Train to the Future … exploring new ideas and innovation for rail travel, from Maglev to Hyperloop, trains and stations

November 22, 2018

In a future where 75% of people live in cities, the world’s population stands at 9.5 billion and there are advances in technology that can only be dreamed about today, the Future of Rail 2050 takes a user’s perspective and explores how rail travel might change for passengers and freight.

  • What are the megatrends that will influence the way people live, work, travel and consume information in the future?
  • How will infrastructure and rail systems cope with the rising demand for passenger and freight capacity?
  • How will rail fare in a world experiencing an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events?

In the past, we have witnessed rail’s power to stimulate and drive economic growth. In some parts of the world it’s seen as essential for economic diversification and supporting policy, and can be a catalyst for regeneration.

Download Arup’s The Future of Rail 2050 Report

As the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanised, it is estimated that the number of journeys measured in passenger-kilometres will triple by 2050. Roads simply can’t absorb this increase.

Railways, with their greater capacity for carrying more people, quickly and with greater energy efficiency, are the best bet to become our mobility backbone. Of course, engineers’ imaginations have created many alternatives to the original steel-on-steel approach to the railway. Maglev and the much-publicised but so far theoretical Hyperloop are often regarded as the ones to watch – but do they really represent the future of rail travel?

Hyperloop is an elegant idea: travelling seamlessly at 1,220kph (that’s right, 760mph – just under the speed of sound) in gracefully designed pods that arrive as often as every 30 seconds is very appealing. The concept is based around very straight tubes with a partial vacuum applied under the pods. These pods have an electric compressor fan on their nose which actively transfers high-pressure air from the front to the rear, creating an air cushion once a linear electric motor has launched the pod. All this would be battery and solar powered.

Technically it’s a challenging design, although if someone can make it happen it’s the man who proposed the idea, Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX and Tesla. However, Hyperloop is not rail travel. It is, as Musk puts it, a fifth mode of transport (after trains, cars, boats and planes). It’s designed to link Los Angeles to San Francisco; cities hundreds of miles apart that can be connected in an almost straight line over a relative flat landscape. This simply isn’t an option in much of the world.

Ultimately, if Hyperloop happens at all it will be a stand-alone system. It’s no substitute for rail.

Magnetic levitation (maglev) uses powerful magnets to propel the train along dedicated lines that are as straight as possible. The attractive forces between electronically controlled electromagnets in the vehicle and the ferromagnetic guide rails pull the vehicle up, while additional guidance magnets keep it laterally on track. This version of the technology was developed in Germany and is currently used to link Shanghai airport with the city centre at speeds of 430kph (267mph).

However it’s perhaps Japan that is most associated with maglev. The nation that established the modern era of high-speed trains is also attempting to define the next chapter. Superconducting magnetic levitation (SCMaglev) has been in development for decades but was recently approved to run from Tokyo to Osaka from 2027, when it will complete the 500km (311 mile) journey in just over an hour. Unlike the Transrapid system in Shanghai, the Japanese maglev principle uses more powerful “superconducting” magnets and a guideway design based on repulsive rather than attractive forces.

But while maglev is technically possible, its commercial viability is questionable. There is an extremely high initial infrastructure cost – Japan’s SCMaglev line is expected to cost ¥9 trillion (US$72 billion. It also cannot be integrated with existing rail networks and has a phenomenal energy demand, during both construction and operation. This casts serious doubts about maglev’s true potential as an alternative to conventional high-speed technology.

In practice, the vast majority of us will continue to travel on trains that are not dissimilar to those that are around today.

Greater automation are expected to dominate not just rail but all types of travel. Automatic train operation is already used in some urban railways which allows for shorter distances between trains on the same line. It is anticipated that in the future all mainline trains will be able to communicate with each other, meaning significantly more trains on the track, increasing capacity and service levels. This in turn will make physical line-side signalling equipment redundant, leading to more simple layouts for new lines. Better use of energy on electrically powered intercity rail travel will likely play a significant role. For instance, energy storage systems and advanced substations will allow a shift to smarter rail systems.

Future predictions are to be treated with caution. But state-of-the-art railway investment around the globe is still largely based on the steel-on-steel principle of trains on tracks. And there’s no reason to doubt that this will be the define future of rail travel in coming decades – just as it has done since the birth of rail nearly 200 years ago.

Hydrogen trains are CO2 emission free regional trains – an alternative to diesel power. Hydrogen power works when hydrogen is burned with oxygen to produce huge amounts of energy, with the only by-product being water. The vehicles convert the chemical energy of hydrogen to mechanical energy, either by burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine vehicle or by reacting to hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to run electric motors.

A hydrogen powered passenger train is currently being tested in Germany. There’s also interest emerging in the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

Additionally, China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC)’s Qingdao Sifang announced that they have been awarded a contract to supply eight hydrogen fuel cell trams for a new light rail line. The hydrogen or hydrail train will run in Foshan in southeastern China. A 17.4km track will be built in two phases at 760 million yuan ($109.0 million) with 20 stations. A demonstration model of the trains was first rolled out in Qingdao in 2015, but the Foshan project will mark the world’s first deployment of a full-scale commercial system; the trains can travel at speeds of up to 70kp/h.

John Hansman is an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, heads the Institute’s Division of Humans and Automation and directs the International Center for Air Transportation. He’s climbed ice, flown planes, driven a high performance racecar, sailed boats and flown on numerous parabolic flights simulating zero gravity. Speaking while driving through New England, he offered his take on well-known futuristic transportation ideas.

“There are some concepts of what we call tethered satellites and there are some interesting things you can do with the orbital dynamics by building tethers and expanding them,” Hansman said. But even a tethered satellite would still use lots of energy. “There’s no free ride to space,” Hansman added.

And the dreams go on:

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