Rail has always been an innovative industry, as it adopts new technological advancements to meet societal change and customer needs. At Siemens Mobility, we’re no different: from the first electric railway invented over 150 years ago to the Velaro today, one of the world’s most efficient high-speed platforms. What’s coming next? I’d like to share with you how Siemens Mobility, and the rail industry in general, is rapidly changing – introducing innovative optimizations, but also disruptive solutions.
While climate change naturally is moving all industries to transform, rail is already especially well-positioned to help protect our planet.
Taking on the megatrends
Certain megatrends are driving change in the rail industry. Digitalization is, of course, hardly new. But advances in computer technology are gaining even greater momentum, escalating the speed with which solutions like autonomous transport will become a reality. Demographic change is also an exciting challenge. In the future, we will have to transport more people and make access to rail even more inclusive, e.g. for the elderly or the visually impaired. While climate change naturally is moving all industries to transform, rail is already especially well-positioned to help protect our planet. In Germany, the CO2 impact from rail only contributes 1% to overall emissions in transport.
Finally, urbanization brings change. As more people move into metropolitan areas, a continuation of individual vehicle ownership would bring traffic to a standstill, augmenting the need for public transport systems and concepts. Our goal at Siemens Mobility is to apply our innovation power to meet the challenges of these megatrends and help shape the best possible future for rail.
One manifestation of this is how we are bringing different participants of the mobility ecosystem together on our open business platform Siemens Xcelerator. The strategy behind this innovation, and others we are pursuing, has three main tracks: optimization, evolution and disruption.
How we optimize
Optimization means continually improving the system towards defined targets, such as: zero emissions, autonomous operations or a better passenger experience. In terms of less CO2 emissions, rail is electric, so we already have a good foundation. Over the years, we have learned to optimize this by using significantly less energy, e.g. with new battery drives, fuel cell supplements and other energy sources, such as for our state-of-the-art rail vehicles Mireo Plus with a battery drive (B) supplemented by hydrogen (H), which further reduce the carbon footprint of operation.
Gradually moving towards full automation will also define the future of rail. As we continue to move in the direction of artificial intelligence, the operation of rail vehicles will eventually become fully automated and railway systems will become more intelligent. Why is automation so important? Driverless operation and maintenance will enhance the efficiency and safety of the entire system and will help increase capacity on existing infrastructure. We also see a growing demand for improved passenger experience, which includes a focus on privacy and comfort. Digitalization can help here by enabling functions like real-time, on-demand rebooking and reticketing. Another important factor for passengers is punctuality. A major way we can optimize this is through predictive maintenance. We take data that are available in our systems to better understand current conditions and determine in advance what needs to be maintained, repaired or replaced. Besides improving the uptime of rail assets, this also radically reduces costs, improves efficiency and lowers the emissions of standard maintenance.
How we evolve
Evolution has always been a driving force behind product development. But evolution can also mean deriving technologies from other innovation fields, which can accelerate the performance of transport systems.
A good example of this are e-trucks run with overhead lines, also known as e-highways. How did this come about? If the goods don’t come to the rail, then we’ll just bring rail technology to the goods. So we put a pantograph on a truck, installed an electric motor and added a battery for the stretches without an overhead line. The battery can then be charged during the journey on the e-highway. In the future, we might even see hydrogen trucks used in combination with an overhead line. The message here is that these and similar technologies have proven their merit on railroads for over a hundred years, and they can highly benefit new sectors.
How we disrupt
Disruption is usually associated with major paradigm shifts in an industry. For mobility, where certain standards will potentially not change any time soon, disruption can also simply mean anticipating future trends and being the first to facilitate new technologies and services. To enable automatic train operation in the future, for example, we will have to access information from the track using our European Train Control System (ETCS). While ETCS is an established standard, the future will be ETCS Level 3. This means we will have a signaling system which no longer has anything on the track – because we will move the signaling into the vehicle. Trains will communicate via 5G and be able to travel in closer intervals, thus maximizing throughput. 5G could be a real game changer and disrupter in this case, enabling high volumes of real-time data exchange that, up until now, was not possible on the track.
We also see a growing demand for improved passenger experience, which includes a focus on privacy and comfort. Digitalization can help here by enabling functions like real-time, on-demand rebooking and reticketing. Another important factor for passengers is punctuality. A major way we can optimize this is through predictive maintenance. We take data that are available in our systems to better understand current conditions and determine in advance what needs to be maintained, repaired or replaced. Besides improving the uptime of rail assets, this also radically reduces costs, improves efficiency and lowers the emissions of standard maintenance. We will also see disruptions in technology developments related to passenger experience and sustainability – such as seamless transport. For example, imagine a tram station in the middle of a city. The streetcar has three individual carriages, which can either depart together, or as single units, depending on demand.
That is, they might just be cabins that travel back and forth on the rails and are perhaps on the move for 10-15 people. Something like an autonomous shared cab on tracks. The future will also see a move from connection hubs to intermodal stations. Imagine everything from autonomous cars, drone transport and rail all meeting at one depot. Maybe people don’t even have to transfer from one mode to the next. They could remain in their own cabin and be transferred from one mode to the other. A living unit loaded on the tracks or in the air, and people just wait for their capsule to come get them. These kinds of decentralized, autonomous, self-driving transportation modes also have great potential for freight transport in industrial regions.
Next stop: the future with Siemens Xcelerator
As rail moves ahead, we will need to pursue a broad portfolio of technologies to meet current and future demands, such as additive manufacturing, augmented reality, data analytics, artificial intelligence, connectivity devices, software systems and localization. Happily, we are not alone in finding ways to harness these important technologies. Within our broad network of partners, we are already developing solutions that will one day be the backbone of tomorrow’s railways, whether it's connecting all modes of transport or enabling greater decentralization.
Digitalization is, without a doubt, the key to smart rail assets and services. It paves the way to maximum process efficiency and up to 30% more profitability.
At Siemens, we are leading this transformation with our new open business platform Siemens Xcelerator, which connects different participants of the mobility ecosystem – from trains, infrastructure, operators and passengers – to deliver added value, improve efficiency, enable 100% system availability and provide all-around better services.