To start with, the outlook for the global rail market is more positive than it was in 2016. According to SCI Verkehr’s bi-annual survey of the world railway equipment and after sales market, the size of the market has grown from €169bn in 2016 to €183bn today, and a forecast downturn in 2016 has turned into a predicted growth rate of 2.8%. SCI says two of rail’s strengths - its environmental friendliness and its contribution to reducing carbon emissions - have become growth drivers in themselves.

SCI acknowledges that political and economic uncertainly around the world coupled with growing protectionism could dent growth and derail some infrastructure investment projects, while the Chinese investment boom is drawing to a close, which could force the world’s largest rolling stock builder CRRC to step up its export drive.

Another change is the acceleration of growth in two of the world’s largest markets - Europe and North America - with healthy growth rates of around 4% compared with 3.2% and 1.4% respectively two years ago.

There now seems to be a greater willingness in the industry to both develop and adopt digital technology, and a greater realisation of the need to change the way railways are run to become increasingly competitive. There is little doubt that the looming prospect of autonomous road vehicles, which could dramatically cut road operating costs, is spurring technical advances in rail.

As we report this month, mainline railways from Australia to China, Japan, Russia and Europe are starting to introduce or test automatic train operation to cut costs and improve operating flexibility. But to achieve full automation, rail needs to rapidly embrace technologies such as ERTMS or its equivalent, interoperable traffic management and driver assistance systems, and sensors. Advanced data analytics coupled with artificial intelligence will also play a crucial role in the automation of rail operation.

As Mr Josef Doppelbauer, executive director of the European Union Agency for Railways, points out, the fourth generation of signalling, which we are now entering, will introduce new operating principles which will facilitate automation. He also says the architecture of the fourth-generation network is identical to that under development for road, which should allow rail to join the mainstream, thereby reducing costs and enabling rail to compete.

Siemens is testing an automatic LRV in Potsdam as part of a three-stage project to develop fully-autonomous LRVs. While there is still some way to go to perfect the technology, the greater challenge appears to be securing authorisation to operate such vehicles, as the rail authorisation bodies are waiting for the technology to develop to provide input to define their safety standards. Fortunately, a working group in Germany involving all the key players has started to look at these issues.

The development of new forms of traction is also surging ahead. While battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell trains are not entirely new concepts, the technology has now advanced sufficiently to make it commercially viable.

Up to now, electrification has been the main option for replacing diesel traction which is becoming increasingly unpopular for environmental reasons. While electrification offers excellent performance and low operating costs, it is costly to install which makes it unattractive for less-busy lines.

The chief barriers to switching from diesel to hydrogen or battery power were range, weight and operating costs. Hydrogen and battery trains must match the performance and operating costs of the diesel units they will replace, otherwise the numbers will not stack up. Many of these obstacles have now been overcome, which is why the first modern hydrogen fuel cell and battery-electric trains are starting to enter service.

This month we report on not one but two new designs of high-speed train which should cut both acquisition and operating costs and thereby make high-speed rail more attractive economically and more competitive with other modes.

Alstom’s Avelia continues the French tradition of articulated coaches and power cars pioneered with TGV, while Siemens’ Velaro Novo is an evolution of its distributed-traction Velaro and ICE trains. Both companies say they have achieved a 20% reduction in purchase cost and a 30% saving in maintenance costs. Alstom says 97% of the materials used in its Avelia train are recyclable giving the train a 37% smaller carbon footprint than TGV Duplex.

Both suppliers have designed coaches as open tubes without any internal electrical equipment. Alstom says this has allowed it to increase the space available for passengers by 20% compared with a 10% increase for the Siemens Velaro Novo. Siemens has also boosted traction power by 10% and braking power by a massive 70% while cutting train weight by 10%.

What is needed now to match these improvements in train design, is a push to reduce the cost of constructing and maintaining high-speed lines. Achieving this would dramatically improve the economics of high-speed rail.

If rail can maintain the momentum, we could be reporting on further advances in time for InnoTrans 2020.