INTRO: Reliable information, quiet, attractive interiors and better ride quality are among the expectations of tomorrow’s passengers. Technical innovations offer commercial benefits, but they will only succeed if they are supported by a robust business case

BYLINE: David Rollin

Managing Director, Interfleet Technology Ltd

WHAT BETTER time to take stock of the rail business and identify future trends and developments? At the start of any year many people pause to consider their future and to set fresh goals. But this year is even more philosophic as we start another millennium.

Predicting change is always hard, but it is possible to discern several trends and identify significant areas of development in the design of passenger rolling stock. In the last century, huge advances in technology and organisation transformed rail businesses in many countries, and this transformation is set to continue.

But before determining areas of engineering innovation, we should consider the society in which we operate, the opportunities this may bring and the demands it will place on our industry.

Global warming, environmental pollution, road traffic congestion, more home working and leisure pursuits have been well documented, but what do they all mean for railways? How can we exploit these issues to deliver commercial advantage to the railway business, at the same time meeting the needs of investors and stakeholders?

Attractive and dependable

People will always want to travel, whether on business or to visit friends and relatives. Although developments in telecommunications have been phenomenal, they are never likely to replace the natural desire of humans to make direct contact. Unfortunately, it does not automatically follow that there will be a modal shift to rail, even where rail competes best. Rather, the onus will be on operators to make rail services attractive, dependable and enjoyable.

We must remember that introducing new technology takes time. Concepts must be tested for technical and financial feasibility, and production designs have to meet stringent safety and fire standards. The more revolutionary the technology, the less likelihood of a service history or library of experience on which to call. It follows that, in a mere decade, radical changes in technology at the higher ’total system’ level are unlikely to occur, but consumer pressure means that there will be an expectation of change in the individual elements.

Safety and reliability

The public perception of rail travel will improve if the safety, availability and reliability of trains are enhanced. We can expect to see more stringent safety standards introduced, possibly aligned to other modes.

Coaches are already being designed with crumple zones to improve collision protection with better energy absorption characteristics and more predictable control of the collapse mode, particularly in an end-on collision. The propensity of adjacent vehicles to ride over each other will be improved by more widespread introduction of anti-climb features.

While the weight-reducing benefits of aluminium as a structural material are well recognised, its relative performance in crash mode is more controversial, and we may see further changes to design standards.

To improve rolling stock reliability, we will see the widespread introduction of condition-monitored components and systems. The basis of maintaining components as and when work is required will replace the practice of regular service intervals based on time or mileage parameters. Advanced fault diagnosis and data logging techniques will monitor the condition and status of key systems and components, highlighting when repairs are needed and pre-empting failures.

For example, diesel engine performance can be monitored and oil analysis used to determine engine wear and condition. These techniques can also apply to gearboxes, transmission, bearings, compressors and to systems such as doors and air-conditioning. This will lead to lower maintenance costs as a result of more effective use of components, and efficiency gains will follow thanks to trains spending less time in depots.

The automotive industry has introduced driver-sensitive servicing, prompting overhauls when they are required and not by pre-determined mileage. The rail scenario may be on a different scale, but the technology clearly exists. Train-mounted systems could be used to detect track defects, sleeper damage and even ballast depth, while wayside equipment on depot approaches will permit early detection of defects such as wheel flats, ovality and worn tread profiles.

Train data can be stored on-board for downloading or transmitted to the depot by radio. Vehicle records will be married electronically with maintenance and overhaul data, providing up-to-date accurate information for service teams. Monitoring systems will quickly identify individual variances from specification, and allow service histories to be mapped out, enabling fleet and route comparisons.

Real-time information

Railways in Britain and some other countries are persistently criticised for the poor quality and low availability of accurate travel information. With today’s radio services - cellular telephone, radio data traffic and satellite - there is no excuse for the absence of reliable real-time information.

The problem can be partly traced to a reluctance to share operating information with the travelling public, but as operators improve their service to customers, the desire to please them will grow.

Internal communication can also be improved. The aim will not be simply to load more details on train crews, operators and maintainers, but to provide relevant information for measurement against pre-defined performance indicators. The supply and use of information, the way it is captured, interpreted and communicated will be a key area for innovation in the coming decade.

Such is the pace of development that we can foresee the convergence and integration of second generation information applications into fewer systems, perhaps ultimately even just one with a universal capability.

Society is constantly demanding more real-time information, and over the next 10 years mobile phones will evolve into interactive tools with direct Internet access. The rail industry will need to respond with more interactive web sites providing timetables for complete journey planning and on-line booking.

Enjoyable and entertaining

In-flight entertainment technology in the airline industry has evolved rapidly. Even though its earning potential and technical viability are still in question, it is hard to see how airlines could remove it from long-haul flights without risking their market share. In migrating entertainment systems to trains, a balance must be struck between an attractive service and building in expensive hardware that may soon be redundant, either because the technology is obsolete or because passengers carry their own entertainment.

For example, the need for on-board computer and telephone facilities, once seen as an obvious development, is no longer so desirable as laptops and mobile phones provide business travellers with all communication needs. Portable video games and televisions do the same for leisure travellers.

But we may see vehicles with dedicated areas for meetings equipped with sophisticated electronic conference and Internet facilities. As portable technology continues to expand, it makes sense to incorporate low voltage power supply points.

Passengers will also benefit from information points offering details about destination towns, accommodation, taxis, connections and maps. This could extend into a two-way link, permitting reservations and shopping to be carried out on the move. All this is commonplace in homes and businesses, and rail passengers will soon expect it too.

On-board repeaters will boost mobile phone reception and prevent loss of reception in tunnels and cuttings. With this facility comes the requirement to develop more effective track-to-train communication. This will be linked with technology to locate trains accurately, be it by GPS or other means.

Future developments in portable entertainment technology mean that built-in systems could soon become outdated, unless they are packaged to permit rapid updates at low cost. The initial marketing appeal of features such as seat-back video or live television is clear, but in balancing the financial risk some operators may see the increase in maintenance and the potential for complaints caused by technical problems or vandalism as too high.

Higher comfort and lower noise

Competitive pressures, global warming and customer expectations have led to more cars and buses being fitted with air-conditioning. It follows that the same standards will be expected on trains. In recent years over 90% of new vehicles have been fitted with conventional air-conditioning. But legislation on refrigerant use means that there will be a move to air cycle air-conditioning as used by the aircraft industry. Following a successful trial in an ICE1 car, German Railway is fitting air-cycle air-conditioning to its ICE3 fleet. The packs are smaller than conventional units and will release space for other items.

Trains are relatively high noise generators, the main culprits being wheel-rail contact, diesel engines and cooling fans. At higher speeds, pantographs can be intrusive for lineside residents. In the next few years I expect to see trains developed that generate less exterior and interior noise. This will come about through better interfaces with track and overhead line equipment. There are implications for both passengers and those living near railways or depots.

A drastic way to alleviate train noise in densely populated areas is to sink rail lines in tunnels or covered ways. This is not merely expensive, but it also takes away from passengers the pleasure of gazing at the passing landscape. Tunnels may also require coaches on high speed trains to be sealed against pressure transients, and we can expect to see pressure sealing become more common in specifications.

Apart from the draconian solution of tunnels, we will see other noise mitigation measures. Damping devices can help reduce wheel noise, and fairings can be fitted over bogies, although they must not interfere with maintenance routines.

Anti-noise technology has been tested extensively in the automotive industry, and its benefits are starting to be realised. The principle is based on monitoring and analysing ambient noise signals and simultaneously broadcasting the opposite waveform - resulting in reduction or cancellation of the original effect. The opportunities are far-reaching both for the exterior and interior of trains.

Interior lighting is important as it helps determine image and ambience. We will probably see more widespread use of optic fibres to create both subtle and directed lighting effects, all from one source. Lighting levels and tone will be automatically adjusted according to external conditions and the time of day.

At the same time wider use of CCTV will ensure that tomorrow’s comfortable train environments will also be secure.

Stability and ride quality

The fundamental concept of steel wheels running on steel rails is not likely to change in the near future, but it may be seriously challenged within the next millennium. Development of maglev technology is likely to continue in Japan and possibly Germany; but major progress will require a breakthrough in high-temperature superconducting material.

In the more immediate future suspension design is being reassessed to achieve better overall ride quality. There is potential to use active suspension to enhance stability and to improve bogie curving. Conventional solid-axle coned wheelsets provide a natural curving action, but are dynamically unstable at speed. Spring and damper connections to the bogie frame can control stability, but degrade the natural curving ability. Work is under way to rethink this principle, and ideas include axles with independently rotating wheels or directly steered wheel pairs. Using an active element to provide wheelset stability allows for increased conicity, resulting in tighter cornering.

Active components will increasingly play a major role in other elements of rolling stock design. Trials on a modified TGV have shown that ride comfort at high speed can be improved using active suspension designed to reduce lateral accelerations. An actuator incorporated in the modified bogie moves the body in response to the signals from sensors and detectors monitoring the track inputs (RG 7.99 p426). Active suspension would also allow trains to be aligned exactly with platform edges.

In the absence of radical new technology, the conventional bogie is unlikely to disappear - for some years at least. Articulation, as on the various builds of TGV, may be developed further as it means fewer bogies, reducing weight, noise and rolling resistance for a given train length or capacity. On the other hand flexibility is restricted as coaches cannot be separated, and significant depot investment may be needed. Gauging issues arise as a result of increased inner overthrow on curves, and axleloads are higher as there are fewer rail contact points.

As engineers, we must remember that the objective in developing ride quality is to allow passengers to enjoy the journey and spend the time as they wish - eating, sleeping, writing or reading - and not being distracted by movement of the train. But we should not aim to create a practically motionless, office-like condition as this may cause customers to suffer from motion sickness and disorientation and ultimately turn away from rail.

Time is money, and shorter journey times must be a requirement for operators of longer routes. Tilt technology is now mature thanks largely to the persistence of Fiat with its Pendolino. Pantographs require an anti-tilt device to ensure that they remain in correct relative contact with the overhead wire. Virgin’s West Coast trains will be the second in the world to have an electronic anti-tilt system to optimise this interface.

Speed increases will also affect pantograph design, and developments could see an active pantograph that will adjust itself to prevailing conditions to maintain optimum current collection across a range of environmental exposures.

Operators will drive technology

The next decade will see tighter regulations governing provision of facilities for disabled people. Train designs have improved in terms of access and facilities for those in wheelchairs, and in the future better provision will be made for people who are partially sighted or hard of hearing. These user groups will expect large, well-defined information screens and clear public address.

With the advent of smart card technology the opportunity will exist for cashless purchases on-board. All-inclusive ticketing exists on many services in Europe and elsewhere, but smart card purchases will offer the flexibility to make cashless purchases without having to pay a premium for an unwanted service.

Overcrowding is a frequent problem, but measuring the extent, location and timing is difficult. It is possible to measure the increased pressure on a vehicle’s suspension, and in combination with GPS satellite navigation to determine where and when overcrowding occurs. Train operators can then modify timetables or train lengths to improve yield management.

Customer-friendly partnerships

One of rail’s advantages is its ability to move large numbers of people into densely populated areas. But it then fails to disperse them to their final destination. Over the next decade we will see development of closer interfaces between heavy rail and other modes. Numerous projects around the world are looking at new methods of providing local transport. For example, Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority has been working on a downtown peoplemover offering on-demand, non-stop, origin-to-destination travel.

Elsewhere, integration of main line rail with local rail, bus or tram services is improving, but this is only effective if ticketing and communications remain simple to ensure there are no interchange difficulties.

It is worth remembering that in 10 years’ time much of today’s rolling stock will still be in service, so future innovations must be considered in the context of retrofitting where a robust business case can be made. Technologies will progress through phases of maturity, and blue-sky concepts of today will become viable developments.

Most of the developments I have mentioned are likely to impact on rail transport, and individual operators will adopt those technologies that are relevant to their perceived markets. They will invest to gain advantage over their competitors, be they other modes or rival rail companies. But do not forget that in a customer-focused world it is the passengers who will determine whether a technology is successful or not by choosing rail as their preferred method of travel.

David Rollin, Managing Director of Interfleet Technology Ltd, was Project Director for British Rail’s InterCity 225 trains now running on Great North Eastern Railway. In 1996 he led a management buy-out of the engineering support arm of BR’s InterCity business. Interfleet Technology Ltd has since grown significantly and has ambitious expansion plans

’The onus will be on operators to make rail services attractive, dependable and enjoyable ... in a customer-focused world, it is the passengers who will determine whether a technology is successful or not.’

’Introducing new technology takes time. Concepts must be tested for technical and financial feasibility, and production designs have to meet stringent safety and fire standards.’

CAPTION: Rolling stock maintenance will increasingly involve rapid replacement of modular components, with data transmitted from incoming trains to update overhaul records in real time

CAPTION: Noise mitigation measures will become increasingly important, including damping devices or fairings to reduce wheel noise. Shields to cut aerodynamic noise from pantographs are already in use on Series 700 and other shinkansen trainsets

CAPTION: Steerable single axles are fitted to Danish State Railways’ latest København S-bane trains