HOW do I get from A to B? At first glance, it’s quite a simple question. But if you ask yourself, ‘how do I get from A to B efficiently?’ it becomes more complex and people tend to stick to what they know: their own vehicle.

In the broader context of optimising passenger flows in transport networks, rail naturally outperforms the use of private cars as it requires less space while providing more relative capacity. But for many people, using their own vehicle seems to be more convenient.

So how do we break this habit? The alternative must be significantly better: more comfortable, faster, cheaper, and with fewer headaches. To change people’s mindset, political decision makers, operators and the industry need to jointly focus on five key objectives.

The pandemic has challenged us to rethink the status quo and develop even better solutions for passengers.

Michael Peter, CEO Siemens Mobility

Usually, every door-to-door trip has a core section that passengers want to bridge as efficiently and as fast as possible. A highly reliable rail network with punctual trains is the backbone that will guarantee efficiency. However, commuters also want to use their time effectively while on a train.

Today, being productive remotely for work or leisure is the reality and has been made possible through broadband access to the internet. Trains must offer reliable broadband if rail is to be the leading transport mode in the future. Operators and manufacturers need to devise stable solutions to ensure connectivity to the internet at all times and under all conditions. New train designs should incorporate dedicated spaces for those activities that matter most to passengers. This is a real competitive advantage compared with airlines.

While fully automatic train operation (ATO) has become standard for metros, its application on mainline railways is still on the starting blocks. Past successful implementations of ATO over ETCS for example will guide the way to make this a standard in the future.

ATO benefits

But what is the real benefit of ATO? Saving a train driver’s salary? Definitely not if you compare it with the rest of a train’s running costs. Better breaking and acceleration will save energy, but the major benefits are flexibility and punctuality: reacting to changing passenger demand more quickly and dispatching trains reliably regardless of schedules and staff availability. Ultimately, this results in higher train frequencies, less waiting at stations, fewer packed trains and a better travel experience: true demand-responsive transport.

You are arriving at the main station of a big city for the first time, what’s your next move as you need to catch another train or bus that departs in 10 minutes? This is where technology comes in. Digital station solutions where the operation control centres and station management are integrated offer remarkable advantages to optimise passenger flows. For passengers, this means less stress and an improved travel experience through station guidance apps. For operators, this means running powerful software that allows holistic station management to reduce dwell times and unplanned, prolonged stops.

Trials with autonomous vehicles (AV) are running all over the world with promising results. But, to leverage AVs to solve the first and last mile problem, they must be certified and able to run safely under real traffic conditions without a driver, while vehicle utilisation must be maximised to achieve a solid business case.

If we want to realise the ambitious goals of carbon neutrality, rail has to become the number one transport mode.

Michael Peter

What will make these individual innovations actually work as one system? It is based on advanced technology which puts the passenger at the centre. Passengers need a multimodal, intuitive and highly reliable app on their smartphone. This digital travel companion comes up with the best option of how to get from A to B, with a single ticket available for the entire journey, making travel a seamless experience. The user experience is key as it creates acceptance, while operators will have a secure and broadly accepted app.

If we want to implement these fundamental changes to create a more attractive public transport system, we need collaboration from all transport industry stakeholders. System suppliers need to prioritise and accelerate their innovation and digitalisation efforts. Together with their lead customers, the industry needs to complete existing proof of concept projects to demonstrate the applicability of these innovations under real conditions.

Achieving these solid reference points for complex solutions like ATO over ETCS or fully autonomous buses will open the door for further innovation and funding. Most political decision makers already have sustainability and strengthening rail transport at the top of their agendas. They now need to act consistently to lay the foundations for future transport systems by providing funds and robust regulation, for example for autonomous driving or seamless ticketing.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the use and perception of public transport. On the flipside, it can serve as an accelerator for digitalisation and change. The pandemic has challenged us to rethink the status quo and develop even better solutions for passengers. The time to act is now.

If we want to realise the ambitious goals of carbon neutrality, rail has to become the number one transport mode. To achieve this, we need to increase passenger traffic by offering a seamless and convenient trip from the first to the last mile. A strong rail backbone plus AV feeder systems and multimodal user apps will relieve travel-related stress and enable passengers to focus on other aspects of their life. Together, we can transform the way we travel.