, only one exists ().

A hundred and fifty years ago, the term “Underground Railroad” was synonymous with a path to freedom. Hydrail, a technology first developed for underground railroads (mining), could also become a path to freedom from at least some of the consequences of natural and technological disasters. But we seem to be repeating the grade, never learning.  So, harder and harder, tsunamis, grid failures and hurricanes keep ruler-rapping our knuckles in the School of Hard Knocks.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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  1. Avatar

    Overhead wires aren’t a solution either. I got rerouted three times this year already because the cables were stolen. Copper is expensive and won’t become cheaper… Hydrail does!

  2. Avatar

    That´s right, theft of wires is a big problem in Germany. Please have a look here (text only available in German):

  3. Kevin

    Thanks for the link and thank goodness for Google Translate!

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