Unique geographic, economic and social factors have caused American and European rail system trends to evolve differently. Rapid post-WWII growth of suburban areas in the United States, spurred by the “independence” of affordable automobile ownership and cheap gasoline, deflected the focus on passenger rail growth in the United States as compared to Europe.
As time goes on and business and social demands change, there are opportunities for each marketplace to benefit from the technical expertise of the other. Embedded computing system technology is playing a big role in the safety, efficiency and growth of today’s rail applications for both passenger and freight service around the world.
A World Of Contrasts
In North America, freight traffic is predominant while passenger traffic has played a minor role until now. With more than 30,000 vehicles, North America maintains the biggest diesel locomotive fleet in the world. The Western European fleet is only half as large. The American market for diesel locomotives and freight cars is almost exclusively supplied with domestic products from General Electric (GE) and Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD). By contrast, European and Asian brands are often used for U.S. passenger traffic.
As technologies and markets evolve, suppliers for each rail segment have the opportunity to capitalize on business from around the globe. Passenger rail operator Amtrak reportedly has ordered 70 electric locomotives from the German Siemens group for use on its high-speed rail link in the Boston-Washington corridor and is supposedly planning to replace its entire current fleet of trains over the next 14 years. Conversely, the General Electric (U.S.) Group, which dominates the diesel locomotive business in the United States, is entering the European railway market after receiving an order for 30 locomotives from Great Britain.
By comparison, the United States has lagged far behind Europe and Asia in terms of passenger rail use for years. For example, a U.S. citizen only travels an average 50 miles by rail, the Germans travel 550 miles and the Swiss andJapanese upward of 1,200 miles. Unfortunately, while the Amtrak Acela claims a top speed of 150 mph, its actual average speed throughout the duration of a trip can be as little as half of that, even on an “express” train. For a number of business travelers, this continues to be a good excuse not to abandon their automobiles or airline travel in favor of rail.
A World Of Opportunity
Globally, high-speed traffic is one of the fastest growing and most attractive rail market segments, thanks to technological innovations. Around 2,000 vehicles are used worldwide, mainly in some Western European countries and in Asia.
Although North America started from a low level of participation, it has been experiencing an increase in public transport in recent years. And it seems that the United States can finally start to close the gap on that passenger rail traffic with various proposals to develop true high-speed rail in select areas of the country. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) helped by allocating $8 billion for such rail projects has helped to promote initiatives for new systems in the United States.
True high-speed performance — meaning speeds up to 220 mph — can be a viable alternative in the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, where the distances are relatively short and demand is high.
It also makes sense in heavily populated California, where there are plans to link more than 25 cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, with 800 miles of high-speed tracks. Additional systems have also been proposed in Texas, the Midwest and Northwest United States.
The European market has traditionally played a leading role in many aspects of embedded computing technology for growing railway applications. Railway density with a highly developed infrastructure and a dominant European supplier structure support that high technology level. Western Europe (as strongly represented by Germany and France) is considered the leading market in this arena, heavily influencing other world regions.