February 6, 2024

A glimpse into five emerging rail technologies (7 min)

A modal shift from road to rail can be an important catalyst for reducing CO₂ emissions. To make this possible, we have to improve infrastructure and capacity. In this article we will explore five emerging technologies in rail, which will be crucial in delivering upon this promise.

Acknowledging the reality of climate change, it is imperative that we take decisive actions to ensure a healthy world for ourselves and future generations. That’s why the European Commission has proposed the Green Deal with the objective to become a carbon-neutral continent by 2050 and enhance Europe’s CO₂-reduction targets from 40% to 50% by 2030.

To reduce CO₂ emissions, we first need to examine their primary sources. Transportation represents around 25% of the EU's total GHG emissions. It is the only industry to have increased its emissions since 1990. If we look at freight, it accounts for more than 10% of Europe’s CO₂ emissions. Since freight is such a big part of CO₂ emissions, the green deal outlines that in order to reach their goals, 30% of all goods in Europe should be transported by train.

Increasing the volume of goods transported by rail means being able to run a lot more trains than we are doing now. So what is holding us back?

  1. Infrastructure Constraints: Building new rail lines, expanding tracks, constructing tunnels, and enhancing station capacities are just a few of the improvements required. Keep in mind that these projects require considerable investments and in building infrastructure there is also CO₂ being emitted.
  2. Technological Limitations: Maximising the potential of existing infrastructure demands advancements in rail technology. New smart technologies such as OTIV can minimize energy consumption and unlike infrastructure upgrades, don’t produce CO₂ whilst being developed.

To address technological limitations, various solutions are being developed by the industry or new entrants. At COP28 in Glasgow, Geert Pauwels, the former CEO of Lineas, highlighted five crucial technologies essential for the rail industry to propel itself into the next century.$

1. European Rail Traffic Management System

European Railway infrastructure is a fractured landscape of dozens of National Infrastructure Managers who use different systems and safety systems. Which means if you want to run a train through Europe you need to adapt to different systems for signalling and speed control for every country you pass.

The European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is one solution to combat this problem. It is single European signalling and speed control system being put into place by EU legislation. It ensures:

  • Interoperability of the national railway systems
  • Reduces the purchasing and maintenance costs of the signalling systems
  • Increases the speed of trains
  • Expands the capacity of infrastructure
  • Improves the level of safety in rail transport

ERTMS comprises of the European Train Control System (ETCS), which is a cab-signalling system that incorporates automatic train protection, which we will talk more about at the end of this article). It also includes the Global System for Mobile communications for Railways (GSM-R) and operating rules.

2. Digital capacity management

Today, rail undertakings have to manually request rail paths on each of the national systems to be able to drive a train from point A to point B. They need to do this at least one year in advance and request it through dozens of separate national systems in Europe. This is a lengthy, manual and cumbersome process.

Digital Capacity Management (DCM) is the second technology which will integrate systems from Infrastructure Managers and Railway Undertakings. The ultimate goal is to facilitate the complete capacity management process, from advance planning to the train run. If implemented correctly, you will be able to request a rail path on a click (much like we do with Google Maps).

The whole rail sector will benefit from Digital Capacity Management. A fully digitalised network will progressively allow automated path creation in real-time and an optimised infrastructure usage. This means being able to run more trains on the same infrastructure, which is beneficial for Infrastructure Managers as well as Railway Undertakings.

3. One digital platform for European rail data exchange

Within the rail industry, a huge amount of data is continually generated and utilized by various stakeholders. This includes information from safety systems, the status and condition of infrastructure, real-time schedules, specifications of trains, and much more.

However, due to the fragmentation of this data across different systems and data models, sharing of information becomes challenging. This hinders collaboration aimed at enhancing safety and efficiency throughout Europe's rail networks.

A third required innovation is a single digital platform to exchange data within European Rail. Organizations such as ERA in combination with the Infrastructure Managers and Railway Undertakings are already working on different solutions to unify data sharing. Examples are:

  • European Union Agency for Railways interoperable data project – for the register of infrastructure (RINF)
  • European Register of Authorised Types of Vehicles (ERATV) - and the publication of a core vocabulary machine readable based on current legislation
  • Rail Facilities Portal: a platform which provides quick access to information on all kinds of rail facilities, in particular rail freight facilities, e.g. for the planning of rail services.
  • CEF ll Digital has various research projects on how European Data Exchange should evolve to make data exchange across borders a reality
  • And many more

Creating unified systems for data makes it easier to share information between relevant parties which helps in identifying problems early, increasing efficiency and improving safety.

DB Cargo testing a Digital Automatic Coupling System

4. Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC)

Screw coupling today is still the standard for freight trains in European countries. Coupling is done manually by a worker who must climb between wagons to hook and un-hook them, requiring physically exhausting and manual operation in a hazardous environment.

A fourth crucial technology as such is the Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC). This is a method to automatically couple and decouple the rolling stock in a freight train both physically (the mechanical connection and the air line for braking) as well as digitally (electrical power and data connection). DAC is already the standard in passenger operation but will also be key to increase efficiency of freight trains.

Digital automatic coupling is an enabler to create a modern and digital European railway freight transport. It will not only increase efficiency thanks to automation processes, but it will also ensure sufficient energy supply for telematics applications, as well as safe data communication throughout the entire train.

5. Automatic Train Operation (ATO)

To optimize our rail infrastructure beyond their current capacity, we also need to take a look at the role of people in improving efficiency. Machines can process a lot more information and make decisions based on calculations which we can’t do or at least not as quickly. Spotting an object moving on a collision course in low visibility environments, is something camera’s and sensors do better than human eyes.

The fifth solution in this article is Automatic Train Operation (ATO). It’s a system that enables trains to operate with reduced or no human intervention. ATO systems are designed to control train acceleration, deceleration, and stopping, as well as performing a host of different train operations. It was built upon another system called Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which is a safety system that controls how fast a train can go and can even apply braking when certain events occur.

ATO is an important lever in improving:

  • Passenger satisfaction
  • Railway safety
  • Higher capacity which requires less resources
  • Cost efficiency by shortening the rate of circulation for staff and rolling stock
  • Flexibility to redirect trains when accidents happen
  • Socio-cultural developments such as labour shortages of skilled workers

OTIV product line from assistance to full autonomy

What role does OTIV play?

With our products we offer the railway industry a solution for every step of the way in becoming fully autonomous.

  • OTIV.ONE provides an assistance system for industrial shunting and last-mile operation. Making it much safer for shunters to couple wagons and improving efficiency on the shunting yard.
  • OTIV.TWO provides advanced driver assistance (ADAS) to drivers. Having good perception of the surrounding environment combined with object recognition is mandatory for moving towards autonomous rail.
  • OTIV.THREE is the next step in automation. Here we provide our clients with a Remote Supervision and Control Center, where they can operate trains from many miles away. An intermediate step is remotely preparing the train for operation, which improves work environments and takes a step towards full automation.
  • OTIV.FOUR is the final step in fully autonomous rail operations. Trains, trams and metros will then operate with near to no human interaction. However even when reaching full automation, remote supervisors need to be present to ensure handling trains if degraded modes occur or sensors give contradictory outputs.

Are you interested in trying any of our assistance or autonomous solutions? Contact us and we’ll get in touch with you as soon as possible.