Between Norfolk and Virginia Beach, my late grandmother remembers taking a railbus shuttle that ran on the now abandoned tracks between the oceanfront and downtown. It did not survive deregulation. She talked about it more than a few times, as there has been contentious fighting about building an expensive, billion dollar light rail line from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. Why did they not take an interim step like a railbus? The answer is that there was no off the shelf equipment to buy anymore; the diesel units were just not made.
The resolution to the issue is unfinished. Currently, Norfolk has its expensive light rail system, The Tide, up and running, but Virginia Beach citizens do not want pay for The Tide, and so it does not reach the obvious destination, the Atlantic Ocean and Oceanfront resorts.
I remember riding on similar railbus trains on the Metro-North railroad in the 1980s to visit my future in laws in Connecticut; my recollection is that they were Budd RDC units, which were connectors to the electrified Harlem Line that ran into Grand Central Station.
There are other one-unit trains across the world, including Germany’s Wismar railbus and Uerdingen “Red Buzzer” railbus. There is also the deplored, but eminently practical British Rail Pacer. Some odd historic railbuses survive, including the Galloping Goose, which resembles an old bus merged onto a box frame. It lives on tourist railroads out west.
These simple buses, which are sometimes only one car, might be a way to open up less viable rail routes. Sadly, because there are so few rail car manufacturers, there are no successful prototypes available to buy and try. And they do not work with federal guidelines where other trains operate.
There are multiple unit diesel trains like the Regio Shuttle, but their cost is still high and would be a much greater capacity than needed. British Rail has a group of Pacer trains that are simple, 4 wheel construction on a fixed wheelbase, built on bus bodies, but these are to be phased out. They were old Leyland buses, but they truly only had 20 year lifespans.
In the Northeast, Budd Company versions of the trains, made in Philadelphia, kept open many marginal train routes, which were later upgraded successfully. The trains basically lasted until they wore out, and none were replaced. The Budd Company is also gone.
Below, a Budd preview of their RDC cars, which gave hope to railroads across the U.S. after World War II.
I wonder today why there is no innovation in the area of self-propelled small scale rail vehicles. Jurisdictions would of course pay to have rail service, if economical. In a time when we are talking about self-driving cars, there must be the technology to run inexpensive trains on a fixed line. Certainly there are safety issues, but could anything be less safe than driving on an interstate today with texting teens?
There are, however, three manufacturers of railcar movers, diesel powered engines that can move but a few cars in a rail yard. Manufacturers include Trackmobile, Rail King and Shuttlewagon. Australia’s Aires Rail makes a wide variety of cars. Mercedes also makes the Unimog, a sort of Star Wars like tractor that can run in all sorts of areas. There is even a rail version, which I am sure could be coupled with a bus frame somehow.
Today, there are number of research efforts are out there. In a quick search I came up with a few advanced “dual-mode transit” vehicle ideas.
- Steve Spata of Farmington Hills, Michigan proposed in 2013 a rail bus system for areas that were not busy enough to support commuter rail. It was his hope that abandoned rail corridors could be revived, and emergency mass evacuation could be facilitated by this use. His plan would also be a stepping stone to future larger rail projects, and allow for new transportation in cities where it would be impossible to create new rights of way. Click HERE.
- The Netherlands research firm Movares has devised a dual-mode vehicle that runs both on the road and on rail, with track wheel on inside and rubber tire on outside. Movares has also devised a nifty, but a bit Supertrainish vehicle called the Aerocity. Click HERE.
Below, the Pacer trains from British Rail. While Brits complain about them, I would take them, in a minute, on rail lines that are rarely used. For instance, there is no rail between Sarasota and Tampa; this route could certainly accommodate a few hundred passengers a day. This scenario could be played out across the U.S.
The reality is that no matter how much some dislike the Pacer, it has kept rail alive to another day. What would happen if there were well-insulated, modern motorcoaches with wifi that replaced them?