Railroads Adopt Pneumatic Tires to Reduce Suspension Losses

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)

34 Responses to Railroads Adopt Pneumatic Tires to Reduce Suspension Losses

  1. Andrew April 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

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

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly April 1, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      Yes, the Extra-Leger model. Deliveries to the pro teams have started on April 1.

      • Rod Bruckdorfer April 2, 2013 at 5:14 am #

        I just ran an internet search and found no reference to Cofidis using Extra-Leger Grand Bois tires. Can you cite a source for this information? What tire size will they use – 23 X 700 or 28 X 700?

  2. Chris Heg April 1, 2013 at 5:33 pm #


  3. Elton April 1, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

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

  4. NuitsBlanches April 1, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    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?

  5. Dan April 1, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

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

  6. somervillebikes April 1, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

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

  7. somervillebikes April 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

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

  8. somervillebikes April 1, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

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

  9. Daniel April 1, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    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.

  10. Rolly April 1, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    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

  11. Garth April 1, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    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.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly April 1, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

      Several Metro lines in Paris do have rubber tires, but they actually are Michelin pneumatic tires. The technology is a bit different from the 1930s “Michelines” shown in the post: In addition to the weight-bearing tires, they have horizontal tires that run on strips of metal running alongside the tracks, which guide the train.

      • Rolly April 2, 2013 at 5:14 am #

        I think Montreal’s Metro subway trains run on rubber as well, if I remember correctly. I rarely rode them when I lived there.
        — Rolly

        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly April 2, 2013 at 6:15 am #

          France has been exporting its subway train technology all around the world. When I was in Chile, I met Frenchmen who were engineer working on the subway extension in Santiago.

    • kww April 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

      Several automated shuttle trains at major US airports have pneumatic tire trains. I believe that Miami and JFK in NYC are two that come to mind, as well as Seattle’s glorious monorail:

  12. Bill Gobie April 1, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

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

  13. Tom Macleay April 1, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

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

  14. Keith Hearn April 1, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    M. Bibendum? 😉

  15. David Pearce April 2, 2013 at 12:50 am #

    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!

  16. Stevy April 2, 2013 at 4:09 am #

    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.

  17. Rod Bruckdorfer April 2, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    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.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly April 2, 2013 at 7:39 am #

      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.

      • Rod Bruckdorfer April 2, 2013 at 7:53 am #

        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.

    • Ty April 2, 2013 at 8:12 am #

      Seriously, great post!
      Oh, back to serious bike stuff, Sheldon Brown just announced their new saddle.
      I think Compass Bicycles should seriously consider it!

      • Bill Gobie April 2, 2013 at 10:04 am #

        Granite is a traditional material!

  18. Dan Michael April 2, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    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.

  19. Bernie Burton April 2, 2013 at 9:09 am #

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

  20. Tim J April 2, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    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.

  21. Greg April 2, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

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

  22. james April 3, 2013 at 9:48 am #

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