The future of the railways around the world: Faster, cleaner and greener

Rail is the only mode of transport that can provide the backbone for our future mobility.

The future of the railways around the world: Faster, cleaner and greener

Rail is the only mode of transport that can provide the backbone for our future mobility. It's faster, cleaner, more environmentally friendly, and has the most advanced technology.

However, while there are a few niche projects that promise ultra-high-speed travel, most of the industry is focused upon keeping the world's urbanized population mobile while also limiting the impact of climate change.

Then there's the pandemic.

Train operators around the world have faced one of the most difficult periods in their history, just like other segments of the travel industry.

In 2020, passenger numbers plummeted overnight as lockdowns stopped commuters from traveling and leisure travelers leaving the country.

It seems that commuting Monday through Friday is a thing of the distant past. Many of us now work remotely or only a few days per week.

This is a serious threat to rail companies around the world, who have depended on this predictable, lucrative source of income since the middle of the 19th century.

This makes it seem unlikely that we are talking about a "golden age" of rail travel.

As we approach the 200th anniversary for the first passenger railroad in 2025 it is becoming more crucial than ever that trains provide sustainable mobility in a world where there are increasing population growth, climate change, and increased urbanization.

Arup, an engineering consultancy, has released a report in 2019 estimating that the world's population will reach 9.5 billion people by 2050. 75% of these people will live in cities.

According to the company, the world's urban population is increasing at two people per minute, creating 172 800 new city-dwellers each day. Although there are some areas of decline in population, like parts of Europe or Japan, 90% of global population growth is predicted to be in cities and megacities in the developing world.

Efficient public transport is essential to keep these megacities, regions, and cities growing.

Electric cars and other vehicles cannot absorb this increase and rail transport -- trams, trains and metros -- will be required to do the bulk of the lifting to prevent cities and national economies from collapsing.

Bullet trains: How fast are they possible to go?

The role of high-speed railways is crucial in all this.

As the network of high-speed lines in Europe and Asia continues its growth, headlines are grabbing attention with the new "bullet trains" that have been introduced. These lines include lines in France, Germany and Spain as well as lines in India and Japan. China is also a major player, with a network expected to reach 50,000 km by 2025.

The completion of the High Speed 2 (HS2) route, which is controversial due to budget overspends as well as route through sensitive landscapes, will see England have the fastest train in the world. It will operate in regular service at 225 mph and can reach 250 mph (400kph) when it's completed in the early-2030s.

The $2.5 billion fleet of HS2's Japanese "bullet trains" will combine British design and Japanese technology to revolutionize inter-city transport between London, England's Midlands, and the northern cities. Long-distance traffic will be transferred to HS2. This will allow existing railways to have more capacity to transport local passengers and freight.

However, after decades of operation, countries like France, Japan, and China have found that the higher maintenance and energy costs associated with high-speed trains over 200 mph are more beneficial than the lower speeds.

The established high-speed heavyweights of Japan and China now look beyond "steel on steel" technology to create trains capable at speeds up to 373 mph (600 kph).

For more than 50 years the concept of superfast trains moving along dedicated tracks using magnet levitation (maglev), has been called "the future" of travel. However, aside from a few experimental lines and a Chinese route connecting Shanghai city center to its airport, it has remained mostly theoretical.

But not for long. Japan has invested nine trillion yen ($72 million) in Chuo Shinkansen, the culmination more than 40 years worth of maglev development. The line, which spans 178 miles, will connect Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 minutes. It should eventually reach Osaka, reducing to just 67 minutes the 311-mile trip from the capital.

Construction began in 2014. It was initially expected that it would be completed by 2027. Nagoya Osaka will follow a decade later. However, problems with obtaining permission to a section of the line have meant that the opening date remains unknown.

Many have questioned the economic value of this project due to delays and huge cost increases. These factors are not uncommon in other parts of the world.

China is unlikely to face such problems. China is building maglev lines to offer lightning-fast travel across densely populated cities.

China plans to build "three-hour transportation rings" around major cities in China, transforming cities into economic powerhouses.

More than 120 million people live in the Pearl River Delta, which is located south of China, the country with the highest population. It includes Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

Chinese planners plan to combine nine cities to create an urban sprawl of 26,000 km2. This will be 26 times greater than Greater London.

Integration of transport, energy and telecommunications networks will cost $240 billion. This includes the creation of high-speed underground metros that travel at 160kph (100mph), and many other metro, tram, and train routes.

For the Shanghai-Hangzhou, Chengdu-Chongqing routes Maglev routes are planned. However, many other routes may be possible if they succeed.

However, those who hope the technology will spread beyond Japan and China may be disappointed. The high cost of maglev technology and the inability to integrate it with existing railways could hinder its spread.

Although metros, trams, and other urban railways may not be as glamorous as their faster cousins, it's clear that they have a greater impact on national economies and the quality of life in cities.

China already faces pollution and congestion in densely populated cities. In December 2021, 29 new metro lines were opened in China. The total length of the lines is 582 km.

If they don't want to be overwhelmed, many other countries will have to follow their lead.

To meet this expectation, however, the rail industry supported by politicians will need to move quickly on many fronts in order to provide vastly increased capacity, greater efficiency and reliability, as well as accessibility.

Driverless trains: Are you near a track?

Many countries have invested heavily in autonomous trains to achieve this end. They are likely to be a common sight by 2020.

Automated operation has been in existence for decades. London Underground's Victoria Line, which opened in 1967, has been operated partially in this manner. However it is usually limited to lines that are self-contained and have identical trains running at a set time.

China has been a leader in driverless railways over the past few years. They have introduced the first high-speed autonomous trains that can travel at up to 186mph (30 km/h) between Beijing, and the 2022 Winter Olympics venues.

Japan has also been testing "bullet trains", which can drive themselves between terminals and depots for servicing. This will allow human drivers to focus on running more revenue-earning trains.

But running driverless trains on self contained lines is only one thing. It is much harder to make them work safely on traditional mixed use railways where freight and passenger trains have very different characteristics, speeds, and weights.

Big Data and the Internet of Things will enable transport modes to communicate with one another and the wider environment. This will open the door for intermodal, more seamless journeys. Intelligent robots will play an increasing role in inspections of infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels, and in the maintenance and repair of older structures.

Replacing diesel engines, decreasing footprints

Rail has much to do to reduce its carbon emissions and pollution caused by diesel engines, despite its green credentials compared to aviation. Many countries have pledged to eliminate diesel trains by 2050, or earlier, in line with United Nations climate change goals.

Most of Europe and Asia's busiest lines have been electrified by now, but it is not perfect. The situation is patchy in many countries, with less than half of the UK operating electric, and nearly 100% in Switzerland.

North America's dominant freight railroads are powered by diesel, and there is little interest in electrification like that seen in Europe or Asia.

The future of battery technology is set to make a significant impact on eliminating diesels, both in heavy freight haulage and for passenger routes that are not eligible for full electrification. Many battery-powered prototypes and designs are being developed or tested at the moment. As technology improves, rail's dependence on diesel should begin to decline before the end.

Hydrogen is the biggest hope for decarbonizing railways. The production of green hydrogen in plants that use renewable electricity can be used to power electric motors with fuel cells.

Alstom, a French train builder, is leading the charge with its Coradia iLint hydrogen electric train. It carried its first passengers in 2018 and opened the door to production versions for other European countries.

Natural elements can also cause disruption to railways around the globe.

Railways located in coastal and low-lying areas are at high risk of rising sea levels and other extreme weather events, which could result in the destruction of existing infrastructure.

Further inland, stronger winds, stronger rain pulses, and extremes in temperature can cause flash floods, equipment failures, and landslips that disrupt travel and cost millions to repair each year.

Rebuilt and new railways are being built with the changing climate in mind. They have improved drainage, environmental protection, and restoration of natural landscapes. This makes them safer and more reliable.

In Europe, there has been a revival in overnight rail travel due to increased awareness about the environmental impact of air travel.

The movement is gaining momentum, with many new routes being planned for 2022/23 as well as new private operators aiming to enter the market.

Looking forward to the future

There is a growing awareness that the railroad industry must think differently if it wants to invest billions in new tracks, trains and technology to improve service.

Despite the best efforts of operators, the overall experience remains inconsistent.

Digital technology will play an increasing role in this area, from booking tickets to finding seats and planning your entire trip from one door to the next.

"Climate-positive travel is the future," states Naren Shaam (CEO and founder of Omio, a Berlin-based travel company.

"Consumers will travel more than ever - we have seen a 150% increase of bookings since Jan 2022 - and we need digital services to empower them so they can travel further and cross border by train.

"In fact, the pandemic has accelerated this trend and we have seen a steady shift from train ticket booking at kiosks, to mobile bookings."

Online platforms like Omio or Rome2Rio, which allow travelers to enter their starting and ending locations, will help them find the most cost-effective and sustainable route to their destination. The platforms can also combine transport providers and modes where necessary. They will be able to purchase a single ticket for the entire trip with just one click.

Shaam says, "We won’t even be capable of imagining what travel looks like 30 years from now; for example, apps and tickets will no longer be necessary. Instead, digital mechanisms will automatically understand and charge you per journey -- the ultimate seamless experience!"

Although predictions should be made with caution, we can be certain that the urge to travel will not be diminished by recent turmoil around the globe and the urgent need to address climate change.

Passenger and freight rail will be the backbone of our transport network by 2050. Inter-city routes linking multimodal hubs will feed into local networks.

Rail will play an important role in international travel if it receives the technical and political support needed. It will be a superior alternative to short-haul and road travel and offer high-quality rail travel.

Investments around the globe will continue to be largely based on conventional steel-onsteel railways for the foreseeable future. This will be the future of rail travel for decades to come, just as it has been for nearly 200 years.

Ben Jones is a freelance writer and travel writer. He is also a senior correspondent for The Railway Magazine. He is also a regular contributor to many other British railway publications. Follow him @flywheelmedia1.