Will Technology Save America’s Railways?

October 11, 2016

Railway usage in the U.S. is very different from what it is in other developed nations. Here in America, the highest proportion of railroad usage is freight trains — around 43 percent of all rail traffic — and we also have one of the lowest rates of commuter travel. American railroads account for 10.5 billion passenger-miles each year; Europe’s railroads see 62 billion passenger-miles in that time.

The reasons for this are varied, from the sheer size of America and the time it takes to travel from one place to another by train to a lack of investment in railroad infrastructure. However, train technology keeps advancing and may lead to increased demand for rail service improvements for both freight and commuter lines. Here are some of the technological changes currently being seen around the world:

  • Advances in high-speed rail — Speed is the killer app of rail travel. The Shanghai Maglev, the world’s fastest commercial train service, uses magnetic levitation technology to deliver a comfortable commuter experience at up to 270 mph. France, meanwhile, is immensely proud of its TGV, the fastest train service on wheels, which uses specially designed rails to remove friction. AGV, the even-faster successor to TGV, is now in use in Italy across limited lines, and is expected to roll out across Europe over the next decade.
  • Moving Platforms — No matter how fast a train can travel, it always has to stop so that passengers can board and disembark. But what if instead of the train stopping, the platforms moved and allowed passengers to transfer to another train without needing to stop at a station? Moving platforms are the vision of one technology company in the U.K. Passengers will board a smaller shuttle train at the station, which then begins moving parallel to the main track. The shuttle then docks safely with a moving intercity train, allowing passengers to move between the two safely. When the shuttle has undocked, it heads back to the station to deliver the disembarking passengers. Not only is this a time-saver, it could hugely improve efficiency on larger trains.
  • Smart trains — The Internet of Things is revolutionizing every industry, including freight transport. Devices within modern trains can be used to control a number of functions, such as sophisticated braking systems that lock the wheels on each carriage in an optimal fashion to reduce stopping distance. IoT also helps tackle a vital freight issue: weight management. In a train with 100 cars, the load must be distributed evenly or else there is a risk of catastrophic derailment. This is a challenge when cars must be loaded and unloaded multiple times in one trip, but monitoring devices help the engineer maintain balance. Weighing devices at each stop can also provide further data to ensure safety.
  • Power distribution — Electric train lines can be a problem. They pose a safety risk on the ground, but when elevated above the track, they are subject to weather damage.There are several solutions in development, such as the controversial project by Russian Railways to build a nuclear-powered train with a small on-board reactor. In China, engineers are working on building a sophisticated wireless energy transmission system, although currently this technology results in significant energy loss.Perhaps the most promising solution is a dynamic system developed by the French company Alstom. Trains are powered by an electrified third rail on the ground, but this rail is activated in small sections by a wireless signal, so that only the area under the train is powered at any time. The technology is being tested on trolley networks in France and Dubai, and is expected to grow across Europe.

The Future of American Trains

We’re always eager to hear discussions about investments in our country’s infrastructure, and we hope to hear more from the presidential candidates about their plans for improving it.

Amtrak is in the process of a major upgrade, with a purchase of 28 new high-speed trains that can achieve top speeds of 220 mph. Using these, however, will require a huge upgrade to the infrastructure, a project that could take up to 30 years.

Other technologies may appear in that time. Hyperloop, for example, is a proposed system of underground intercity trains with enormous top speeds. The first real test of this system is currently underway in Nevada. If it succeeds, the goal is to create routes such as a San Francisco to Los Angeles train that would make the 350 mile journey in just 35 minutes. If that dream became a reality, America may find itself falling in love with the railroads all over again.