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Technology May Transform The Future of Rail
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Illustration of the future, which displays automated train
The report envisions a future in which fully automated trains operate at 90-second intervals during rush hour, drones monitor the skies to improve security and efficiency, robots repair trains, and stations capture energy from footfalls to generate electricity. © Rob House

Research identifies trends that will impact the development of rail for the coming 35 years and envisions the dramatic changes technology integration can bring.

July 22, 2014—When people think of rail travel, high technology isn’t likely the first thing that comes to mind. And yet technological advances are fast working their way into the rail industry to the point that rail travel in the year 2050 could be dramatically transformed. Future of Rail 2050, a new report by the international design, engineering, and consulting firm Arup, with headquarters in London, examines the megatrends driving the future of rail in the coming decades and presents case studies of systems on the cutting edge of innovation.

“If you go back 20 or 30 years, everybody thought rail was a dying transport mode,” says Colin Stewart, CEng, the global rail leader for Arup. “Nearly all around the world, rail is now in renaissance. Everybody around the world is beginning to see that there has to be some way of moving significant numbers of people and freight.

“The key is that it regenerates, rejuvenates itself to make sure that it is fit for the next 100 years and not just fit for the next 20 or 30 years,” he adds. “That was really part of the driver behind this.”

The report identifies several megatrends impacting the future of rail, including the swift migration of the world’s population into urban centers, creating what are dubbed ‘megacities.’ The authors note that by 2050, it is projected that 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, compared with the approximately 50 percent in 2010.

“Cities have become the places of the future,” Stewart says. “And the way that people interact with those cities, the way they get transported around those cities, is a key driver. That really plays to something like rail. There just isn’t the space for everyone to have their own personalized car and park it. There has to be some form of mass transit.”

As megacity populations grow and the demand on existing transit systems increases dramatically, Stewart says it will take a combination of increased efficiency driven by technology and increased capacity driven by construction to meet the challenge. He notes that fully automated metro systems can run with greatly decreased intervals between trains.

“Once you get to automatic trains, you get down to 90-second intervals or 60-second intervals between trains,” Stewart says. “Then you clearly can start to move more people per hour. And it becomes far more flexible.”

These technological advances will also enable systems to run trains 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The control systems will be able to seamlessly route unneeded cars for maintenance and switch to bidirectional traffic on a single line to facilitate track maintenance.

Another megatrend identified in the report is the integrated mobility of travelers—or the ability of travelers to use multiple means of transit more seamlessly. Travelers will increasingly be able to use smartphones and other electronic devices to seamlessly create a multimodal travel experience from point A to point B without the need to treat each portion of the journey separately, according to the report.

“While is it great to be in an airport or a railway station, not many of us live there—or we don’t want to,” Stewart says with a laugh. “So this is about from A to B, home to work, work to home, home to friends. And rail is always only going to be a part of that journey. It’s not the total journey. I think the next move is to have totally automated, smart journeys. And the smartphone or the equivalent is the thing that allows that connectivity.”

Shifts in demographics are other megatrends that will play a key role in the future of rail. By 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach 9.5 billion. The percentage of those people older than 60 is expected to nearly double to more than 20 percent. Rail systems will have to adapt to this change. Additionally, younger people already view rail travel differently.

“When I was 17, I couldn’t wait to drive. Most of the generation now will drive, but they do find it a bit of a waste of their time—sitting holding a steering wheel for two or three hours. They can’t interact on the iPhone, the iPad, whatever they want to do in their social media,” Stewart says. “On a train you can do all of that. If it is a reliable service and you can do all of that as well, then it is a hands down win.”

The report includes a bold vision of the year 2050, with drones monitoring trains from the sky to predict maintenance needs and bolster security, automated trains running reliably day and night, footfalls in train stations harnessed as an alternative energy source, and automated robots dispatched for repairs.

“None of this technology is in the science fiction world,” Stewart says. “It’s all coming forward as we speak. The aim of the report was to research what was out there. To get people thinking about what can be achieved. That’s really what this was about—to open people’s eyes.”


 

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