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Inventor Proposes Futuristic Elevated Trains to Solve Traffic Problems

Emil Jacobs' "cTrain" idea involves trains that travel both above and below a single track and increase car supply based on demand.

To solve some of transportation’s oldest problems, Emil Jacobs wants to look to the past.

Way, way in the past. Back to the 1800s, in fact — Jacobs, an inventor based in Cambridge, Mass., whose firm has mostly handled ergonomics projects, has an idea that harkens back to L trains. But with some design tweaks, he thinks the system could offer cities some big changes in the way they offer mobility.

Jacobs’ idea, which he conceived of as a graduate student at Boston Architectural College according to recent press, is called the “cTrain.” The “c” is short for caterpillar.

Laying out the concept on his firm’s website, Jacobs describes the new spin on the elevated train systems that Americans first became familiar with about the same time they started seeing cars: They would run on tracks supported by thin arches that plant into the ground on either side of the street. They would run both above and below those tracks and they would stack into “vertical depots” when not in use so as to minimize storage space. Rubber would keep noise down at the point where each car contacts the track, and electric engines would keep quiet as well.

Jacobs envisions a coordinated demand system for the cars, too. Riders would put in their destination and automated systems would let them know which oncoming cars had space. The system could dispatch more cars to carry more passengers as needed. He sees a car arriving at stations every 10 seconds, and each one capable of carrying 10 people.

Stations would be ubiquitous.

“The last mile issue would be mostly eliminated as the cTrain will typically be available at the end of most side streets,” Jacobs wrote on his website.

The concept comes at a time when lots of people are taking moon-shot kinds of mindsets to traffic problems like congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Automakers and technology companies are working on cars that can drive themselves, which could result in vehicles that travel faster and closer together without as many safety concerns. On the West coast, two companies are competing to successfully demonstrate the “hyperloop” concept where electricity-powered tubes would shoot people along at speeds faster than commercial airplanes.

And in Baltimore last year, a research partner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration pitched an idea that hits some of the same concepts as Jacobs’ cTrain. SkyTran came up with a concept where the city would build elevated tracks to carry high-speed vehicles summoned on-demand — only instead of Jacobs’ train cars, skyTran proposed two-person pods.

While Jacobs put together an estimate of the cost it would take to build the system throughout Boston — $2.4 billion — he has yet to approach any transit authorities about it yet, according to the Boston Globe. Rather, according to Wired, he plans to first take it to the World Conference on Transport Research in Shanghai in July for peer review.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.