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9 major factors shaping the future of the rail industry.

Posted on May 12, 2016

TBM Elizabeth lowered into launch chamber 40 metres below ground. Named after Queen Elizabeth II, each TBM weighs approximately 1000 tonnes is 140m in length with an external diameter of 7.1m. (Picture:Crossrail)Our industry is experiencing widespread change, driven by wide-ranging and varied influences. 

With these changes come both opportunities and challenges, and SmartRail World has set out to identify some of these key trends to help you better shape your strategic, long-term planning.

We asked experts, canvassed opinion on social media and discussed the area at the SmartRail global event series and have identified nine key trends. Some you will be familiar with, some less so.

You may agree or disagree with the list and feel free to continue the debate and suggest your own key trends and influences as well. We hope you’ll find the list useful, though provoking and perhaps even a little surprising…

1. Climate Change.

Rail networks have been designed and built using historical records of climate and weather events.  Now with the ‘Inconvenient truth’ of climate change, these projections are no longer a reliable predictor. Even what sound like modest changes in the average temperature can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

Flooding on the tracks north of MNRs Garrison Station, New YorkHigh temperatures can cause rail tracks to expand and buckle, and may lead to more regular repairs, speed restrictions, delays and disruption. Storms can damage or deposit debris on lines and at stations and floods or high-tides can submerge them as well. This is particularly true in underground tunnels as seen in New York after Hurricane Sandy.

The rail industry now has to plan for a different weather future, and build accordingly with a 'predict and prevent' ethos looking forward rather than back. Our networks, standards and systems now have to be built for the world of the 2050s and beyond, a world which could be very different. 

2. Urban growth.

Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected, according to United Nations figures to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa.

The rapid pace of urbanisation puts added pressure on already strained infrastructure – anyone who travels at peak-time in a major city will attest to this. As a result infrastructure needs to be designed to be able to be able to absorb such growth, and be as efficient and rapid is possible. Along with the pressures, though come opportunities – the increased size of cities widens their power and tax base and enables a greater investment in public transport, an example being the Crossrail project currently underway in London (pictured above). 

Hand in hand with the rising populations is the growth of megacities (those with over 10 million people) predominantly in Asia. As of 2015, there are 35 megacities in existence, in 1950 there was just one (New York). The sheer size and complexity of these multiplying megacities gives rise to enormous challenges. 

Meeting the challenges and opportunities of urban growth is one of the key themes fo Smart Metro (incoporating the 7th Annual CBTC World Congress, which returns to Copenhagen on 1-3 November 2016. 

3. Rise of the start-ups 

At the recent SmartRail Europe Congress in Amsterdam, the pace of change was a regular point of discussion across all the streams. Same as always right? Well it’s always a key point in any project, but what is shifting the parameters of the discussion is the entry of small, lean start-ups into the industry. Without the baggage and legacy of larger traditional firms, they don’t play the conventional rules of the business. Digital rather than physical solutions can be rolled out in days or weeks, not months or years. And the perennial issues of ticketing, overcrowding and train organisation are some of the issues in the sights of start-ups aided by a recent blooming in hackathons and a first rail accelerator opening in London.

In the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina Lt. General Russel Honore famously told a subordinate who he viewed was moving too slowly, "You're looking at your calendar and I'm looking at my watch."

What are you looking at?

4. Digitisation takes over.

Closely connected to the development of the start-up community within rail is a widening digitalisation of the processes behind many of the key systems behind rail operations. The digital revolution arrived in rail later than in other industries, but is quickly becoming the establishment. Any commercially focussed railway is now able to utilise a host of digital initiatives. Amongst many areas is the Internet of Things (IoT) enabling on-board sensors to deliver real time analysis and monitoring, identify problems before they cause delays, facilitate automated and preventive maintenance and ensure dispatchers have an entirely accurate view of the train’s location.

 Digitisation is often made possible by the presence and use of Big Data, and to pick just one example, the commuter train network in Stockholm, Sweden is using a predictive model, called the commuter prognosis that uses Big Data to visualize the entire commuter train up to two hours into the future. This enable a forecast of disruptions in the service, with the traffic control centre able to prevent the ripple effects that cause most delays. In the future the algorithm will be potentially adaptable for more types of public transportations and cities.

These issues will be talked about at our SmartTransit show which takes place in New York in October 2016. Find out more about the show here.

5. New players offering integrated travel solutions.

Uber and rail - a growing relationship.A recent study prepared for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) through the Transit Cooperative Research Program has revealed that the people using services like Uber and Lyft are actually more and not less likely to travel on public transport. The survey taken by 4,500 people in seven different US cities showed that 50% of people travelled by train and 45% used buses frequently. The study can be viewed as insight into the impact of ride-sourcing on public transport.

There are some who view the likes of Uber and Lyft as the solution to the first-mile / last-mile challenge and to help overcome the concern that potential riders avoid public transport because of difficulties getting to or from the train or metro. And instead they end up driving. Ride-sourcers can help solve this by offering the optimal combination of walking, transit and their own transport.  

There’s huge potential for rail and metro to partner with companies Lyft or Uber, but caution must also be maintained that they don’t become more attractive than public transport. And the performance of rail and metro, particularly in payments and booking must be improved to head off any future threat. 

6. Powered by different energy sources.

Environmental concerns (see also Climate Change), fears over energy security and the lowering costs of implementation mean that rail is looking at new ways of powering itself. 

 On the train itself, options for possible replacements for diesel include hydrogen and perhaps the most appealing, LNG, already being tested by some railways and offering a competitive price, and lower carbon emissions plus an established regulatory structure when compared to its fossil and renewable fuel rivals. Whilst Alstom is currently developing entirely new types of fuel cell trains which aim to be completely emission-free.

Stations themselves are also looking to be powered differently.  In the USA, the renovated Yawkey Station near Fenway Park in Boston will become a “zero net energy” commuter rail station when construction is finished in 2017. Solar panels and a shared-use garage on which a solar photovoltaic power plant will be installed is designed to provide all the energy required to power the station.

7. The station becoming a destination.

St Pancras International, in LondonRail stations are changing. For a long time they appeared to be an after-thought for many train operators, designed simply to get as many passengers in and out as quickly and safely as possible, But no more. Stations are evolving and offering more to its passengers, making them a place to stay in and enjoy, an amenity all to itself, rather than a building to quickly head away from or arrive with little time to spare before catching a train. The central position of stations, also puts them at the heart of urban regeneration schemes and a crucial link between commercial, leisure and residential spaces. 

Many stations at aiming to take advantage of the huge footfall they experience (and help pay for their investments) by developing a dazzling area of retail and catering outlets to serve every taste (and pocket).

Whilst ergonomic design is becoming an increasing factor in the planning of stations ensuring that large numbers of travellers can move freely and efficiently to, through and from a station is an essential to maintaining the operational effectiveness of the transport system as a whole. Station developments now consider ergonomic and human factors, in particular looking in a scientific way at people and their needs, and then providing analytical evidence based on psychological, behavioural and physical factors to improve experiences.

8. Long distance travel makes a return.

Air travel hasn’t been kind to long-distance rail, with many classic lines now redundant or operating on a limited, nostalgia focussed basis. However, a number of factors are pushing its growth and are likely to over future years. Improvements to booking and ticketing allied with high-speed trains (see below) and on-board service are also widening the uptake of trains to travel across continents.

As one example cross-Channel high-speed train operator Eurostar will be running a service between London and Amsterdam in late 2017. And whilst the United States lags behind in these stakes, Amtrak and new entrants have ambitious plans. China and Japan, which have focused on building high-speed networks that can compete and beat air travel.

Another trend helping support long distance rail travel, is the growth of codesharing, long found in the aviation industry where a marketing arrangement is created with an airline placing its designator code on a flight operated by another airline and selling tickets for that flight in order to strengthen or expand their market presence and competitive ability. This is now being seen in an intermodal form in partnerships with the rail industry. This kind of link-up between airlines and rail lines, known formally as air-rail alliance or informally ‘Rail & Fly’ are increasingly popular.

9. High-Speed and Hyper-Speed Rail

Hyperloop plansFor anyone reading this in the United Kingdom or California they will be well versed in arguments about the development of high-speed rail but we could soon be entering the world of hyper-speed rail travel. High-speed rail has already revolutionized national and international transportation in many parts of the world, in particular in Japan, China and continental Europe. And now plans are being developed to go even faster.

Few will have escaped the media coverage of Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’, a innovative new form of transportation, consisting of an elevated, reduced-pressure tube that contains pressurized capsules driven within the tube by a number of electric motors, Musk claimed it would “never crash, be immune to weather, go twice as fast as an airplane, four times as fast as a bullet train, and – to top it off – run completely on solar power.” Whilst the Hyperloop may currently lack the financial or political will to make it a reality there’s no doubt that super high-speed rail is a reality.

In China, the Shanghai Maglev Train has been in operation since 2003 and has been recorded at a top speed of 311 mph, Japan’s famed bullet train, the Shinkansen runs on a high-speed network of over 1400 miles hitting speeds of up to 275mph and in Europe, France’s TGV Réseau which generally runs at 199mph has been serving passengers since 1992. The slow but continued growth of High-Speed rail not only opens up a host of further technical developments but offers a strong countermeasure to other forms of transport.

Find out more about Asia's high speed rail projects at SmartRail Asia in November 2016.


Editor - Do you agree? What have we missed? What is here but shouldn’t be? Let us know by commenting below or email Editor@GlobalTransportForum.com - the best comments we'll include in an updated version of this article. 


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About the Author

Luke Upton
Luke Upton
Luke has edited this site since its launch and previously worked for b2b media companies across industries including energy, advertising and sport. His role includes writing, editing and commissioning...read more

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