It would take a brave soul to try to predict the future of the rail industry – ideas such as driverless trains, for example, would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. Yet it is clear from the megatrends we are seeing today that railways will only become a more important part of the global transport mix.
A rapidly growing urban population (75% of the global population is expected to live in cities by the year 2050), the need to tackle man-made global warming and a growing emerging middle class with the means to be mobile all point to the increased utilisation of railways. Even in countries such as Qatar and Brazil, where there is little or no railway culture, hundreds of millions of dollars are going into high-speed rail infrastructure.
At the same time, advances in technology have raised expectations among travellers. Passengers have come to expect automation, smart ticketing, minimum waiting times, and for railway stations to be recognised as a destination in their own right. In addition, there is the expectation that information on the status of trains or freight will be accessible on demand and in mobile form.
The challenge will be ensuring that the huge increase in demand (and demands) is met in the most cost-effective, environmentally sensitive and customer-friendly way possible. This will require fresh thinking, which a new report by engineering giant Arup aims to provide.
Future of Rail 2050 – “no user, no railway”
Future of Rail 2050 is part sober analysis, part thought experiment that, according to the company’s global rail lead Colin Stewart, aims to “move beyond the day-to-day focus” and push people to think about the “forces shaping rail’s future”. Instead of focusing on ideas in isolation, it places them within the context of train journeys that could theoretically take place in 2050.
Overcrowding on London’s rail network is not a new problem, but the stakes are high and new capacity is urgently required.
“We tried to do it from a different perspective,” Stewart tells Future-Railway. “There’ve been a number of technology-driven pieces of work. But we concluded that this is really about the user and the user experience – no user, no point in the railway.”
For example, in one case study a railway passenger named Hugo is rushing to catch a metro train when he realises he has forgotten a parcel that has to be delivered that evening. He retrieves the parcel and places it in an International Express box by the station which allows him to pay for the shipping with the touch of a button. The parcel drops onto a conveyer belt and is transported to a pod on an underground freight line; the parcel’s routing code is automatically scanned and it is diverted onto a high-speed train that carries both passengers and small parcels.
Meanwhile, Hugo finds that he has missed his train to work but is safe in the knowledge that trains arrive every minute. Individual driverless trains communicate constantly with each other and the rail infrastructure, allowing them to react immediately to the movements of other trains on the track. Now at the office, Hugo receives a notification on his mobile phone that his package is on the train and set to arrive on schedule.
Other case studies in Future of Rail 2050 are even more outlandish. For example, it is suggested that intelligent robots can be used to maintain and repair track infrastructure and inspect tunnels and bridges. This already happens in other industries – smart robots are used to repair ageing water pipes and to test load-bearing cables on bridges and lifts. Looking further ahead, railways can benefit greatly from swarm robotics, which involves small individual robots working together towards a greater goal. Although still very much a theory, it would change the concept of labour as we know it.
Another idea floated in the report involves using the footfall of passengers in a railway station to generate renewable energy. Pilot projects are already under way in a handful of Russian railway stations, as part of a partnership between the Russian Railway Research Institute and Netherlands-based Energy Floors, and in St Omer, France, where a stretch of pavement has been fitted with 14 tiles that convert kinetic energy into electricity to power parts of the station. UK firm Pavegen is the technology provider.
True to the report’s focus on passenger experience, there are even examples of bored children using augmented reality software to entertain themselves, such as Vijay, who uses a tablet app that overlays a map of Berlin, the city he is visiting with his family, with photos and videos of the city’s past.
“At Arup, we have an electronic brainstorming system which allows people to put in ideas no matter how hare-brained they may be,” Stewart explains. “And people can look at these ideas and give their responses internally. Then we went out and spoke to people across the world from different disciplines to get individuals’ views – manufacturers, designers, contractors – on what they thought the future might look like.”
Great in theory, what about in practice?
Although the ideas showcased in the study sometimes appear a little crazy, what is most striking is how close to realisation many of them are – if not in the railway industry then in others such as mobile or computer technology. Cities, such as Dubai and Copenhagen, already have driverless trains that operate on a smart system, and features such as mobile, real-time information updates can easily be overlaid on existing railway infrastructure. The key is creating some uniformity so that all railway networks are able to take advantage of best practice.
“Reactions of others [outside Arup] to these ideas varied greatly,” Stewart explains. “One of the first people we spoke to said ‘this is all science fiction’. Another said ‘this is just the kind of thing we are doing right now’.”
Even if the ideas exist and are eminently implementable, there has to be sufficient willpower to push them through. The rollout of such ideas depends on a progressive-minded railway operator and a government that is willing to sacrifice the short-term discomfort of rail passengers for the long-term benefit of all – not necessarily an easy combination to find. Stewart believes that good communication is the most important thing.
“Part of this is about telling the story – if they [passengers] know what they are going to get from the endgame people are much more willing to bite the bullet and understand why there’s more disruption on the way,” he says. “Twenty years ago there’d be holes in the road and it would cause problems because nobody would know why they were there. Today there is much better notification.”
Things tend to move slowly in the railway industry. But if just a handful of these ideas stick, it will go a long way to improving the railway experience of the future.