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High-Tech Transport Is Already Here, and It’s Called Rail

Christopher Jasper
High-Tech Transport Is Already Here, and It’s Called Rail

(Bloomberg) -- The airline and automotive industries are abuzz with talk of driver-less travel and electric propulsion, so much so that they might seem to be the pacesetters in transport technology. Yet train manufacturers around the world are introducing innovations that may be years away for cars and planes. Rail chiefs met recently at the biennial Innotrans trade fair in Berlin to showcase a future that’s already happening. Here are some of the highlights:

Driverless Cab

Google’s Waymo self-driving-car technology won’t hit the highway until next year, and pilot-less passenger jets are still years away. Yet autonomous trains have already been introduced across dozens of subway and tram systems where there’s no risk of a clash with other services, among them London’s Docklands Light Railway, the Paris Metro and the SkyTrain and Plane Train people movers at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport.

And the industry isn’t stopping there. Rio Tinto Group in July used technology from Italy’s Ansaldo STS to send a 28,000-metric ton iron ore train through the Australian outback while “driven” from Perth, 1,500 miles away. By the end of the year it plans to have 200 locomotives running without drivers.

French state railway SNCF last month committed to introducing its own fully autonomous cargo trains by 2021, followed by unmanned passenger services across the center of Paris by 2023.

Power Play

While the Tesla Inc. S and Nissan Motor Co. Leaf are making inroads, electric cars still account for only a few percent of sales even in their biggest markets. By contrast many rail networks were electrified decades ago, with the push to cut emissions focused on remaining routes. Some electric locomotives feature small diesel engines to allow them to reach freight terminals a short distance from the main line, but manufacturers are increasingly looking at fitting batteries for so-called last-mile operations.

More ambitious is Bombardier Inc.’s Talent 3 battery model, part-funded by the German government, which charges up under wires and is capable of running on battery power alone for 40 kilometers (25 miles). That’s set to be extended to 100 km, though beyond that range weight is an issue; batteries for the existing train already weigh 2 metric tons. The model will compete with Alstom SA’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered Coradia iLint, launched at Innotrans two years ago. The Talent has the advantage of using off-the-shelf technology, though the Coradia may see costs fall faster once fuel cells become fully commercialized.

In the diesel-dominated cargo market, leaner engines are coming to the fore. General Electric Co., known for locomotives that haul some of the world’s heaviest freight trains, used Innotrans to unveil a smaller, faster-running engine aimed at pitching the U.S. company into a niche it has previously avoided. GE is also fitting batteries to some of its locos for use when minimal power is needed or when crossing territories with tough emissions limits.

Smart Trains

Predictive maintenance is prevalent in the aviation industry, where jet engines send live updates on their condition. The technology is becoming a broader feature of the rail industry, too, from scanners that identify areas of worn track and communicate the position to grinding machines to air-conditioners that monitor changing carbon dioxide levels to calculate the number of people in each carriage.

GE locomotives transmit data across 200 parameters, mainly relating to engine performance, allowing engineers to determine what needs fixing at the next shop visit and to arrange for parts to be delivered in advance.

Tapping “big data” could ultimately deliver an air traffic control-style system for the rail industry, the U.S. company says. In the freight sector that would mean managing a shipment from the moment it arrived at a port, building a consist of different cargoes, determining the best locomotives to deploy and the optimum route, and taking charge of the journey itself, as well as notifying relevant parties such as customs authorities and the end customer

Easing the Commute

Better know for its Shinkansen bullet trains, Hitachi Ltd.’s new Caravaggio commuter model will serve cities such as Bologna and Milan and seek to add more commuters while boosting travel speeds. The train features a double-deck layout combined with a light alloy construction and roof-mounted traction equipment to create more internal space. The result is a six-car train that seats 750 people and can accelerate as fast as a subway train.

Hyped-Up Loop

The industry remains unconvinced by disruptive technologies such as magnetic levitation. SNCF is an investor in Hyperloop One, the most prominent such project, but says it’s more interested in the venture’s approach to innovation and collaboration than any immediate application on the French rail network. The system, based on a concept first advanced by Elon Musk and now backed by Richard Branson, would speed people and cargo through a system of tubes at 700 mph. That might work well enough on a prototype basis, but there’s no evidence yet that it could practically transport an ocean-going container from Le Havre to Paris every 20 seconds, SNCF reckons

 

Getting Faster

While rail’s focus is increasingly on emissions and efficiency, boosting top speeds remains a major theme.  For the moment conventional trains reign supreme, with Siemens AG presenting its Velaro Novo concept for a next-generation high speed train capable of 360 kilometers per hour (224 mph), compared with the current norm of about 300 kmph, with service entry set for 2023.

 

To contact the author of this story: Christopher Jasper in London at cjasper@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net

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