Opinion

Rail - everything is possible in the next three and a half decades

Arup's global rail leader Colin Stewart

Driverless trains, hydrogen powered locos, integrated multi-modal transport systems and a revolution in freight distribution thanks to the advent of 3D printing are among the predictions for rail, a generation from now, in 2050.

A new report from Arup, the Future of Rail 2050,  has set out to challenge everyday thinking and get people to focus on the forces shaping rail’s future, according to its lead author Colin Stewart who is the consultant’s global rail leader.

“We are already working on cab based signalling for the East Coast Main Line, that’s a stepping stone to driverless trains somewhere. And you can already see it in action in place like Brazil, in Sao Paolo, where driverless trains are carrying 700,000 people a day.”

This month (July) Arup is hosting an event to debate its vision, one that Stewart says, has a high chance of becoming reality.  

2050 is just over 35 years away, a heartbeat in terms of the current pace of change in the rail sector. “But if you look back 35 years who would have thought of 3G and 4G then or the impact that technology is having now,” says Stewart. “We are trying to challenge the perceptions of what could be. Most of the technology we mention is in the embryo stage or in use; it is just a question of bringing it into the rail industry. Rail has been slow to change in the past but there is a new mood now in favour of innovation.”

Driverless trains, he suggests, are high up the list. “We are already working on cab based signalling for the East Coast Main Line, that’s a stepping stone to driverless trains somewhere. And you can already see it in action in place like Brazil, in Sao Paolo, where driverless trains are carrying 700,000 people a day.”

The report highlights mining company Rio Tinto’s plans to use driverless trains in Western Australia to deliver iron ore to ports in what will be the world’s first automated, long-distance, heavy-haul rail network. The roll out begins this year.

By 2050, the Arup team think that hydrogen or hydrail could be the primary means of powering trains. The hydrogen would come through nuclear, wind, solar, solar concentrate, hydroelectric or other emerging ways of making hydrogen with the fuel source being particularly useful for remote rural lines which are unlikely to have been electrified.

Engineering staff and students at University of Birmingham designed and built a prototype hydrogen powered locomotive in 2012, the first of its kind to operate in the UK, the report highlights. In 2013 China rolled out its first hydrail locomotive through a project at a Chengdu university.

3D printing the report says, is expected to revolutionise the supply chain, reducing the need for mass produced manufacturing, transportation and storage, with certain industry sectors shifting from central to decentralised production and from intercontinental shipping to more regional and domestic distribution.

"Engineering staff and students at University of Birmingham designed and built a prototype hydrogen powered locomotive in 2012, the first of its kind to operate in the UK, the report highlights. In 2013 China rolled out its first hydrail locomotive through a project at a Chengdu university."

“3D printing has the potential to change the whole world – you can buy a blueprint rather than the actual item, but you still need the raw material. That still needs to be distributed to peoples doors.” Rail is an obvious route and the report highlights the future significance of rail freight. But Stewart suggests there is more deep thinking to be done. “We have done studies in Amsterdam for example, on using the tram network to distribute goods to shops.”

The holy grail of seamless, integrated, multi modal journeys is also seen as a must have by 2050. “Technology will help the transport sector come together,” Stewart says. “Speed and access to data will influence passengers’ relationship to transportation, as well as their decision-making processes. Passengers will expect certainty in terms of time, so reliable and accurate real time information will be key and they will assume optimal pricing,” the report suggests.

“Big data and the Internet of Things will allow transportation modes to communicate with each other and the wider environment, paving the way for truly integrated and inter-modal transport solutions.”

The growth of use of technology in transport will have an added benefit, Stewart says, in attracting new, young minds that are excited by IT and technology to the engineering sector.

“We produced this report because it makes us think, as a consultant,” he says. “But we also push it out to academia and schools to enthuse the next generation, attract the best brains to infrastructure and rail. People don’t think civil engineering is connected to technology but this report demonstrates strongly how much it is.”

You can read the full report here