Railroads Adopt Pneumatic Tires to Reduce Suspension Losses

Micheline

Recent tests with bicycles have shown that even on a very smooth road surface, lower tire pressures increase comfort with no loss of speed (Bicycle Quarterly Spring 2013). Now even railroads have become persuaded that super-hard tires diminish both comfort and performance.

Railroads are investigating how to replace their steel tires with supple pneumatic tires that run at relatively low pressures. “We may be a bit late to the party, but more than a century after bicycles adopted pneumatic tires, railroads are finally ready to follow suit,” explained John Hardcase, of the Union Pacific Railroad. “The potential for energy savings due to reduced suspension losses is significant. As important is the improved comfort, not just for passengers, but also resulting in fewer damages to freight.”

Michelin has built a prototype railcar with pneumatic tires that is undergoing tests on an abandoned rail line near Saint-Etienne in Central France (photo above). “It’s not a coincidence that we are testing this right where Vélocio discovered the advantages of supple, wide tires for bicycles during the 1920s,” said Jean-Claude Bibendum of the Michelin company. “For decades, cyclists have tried to approximate a steel railroad wheel by inflating their tires to the maximum pressure, thereby reducing the suspension effect to a minimum. Now it has become clear that this approach has no benefits. Even professional bicycle racers are running their tires at lower pressures to reduce suspension losses. It’s time for railroads to re-examine their tire choices as well. Steel tires on railroad wheels may soon be a thing of the past.”

The company has found that supple casings are key to realizing the advantages of  pneumatic tires on railroads. So far, punctures have not been a problem. Mr. Bibendum: “The vibrations of the approaching train, while much-reduced compared to steel-tired trains, still are sufficient to cause debris placed on the rail to fall off to the sides. We also use multiple wheels to prevent derailments in case of a puncture. We are investigating whether multiple wheels could be used on bicycles to prevent a loss of control when a tire suddenly deflates.”

For Michelin’s newly founded railroad division, the next step is a streamlined train (below) that will be tested on France’s high-speed TGV network. For cyclists, there may be interesting synergies as a result of the collaboration with railroads. (© April 1, 2013)

Micheline_streamline

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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34 Responses to Railroads Adopt Pneumatic Tires to Reduce Suspension Losses

  1. Andrew says:

    And Ikuo tells me that Cofidis are going to use Grand Bois Hetres in this year’s Tdf.

  2. Elton says:

    Is the rumor true that they will have Speedblend ™ sidewalls for easy speed calculation by spectators and the press?

  3. Interesting. Along the same line, isn’t it Michelin’s brethren from way back, the Peugeot corporation, that has been looking into the feasibility of adding pedal-powered electrical-motor assists to some of the regional train lines up in the more hilly areas, like the Alps or the Pyrénées?

  4. Dan says:

    And with flexible rails would we get a train that can plane?

  5. somervillebikes says:

    I hope those tires are at least 42 mm so they don’t get stuck when crossing railroad tracks.

  6. somervillebikes says:

    I’ll bet those trains are so smooth now, passengers’ morning commutes become mini-vacations!

  7. somervillebikes says:

    And passengers describe the feeling that the train “disappears” beneath them.

  8. Daniel says:

    I’m going in the opposite direction. After getting a flat and having to drive 12 miles to the nearest service station to get the tire replaced (it was raining and I bet you wouldn’t have changed a tire either), I started to like t he road feel and just had all the tires removed. I couldn’t afford the new tire anyway. I tried it on my all steel Surly and I have to say that the ride is far superior to any tire I have used in the past. Once you grind down the rims some, the traction is fabulous.

  9. Rolly says:

    Why not keep the railcars as they are and make the tracks pneumatic and supple? That way cyclists won’t wipe out on them. In fact cyclists would even choose to ride routes with many railway crossings because those routes would be both faster and more comfortable!

    — Rolly

  10. Garth says:

    I remember being in Paris 15 years ago and noting that the subway trains had rubber wheels. I’m pretty sure they were solid rubber. They were definitely quieter than anything in the United States.

  11. Bill Gobie says:

    Rubber is so 19th-century. When does the future arrive?

    http://files.disappearednews.com/images/Backtothefuture_12EE3/MagLevTrain193110.jpg

  12. Tom Macleay says:

    Montreal Metro also runs on rubber. I am pretty sure that they are not solid rubber, but rather full of hot air.

  13. Keith Hearn says:

    M. Bibendum? ;)

  14. David Pearce says:

    As it is said, “Un-huh”….. And also as it is said, “That’s a hell of a way to run a railroad!”….. But to get back to reality, I am seriously concerned about the overfishing of the gefilte, which soon may not be abundant enough to sell in grocery stores, but only be seen in glass jars on laboratory shelves. We must do what we can to reverse this bad trend!

  15. Stevy says:

    Glad to see that Michelin is going for an integrated approach, with the engine and the passenger accommodation within the one unit. The is obviously the reason for the success of the motor omnibus.

  16. Please note, “Railroads to adopt pneumatic tires ….” was posted on 1 April, a.k.a. as April Fools Day. Internet searches using keywords such as, “pneumatic tires railroads”, and “Codifis Extra-Leger Grand Bois tires” yield zero hits. Further, the 1st photo is an older photo and the second photo has a steam engine in the background, circa 1930, 1940. I suspect this is an April Fools posting and by the number of comments, the posting was well written. Well done, well done.

    • You are right about April 1! The rubber-tired trains actually did exist in the 1930s – google “Micheline” and you’ll find more info. The subway with pneumatic tires also continues to run in Paris and elsewhere. However, the Cofidis story that Andrew added appears to be pure fiction.

      • Andrews post was not too far from reality. My engineering friend at Trek hinted to me the RadioShack Leopard Trek team will be riding new Demane Mk II bikes fitted with ultra-light 700B tubular tires. The production version of the Demane Mk II will be offered to the public during the Tour de France. Watch for the ads at about the midpoint of the tour. This is all very exciting.

      • When you get your Spring issue of Bicycle Quarterly, you’ll find out that professional racers have been racing on hand-made tubulars at least since the 1930s. As François Marie from FMB explains, the tires today are still the same as they were in the 1960 and earlier.

    • Ty says:

      Seriously, great post!

      Oh, back to serious bike stuff, Sheldon Brown just announced their new saddle.

      I think Compass Bicycles should seriously consider it!
      http://sheldonbrown.com/real-man.html

  17. Dan Michael says:

    I read an article on this experimental train yesterday. A laser rangefinder at each truck enables the air pressure in each tire to be automatically adjusted to maintain a 15% drop.

  18. Bernie Burton says:

    Following in the footsteps of Sheldon Brown- but a little more believable!

  19. Tim J says:

    It was only a matter of time. Clearly some folks in the rail industry have been reading BQ! Now if you can just convince them to carry the whole load up front, use extra long mud guards, and wear wool, we’ll truly have a modern rail industry.

  20. Greg says:

    Joyeux 1er Avril!
    Nunc est Bibendum!
    Allez les Bleus!

  21. james says:

    Did the wheels with rubber damping rings used on the ICE trains reduce suspension losses?

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