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Yes, Google, there is a hydrail

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Dear Google: “hydrail” is really a word, and has been since at least February of 2004 when it appeared in an invited article in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy (volume 29, issue 4, page 438).

It was used as early as 2003 in an invited presentation at the US DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, MA, proposing hydrogen fuel cell powered transit vehicles .

That was about the time a few folks in Mooresville, North Carolina, begin in earnest to pursue a non-diesel, wireless alternative for a proposed commuter rail line to connect Mooresville with Charlotte.

Mooresville soon learned that the same idea was being pursued in Canada, Denmark, Germany and elsewhere. I began using the contraction of “hydrogen” and “rail” as a simple search engine target  (though I’d never heard that phrase) so all of us could find each other’s work online.

As a retired planner, I’d worked out that—like hydrogen electrolysis—the Babel story in Genesis could work backwards: If taking away a common language could halt a project, bestowing a needed word could move it forward.

“Hydrail” was a neologism coined with serious intent.

Later that year I was to learn that it is literally deadly serious. At the invitation of the US EPA, I spoke about hydrail at their 2004 Air Toxics Workshop, where I learned from another presenter that the fine particulates in diesel locomotive exhaust can penetrate the lungs’ alveoli, entering the bloodstream and accumulating in the pericardium, causing illness and sometimes death.

Through contact with international hydrail interests, I’d already come to the conclusion that, unless the climate consensus on carbon dioxide is reversed, hydrail will become the prevalent rail traction technology sometime before mid-century. My Mooresville friends and I realized that bringing the pioneers together in person—not just online—could make hydrail “happen” sooner. In 2005, that sparked the beginning of our annual International Hydrail Conferences .

A year or so later it occurred to me that, if the Oxford English Dictionary made hydrail a formal entry, its more general use would advance development internationally. Years have gone by but, so far as I can learn, hydrail has still not made the “OED”—even though a Fellow of the British Royal Society spoke at our 2012 Hydrail Conference in the UK!

Google, too, holds hydrail at arm’s length. Unless a search argument specifically appends “-hydraulic,” Google will offer to substitute “hydraulic” for “hydrail,” implying the searcher must not be sober.

I love Google. I use it constantly and I’m a small, but keen, investor in its shares. That Google is genuinely committed to the spirit of their corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” I have no doubt.

But in India, some year soon, a few—or a few hundred—souls will die of cardiac disease because the transition from diesel to hydrail has taken a bit too long. Search engines, by doubting that hydrail is a real word, are doing to a much-needed, post-carbon rail technology what God did to that ill-fated Tower in Babylonia.

Several Chinese, too, will probably die from lung disease in their dreadfully air-polluted cities because the press release writer who proudly announced South China Railways’ first hydrail tram did not know it was part of a larger world transition. That omission made the innovation invisible to search engines, losing SCR congratulations from all quarters which might have lent their innovation urgency and gravitas.

Even though Alstom Transport first described at the Second International Hydrail Conference in Denmark, 2006, the regional hydrogen trainsets which they will soon deploy in Germany, their recent press release did not note that it’s the largest hydrail project ever undertaken.

A tiny data base omission can do “evil” that systems engineers never suspect.

Epilog:  On June 22 and 23, 2015, in Mooresville, North Carolina (where the word “hydrail” originated) the Tenth International Hydrail Conference will convene scientists, engineers, manufacturers and academics from Austria, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA to advance the deployment of hydrail technology. To learn more, or to register, please visit: http://www.hydrail.org/conferences/hydrail2015.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I’m a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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