Jun 042010

String Theory or Fact?

Trains might be a reasonably cheap transport option – but rail infrastructure is very costly to build.

Monorail, maglev systems and high speed rail are more expensive again – and prices really skyrocket when you have to build bridges, tunnels and winding mountain routes, or cover difficult terrain. Which is why Anatoly Unitsky’s String Transport Systems look like they’ve got so much potential. The system uses solid steel/concrete rails, reinforced with extremely high tension steel wires, to provide an efficient and smooth rail system anywhere between 3 to 30 meters above the ground. It’s earthquake, hurricane and terrorist-proof, and capable of supporting vehicle speeds over 500 kmh, too, making it a genuine high-speed rail alternative, for a fraction of the price of road or ground rail alternatives. Fascinating stuff!

The String Rail System

The UST uses steel or concrete rails, reinforced by hundreds of high-tension wires running through the middle of the rail, suspended above the ground on towers approximately 30 m apart. Unlike roads or rail systems, it can traverse mountains and other rough terrain in a straight line, and it’s equally adept at crossing shallow waters, desert or forest, with minimal environmental impact at the ground level.

Optimal height for a UTS support tower would be around 5-6 m above ground – or 10-20 m where the underlying terrain is very rough. If money is no object, there’s no reason why support towers couldn’t be increased to as much as 100 m high or more.

Because it’s a combination of solid steel/concrete and high-tension wires, it’s not really appropriate to think of the UST as something like a chairlift. In fact, it’s more accurate to look at a UST track more or less as a tiny pre-stressed concrete bridge, built for a fraction of the cost of a ground rail system or even a motorway.

A fraction the cost of rail

The above video outlines the rough process of building a UTS installation, and also shows a modified truck driving on an early demonstration installation in Russia.

A UST system is cheap to install for the simple fact that you can built it with a minimum of materials per km, and a minimum of ground preparation. You don’t need to build expensive overpasses, tunnels or other infrastructure to make the UTS fit in around existing roads and other infrastructure – it’s already up off the ground and out of the way.

Cost estimates are so low as to look downright suspicious – Unitsky quotes a figure of as low as US$50,000 per km for assembled string rail. Compare this to the cost of recent low-speed surface rail installations in Australia – from which the cost of a double-track rail service, not including land acquisition or station building, is very optimistically estimated at around AUD4.12 million (US$345 million) per km. The real cost of underground rail is in the realm of 10 times higher.

Unitsky estimates the final cost of a high-speed UST installation as being somewhere between three and 10 times less expensive per km than a railway, maglev system, monorail system or motorway. This is borne out in the estimated project cost of a potential installation between Abu Dhabi/Dubai/Sharjah – a 138km route estimated at US$280 million, or a little over US$2 million per km. It’s unclear where this figure comes from, or whether it includes land acquisition, stations and other supporting infrastructure.

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