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Virtually connected train convoys to help solve Europe’s transport problems - Andy Doherty

Andy Doherty, vice-chairman of the European Rail Research Advisory Council, believes rail innovation could have a major impact on the experience of Europe's rail users.
Andy Doherty, vice-chairman of the European Rail Research Advisory Council, believes rail innovation could have a major impact on the experience of Europe's rail users.

The convoying of trains could be one way to help double railway capacity and reduce carbon emissions, according to Andy Doherty, vice-chairman of the European Rail Research Advisory Council and Director of railways system engineering at Network Rail, the UK rail network operator.

What benefits do you foresee from Shift2Rail? 

‘Shift2Rail will undoubtedly allow rail transport to become more attractive to millions of European passengers and freight users. It will boost the competitiveness of the European rail industry in a world of ever-fiercer industrial competition.

‘As you know, the UK rail industry is currently seeing a real renaissance and a boom in demand for rail travel. According to current European statistics, nearly 20 % of all rail journeys take place in the UK. Investment in rail in the UK has reached new heights. Network Rail has a new plan funded with GBP 38 billion (EUR 47 billion), to maintain, renew and enhance the UK railway with new lines, build new services, electrify services, install the European Train Controlling System, and build Crossrail (a planned railway across London). More funding is also being debated for HS2 (a high-speed railway project) and Crossrail2.

‘Rail in the UK has high levels of customer satisfaction. While this is welcome, it comes with challenges, especially in terms of finding yet more capacity to reduce overcrowding, improving performance and reducing costs. And these challenges can sometimes work against each other, and can be further exacerbated by external factors. One example is that we need to improve the railway’s resilience to the effects of our changing weather – as could be seen last winter.

‘This is why we decided, at such an early stage, to contribute to the unprecedented effort that is Shift2Rail, together with the main actors of the rail supply industry.

‘It is worth as well reminding ourselves that the whole preparation for Shift2Rail started four years ago. Network Rail has been at the heart of it from the beginning of this enriching preparatory phase – with an effective coordination by UNIFE, the European rail industry association.’

What types of innovative infrastructure do you envisage to reduce costs and improve performance?

‘The infrastructure programme funded by the joint undertaking will cover a series of areas. One focus area will be on innovations for track, switches and crossings, and the underlying structure. Due to the increased funding and focus of Shift2Rail, we will be able to improve existing systems and, in addition, seek to develop radically new designs that will dramatically enhance the railway capability. We will also look at bridges and tunnels, focusing on developing solutions and techniques that will reduce the massive cost burden these generally old railway assets place on infrastructure managers.

‘New trains, infrastructure, traffic management, communication and information systems that are connected and continuous will dramatically enhance the travel experience.’

Andy Doherty, vice-chairman of the European Rail Research Advisory Council

‘In fact, a significant part of infrastructure costs are related to labour-intensive and disruptive maintenance processes. Improved monitoring and knowledge of railway assets will enable infrastructure managers to plan maintenance and prevent failures, while simultaneously reducing costs. We will use Shift2Rail to learn from other industries, to take best practice and knowledge and embed them into railways.

‘Lastly, we will seek to improve the way energy is used, looking at new power switching, transforming technologies and embracing smart grids to enable further efficiency savings in an already carbon-friendly transport mode.’

What specific innovations do you think will have an impact on the growth of rail freight and passenger transportation? How will Shift2Rail concretely improve the customer experience?

‘Shift2Rail will lead research into the concept of virtual train convoys, whereby trains can be coupled and uncoupled without actually making a physical connection. This could potentially radically enhance capacity, providing users with a higher level of service while reducing fleet use.

‘Also, making sure that new trains, infrastructure, traffic management, communication and information systems are continuously connected, taking advantage of new technologies such as advances in cloud computing, big, linked and open data and the propagation of internet and social media, will dramatically enhance the travel experience for the passenger, ultimately providing a new level of customer experience to delight and impress users. This will be a key driver towards achieving a shift towards rail.

‘New freight trains and operating concepts using highly automated train control systems will enable more efficient and faster terminal loading and unloading processes, together with improved communications systems. Freight forwarders will have instantaneous information on the status of shipments.’

What are the new technologies you will fund in the domain of high-speed rail? Can you give some precise details?

‘Shift2Rail will cover all sectors of the railway from high-speed and mainline through to suburban, urban and freight. Thanks to the engineering and resources capacity of the members of UNIFE, Shift2Rail will develop the trains of the future that use advanced materials, innovative traction equipment, clever mechatronic (combining mechanical and electronic properties) suspension systems, so as to reduce weight and track damage, thereby allowing higher speed with greater energy efficiency and at a lower cost to the railway system.’

What is the benefit of funding research into rail technology as part of a public-private partnership?

‘Shift2Rail is a massive opportunity for the railway industry. The use of a European Commission public-private partnership enables focused research and innovation in the rail sector, and follows the initiatives launched in aerospace and other sectors. It is a break from the past; there is for the first time a project at EU level with a long-term commitment from private companies to really bring forward new technologies that will be applied to rail solutions on the market.

‘This is borne out of more than 15 years of R&D collaboration through the well-known European Commission framework programme instruments, meaning competitors could work together on innovations that are closer to the market and with very ambitious medium to long-term targets. Through such an engagement, a public-private partnership scheme allows good coordination of risk-based research activities and internal private development plans, which can make the Shift2Rail R&D a reality that would not have happened without a public-private partnership.

‘Moreover, in such a scheme, the objectives of the rail industry are fully aligned to the European Commission’s policies. In other words, Shift2Rail is an enabler to turn policies into concrete actions and technological developments. We think it is very important to consider the implementation phase, and we need to foresee clear deployment plans and link with the Connecting Europe Facility instruments (where funding is made available for digital and transport networks), with the help of the European Commission.’

How will Shift2Rail’s activities contribute to the EU’s goal of a 20 % reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2020?

‘As I said earlier, railways will become yet more energy efficient, but most importantly making the railways more attractive and increasing their capacity will significantly reduce high energy usage in other more polluting transport sectors, as a shift to rail will reduce overall energy usage.’

Shift2Rail

Shift2Rail is one of seven Joint Technology Initiatives set up by the European Commission to fund research by combining public and private financing.

The aim of Shift2Rail is to increase reliability and punctuality by at least 50 %, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by doubling railway capacity.

Shift2Rail will have a budget of at least EUR 920 million to fund research into areas such as making trains more efficient and developing advanced railway traffic control systems.

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