In the driver’s seat for high-speed trains

The take-away

  • The latest generation of high-speed trains in Europe consume less energy, resist extreme weather and automate many onboard processes.
  • Experts are pushing for seamless connections among various means of transport, including between trains and bikes.

Celebrated for their comfort and efficiency, Europe’s high-speed trains cannot afford to stand still. The competition is intense on several fronts: airlines, whose passenger numbers in Europe increased by around 8% between 2016 and 2017 with similar forecasts for 2018; autonomous vehicles; and even futuristic projects like Hyperloop. The response: a new generation of high-speed trains.

The main opportunities for innovation involve efficiency and energy costs. The new ICE 4 trains operated by Germany’s Deutsche Bahn consume 22% less energy than their predecessors. Not only are the trains 5% lighter, but German designer Siemens has also improved the aerodynamics and introduced new, lighter bogies (the framework to which the axles are attached). By 2030 Deutsche Bahn will take delivery of 130 new ICE 4s to replace its Intercity and Eurocity trains, some of which date back to the 1970s. Reaching a top speed of 250 km/h, the new trains have been in service since 2017.

Two other areas in which the European rail industry has made major technological advances are resistance to extreme weather conditions and the digitalisation of onboard processes. Oaris, built by Spain’s CAF, can withstand temperatures as low as -40 °C and travel up to 350 km/h. Tests were conducted in early 2018 for the Norwegian operator Flytoget. Then there’s EVA, a “smart train” that will connect Madrid and Barcelona beginning in 2019. It will include a fully automated ticketing system, including all the means of transport for a given journey, and biometrics for passenger identification.

German high-speed train

Less weight and improved aerodynamics: the ICE 4 consumes 22% less energy than its predecessors.

Better connections

Europe’s leadership in rail technology is recognised around the world. Siemens, Alstom, Stadler Rail and CAF, the continent’s four largest rail manufacturers, have a global sales base with worldwide revenues of more than €15 billion. Their advantage, explains Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, director general of the International Union of Railways (UIC), is that European companies have been able to use their products across an extensive network over nearly four decades. Europe’s first high-speed line, the Paris-Lyon TGV, came into service in 1981, 17 years after Japan’s first bullet train. In June 2018, the UIC had 4,806 high-speed trains worldwide, of which almost 1,800 in Europe.

Although Europe has a historic advantage, another high-speed train concept is emerging on the other side of the Atlantic. Brainchild of entrepreneur Elon Musk, Hyperloop should connect the 551 km between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under 30 minutes. Passengers would travel in pods propelled along a rail through a vacuum tube. Could it compete with European expertise? “Hyperloop is not a competitor for high-speed train lines,” says Henrik Sylvan, head of the RailTech Centre at Denmark Technical University. “Rather, the two are complementary. It is a means to get from A to B at almost 1,100 km/h. That’s faster than a plane. So, it’s the airlines that should be worried.”

Sylvan continues: “The rail sector can and must continue to develop new high-speed trains between cities that are several hundred kilometres apart. However, given society’s constant pursuit of efficiency, there is real potential for faster means of transport between more distant places.” According to Loubinoux, the next challenge is to connect all the different means of transport. “The train station is neither the start nor the end of a journey,” he explains. “We need to develop modal interfaces, not only between high-speed trains and Hyperloop-style technology, but between trains and bikes.” Improved international cooperation would also help. In a report published in June 2018, the European Court of Auditors criticised the European rail network as a patchwork of national lines with little coordination at border crossings.

Underground vs. overhead

In the 1980s Switzerland had a project that seemed as ambitious for its day as Hyperloop. Swissmetro was supposed to connect Swiss cities using several complementary technologies: small tunnels with a partial vacuum, vehicles propelled by linear electric motors fixed to the tunnels and a magnetic levitation and guidance system, making it possible to reach speeds of 430 km/h silently and without wear on the equipment. “The topography of Switzerland, the population density and the possible administrative appeals mean that you can’t build traditional high-speed lines here,” says Marcel Jufer, honorary professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who backed the original project.

Now the idea is being revived in an updated form: a feasibility study has been requested to establish its economic and security impact. The Hyperloop concept – tubes on pillars – has many drawbacks, according to Jufer: “There are risks of sabotage and implosion in the event of an accident, not to mention possible earthquake damage and evacuation issues.” Recognising these drawbacks, Musk has modified the initial Hyperloop concept: the aim now is to connect Washington and New York in a tunnel. “It would be a faster version of Swissmetro,” says Jufer with a touch of irony.



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