Railway Trends from Western Europe to North America

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.

Certainly, European rail mass transit lost market share as compared to highway and air traffic during the past few decades. But there has been a railway renaissance in recent years among the Western European industrial nations and rail is now positioned to meet a certain niche of the growing mobility requirements of modern societies. This niche includes factors related to population density, economics, oil prices and growing congestion on automotive roadways.

Similar factors are now coming into play in the U.S., as well. Traffic planners calculate that compared to the plane, the train is an especially good alternative for journey times between two and four hours. Taking into account airport check-in times, even a one-hour-flight can easily take three hours overall. Also, increasing highway congestion in metropolitan areas, could change consumer behavior for such trips of intermediate duration.

Challenges and Incentives For Change

Challenges to higher acceptance of passenger rail systems in the United States, and a corresponding investment in them, are much the same as they have been for the past 50 years or more — speed, cost and convenience vs. airline or private automobile. And as always, those comparisons include personal perspectives as well as objective judgments.

Optimism for an American railway renaissance comes from several sources, however. On one hand, there is pressure to respond to the potential of traffic gridlock in the United States. According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the population will have grown by 100 million people in 40 years, with 80 percent of that growth in metropolitan areas. In a statement to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, he said, “If we settle for the status quo, our next generation of entrepreneurs will find America’s arteries of commerce impassably clogged and our families and neighbors will fight paralyzing congestion.”

From another perspective, railway technology and the public’s awareness of it continues to evolve. More Americans are being exposed to how fast and comfortable modern trains are for intermediate distances in Europe and Japan.

And finally, elevated gas prices and parking fees in congested metropolitan areas have already helped to expose some new customers to rail travel as commuters on regional rail transit systems.

One of the greatest hurdles to increased passenger rail development, however, is the sheer magnitude of the necessary investment in infrastructure. While past funding has been encouraging for programs like the California high-speed rail system, ongoing state and national budget pressures could delay the massive commitments needed to bring such systems to completion.

From an infrastructure planning perspective, however, the United States can benefit from the lessons of a European environment that has had a dense railway network for decades and where high-speed rail has been in place for as much as 30 years in some areas. There, congested highways, overloaded airports, long waiting periods and a growing ecological awareness are all driving forces behind the comeback of passenger rail travel. Countries such as Spain and Italy are planning new high-speed lines, and Germany is planning to extend freight lines, mainly to the ports.

In fact, infrastructure density is one of the factors in favor of rail vs. highway development. In metropolitan areas, trains can move more people more efficiently than a highway, while using a much narrower right-of-way. This proportionally reduced need for real estate and its attendant costs for private property acquisition or condemnation can be a positive influence in favor of rail investment.

Customer service infrastructure support can play a role as well. In Europe, passengers have come to expect access to Internet, mobile phone networks, information about the journey, entertainment or services like seat reservation and ticketing even during the trip. Content servers and routers with mobile connections to the Internet can provide all of these services. If the time spent travelling by rail can be more productive, as well as more cost efficient, in comparison to alternate forms of transportation, that could help swing the pendulum toward greater acceptance and use of passenger rail travel in the United States.

Technology Holds The Key To Success

According to the FRA, “A theme cutting across virtually all the RD&D program elements is the use of sensors, computers and digital communications to collect, process and disseminate information to improve the safety, security and operational effectiveness of railroads.” The FRA also advocates taking an integrated approach to implementing intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to allow the benefits of those technologies to compound.

That includes development of systems incorporating new sensor, computer and wireless communications technologies into functions for train control, braking systems, grade crossings, and even planning and scheduling systems. Such advanced train control systems are intended to prevent switching mistakes, control excessive speed and automatically enforce fail-safe control in the event of human error. They also hold promise for more efficient rail system density by allowing a higher concentration of rail equipment to operate safely within a given track infrastructure.

Fortunately, a variety of European rail applications and standards that affect safety, capacity, economy and even customer satisfaction have already proven many aspects of those technologies in specific executions.

In recent years, both government and industry in Western Europe have looked to improve on interoperability that could accommodate greater equipment densities in shorter intervals on existing railway networks, reducing barriers to timely and efficient commerce and travel. This can be especially important in applications where freight and passenger service might share the same rail infrastructure.

One such initiative is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) that holds promise for easing such bottlenecks. It is designed to be a significant improvement over the current patchwork of more than 20 national standards. Members of UNIFE (The Association Of The European Rail Industry), in cooperation with the EU and railway stakeholders, are helping to develop the project. Participants include Alstom Transport, Ansaldo STS, AZD Praha, Bombardier Transportation, Invensys Rail, Mermec Group, Siemens Mobility and Thales. This effort to establish a common standard is being recognized not only in Europe but also by a number of other international countries as a new de facto global signaling standard.

Another important complement in standardization is the European Train Control System (ETCS). It uses a GSM-R (Global System for Mobile Communications — Railway) radio system as a method of providing voice and data communications between the track and train. GSM-R builds on proven GSM technology and standards with its own frequency band dedicated for specific and advanced railway functions. This is a very important consideration as one of the main objectives was to employ a system already proven in use and where off-the-shelf products were available with a minimum of modifications.

Other embedded technology control systems also offer benefits for a cross section of applications, from the ground up, regardless of rail format — high-speed passenger service or metropolitan commuter systems:

Maintenance Control — Computer-aided tamping systems help to calculate and visualize track geometry as well as control the subsequent track-laying process itself. For high-speed rail systems, allowable deviations of the track geometry are limited to a few millimeters in all three dimensions. The same systems can monitor track geometry during initial installation as well as subsequent periodic maintenance drives. Automatic ballasting and tamping operations call for extremely rugged electronic equipment to maintain precision despite the heavy shock and vibration experienced during track maintenance.

Tilt Control — Tilt-control technology uses sensor-controlled actuators to adjust the railcar body in relation to the “bogie” or wheel truck on which it rides, depending on the centrifugal forces encountered. This allows safer operation and greater passenger comfort in turns, with fewer compromises in high-speed performance. Efficient bogie control also leads to lower energy consumption.

Automated Train Protection — Positive train control (PTC) is a communication-based system that uses GPS capabilities for position assessment and radio frequency data links for communication with dispatch offices, grade crossings and railway workers along the right of way. To satisfy the three basic safety characteristics specified by the FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) PTC Working Group, a PTC system must:

— Prevent train-to-train collisions

— Enforce speed restrictions and temporary slow orders

— Provide protection for workers and their equipment operating under specific authorities.

Automatic Train Operation — In contrast to automated train protection systems that manage interactions among trains, grade crossings and switching points with specific margins of safety, automatic train operation systems help to optimize performance of a specific unit. Mass transit vehicles equipped with such “driverless” control systems allow for increased speed and frequency of vehicle passage within a system, lower overall energy consumption and precise stops at station platforms.

Passenger Information Systems — Infotainment solutions keep passengers updated regarding route stops, schedules, tips for changing trains, last-minute route changes or delays. They can also provide weather forecasts, news of the day, Internet access and entertainment in the form of TV, movies or music. Content servers used to store data and programming connect to screens and ports within the vehicle via Ethernet LAN. The servers connect to the outside world via various wireless standards to receive up-to-date information even while traveling.

Other Communications Functions — Beyond safety-critical control and passenger entertainment features, vehicle-mounted computers can support other communications-based functions, such as surveillance of passenger compartments and doors in trains, subways and streetcars. Digital video recorders capture closed circuit television (CCTV) images and store collected event data.

To learn more about current trends in rail, go to www.MassTransitmag.com/1045374.

Barbara Schmidt is CMO at Men Mikro Elektronik GmbH.