How technology is transforming transportation: The future of rail

We see technology transforming transportation in three ways: it will be more automated, more connected, and more environmentally friendly.

Today, more than 54 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. According to United Nations figures, this number is expected to increase to 66% by 2050.

This rapid pace of urbanisation puts added pressure on already strained infrastructure and requires future transportation systems to be able to absorb such growth and be as efficient as possible.

We see technology transforming transportation in three ways: it will be more automated, more connected, and more environmentally friendly. With global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 – efficient rail infrastructure will play an important role in solving mobility issues that face a growing population.

The rail sector, in particular, faces a huge capacity challenge. Over the last decade, the number of passenger journeys has more than doubled. At the same time, the size of the physical network has barely increased at all.

To meet rising demand and improve reliability, efficiency and consumer experience, digital technologies have to be embraced. Through the introduction of new innovative technologies and through the integration of transport systems powered by artificial intelligence, the infrastructure of rail is set to be transformed.

Here are 3 areas we see technology transforming future rail capacity:

1. Artificial Intelligence for predictive maintenance

The introduction of smart, adaptive digital technology brings big advantages to transportation in predictive maintenance. Advanced diagnostic software can predict when wheels and other components will need replacing, reducing unexpected downtime of service for passengers. The same concept applies to other rail infrastructure such as signalling.

These such systems are already being put in place in the UK. Sensors are placed along key routes to maintain signal health and machinery and alert relevant parties before problems occur.

Automated AI technology can be used to arrange transportation engineering works. Allowing for the most efficient use of resources, as well as ensuring all safety and maintenance regulations are followed precisely.

Other methods of transportation such as car or plane are renewed far more regularly to take advantage of new efficient designs. This tends to not be the focus for trains – which are ideally kept in service for as long as possible to get the most value out of the initial investment in a fleet. Therefore predictive maintenance, by reducing operating costs and extending a fleet’s lifetime, has the potential to deliver great rewards.

2. Digital Twins to accelerate the design process

Another way technology is transforming transportation is through the use of Digital Twins. This technology was first used by NASA in the earliest days of space exploration to solve the issue of maintaining systems in orbit when you can’t see or monitor them physically. Today, NASA uses digital twin technology to develop new recommendations, roadmaps, and next-gen vehicles and aircraft.

Meanwhile, other industries are now starting to adopt digital twins – including the rail sector.

For example, earlier this year, to support WSP and Network Rail in developing feasibility and early-stage designs for the Ely Area Capacity Enhancement programme, Sensat created a highly accurate digital replica of the 18 km² site. This digital replica, which consists of 2.1 billion data points, allowed the team to interact with their designs in a visual and intuitive sense – in the context of their real-world environment. For example, a 3D render from any part of the survey area can now be overlayed with track designs to give stakeholders, local landowners and Network Rail a highly visual way of determining access.

3. New ways of transportation

Elon Musk’s vision for the future of transportation is edging closer to reality.

Hyperloop is certainly the most talked about, highly anticipated proposal in transportation. In Musk’s version of the proposal, first publicised in 2012, the world would see a vehicle levitating inside a vacuum tube being able to reach up to 1200 km/h.

It’s possible that we could be seeing the first Hyperloop commercial cargo line up and running by 2025, and the first passenger-carrying Hyperloop by 2030.

This prediction could be a reality even sooner, with Virgin’s Hyperloop One aiming for a 2022 test launch for its first working transport system.

Hyperloop would have vast environmental benefits – especially when considering it against alternative methods such as air travel. A study conducted by the US Department of Transportation found that Hyperloop routes could be up to six times more energy-efficient than air travel on short routes, and over three times faster than the world’s current fastest high-speed rail system.

Modern transportation is currently experiencing major changes thanks to transforming technology. We see artificial intelligence, digital twins, and new methods of transport such as hyperloop having a huge impact – marking the next innovation occurrence.

This will change how we live, and improve the efficiency and connectivity of our day to day activities.

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