Tuesday, May 29 2018
By Lisa A. Bastian, President, Bastian PR
Fueled by new technologies and deep-pocket investments, today's modern railways are transforming how commodities and people move around the globe, and supporting overall economic growth at breakneck speeds. Here are just a few of the many exciting ways the rail industry has been evolving to offer innovative transportation solutions while remaining extremely relevant to our mobile society.
The Continual Greening of the Rail Sector
Slowly but surely, solar energy is being developed as an energy source for passenger transportation. Last December, the Bryon Bay Railroad Company in New South Wales, Australia, debuted the world's first all-solar-powered, 100-passenger train. It makes a round-trip run once an hour. (Batteries and an electric motor are present as back-ups.) Solar power also is being explored as a means to power up its stations and other facilities.
More like a breeze than a gale storm, wind power is making a positive impact on the rail industry. In 2014, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the national passenger railway operator of The Netherlands (with 600,000 daily passengers), announced an ambitious goal of having all of its electric trains operating on wind energy by 2018. (The tiny kingdom has over 2,200 wind turbines churning out enough power to sustain about 2.4 million homes.) Soon afterwards in early 2017, NS pronounced that goal had been met, to worldwide fanfare. But not so fast. An investigation by engineering geophysicist Roger Andrews of Energy Matters found only 10 to 15 percent of the electricity used by NS trains came from wind. The rest was "a mixture that includes mostly Dutch gas and coal plus a small amount of Belgian and German coal, nuclear and lignite – and maybe even a little German solar.” (Read story at https://bit.ly/2laNoJF)
Putting this controversy aside, the bottom line is that electricity derived from wind power will continue to be embraced by the rail industry at some level.
For years, some railroads have been implementing "regenerative braking" systems to generate kinetic energy, which in turn is converted to electricity. This energy can then used to move trains, light up cars, be stored for future use or be returned to the energy grid. In India, for example, Chennai Metro Rail Limited provides rapid transit to over 30,000 riders daily. Regenerative braking on all of its trains (at least 13 now) recovers up to 30 to 35 percent of the energy utilized during the braking process. And as far back as 2012, England's South West Trains (now South Western Railway) invested heavily in regenerative braking systems by outfitting over 200 electric trains with this energy-saving system. Officials lauded the annual energy savings, estimated to be enough to power over 11,500 UK homes for a year.
Newer, Bolder U.S. Rail Infrastructure
For example, the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal in Georgia is already the South Atlantic region’s busiest intermodal gateway, handling 38 trains per week of import and export cargo. But big changes are coming. In March, ground broke for its new $126.7 million Mason Mega Rail project, set to become the largest on-dock, intermodal rail facility for a port authority in North America.
The Mason Mega Rail Terminal is expected to go online by Fall 2019. When completed in Fall 2020, it will "slash" rail time to the Midwest by an estimated 24 hours, an accomplishment which presents "a viable new option for many manufacturers, shippers and logistics professionals." Moreover, Georgia Port Authority (GPA) officials estimate the project will take more than 200,000 trucks off the road each year.
"Not only are we bolstering intermodal rail capacity," said GPA's COO Ed McCarthy, "we are adding bandwidth across all points of interaction, from surface transportation to yard and dock transactions."
Specifically, the project will boast a total of 180,000 feet of rail, 18 working tracks, and the capability of building 10,000-foot unit trains on terminal. The port's rail lift capacity will be increased to one million containers per year, and new markets will be opened that span multiple cities, from Memphis to St. Louis, and Chicago to Cincinnati. This activity is all part of a comprehensive expansion plan that includes a deeper harbor, plus the largest ship-to-shore crane fleet in North America.
Meanwhile, in the Midwest, this April Union Pacific Railroad (UP) announced another huge rail endeavor: a $22.3 million infrastructure project in Idaho. Some of the monies will be spent to maintain track ($16.1 million) and to maintain bridges ($1.1 million). Over the past five years, the railroad has spent over $205 million to improve its infrastructure in the state. This year alone UP plans on spending a whopping $3.3 billion on related projects across its network.
Digital Lives Impact Train Travel Worldwide
"The rail industry is the sleeping giant that everybody forgets about from a technology perspective," said chief executive Iain Griffin in a March 2018 article about his new mobile app, Seatfrog (read at https://bit.ly/2qse5JN). The app was one of many launched in recent years, upgrading the way millions of people enjoy train travel.
Since Fall 2017, Seatfrog allows passengers on the UK's Virgin Trains East Coast trains to bid for an upgrade to last-minute premium seats via online auctions on their smartphones, open up to 30 minutes from departure, with "Seatfrog" space. The draw? Many times the winning bids cost way less than full-price first-class seats at substantial discounts (as low as £5). "You see a lot of stories in the press about customer service on trains not being as good as it can be," remarked Griffin. "For us, it is about making that passenger journey amazing."
A more robust example of how data and digitalization have combined to give passengers and train operators a "future is now" experience is experienced with goJoe, another travel buddy mobile app. Designed by Bombardier UK engineers, goJoe can find and reserve passenger seats, check passenger connections, provide recommendations on upcoming transfers, and much more.
When a passenger uses the app to reserve a seat, a green light over a train seat switches to red, explained James O’Sullivan, the project's technical lead. "That effectively saves [your] spot by letting everyone else know that they need to look somewhere else."
The app decreases travel anxiety other ways, too, by sending alerts about upcoming stops, as well as communicate trip delays or cancellations. If the latter happens, goJoe can scan train schedules then recommend an alternative route, and even share train number, platform, car, seat, departure and arrival time info. Moreover, app reporting tools will allow passengers to communicate with the train's operator about problems quickly and easily (e.g., a broken A/C unit or a bathroom needing attention).
A large part of the goJoe system is hardware that can be installed on any existing fleet worldwide as well as on new products. A company official said the first commercial operation for goJoe is expected to online a few years from now.
Wanderu is the leading "ground travel" smartphone app for booking both train and bus travel in North America and Europe, and is expanding globally. (It's also available at www.wanderu.com.) By using Wanderu, travelers can find, compare and book tickets offered by a multitude of transportation options. Rail partners include Amtrak (which offers its own app) and VIA Rail Canada, among many others.
Hydrogen as Emerging Diesel Fuel Alternative
For example, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling of the UK recently told Parliament he sees a "transformation of technology on our railways over the coming years, with the introduction of different types of battery electric hybrid trains and hydrogen trains." About 29 percent of the UK's trains now use diesel fuel exclusively. But by 2040, the UK intends to phase out all diesel-powered trains.
The province of Ontario, Canada, is now working with train manufacturers Alstom and Siemens to create concept designs incorporating hydrogen fuel cells into bi-level trains similar to those currently used by its GO Transit. Supported by $21.3 billion in investments, the goal is to transform GO from a commuter transit system to a regional rapid transit system. Ontario also seeks proposal designs for a hydrogen fuel cell-powered locomotive which could lead to a prototype rail vehicle. The province predicts weekly trips by GO regional customers will increase from nearly 1,500 to almost 6,000 by 2025.
Metrolinx, an Ontario transportation agency working for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, has been researching how GO can best use a hydrail system. This past February it released a detailed report on whether it is technologically feasible and economically beneficial to use hydrogen fuel cells as an electrifying train power source. The agency's “Hydrail” project page (visit https://bit.ly/2BJkQ11) has links to the 353-page study and Executive Summary, plus a brief Fact Sheet. Some of the topics addressed included hydrail costs, safety and other implications of such a new power system, as well as risks and opportunities. Metrolinx's research may be of value to other communities thinking about similar transformations of their transit systems.
Alstom is the first railway manufacturer to offer an advanced full emission-free alternative for mass transit trains: the Coradia iLint. The traction system of Coradia iLint uses fuel cells which produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen to water. It also operates silently, can carry up to 300 passengers, and reach a maximum speed of up to 140 km/h. The Coradia iLint is particularly suited for operation on non-electrified networks.
Company officials contend "the train of the future" is special due to its combination of different innovative elements: a clean energy conversion, flexible energy storage in batteries, and a smart management of the traction power and available energy. Initially, 14 of Alstom's hydrogen fuel cell trains are scheduled to move passengers beginning December 2021, if not earlier, in Lower Saxony, Germany.
Beyond Diesel: Are Hybrids and LNG the Answer?
Liquified natural gas (LNG) continues to be researched and implemented as a viable energy co-source and alternative for locomotives. Fábio C. Barbosa of Brazil's FCB Research and Consulting presented a paper for the 2017 Joint Rail Conference entitled "LNG Use in Freight Rail Industry as an Economic and Environmental Driver" (visit https://bit.ly/2HeKmeF). Barbosa shares his belief that countries in which rail sector is required to play an important role in transport matrix and where fuel expenditures currently accounts for a significant share of operational costs (like Australia, Brazil, and the U.S.) can be seen as strong candidates to adopt fuel alternatives to diesel-fueled freight railways.
In 2015, GE Transportation introduced its NextFuel™ Natural Gas Retrofit product, a dual-fuel locomotive retrofit kit designed to reduce locomotive fuel costs by up to 50 percent, and allow locomotives to travel longer distances without refueling stops. The kit, placed only on existing GE Evolution Series locomotives, gives railroads the flexibility to run on both diesel fuel and liquified natural gas (LNG), with up to 80 percent gas substitution. This substitution can significantly increase locomotive haul distances while maintaining top performance standards, meeting emissions regulations, and reducing overall operating expenses.
Relatedly, in late 2017, Florida East Coast Railway became the first North American railroad to adopt LNG for its entire line-haul locomotive fleet.
Self-Driving Trains on the Horizon
Not surprisingly, then, is news that emerging driverless technologies will impact other forms of transportation for the masses, including safe and cost-effective driverless trains.
For big news on this front, look no further than Canada. In April 2018 it was announced that Montreal will develop one of the world's largest automated transport networks: a fully automated, electrified light rail transportation system designed to simplify regional travel. The ground-breaking system will feature 212 Alstom Metropolis metro cars (106 two-car trainsets), Alstom’s Urbalis 400 driverless/automated communications-based train control (CBTC), and other integrated components. REM will cover 67 kilometers of double track, serve 26 stations, and link the South Shore, North Shore, West Island, downtown Montreal and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport. It also will connect to existing bus networks, commuter trains and certain Montréal metro lines.
Commercial service on the first segment of REM is expected summer 2021. The total contract is worth approximately 1.8 billion (CA$2.8 billion), and should create at least 250 direct, long-term jobs in Quebec.
On a much, much smaller scale, a driverless, train-like system has been developed by the Netherlands-based company 2getthere, which manufactures a range of automated transit applications ranging from Automated People Movers (APM) to Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAV).
One of the firm's many new projects is a transport system for Bluewaters, a Dubai destination under construction near Dubai Marina. Public transit to the island will be provided by an APM system featuring 25 battery-operated, automated vehicles capable of carrying 24 passengers each. It is the first project to feature 2getthere’s 3rd generation Group Rapid Transit vehicle. Initially, passenger capacity will be 3,750 people per hour per direction, with the possibility to increase the capacity to 5,000. The trip time will be about 4.5 minutes. Dubai plans for 25 percent of all trips to Bluewaters Island to be enjoyed via driverless vehicles by 2030.
Bio: Veteran business communicator Lisa A. Bastian is an award-winning journalist and editor who has authored well over 500 articles for national magazines focused on economic development, global trade and related industries. Since 1986, she has served clients nationwide with her editorial and copy writing skills (see BastianPR.com). Lisa lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her family, and is a former president/board member of the local chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.