The global urban landscape is in the midst of a momentous shift, which could be, and often is, characterized as a race towards the real-life Smart City.

The British Standards Institute defines the term as “the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens”. For citizens, the Smart City is described as simply a “clean, friendly [place] with good transport connections”.

So even in its most basic definition, much of the Smart City’s capabilities and opportunities revolve around its public transport network – or what the industry likes to refer to as Smart Rail.

Often fluid in its depiction, a breakdown of various studies and industry opinion reveals that the smart railway can be constructed around a set of benchmarks: technological innovation, adaptability, connectivity and resilience.

This year, British consulting firm Wavestone published a report, ranking the world’s best-performing metro systems against criteria including infrastructure and rolling stock, service reliability and quality, and auxiliary and innovative services, such as internet connection and use of Big Data to improve services. These criteria and the subsequent findings paint a picture of what the ideal smart railway of the future could – and must – look like.

The need for better transportation is undeniable. In 2016, 31 cities were home to more than ten million people, six of them in China and five in India. That figure is expected to rise to 41 cities by 2030.

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This year’s World Smart City Expo in Barcelona focused on the innovative public transit models reshaping our cities and commutes, powering improved mobility in modern urban areas.

From cutting-edge rolling stock to data gathering and connectivity, sustainable operations and passenger entertainment, what does the Smart Rail of the future look like today?

Rail powered by data

One of the most important features of a smart railway is connectivity.

A smart train utilises data in a dual fashion: on the one hand, to assist passengers and keep them informed, connected and entertained via a stable WiFi or 4G connection across carriages and stations. At the same time, data is used internally by the transport operator to inform predictive maintenance and improve the level of service.

From smartcards and wireless scan-in tools to passenger-centric apps, such as Citymapper and Moovit, transport data enables organisations to manage passenger flows and constantly progress service in real-time.

A great example of integration comes from Moovit, the app which this year surpassed 100 million users in 1,700 cities across 79 countries. During the Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Games in August 2016, when the capital’s six million inhabitants were joined by one million visitors and 11,300 athletes, Moovit established a partnership with the city’s municipality.

Under the agreement, the app kept tourists and athletes informed on the best routes to Olympic venues, minimising disruption at peak times, while also ensuring that locals were able to navigate the public transport system despite 2,000 route changes. Over the course of the games, 3.5 million alerts got sent to transit riders.

Data isn’t only important for passengers’ entertainment or running of the service – it also makes a dramatic difference to travelers with reduced mobility. Accessibility is one of the top most important criteria for a smart railway. Wavestone’s study showed that 87% of the metro lines analysed have high accessibility and more than 90% of the total number of stations are equipped for passengers with reduced mobility.

Reshaping cities through transport

As the population increases and the movement of people changes, the very structure of our cities and transport networks will have to be re-modelled. That is the thought behind the rise of ‘micro-centres’, a new concept in population distribution currently being pioneered in dense urban spaces.

For example, in the last 30 years, the average commute distance in France has risen by 63%, therefore, the country is now testing peri-urban micro-centres (in Seine Saint-Denis and Paris-Saclay outside of Paris), which concentrate residences and workplaces in the same space.

A product of this new model is the Grand Paris Express rapid transit system, built specifically to “redesign the living space” and “curb urban sprawl”, according to Société du Grand Paris, the company behind the project.

The project involves the construction of an automatic metro system spread across four additional lines and 68 brand new interconnected stations, serving two million passengers every day. Construction work began mid-June 2016 and is due to last until 2030.

Not only will the Grand Paris Express challenge the traditional way of thinking about urban transit, but it aims to transform stations into places to commute, shop, live and work: “The new generation of stations will be welcoming, recognisable from an architectural standpoint, accessible, safe, intermodal, digital, lively,” the project’s website reads.

Climate-focused railways networks

Serving a prosperous community goes beyond the day-to-day service, however, and a Smart Rail needs to shoulder part of the responsibility to cut air pollution and dangerous emissions, currently at staggering levels in big cities across the world.

Sustainability is, therefore, a core part of an advanced rail system and one such example can be found in Santiago, Chile, where Latin America’s second-largest subway system vowed to source 60% of its energy from solar and wind projects starting next year.

Metro de Santiago is one of the capital’s biggest energy consumers, and the shift in power source is thought to be transformational for the country’s climate action targets.

A similar scheme can be seen in the Indian state of Kerala, where Kochi Metro announced in June that it will derive a quarter of its total electric supply from solar power systems. This means that all of Kochi Metro’s 22 stations will have rooftop solar power systems installed.

At present, Delhi and Mumbai are the other two prominent subway systems that use solar power and the country’s 2017-2018 budget includes plans to power around 7,000 railway stations on solar as part of the government’s 1,000MW solar mission.

Similar initiatives are taking place in Melbourne, where the Andrews government proposed building large-scale solar farms in northern Victoria to power the city’s trams, as well as the UK, which has recently published the results of a study into the feasibility of installing solar panels along tracks to power the nation’s electric trains.

Adaptable to crisis

Although data-powered predictive maintenance is crucial, sometimes disruptions and emergencies cannot be avoided.

When Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and south-eastern US between August and September of last year, causing 102 recorded fatalities and damage upwards of $62bn, rail services were also deeply affected due to the destruction of infrastructure and extensive flooding.

But in a feat of adaptability and resilience, CSX re-established rail services within hours of the hurricane hitting the area. Services in south-eastern US were resumed within hours, into and out of northern Florida within 24 hours, and throughout the vast majority of the state within one week. This required clearing nearly 8,000 fallen trees from obstructed tracks and deploying hundreds of generators to operate railroad signals and crossings in response to widespread commercial power outages.

Following the storm, CSX has been active in helping the recovery of communities and individuals via charitable contributions and in-kind donations, solidifying the view that a railway’s role within the community can go beyond the daily commute.

Similarly, in the UK, London’s TfL was praised for reopening London Bridge station to rush-hour commuters less than 30 hours after three men drove into pedestrians and stabbed passersby in a terror attack that claimed seven lives.

Driverless trains

At present, the technology that ticks the vast majority of Smart Rail’s criteria, at least from a technological point of view, is the driverless metro.

Worldwide, Wavestone identified 40 lines across 26 networks, while the UITP Observatory counts 55 lines (including in its scope certain people-mover lines, such as LRT systems, AGT systems, trains with a capacity of fewer than 100 passengers, as well as Maglev technology).

According to UITP, some 2,300km of driverless metro lines will be operational by 2025, compared with around 800km today.

Why is this system gaining ground so fast?

“Some 2,300km of driverless metro lines will be operational by 2025.”

Firstly, the driverless systems, which tend to be newer, are designed to best integrate in the urban environment, and they are more flexible to operate, since automatic solutions can be quickly adapted to available capacity. Driverless metros also do away with many of the risks and delays caused by human error, meaning that the trains can run safely and at tighter intervals.

Today, 81% of driverless metro lines are located in cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants, with Barcelona, Copenhagen and Dubai coming on top of Wavestone’s ranking. By 2025, Asia and Europe are expected to account for 33% and 30% of driverless metro mileage respectively, followed by the Middle East with 25%.

However, Smart Rail isn’t synonymous with driverless metros and many high-performing, traditionally staffed metro systems in the world are proof of that. Comfort, speed, safety and reliability are the most valuable assets, which can be achieved by correctly managing, improving and updating the traditional tube networks, which today serve as the backbone of the world’s busiest cities.

Entertaining the idea of new trains

Operator DeutscheBahn has come up with an ‘idea train’ (Ideenzug), namely a double-decker train equipped with tablet stands and privacy pods, a dinner car, a family area, a fitness studio with exercise bikes and a virtual trainer, as well as a games console and play area for young passengers. Designed in collaboration with 30 industrial and technology manufacturers, the idea train is being marketed as the “commuter train of the future”.

As it stands today, it is indeed fairly rare to find one service that encompasses all the elements which together make up the true vision of Smart Rail, and as such the concept is still, for the most part, aspirational.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not perfectly within reach and often the myriad of innovative tweaks and improvements, whether technological, data-based or design-centric, that are being made every day to help improve the passenger experience bring us a step closer to that destination.