A rail journey from dinosaur to digital

Ian McCarthy Ian McCarthy
Associate, Infrastructure Advisory
26 November 2019
6 min read

The history of rail goes back more than 2600 years when the first vehicles ran in limestone grooves in ancient Greece. After tremendous advances in George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel's time, Japan's introduction of the Shinkansen bullet train for the 1964 Olympics became the next evolution of railways, a 210 km/h driving force that took Japan from post-WW II ruin to the world's second biggest economy at the time. The railways have proven their 'metal' as the backbone of economies from ancient times through to the modern era.

But as technology changes our way of life at an exponential rate, the rail industry, considered by some the last form of dinosaur, will have to evolve and adapt as fast (or even faster) than a bullet train to survive and keep up with people's needs.

And what is it that people truly look for in transport? The industry has been abuzz with the promise of automation and driverless travel, but there's no single silver bullet.

Studies show that Uber and ride-sharing have been increasing road congestion, and the number of trips, as well as empty car trips. Making these vehicles autonomous is not the answer and will only result in a traffic jam on autopilot.

The railways have been autonomous on many networks for a number of years, but it's also important to enable equity in a society where those who can least afford to travel are sometimes required to travel furthest. And mass transit is critical to that.

As cities' transport networks evolve: It's not about rail or road. It's about running out of space and the need to integrate mobility for better living and travel. Cities need to get to a point where they don't eat into available space but actually transfer space back. Given the fixed nature of rail infrastructure, what role will rail play here?

Equity and Integration

Rail hands back some of this coveted space by shrinking distance and becoming a key connector of regions, opening up the possibility for people to enjoy more space and clean air in the country while having access to jobs, healthcare and education in the city. It also levels the playing field by affording people from all walks of life the opportunity to commute safely, reliably and efficiently. Not everyone will be able to financially afford to whiz around in dedicated pods.

If public transport does not remember its central purpose and role, those who are not able to break into the individualised travel market will become increasingly disenfranchised and unable to access key aspects of the economic system.

Traditionally, railways have been viewed as a closed network. In fact, they began life in Victorian England as entirely separate enterprises. But the different modes of transport need to integrate and interact if we are to create a truly equitable society. By focusing on a single mode in transport, we run the risk of creating inequity and imbalance. In short, if you forget mass transport you forget the masses.

It's not only about how much money you have, it's about how much access to space you have. Being able to move around the cities of the future and accessing amenities that add quality to life should be available to all. Achieving equity needs to be financially sustainable – to be affordable of course – and a strong rail-based public transport network is the most sustainable way without taxing people directly. In cities where rail has been successfully positioned as the backbone, it shouldn't need to be subsidised.

Train of (design) thought

Although rail will always be a stalwart of the system and do the heavy lifting by moving great numbers of people and product at any one time, we also can and should be part of a greater experience to respond to the needs of customers and communities.

Deutsche Bahn and Siemens Mobility have done exactly this with their Ideas train that takes a refreshing human-centred approach. The train's various zones are kitted out with different digital technologies, with zones ranging from kids' play areas, work and relaxation compartments, and even sport areas with a gym (yes, you can train on the train).

And it's not solely about the journey itself. People don't merely want to get from point A to B. The end-to-end journey needs to provide a wider customer experience that is convenient, efficient and even exciting.

Just imagine if we combined forward-thinking design with the potential for mass transit to unlock access to transport not only for those who are unable to afford it, but also for those who are unable to physically use it. The most attended Paralympic Games in London 2012 showed that designers have a great opportunity to transform our approach to accessibility and mass transit, starting at initial planning for designs but, beyond that, on simply the human-to-human level.

Over and above the railway infrastructure, much of the training for those games was about how staff and customers could interact differently, enabling individuals with a range of both visible and invisible challenges to feel confident using public transport to get to the games, including how they interacted with the 'last mile' element of the journey.

How could rail be redefined and redesigned if we look at it as more than just a means of transportation, but as a part of what makes us a community?

Trains with brains

Let's not forget that the railways were the first form of autonomous transport, too. While autonomous trains are further increasing the speed, reliability and volume of trains that can be squeezed into finite amounts of time, additional technology advancements are beginning to emerge which could free rail from the rails themselves.

Trackless trains and trams are moving beyond a thought and into implementation, with trackless trains now operating on virtual rail lines or shared road space in the Chinese cities of Zhuzhou, Yibin and Harbin, and currently on trial in Qatar, to improve urban transportation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. What opportunities can we unlock if we repurpose some sections of railway to a trackless system and potentially enable a multimodal shared space for mass transit alongside individual AVs?

In addition to trackless trains, which are way cheaper to build, Hitachi also developed 'Digital Brain' to cut down train maintenance hours by using thousands of sensors providing valuable data analytics to engineers to monitor its performance.

And while we might retain the rails themselves, if high-speed rail is to conquer distances such as those in Australia and New Zealand to shrink our vast geography, we need to consider our appetite for elevated railways across country, instead of hiding them away in tunnels and underground.

Advances in managing noise and other intrusions that the first railways brought with them may mean we need to reconsider how to build new systems more visibly than in many European models, with the reduced costs and increased speed of construction that that will bring.

We already have the technology for this growth, it is our mindset that seems to be the barrier to faster progression. If the limit has been reached on fixed infrastructure of legacy systems, we need to leverage technology and automation to minimise our transport footprint and maximise mobility outcomes.

Our public transport history is one of brilliance and innovative genius. If we want to stay true to our pioneering roots, we must be prepared to play with space and be open to melting the track barriers with our imagination to reveal a world of opportunity and possibility to fight the extinction of our railways.

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Becky Wood
Written by
Becky Wood

Ian McCarthy
Written by
Ian McCarthy


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