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The future of rail is in passengers’ hands Glenn Lyons

Passengers are making ever greater use of mobile technologies while on the move, helping them to get the greatest value from their travelling time, says Glenn Lyons, Mott MacDonald’s professor of future mobility.

Gone are the days of staring out of a train window, as ICT has enabled more people to check emails, use social media and browse the web while travelling. Journey time is increasingly becoming productive time.

The rail industry benefits from this, as the perception of rail travel is becoming more about the passenger experience than the journey itself. This, in itself, sets new challenges, with growing passenger numbers leading to crowding and the need to build capacity and drive connectivity.

In the UK, the volume of passenger journeys made by rail has reached a record high of 1.7bn, according to the Office of Rail & Road – it more than doubled in the 20 years from 1995 to 2015. The increase is commonly attributed to road congestion, but other factors need to be considered – not least the influence on travel preferences and behaviours that have accompanied the rise of the digital age.

Worthwhile travel time

People like keeping in touch. Travelling by rail, 'the train takes the strain', allowing passengers to work or communicate with friends and family while on the move. This is resulting in a re-evaluation of the way people value travel time – it’s increasingly productive.

All this poses questions and challenges for the rail industry. To meet rising demand, provide a better passenger experience and enable passengers to make the best use of their time, what’s the right combination of faster and longer trains, extra services, greater connectivity and better carriage design? People are demanding more than trains that are simply on time and safe. They want faster connections, fewer changes, less hassle and greater comfort. It’s all setting the bar higher for rail operators, infrastructure providers and train designers. And it all involves very substantial investment in infrastructure and asset improvement.

That’s not all

There are huge changes going on elsewhere too. As well as changing the way passengers view and use rail travel, digitisation is impacting railway operation. The European Railway Traffic Management System, the European Train Control System and Automatic Train Operation allow for greater safety and efficiency, and closer-running.

Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement on climate change demands greener propulsion systems. Electrification is the obvious solution, but as infrastructure owners are finding worldwide, that is no easy task on diverse operational networks. In response, hybrid trains are becoming more prevalent – often an uneasy compromise for environmental and speed reasons. Hydrogen trains are on the way, but bring new infrastructure needs, while batteries and supercapacitors are entering the mix.

Action stations!

Change is not only on the railway. New travel behaviours and uses of time in transit are influencing the design of stations and the surrounding built environment.

Where to invest? When to invest? They are questions that must be answered to keep railways running and contributing to social and economic growth. For owners and operators, and their advisors, the challenge is to make robust decision in the face of deep uncertainty.

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