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5 fascinating future rail trends and when we can expect to see them.

Posted by Emily O'Dowd on Jul 2, 2017

In recent years, the world haurban mobility-3.jpgs turned to rail to answer some of the problems threatening our global transport network. We desire trains that are fast, efficient, transnational, energy efficient and able to cope with the increasing demand on infrastructure. With the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, it is time for rail to deliver new innovations and make more efficient use of our existing infrastructure. “More progress will be made in the railway sector over the next 15 years than in the last 100 years. We are benefiting from new technologies and digitisation and will continue to automate more rail operations. I am convinced that this will revolutionise rail and make it even safer, more reliable and cheaper,” according to Phillipe Gauderon, Head of the Infrastructure Division Member of the Group Management Board SBB AG. The future of rail is always a hot topic among our experts which drives innovation, demand and the industry itself. SmartRail World looks into some of the future rail trends  you should expect to see rolled out on our tracks in the coming years.

"People will be looking to get from A to B as quickly as possible rather than taking a journey using just a car or just by rail. We want to solve mobility problems and rail will play an increasing role with the high population density." Andreas Willich, Head of Passenger Transport at BLS.

Driverless trainsNGT.jpg

Driverless metro.

According to Ellen Linnenkamp, Managing Director at Strukton Rail, North America, she stresses that “more and more trains will become driverless, implying that the requirements with regard to safety and quality of the rail network will only further increase.”

In many developed cities, driverless trains are not uncommon. Many are used on low speed, protected infrastructures. There are some fully automatic metros such as the DLR in the UK, and in Denmark the Copenhagen lines M1 and M2. However, there are no main line railways in the world that are fully automated.

Driverless trains are equipped with extensive safety systems such as obstruction sensors at the end bogies and a fire detection system.

A trackside computer tracks all trains in the assigned section of line and calculates an appropriate movement authority for each train. As a result, trains are routed continuously and can then run at shorter headways than when driven manually on sight. On board the train, the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system replaces the metro driver and controls the train's speed. The ATO computer is monitored and, if necessary, corrected by the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system.

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If passenger volume is high, additional trains can be deployed independently of the regular timetable. They can be automatically sent into operation straight from the depot at the push of a button. Auxiliary driver’s control desks at both ends of the train enable manual operation in emergency cases and in the depot.

However, apparent safety concerns have led to some fears that the trains wouldn’t be ready for the mainline. Even the driverless DLR carries a train captain on every train who can take over in an emergency. There is another challenge which faces the technology - how can the trains cope with the crowded, existing rail systems that are not built to coordinate the new driverless technologies.

Hydrogen trains

These trains are CO2 emission free regional trains - an alternative to diesel power. Hydrogen power works when hydrogen is burned with oxygen to produce huge amounts of energy, with the only by-product being water. The vehicles convert the chemical energy of hydrogen to mechanical energy, either by burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine vehicle or by reacting to hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to run electric motors. 

A hydrogen powered passenger train is currently being tested in Germany. There’s also interest emerging in the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

Additionally, China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC)’s Qingdao Sifang announced that they have been awarded a contract to supply eight hydrogen fuel cell trams for a new light rail line. The hydrogen or hydrail train will run in Foshan in southeastern China. A 17.4km track will be built in two phases at 760 million yuan ($109.0 million) with 20 stations. A demonstration model of the trains was first rolled out in Qingdao in 2015, but the Foshan project will mark the world’s first deployment of a full-scale commercial system; the trains can travel at speeds of up to 70kp/h.

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Freight shuttles

NGT CARGO train. (Photo courtesy of DLR).

Transporting freight by road causes congestion and pollution, particularly in cities. One possible solution: underground pipelines that shuttle packages in electrified pods. Engineers at Ruhr University of Bochum, Germany are working on the CargoCap, the fifth transportation alternative to the conventional systems of road, rail, air and water. The international market is always growing as most trade is dealt with overseas; rail faces a challenge to overcome national borders. Despite this, strong climate credentials and international efforts to reduce CO2 levels will ensure that freight is dealt with effectively. 

Another possible solution is the ‘freight train of the future’ NGT CARGO. Transport researchers at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have created a concept with high levels of automation, intelligent handling and high speeds with an aim to make freight transportation more flexible and able to offer higher capacity.

To make single-wagon transport fit for the future, intelligent freight wagons in the NGT CARGO concept have a separate drive based on electric motors and a battery that stores energy recovered during braking. This makes it possible for the single wagons to shunt autonomously, without the need for shunting staff and shunting locomotives or overhead lines. Furthermore, the individual wagons can travel the final kilometres to the respective customer automatically and autonomously. Each single wagon is equipped with the appropriate sensors to do so. The wagons can also be driven directly into ports, trans-shipment stations or logistics terminals, right up to the high level racks, where they are also then loaded or unloaded automatically.

Maglev trains

Maglev technology was initially created by English inventor Eric Laithwaite who made the train commercially viable in Birmingham 1984. This first maglev train travelled only 42km/h covering a distance of 600m, but since its invention, some of the world's technology leaders have run with the idea.

The Shanghai Maglev has a top operational speed of 430km/h and average speed of 251 km/h. The Maglev started commercial operations in 2004. It runs on the 30.5km Shanghai Maglev Line, which is the first commercially operated high-speed magnetic levitation line, running from Longyang Road Station of Metro Line 2 and ending at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The train cost an eye-watering $1.2 billion to build and has been in huge deficit ever since.

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Whilst Japan has reiterated its role as the world’s leader in high-speed rail travel in breaking its own rail land-speed record, the maglev train has still not been launched for commerical service. And prospective passengers will have a long wait - until 2027! The maglev train belonging to the Central Japan Railway Company (CJR) hit a speed of 603km/h (375 mph/h) to set a new global benchmark. It was the second time in a week that the CJR’s state-of-the-art train has broken its own record. 

Additionally, there are already several maglev lines in Asia. The best-known is the Transrapid system in Shanghai, the world’s fastest commercially operating train, which can reach speeds of 267mph. Last year, the Incheon Airport maglev was launched in South Korea. In Japan, the Chuo Shinkansen line under construction


Hyperloop shuttle. (Photo courtesy of Hyperloop One).

Seen by its founder at least as the future of rail, Hyperloop is undoubtedly the most talked about hypothetical proposal in the transportation industry. After talks held in Dubai and Abu Dhabi it looks like Elon Musk’s innovation could really become a reality. Towards the end of last year, an agreement was signed between the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) and Hyperloop One, a global high-speed transport company to meet the plans outlined by the Dubai Future Accelerators, (DFA) programme.

Hyperloop One tested their first motor in May this year and will test the full system early next year. The firm has declared that they are in the process of developing new routes in five different countries. They have an ambitious goal to finish their first model of the Hyperloop by 2020 and transport cargo by 2021. This urgency may also be after the news that rival firm HTT signed a deal in March to bring its Hyperloop technology to Slovakia, aiming to link Bratislava with Vienna and Budapest.

But how accurate are these figures?

  1. The final prototype of the Hyperloop has not yet been developed especially over the long planned distances containing passengers. Huge expense and practicality stand in its way.
  2. The technology will require long, straight routes which will dig into large amounts of land.
  3. Safety and discomfort. If the ride proves sickening, then these efforts will be wasted as passengers would turn to other comfortable alternatives. For this reason a test route across the Arabian desert would be a good place to start. With few obstacles to avoid, there will be less need for nausea-inducing bends.

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Topics: projects

Emily O'Dowd

Written by Emily O'Dowd

On graduating with a degree in English Literature at Royal Holloway University of London, Emily joined the editorial team. When she isn't writing articles for the website or interviewing experts in the industry she enjoys reading, running and sailing.

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