AFTER 13 years, 164 issues and reporting from 28 countries, this is my final edition of International Railway Journal. But before I head off for pastures new, editor-in-chief David Briginshaw has asked me to reflect on some of the changes I’ve witnessed in the industry.
Alongside news of a big new signing for the magazine’s editorial team, the May 2006 issue of IRJ reported on China’s plans to build more than 12,000km of high-speed lines by 2020. The pace of development has been extraordinary, far outstripping the ambitions of the original Medium- and Long-Term Railway Plan of 2004. The first true high-speed line, linking Beijing and Tianjin, opened in 2008 and today the network of 200-350km/h lines covers more than 29,000km.
The growth of the high-speed network has been mirrored by the rapid expansion of urban rail systems in China. According to a report published by the 21st Century Business Herald in June, the country’s metro networks now exceed 4600km and the number of cities with metros has increased from 12 to 33 in the last decade. Likewise, Indian cities are also making headway in metro development, led by Delhi, which has opened more than 350km of metro since 2002. Policymakers now seem to understand that cities can only grow sustainably with an effective mass-transit backbone underpinning mobility. Around the globe, rapidly-growing megacities - Riyadh, Jakarta, Dhaka, Mumbai - are vigorously pursuing rail-based transit to keep their populations moving and their air clean. Almost every week, another neighbourhood somewhere in the world gains direct rail access and that’s worth celebrating.
The May 2006 issue of IRJ makes no mention of artificial intelligence, big data, chatbots, digital twins or the automation of main line trains. Today such topics cut through every issue of IRJ as digitalisation of the railway accelerates. While a rail vehicle built in 2006 has barely reached half-life, the technologies available to ensure safe, reliable and efficient rail operation have advanced massively in that 13 years. Initiatives such as Shift2Rail are helping the industry to harness the opportunities offered by new technologies and ensure rail remains competitive.
With the urgent need to decarbonise rail, the topic of traction has become an increasingly common focus. In May 2006 we reported on a pioneering trial of hydrogen fuel cell trains by JR East. Today hydrogen trains have been commercialised and although there are naturally some constraints to adopting hydrogen technology, it is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to diesel operation.
Likewise, improvements in battery technology offer the prospect of electric operation on non-electrified lines. The recent order for 55 Stadler battery-electric trains for the German region of Schleswig-Holstein demonstrates that this technology is now ready for large-scale deployment. However, while these technologies undoubtedly offer huge advantages in specific operating scenarios, they must not be allowed to distract policymakers from the need for continued railway electrification, which is still the best option for decarbonising operations on busy lines.
Technology has also fundamentally altered the relationship between the railway and the passenger. In the age of smartphones and social media, access to real-time information is increasingly considered a right, not a privilege. Experience of technology in other aspects of everyday life has raised expectations when it comes to the availability of journey information on the railway. The connected passenger also expects Wi-Fi and power sockets, even on short trips.
The notion of seamless mobility has gained ground as technology has enabled greater integration between services. Mobility as a Service stands out as an exciting opportunity to enhance the attractiveness of rail, making multimodal travel simple and intuitive by integrating services via a single user interface.
In Europe, market reforms are also helping to make rail a more desirable travel option. The opening of the Italian high-speed sector showed how liberalisation can grow the overall market for the incumbent as well as the newcomer, with higher-quality services bringing new business opportunities for rail. Similar results have been seen on inter-city routes in Sweden, Austria and the Czech Republic, while in France and Spain the incumbent operators are improving their offer in anticipation of competition, which can only be good for the passenger and the perception of rail.
Historical constraints to cross-border rail transport are also being eroded by the adoption of common standards. The introduction of TSIs, the spread of ERTMS and the centralisation of responsibilities for safety certification and rolling stock authorisation with the EU Agency for Railways are all important milestones in the drive to make the European rail sector more cost-effective and break down the barriers to cross-border operation.
An efficient rail system is vital to achieve the significant modal shift that will be necessary to decarbonise the transport system. It has been heartening over the last 13 years to see the rail industry achieve so much progress in that direction. Yet there is an urgent need to build more capacity if networks are to absorb all that extra traffic. In the Netherlands, the network is facing both a capacity crunch and the prospect of traction power shortages as ridership growth continues to outstrip projections. In Germany, the continuing deficit in capital investment threatens to undermine DB’s Strong Rail programme, and with it a major opportunity to get people out of their cars.
People in the industry often talk about ‘railway timescales’ as if it is impossible to achieve great things in a short time. Of course, in a safety-critical industry with costly (and largely publicly-funded) assets, progress can be slow and there is a need to think long-term. But think about everything that has been done in the last 13 years - change can happen quickly, if there’s a will to make it happen.