Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rail Cars to Be Cosmic Carriages for the Masses

MTUsing space technology, compartments could transform from two-person luxury sleepers into six-seater suburban commuters.
Futuristic space technology and Russia's creaking train system might seem light years apart, but a construction company in Ukraine is changing all that.

Their concept of train cars made with space age materials may be a reality as early as August.

Ukraine's Dneprvagonremstroi, once the Soviet Union's leading train car and locomotive repair plant, last year approached the Railways Ministry with an offer to invent a car with compartments that can metamorphose from two-person luxury sleepers to six-seat suburban commuters in just 20 minutes.

While Russian train producers have come up with state of the art trains, the Ukrainian invention gives the Railways Ministry a way of meeting demand for not only luxury travel but also a means of transportation for the country's many budget-conscious passengers.

Though the idea of such transformer cars is not new, until now no proposals have met federal requirements on durability, weight and public health norms. Traditional materials were either too heavy or too cumbersome, making compartments unpleasantly cramped.

To avoid this trap, Dneprvagonremstroi specialists have turned to polycarbonate, a durable, flexible plastic, most often used in the space industry for the interiors of space shuttles.

The material will allow them to make cars weighing 2.5 metric tons less than ordinary passenger cars. The cars would also be more ecologically friendly: Polycarbonate can be recycled.

Designers at the plant in Dnepropetrovsk also plan to install a new type of energy supply system that would reduce electricity use by 37 percent.

According to preliminary estimates, a transformer car is likely to cost at least $600,000, or 25 percent more then an ordinary sleeper car. The price could exceed that, depending on the cost and quality of the interior.

The designers are considering using a special U.S.-made shatterproof glass for the doors and windows. The high-tech glass can be switched between transparent and dark by running an electrical current through it.

If Dneprvagonremstroi pulls it off, it will succeed in revolutionizing travelers attitudes toward trains -- and, in doing so, give the company a long-sought foothold in the Russian market.

"If they can manage it, we are very interested in such a product," said Viktor Dushkin, deputy head of the Railways Ministry's passenger transportation division.

Dneprvagonremstroi has said it will complete work on the detailed technical plans and present the first mock-up of the car to the Railways Ministry by Aug. 4, or Railway Worker's Day. This will be a speedy turnaround, since the Railways Ministry and Dneprvagonremstroi only agreed on the technical requirements for the transformer car last month.

"Personally, as an engineer, I don't think it's possible, but they are very serious," Dushkin said. The plant has set up a dedicated engineering center with 120 specialists assigned to the project.

The transformer car allows each compartment to seat from two to six passengers, allowing a car to serve as a luxury sleeper or a suburban commuter, depending on demand. Conductors will be able to convert the train car among any of its four layouts within 20 minutes.

A standard four-person sleeper, for example, quickly becomes a two-seat luxury compartment when the two upper berths are completely folded away into the wall.

From there, the compartment's two lower sofas can each be transformed into three seats, complete with headrests, arms, a socket and an individual light. Such six-seat compartments would be in high demand for suburban traffic and other short-distance routes, Dushkin said.

Alternatively, for an upscale variation, the middle chairs can become a table, adapting the compartment for only four passengers.

Each compartment is to be outfitted with mirrors, reading and overhead lights and a wall-mounted television set.

"We can make very convenient compartments that let us seat various numbers of passengers and ensure a comfortable trip for them," Dushkin said.

Dneprvagonremstroi said it can produce 350 such cars annually, or about the number of cars the Railways Ministry buys each year.

Innovative as these cars may be, Russia may be the only suitable market for them.

"Such cars are not needed abroad where passenger traffic is more or less stable, routes are not very long and trains are more comfortable," Dushkin said, noting that foreign trains mostly have seats, not sleepers.

But Russia needs flexibility and variety in the number of classes and seats due to seasonal fluctuations in traffic volumes and a wide gap in passengers' incomes, Dushkin said.

Passenger traffic tends to leap in the summer and decline toward winter. About 40 percent of all railway traffic occurs from June to August.

To meet demand in the summer, the Railways Ministry adds about 6,500 cars to trains in service year-round and it hauls out 300 trains from winter storage.

The transformer cars would also allow the railways more flexibility when demand for certain destinations spikes temporarily, such as over the May holidays, Christmas or New Year's. Cities within 800 kilometers of Moscow, particularly St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Voronezh, see traffic jump significantly during holidays.

The Railways Ministry, as a state monopoly, feels a social responsibility to fully meet demand, even when it means making exceptions to market prices to make it possible for low income passengers to travel.

During the summer, the traveler demographics shift along with volumes.

With almost 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line, most Russians look to trains as the cheap way to travel long distances. At the same time, demand among the wealthy for first-class accommodation on trains has skyrocketed.

The transformer cars would give the Railways Ministry more ways to meet the summer vacation rush. "When millions of families head to the south, we could refuse to sell as many tickets for two-seat, first-class compartments, letting us transport more passengers in four-person, second-class sleeping compartments," Dushkin said.

The price per compartment in the transformer car would be fixed and divided by the number of passengers, so passengers could buy comfort simply by paying more.

"The more passengers, the lower the price. The fewer the passengers, the higher price. This way, cars would always be profitable," Dushkin said.

The ministry has not yet calculated how many Black Sea-bound trains should be replaced by transformers, Dushkin said.

"No matter how good it sounds, there always are some problems," he said. For example, he said, the country's public health requirements for seat widths and legroom would make a standard 1.93-meter wide compartment so cramped it would make it a third-class space.

"Passengers would not like that," Dushkin said.

In order to comply with the rules, Dneprvagonremstroi likely will construct an eight-compartment, rather than the regular nine-compartment car.

It would mean a loss of seats, Dushkin said, "But we insist on meeting sanitary norms rather than saving seats."

After the hefty investments necessary to get these high-tech transformer cars up and rolling, keeping the high-tech components safe from vandals is a major concern.

"It is very important that nothing come loose or unscrewed so that hooligans cannot unscrew things and take them away," Dushkin said. "Cars should be comfortable, safe and practical for passengers as well as for conductors."

And as great as the blueprints sound, Dushkin said he will believe it when he sees it.

"We want to see a sample first, to sit in it, to try it out and only then, upon approval, to go further," he said.