All images: Max Bögl
Railway trends in 2021: what’s next for the industry?
Future Rail editor Joe Baker attempts to predict the big moves the global rail sector could make in 2021.
If 2020 is anything to go by, this is the year when rail could fail or flourish. It’s been a mixed bag since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but should we be hopeful about the months ahead?
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to slash passenger numbers in several countries, but relaxed timetables have allowed operators to significantly improve their networks. For example, the US has reportedly achieved its milestone for positive train control implementation, while India has made inroads to speed up trains on its key routes.
Rail may have faltered in many areas during this difficult period, but it won’t be brought to a halt. Here are some predictions for trends we’ll see in 2021.
Aerial view of the derailment. Image: UK Government
Joe Baker, editor
Railway stations will change to accommodate a 'post-pandemic' attitude
New York City Governor Andrew Cuomo caused a stir in December when he unveiled a new $1.6bn expansion to Penn Station while emphatically telling New Yorkers not to travel. People are increasingly seeing transport hubs as Petri dishes, and it shows.
In 2021, railway stations will be looking to put more permanent measures in place to ease their minds. Expect to see leather swapped out for wood in station furniture, barriers left open and more staff guiding passengers through socially distanced queues.
The real question is: will the world’s railway stations trade in chokepoints for a more streamlined design? A post-pandemic deficit in commuters may beckon, but now might be the right time for authorities to consider whether they need to build up stations to boost their capacity.
As projects become more complex, we need to be more proactive in facilitating solutions that achieve the objectives cohesively
Sustainability will help promote a return to rail
Railways are already one of the greenest methods of transport, and operators will continue to capitalise on this in the coming year. Shipping firm Maersk announced it had implemented a solution across 85% of Germany’s rail network, which would save around 9,100 tonnes of CO2 annually.
In particular, hydrogen trains are set to continue their progress. Alstom’s Coradia iLint has made headway in several European countries (including Austria, Germany and the Netherlands) and will now feature as the cornerstone of Canada’s new hydrogen strategy.
One area where railways have occasionally kicked up a stink is their impact on animal habitats. Operators in Canada, the UK and the US are boosting their commitment to planting trees, protecting habitats and increasing resilience against rising sea levels.
With the pandemic shutting down services and, passengers will have more time to reflect on their travel footprint. Last year, a survey found that almost three out of five of Gen Z passengers are willing to change their transportation habits to practice sustainability, with regular rail riders making up the majority.
Technology will make it easier to track trains than ever
As railways expand, investment in new technologies will be needed to monitor thousands of miles of tracks so that humans don’t have to. A major focus will be using data and artificial intelligence to create insights that can enhance services and cut costs.
For example, Indian Railways has plans to use AI and data analytics across its operations – from passenger tickets to freight operations– to assist with maintenance challenges. Meanwhile, the UK’s HS1 Ltd has said it will use augmented reality tech to monitor assets on its high-speed railway, as well as lifts, escalators and travellators at London’s busy St Pancras Station.
In addition to saving fuel and reducing costs for operators, technology will also boost safety, particularly when it comes to the implementation of automatic train control. Increased automation in general will lead to new considerations about how operators optimise their crews and plan for future recruitment.