Swift Tram Wants to Get You High

Originally posted on Rockies Venture Club Blog

Recently declared the third most investable startup at the 2013 Angel Capital Summit, Boulder based Swift Tram wants to revolutionize public transportation by taking it high above the streets. The company envisions riders zipping along in suspended coaches 20 feet off the ground, gliding unimpeded over traffic jams, accidents, and icy roads to reach their destinations quickly and predictably. And, perhaps best of all, Swift Tram expects construction of its routes to cost less and take less time than adding light rail or bus lanes to existing travel routes.

With such an attractive set of benefits, observers could be excused for wondering why no one has gone down this road before. In fact, they have: a suspended coach system (also called a suspended monorail) built in Wuppertal, Germany in 1901 is still running today. More recently, Siemens completed one in 2003, and Aerobus is supposedly building one in Weihai, China, but its current status is unclear. However, despite these examples and a number of others not listed, suspended coaches have played a very minor role in public transportation to date.

What makes Swift Tram different? According to Founder and CEO Carl Lawrence, it’s the cumulative effect of many recent technological advancements all incorporated into a new, modern design. Swift Tram has filed two provisional patents covering advancements intended to, among other things, improve the speed, efficiency and reliability of suspended coach systems while reducing operating costs. Understanding the company’s innovations first requires a general explanation of their new approach to an old method of transportation.

The Swift Tram system consists of coaches suspended beneath large tubular guideways that are supported by regularly spaced towers. Drive bogies travel through the inside of the hollow guideways and connect to the passenger carrying coaches beneath them through a channel that cuts through the bottom of the guideways. The bogies are the true heart of the system: they contain motors powered by electricity delivered through the guideways, and house the intelligence that enables the fully automated system.

The bogies will be designed to carry the coaches at average speeds of 45 to 75 mph, and will be fully automated, so no driver will be required in the coaches. The ability to operate without drivers is key to the operational efficiencies Swift Tram is counting on to make its approach economical. Not only does it allow the company to save the labor costs associated with drivers, but it significantly reduces the overhead associated with running smaller, more frequent coaches. By running coaches more frequently Swift Tram would reduce wait times for passengers, leading to happier passengers and, ideally, increased ridership.

Efficiency gains in the bogies would come from incremental improvements over historical designs, such as the use of regenerative braking and smaller, more efficient motors. At the system level, smaller motors would enable smaller bogies and smaller guideways, cutting construction and material costs. Swift Tram plans to pursue additional system level efficiencies by designing smart bogies that can coordinate their activities to minimize power draw system wide. In addition to using less electricity than traditional suspended coach drive mechanisms, they also would reduce the size of the electric grid required to support the system, again cutting construction and material costs.

By incorporating these and other design improvements drawn from recent developments in the smart grid, electric vehicle, and related industries, Swift Tram hopes to pull together a system that overcomes the challenges that have slowed widespread adoption of suspended coaches to date.

Currently, Swift Tram is focused on establishing the partnerships it will need to realize its vision. The company plans to manufacture the drive bogies, outfit the coaches, and develop the software for the control centers in-house, while manufacturing and construction of other system components will be outsourced. An in-house prototype of the bogie is under development, and Swift is raising a $1M seed round to support the engineering design of the total system. The company anticipates raising a couple of additional rounds to support prototyping, testing, and manufacturing before it sees initial revenue in 2016.

If Swift Tram is successful in helping public transportation rise above the fray, the ramifications could be significant. Metropolitan areas all over the world suffer from severe traffic congestion, and a cost effective solution that reduces travel time without adding to the ground-level footprint of transportation infrastructure has a lot of appeal. The array of approaches to suspended coaches that have come and gone without catching on provide a testament to the challenges Swift Tram faces, but if the company overcomes them it should find lots of riders who have been waiting for a better transportation option. Waiting in traffic jams, waiting for trains that aren’t scheduled to arrive for another 30 minutes, and waiting for buses that should have arrived 10 minutes ago.