Rail Innovations

For a long time, airplanes and cars have been in the spotlight of transportation. Until just a few years ago, gas prices were really low. This meant that cars were cheaper and airplane fares were lower. Cars were driven by, well, drivers, who could stop almost anywhere they want, which meant they could set their own pace, more or less. Trains took many stops along the way to its final destination, taking about 6 hours to get from Raleigh to Washington DC, while planes could make it from Los Angeles to New York in a little less time, 5 hours. Cars and planes have undergone many changes in the past few years, from built-in GPS systems to more powerful engines, and from entertainment systems to fancy seats that turn into beds. Trains appear to have “morphed” a lot less, as there are not many train company competition.

Regular people buy their own cars, so they pay more attention to car innovation. Carmakers such as Ford, Nissan, Chevy, Chevrolet, and others are engaged in a constant arms race, always working to come up with new innovations before competitors. Similarly, air passengers have a choice of numerous competing airline companies, all of which are attempting to gain more business by lowering prices, leading to the decline of airline fare prices. The more competition, the less the prices. But as train companies have no competition, they have no need to lower prices. Trains do take a lot more stops, but if you buy a train, you get to choose the stops. The problem is, people are more likely to buy a car or private jet than they are to buy a train. Therefore, plane and car companies have more business. Why are trains “left behind”? How come there are less train companies than car or plane companies? How is technology changing trains? We’ll find out in the latest episode of: TRAIN INNOVATION ESSAY! (Woot-woot!)

Yet, there is no end in sight to the super-long-piece-of-spaghetti of new ideas, some of which are slowly making their way into rail innovation. Better technologies are delivering everything from improved traction to route planning, and from braking systems to levitating trains designed to glide on air at a mind-blowing 310mph (500kph). Energy efficiency and safety are up, and the number of derailments are lower than the late 1900s. There are schemes to transfer electrical energy made from braking trains into local power grids, and even more schemish schemes to for moving platforms, which are supposed to be able to dock with high-speed trains.

Brakes are getting upgrades. Braking a train that is traveling at 80 kph could take 2 kilometers of track. “Your life races before you” says a former operator in Alabama, who watched his freight train, emergency brakes screeching, headed towards a stalled truck which ultimately was able to get out of the way in time. Road accidents take far more lives, but train accidents racked up a 1,239 people killed in 2,300 accidents in 2011, in the EU alone. Much of the braking problem is that the faster the wheel’s of the train are spinning, the hotter the brake shoes get when they brake. This reduces friction, overall reducing braking power. This problem known as “heat fade”. Additionally, almost all trains power their brakes using compressed air. When switched on, air brakes activate, car by car, starting from the front, and making its way back. It can take up to 2 minutes for the signal to travel through the air tubes to the back of the train, time which, in an emergency, has to be a lot faster. Modern trains, however, have brake-shoes made of materials that can apply greater friction to the brakes, and withstand it under higher temperatures. These brakes can be triggered electronically, so it can be activated on all cars at once. However, wiring trains with these brakes is expensive, and it makes it hard to swap cars in and out. But this technology is slowly being made better, and is being added to many freight trains, especially among mining firms, who operate really long trains.

Weak brakes are not the only thing that cause derailments. Trains can get thrown off the tracks if the braking systems are too forceful. Lighter train cars can be forced up and off the tracks by their heavier neighbors behind them when traveling downhill. Railway engineers have known that lighter cars should go on the back of trains for a long time, but cars of varying weight are constantly being unloaded, loaded, added, and removed along a route, so making sure all of the lighter cars are at the back of the train is extremely difficult.

Electric trains are coming into more use, thanks to the technology that helps them move more efficiently than before. Quebec’s Bombardier is building monorail lines in Riyadh and Sao Paulo for trains that are 25% lighter than the traditional metro trains. Thanks to their business in making and selling aircraft, Bombardier has designed it’s new “Innovia Monorail 300” using weight-saving ideas used in aircraft. The new monorail train requires 10% less energy per passenger than the average metro train. These weight reductions also mean that elevated monorails will cost up to 60% less than an elevated metro train.

Building track with overhead wires, known as catenary lines, to deliver power increases costs by 10%. And yet, a lot of electrified rails are being built. 1,322 miles of track are being built in France, Germany, and Spain. China is expecting 4,163 miles of track for trains going over 180 mph to be built in 2 years. Other countries building high-speed rails include Algeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey. Why is there a sudden boom in electric train usage? It is partly due to the increasing efficiency of these machines. Accelerating an electric passenger train to about 190mph and holding it for about 60 miles costs only $200, or €155. Also, brakes are able to recover most of the kinetic energy of the slowing train, and convert it back into electrical energy. This type of energy is hard to store, but it can be transmitted onto the catenary lines if there is another train needing to accelerate within 20 miles or so. If there is not, there are “Static Frequency Converters”, which feed the energy into a public grid, which can use the energy to power factories and houses. These converters are used in over 20 different places in Germany, with conversion losses of just 2%. Some people say that these converters are some of the best and most significant electrical innovation of the past decade.

Another twist in railway electrification is being deployed in major cities. Overhead catenary are not a pleasant sight, can be dangerous in bad weather, and can obstruct firefighters if there is an emergency. To solve this problem, some people came up with a “third rail”, which delivers power to trains above them. But this also adds some safety issues, particularly for trams who ride on the streets. This design also would cost an extra $10 for every mile or so. But still, this type of rail is being built in some cities, such as Orleans, Tours, and Dubai.

If you want a more extensive way to power trains, check with the Russians, who came up with an idea to build a nuclear-powered train. Able to generate extraordinary power, this train could either go at unreasonably fast speeds, or power an entire town. If built this train would have an on-board nuclear reactor, similar to those found of nuclear submarines. Even if this train did eventually take to the rails, concern of derailment would get in the way of widespread adoption.

Positive Train Control, or PTC, is an advanced system designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur. On-board the locomotive part of the train, there is a computer(mind blown). This computer receives and analyzes track data from wayside places and radio stations along the route. If it predicts an accident, it alerts the engineer of the speed limit and track conditions ahead, giving the engineer time to react and bring the train to a safe speed or stop. If no change is detected after the alert, the computer will override the engineer and bring the train to a reasonable speed or stop by itself. This technology will help prevent engineers using extensive speed and derailments.


Today is the Modern Age, where Computers, Smartphones, Television, and just technology in general, rule. Transport systems are constantly being upgraded on trains, as well as other transports. As people work on increasing the efficiency of trains, these machines will become better and more powerful. These days, train ideas are really coming down the track.

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