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Crazy transport systems that didn’t go the distance

Aérotrain

All the comfort and speed of a magnetic levitation train, but without the technical complexity and expense – that was the aim of Aérotrain, a hovertrain developed in France from 1965. Five prototypes were built. This stylish Aérotrain 02 engine carried a crew of two and was powered by turbojets. A later version, the I-80 HV, established the world speed record for air cushion vehicles on land when it reached 430.4 kilometres per hour in March 1974. American company Rohr Industries was so impressed that it licensed some of the technology in the hopes of making one of its own.

If Aérotrain had so much going for it, what went wrong? First, there was the death of its lead engineer Jean Bertin. Lack of funding was another problem. And the final nail in the coffin came when the French government decided to adopt the TGV for its high-speed rail network. Aérotrain was abandoned in 1977.

Transit elevated bus

China’s “straddling bus” is the latest in a long and glorious line of failed mass transport. Conceived in 2000, and roatested last year, the Transit Elevated Bus came to the end of the line this July amid allegations of financial shenanigans. Not surprisingly, this bizarre prototype attracted considerable attention when it made its maiden voyage in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. China badly needs green transport solutions, and a huge, electric powered, traffic-jam-skipping bus has obvious appeal.

  Ithacus

It seemed like a good idea back in 1966 when the cold war was hot. To reduce the need for overseas US army bases, why not build an intercontinental rocket capable of carrying a battalion of 1200 soldiers? Ithacus Senior was conceived as a 6400-tonne behemoth, standing 64 metres tall and powered by eight hydrogen drop tanks. Aeroengineer Phillip Bono saw it as a practical application for his orbital launch vehicle ROMBUS (Reusable Orbital Module, Booster, and Utility Shuttle). Its rocket-powered vertical take-off and landing would provide a rapid-strike capability for “rocket commandos”. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start, flying Ithacus home would be impossible without a custom-built launch pad. A convoluted solution was dreamed up. It entailed flying the rocket in short, low-powered hops to the coast, transporting it onto a barge and sailing it back to the US

Gyro monorail

On 10 November 1909, Irish inventor Louis Brennan gave the first public demonstration of his gyro monorail in the grounds of his house in Gillingham, Kent, UK. The track was designed to show off the cornering ability of a vehicle balanced by two vertical gyroscopes mounted side-by-side and spinning in opposite directions. Although he had filed his first monorail patent in 1903, Brennan was rushed into this unveiling when German philanthropist August Scheri announced he would soon be showing off his rival gyro monorail at the Berlin Zoological Gardens.

Brennan’s proper public debut came the following year at the Japan-British Exhibition in London. There, a monorail car carrying 50 people at a time traversed a circular track at over 30 kilometres per hour. Winston Churchill was among the passengers and expressed his enthusiasm.

Moving sidewalk

The first moving walkway was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1890. Invented by engineer Max Schmidt, it consisted of three concentric rings, the first stationary, the second moving at 4 kilometres per hour and the third at 8 km/h, allowing walkers to adjust to the slower speed before moving to the faster one. It proved a huge success at subsequent expositions in Berlin and Paris, where in 1900 the trottoir roulant (pictured) circled the fair in a 3-kilometre loop. Nearly 7 million visitors hopped on. A few even brought folding chairs.

Persuaded by this success, officials in New York proposed several high-profile moving walkway schemes for the city including one over Brooklyn Bridge and another running down Broadway. None materialised, perhaps because they were scuppered by established transport providers. It would be half a century before moving walkways started to appear in sprawling airports and railway stations.