A world tour of the latest rail innovations

A world tour of the latest rail innovations

27 June 2019
innovation Mobility Rail transportation
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While waiting for Hyperloop – the ultra-high-speed train dreamed up by the South African entrepreneur Elon Musk – rail sector companies haven’t given up on the race for innovation. Locomotives that are driverless, smart, low-energy, environmentally-friendly, faster and more reliable – the challenges for creating the trains of the future are many but there are already ambitious solutions out there. Read on for a world tour of the latest rail innovations.

An autonomous rail operation in Australia

In 2018, the Anglo-Australian mining company, Rio Tinto, carried out its first long distance fully autonomous rail freight journey, with a train transporting iron ore over 280km from the company’s mining operations in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert. The train was remotely monitored by Rio Tinto’s Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500km away.

This driverless train system – called the AutoHaul project – is the first ever heavy-haul, long distance autonomous rail operation in the world. Ultimately, these automated trains will enable Rio Tinto to reduce costs while improving the energy efficiency of rail transport, notably by optimising speed and braking throughout the locomotives’ journeys.

The first zero-emissions train in Germany

Although trains convey an image of sustainability – compared with planes or cars – 80% of European rail operations still use diesel engines. This means that 1% of transport-based CO2 emissions comes from trains.

With a view to breaking away from diesel engines and reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by its trains, the Lower Saxony region in Germany signed an agreement with French manufacturer Alstom to supply it with trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In September 2018, the Coralia iLint – the world’s first hydrogen-powered train – made its entrance at Bremervörde station. Capable of covering up to 1,000 kilometres with a single tank of hydrogen, Coralia iLint trains can reach speeds of up to 140km/h. Two of these passenger trains are already in use, and fourteen others are set to come into service on the Elbe-Weser network as of 2021. Alstom is certainly on the right track, having recently won a contract to supply 27 hydrogen-powered trains for the Frankfurt region.

However, although the use of hydrogen doesn’t emit CO2, the process required to produce it still does – and a lot. Currently, 94% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, as production via renewable sources is too costly for industrial players.

A facial recognition system in China

A people-scoring system like the one in the Black Mirror series has recently become a reality in China. Based on AI technology, it tracks people’s behaviour and gives them a score depending on whether or not they have respected the Chinese government’s rules and regulations. 170 million cameras have already been installed across China, and an increasing number of companies and other organisations are being drawn to the technology.

At Wuhan station, in Hubei province, facial recognition technology is now being used to identify people when they board trains and to help create smoother passenger flows. The Chinese authorities’ aim is to do away with train guards and other ticket checking systems. A questionable innovation?

Big data for the subway in South Korea

With a population of 10 million, Seoul is the most connected city in the world. Every day, some 7 million people take the subway to move around South Korea’s capital city. So in order to create smooth passenger flows, the entire network is monitored and filmed and the data collected is analysed in real time to adjust the speed and frequency of the trains as required.

Smart cameras measure how many passengers are boarding the trains and how quickly, while sensors fitted on the trains and tracks provide alerts when maintenance is required, which helps prevent breakdowns. And passengers are informed in real time of any incidents on the network and guided towards alternatives. You can’t get much more efficient than that!

Innovation cycles are clearly longer in the rail sector than in other industries. But given the rising global population and preoccupying environmental issues, a fast, clean and efficient public transport system – both for short- and long-distance journeys – will be absolutely essential in the coming decades.

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