Trains might not get the same attention as planes, rockets, and automobiles when it comes to innovative forms of travel, but don't think for a moment that big steps aren't being taken to drive the future of rail travel.
Trains are one of the most eco-friendly forms of transportation and, depending on the destination, they can get passengers from one city center to another in an incredibly fast time.
Here are a few technologies that could play a prominent role in the future of transport by rail.
1. Superfast maglev trains
Maglev trains — which use magnets to float carriages above the ground without the need for wheels — are currently the fastest form of rail travel in existence. The Shanghai maglev train (picture below), which connects Pudong Airport to a major metro terminal outside the city, is currently the fastest in the world. The 19-mile journey takes approximately 7 minutes to complete at speeds of 268 MPH.
The next evolution in maglev trains will see the Chuo Shinkansen line open this decade — it is expected in 2027. The new maglev bullet train is expected to reach a maximum speed of 314 mph, completing the 178-mile trip between Tokyo and Nagoya in a paltry 40 minutes.
Then there's the fact that China is testing a 1,000 km/h 'super maglev' train. While this is very much in the research phase, it's an indication as to the speed that the technology might eventually allow passenger trains to achieve.
2. Incredibly efficient autonomous rail
Autonomous trains have already been in operation for years in cities throughout the world; some examples include, Shanghai, Dubai, and Sao Paolo. And yet, the technology is still being touted as a game-changer for the future of rail.
Why is this? Firstly, systems are constantly improving and can be used on increasingly longer trips worldwide. What's more, automation has a great potential for optimizing the efficiency of public transport systems such as underground rail by accounting for peak times and preventing small delays.
Over the course of a year, minutes saved on small individual trips add up to a whole lot of time saved.
3. High-speed biometric and microchip ticketing systems
Facial recognition technology has the potential to make your morning commute a lot smoother — it might even put a smile on your face as you easily walk through a ticketing face sensor area remembering the old days when you'd have to reach in your wallet or wait as a whole family goes through the turnstiles ahead of you.
A company called Cubic Transportation Systems recently presented a gateless entry system that uses a combination of Bluetooth and facial recognition software to help passengers quickly pay for their trip and get onto their train.
The company boldly claims their system could double the efficiency of metro systems, including the famously bustling New York underground rail system. The only question, in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, is who keeps our biometric data?
Swedish train operator SJ Railways, meanwhile, has already started using microchips to quickly allow rail passengers to validate their tickets (video above).
4. Cabin space optimization
Train cabins are in need of an overhaul. Whether it's providing enough space for train overcrowding or optimizing trains for the modern traveler, there's a lot that can be done to change the way we experience rail travel.
The Mercury high-speed train concept for British Rail by PriestmanGoode shows how a modern train interior could look in the future.
The same company also provided a concept for optimized seating for crowded trains.
While we hope train travel doesn't become quite so tight, the concepts indicate how important interior design will be to the future of railways.
5. Smart sensors for automated track and train inspection
An important factor in automating railways is the sensing and utilization of huge amounts of data that comes from railways, trains, and passengers. Companies like Siemens and Thales develop sensors that help to maintain trains and keep passengers safe.
An example is Siemens' Broken Rail Detection (BRD). The system is so accurate that it can identify any break in a rail track using GPS positioning that locates a breakage within 100 mm.
6. Drones: an extra eye on the tracks
“We are currently working on the concept of rail bots, the rail drones of the future. They will be moving on the track ahead of the train and programmed to run autonomously,” Pierre-Antoine Benatar, Marketing Manager for Thales’ Transportation Activities, recently said in a blog post by Thales.
The company is already a key player in railway sensors and safety across the globe and is responsible for the sensors in some of the world's most futuristic and efficient underground systems, including the Singapore MRT.
Drones could be used to add an extra dimension of safety to rail travel. With automated sensing systems, the aerial vehicles could survey the track ahead of a traveling train and inspect for any problems that might arise.
7. Modular trains that don't need to stop to allow passengers to get off
A big problem with rail transport is that it inevitably can't stop at every location. The tradeoff for adding locations to a trip is that the speed of the journey is greatly reduced. That's why high-speed trains generally only stop off at major cities.
PriestmanGoode recently developed a concept (video above) where metro cars would travel on a loop from the city to a high-speed rail on the outskirts. The metro cars would link up to high-speed trains, allowing passengers to board and exit the train without it having to slow down.
While the concept does seem a little dangerous, it has the potential to dramatically improve the accessibility of high-speed rail travel for large populations.
8. The hyperloop
While the hyperloop isn't technically a train, the technology is a continuation of sorts of the railway. Though it is still undergoing tests, the speed at which it could connect cities would revolutionize travel.
A fully operational Hyperloop, as envisioned by Elon Musk, would hit speeds of more than 700mph, making the journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco only 30 minutes long.
This would be possible thanks to the use of a vacuum-sealed tube that would reduce the air resistance acting on people-carrying pods traveling through the tubes to virtually nothing. The Hyperloop also uses passive maglev technology, which is similar to that used by today's fastest trains.
9. Solar rail
Several companies are using solar panels on the roofs of electric cars to help to maximize their range. The same can be done with trains to make them even more eco-friendly as a form of transport.
The world's first solar-powered train (video above) is already operational in Byron Bay, Australia. It has been operational since 2017. Solutions such as solar and hydrogen power (more below) will help to make train travel even more sustainable than it already is when compared to other prevalent forms of transport.
10. The Straddling Bus
We've already written about optimizing space inside trains, but how about optimizing the space in which they are used? Though China's Straddling Bus looks like it won't be a widely used type of transportation, the idea shows how urban spaces can be optimized for effective transport.
Trams have long co-existed with cars and pedestrians in cities throughout the world. A concept that could allow cars to freely move underneath carriages would certainly improve the commuting experience for many.
11. Startram: a train to... space?
While this is unlikely to ever become a part of our day to day commute, it's an exciting glimpse of how rail and space technology could intersect in the distant future.
The Startram concept would catapult a craft into space using a maglev rail structure that would extend into low Earth orbit. This would greatly reduce the reliance the space industry has on fuel.
Let's be honest, this will likely never become a thing, but it shows how railway technologies can be used for transportation systems that are currently beyond our wildest dreams.
12. Hydrogen-powered trains
As the BBC explains, the technology powering hydrogen-fuelled trains is quite simple.
The fuel cell is made up of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. Hydrogen passes through the anode, where it is split into electrons and protons. The electrons are then pushed through a circuit that generates an electric charge that is stored in lithium batteries or directly used by the train’s electric motor.
The only waste product produced by the trains is made when hydrogen molecules react with oxygen at the cathode and become water. The Coradia iLint is the world's first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It is a technology that we might see a lot more of in the future.
13. Rail hotels
The futuristic cars on the Shiki-Shima train point towards a more relaxing form of luxurious rail travel. The trains include a glass wall observatory, a dining car with a menu compiled by a Michelin-star chef, and a passenger lounge with live music.
Admittedly, traveling on the Shiki-Shima line can cost a traveler up to $12k. While traveling in such luxury definitely won't be available to everyone in the future, here's hoping that public transport learns a few things about utilizing space and improving the travel experience from the Shiki-Shima line.
14. Space tech for trains
Space technology can be used to make train travel safer. As the European Space Agency points out, a special sensor technology that is used to ensure safe re-entry of spacecraft into Earth's atmosphere is also being used to make trains safer.
Satellite technology also has the potential to provide a scalable solution for railway positioning that can increase the safety of rail transport and also provide better internet connectivity on high-speed trains.
15. The plane train hybrid
If you thought the idea for a modular train that links up with carriages at high speeds was a crazy idea, this concept cranks the crazy up to 11. And yet, it might just be the right amount of crazy to actually work.
As AKKA Technologies explains, "with the current growth rate of air traffic, the world’s airports will reach saturation point by 2030." That's why they've devised a solution.
The company started testing a concept for a multimodal aircraft called "Link & Fly", a hybrid plane/train that would be able to easily attach and detach a carriage that also has the potential to link up with railways. The company has already successfully tested an early version of the aircraft.
If the future of transport is modular, railways will definitely be an integral part of the innovation process. With their low carbon footprint and adaptability, the reliable train won't be falling behind other high-profile methods of transport any time soon.