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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

The Replacement of Branch-line Rail Services with Low Energy Powered Autonomous Pods


This project looks into three options within the UK where there is an opportunity to replace currently available transport services with a low energy option using electric autonomous pods. The research is aimed towards identifying and analysing selected branch rail lines and also part of the Cambridge Park and Ride system that may benefit socially, environmentally and economically in result of being replaced with pod technology. The two branch rail lines selected to be analysed are Watford to St. Albans Abbey and Purleyto Caterham, these lines have been chosen due to geographical, economic and/or social reasons. A further study on the potential of replacing part of the Cambridge Park and Ride Scheme (Red Route) with a similar pod highway concept will also be conducted. Using lowenergy electric autonomous pods means that the public will have the capability to utilise an on-demand, cheaper and more environmentally friendly service. Where necessary, the proposal would need obstructions to the where the pod highway would be to be removed and replaced by a tarmacked highway by which the pods would use much like a public road.

Users of the system will have the opportunity to book their place in a pod for a certain time, by reserving their place on their smart phone or computer. They would then board at a pod station where the vehicle would be waiting and be transported via the new highway to their destination. Although the maximum speed for the pods could be 40mph, it will be demonstrated that on relatively short branch lines that the journey can prove to be quicker, as a previous necessity to carry out stops on the way can be negated.


St Albans Abbey to Watford Junction Branch Rail Line (10.46km)

This branch line is fully functional at the moment but the local council had been considering substituting the branch with light rail, to reduce emissions and costs. Efforts have been terminated, as the transformation was deemed too expensive.

Caterham to Purley Branch Rail Line (7.05km)
This line is an example of a busier state owned branch that can demonstrate the viability feasibility of using pods in areas of high demand but still over a short distance.

Cambridge Park and Ride Bus Service (Newmarket Road to Drummer Street, 3.75km)
This portion of the P+R system in the city has the potential to be replaced by a pod highway, following the existing Jubilee cycle path. The path currently runs from a park-up point at Newmarket Road and then runs towards the city centre, offering the opportunity to drop off passengers near Midsummer Common. The main concept of the project is to prove that by using an on demand service with the smallest parasitic mass as possible, the most carbon friendly, socially sustainable and economically sensible method of travelling can be found.

Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.