Railcycles Past and Present

27 09 2010

I am officially a Shweeb Dweeb now. I had a ride on the weekend in Rotorua of the Shweeb. The Shweeb is a recumbent bicycle (although it doesn’t have wheels so it’s not a bicycle at all) sitting inside a perspex shell hanging under a rail.

It was fun and it was fast and it was over very, very quickly. It is also quite expensive (NZ $45 for about 2 minutes of fun). It’s set up like a velodrome. There are two tracks, each of 200 metres in length. So there is an inside and an outside track.

There are 7 gears. If you were to ride it you’ll most likely start in 3rd gear and be told that changing gears isn’t really necessary. Ignore that advice. Pedal your guts out, get it into top gear, and see how fast you can go. I didn’t get within sniffing distance of the course record for 3 laps for my age group. I was 10 seconds slower, but it still felt like flying.  The capsules swing out like a centrifuge. There are no brakes inside the Shweeb, so when it is time to stop a track underneath the Shweeb is raised. They can’t engage it if you’re pedalling your guts out. It took a whole lap without pedalling to bleed enough speed off to engage the braking thing. Afterwards my legs were like jelly and I had trouble climbing down the steps.

Now as a tourist toy it doesn’t work so well because the punter throughput it really low. If you got there on a busy day you could be waiting mega-yonks to have a go. I figured I’d be there for nearly an hour, but one group ahead of me had an odd number of people, so I got to jump the queue to make up the numbers. Still despite the wait and despite the cost I’d recommend it at least once for the novelty. A second go is $20. I will have a second go next time I’m passing through Smellytown.

After I finished I texted my significant other to tell her it was fun, and she told me that Google had just given the Shweeb people a lot of money to develop their idea of getting Shweebs into cities as public transport. The NZ Herald wrote about that too.

Now it isn’t a completely new idea to use monorail bicycles for public transport. Whilst waiting to ride the Shweeb I took a photo of their display of historic bike monorails:

I recently got a copy of William Least Heat-Moon’s most recent book Roads to Quoz, An American Mosey. Whilst waiting for it to arrive I started reading River-Horse again. I loved it 9 years ago, and I’m loving it again. He’s got to be amongst the best writers of travel narratives. River-Horse is about taking a small boat from the East River of New York to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. In it it has one of my favourite lines in all books where he yells out to a worker having his lunch sitting under a bridge on the East River that he’s headed to Oregon, and the worker replies “You’re going the right way then.” I haven’t started moseying to Quoz yet, as I’m still on a Missouri flood, but flicking through the book I spied this picture:

and I want to know so much about it, but I have to wait. I’ve heard about it being done before on the B.A.M. railway on a ride between St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, but it isn’t altogether new. For this blog post I thought I’d find a picture of a kalamazoo, sometimes called a handcart, which Quick Draw McGraw style you and a friend push up and down on a lever and you travel on the railway lines, but the Kalamazoo Railway Supply Co, for which kalamazoos are named, also made what they called velocipedes.

I found it on this site from Whippany, New Jersey, where I also found that there was a pedal inspection car made by a company in Indiana:

I’ve long believed that a town on a closed branch line of a railway could get itself a few kalamazoos and then encourage visitors to have a go getting between one town and the next. If you were pumping faster than the people on the kalamazoo in front you just swap places with the people on that kalamazoo. I envision that it would be quite a popular little tourist attraction in an otherwise dying town. So far Cummins, in South Australia is the only town that comes close.

So what about the potential of the Shweeb? It is kind of like a pedal powered PRT pod. PRT ranges from the nearly useful, but still yet to be operational Heathrow Airport system to the very ridiculous. PRT is a land for dreamers and kranks, but I guess there is room for innovation. Hey I think even an interurban rollercoaster would be great. For instance Auckland to Hamilton with lots of loop de loops. Inventiveness needs encouragement, but reading one after another about those PRT schemes will make you pull your hair out.

Firstly getting into a Shweeb capsule is a little awkward. The seat has to be adjusted depending on the rider’s height. Collisions between capsules when a faster rider comes up behind would be buffered and they’d kind of entrain themselves. Switching between one section of track and another I imagine would be reasonably easily engineered, but it’d have to be under the rider’s control. Small children and the infirm wouldn’t be able to ride it. With hills and inclines the riders could get some form of mechanical assistance. The speed is to be a reasonable 20km/hr, even if it is possible to get them up closer to 50km/hr. It would be quite expensive to build a network of lines. They do lift themselves over obstacles like roads and rivers quite easily, and it would be a little less scary than some other proposals. They’d be all weather.  I’d love to see it tried. A network with Shweebs would be a bit like a bike hire scheme, so they’d need some form of load balancing for the capsule locations. So then you’d need workers to hitch a few together and ride some empty ones around the network. It would be quite interesting to see it done.

Still if I was a city mayor and I was working out whether to add freeway capacity, rail capacity, a PRT, or a Shweeb network, I think I’d go a Shweeb network. However I think a network of off-road paved cycleways would be more effective, cheaper, and available for everyone’s bikes, trikes, rollerblades and velomobiles. I’d make bridges for cyclists and pedestrians to cross major roads, and I’d throw up cable car funiculars and aerial gondolas to get people and bikes up hills. Then around heavy rail and light rail stations I’d have secure bike parking, and stands for a bike share scheme.

I hope that somewhere in the world Shweeb takes off for urban transport, but I wish everywhere in the world had safe Dutch-style cycleway infrastructure, the kind where it would be safe to ride a normal recumbent bike without the danger of getting run over by a car, or a bus or a log truck.




6 responses

27 09 2010
Patrick Morgan

Great post.
The book you refer to is Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia, by Mark Jenkins

It’s a great read – esp about the dysfunctional US / Russian teamwork.
Because the road was so bad they rigged their bikes to run along the rails.

I heard some guy was proposing a bike-on-rails project along parts of the Stratford – Whangamomona- Taumarunui line, which is believe is currently closed due to slips. That could be an awesome addition / diversion from the Forgotten Highway trip.

And I agree re sane urban transport planning: PT + bike + walk make more sense than 1960s style motorways. If motorways worked, transport planners from around the world would be coming to Auckland to see how we cracked it. Yeah, right.

27 09 2010

It may have been that book Patrick. I read it like 15 years ago, and if my memory is correct it was a group of Russians rather than Americans and they went the other way.

I’ve met Tim Cope a few times. His book and DVD of a recumbent bike trip across Russia is pretty good reading/watching if you can find it. http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780670040469/Off-the-Rails-from-Moscow-to-Beijing-by-Bike

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