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Okay, not the most pressing question on your agenda.  But, nonethess, how come Vancouver’s trolleys need two parallel wires when light-rail lines only need one?

Jarrett Walker explains all, in his review of Transport Revolutions by Anthony Perl and Richard Gilbert First of all, though, Jarrett lays out the basic dilemma:

Petroleum has a very high energy density…   Batteries, by comparison, are just too heavy compared to the amount of energy that they can deliver, so when you put them in a mobile vehicle, they lose a lot of their efficiency to the work of transporting their own weight, and don’t have much left over to transport us or our cargo.

All this is carefully explained, and leads Gilbert and Perl to a striking conclusion:  We will need to shift most of our mechanical transport to “grid-connected vehicles” (GCVs), vehicles — like trolleybuses and electric rail lines – that can draw power from the grid continuously (and increasingly, return surplus energy back to the grid as well). …

But their vision goes further, to a network of “grid connected” roads, and … into something that looks to the authors like Personal Rapid Transit (PRT).

Jarrett is skeptical of anything like a network of personal vehicles that require connection to some sort of wired grid.  And at this point, he explains “one nasty technical detail.”

… grid-connected vehicles on tires need to route both directions of the electric circuit through the overhead catenary.  That’s why trolley buses have two wires, while overhead-powered rail has only one. 

With two wires, you have to connect to them with poles, because the two sides of the circuit have to be kept apart.   Trains, by contrast, are grounded through the rails and therefore need only one wire above.  That means trains can meet this wire with a large horizontal structure —  called a pantograph -– which easily accommodates lateral motion.  

It’s a fine joke, really, by the technology gods:  The power source that offers the most lateral flexibility works only on rails, which have the least need for it. 

And hence the problem.  Anyone who’s been on a Vancouver trolley knows how delicate the double-wire technology of trolleybuses can be when the vehicles have to move laterally.  Even turning a corner can dewire the trolley poles – and this is when all the drivers are trained by the transit agency.  Imagine all of us in our separate vehicles, driving the way we want, with minimal training – and unable to pass.

Once again, the romance of technology confounded by the reality of human behaviour.