UK: Technology's Role In Railways Of The Future

Last Updated: 26 July 2018
Article by Zara Skelton

Technology in the rail sector is already in use all around us, from smart cards and contactless payment systems, to WiFi on the tube and the use of drones for asset inspections by both Transport for London and Network Rail. And more change is coming.

New technology is set to shake up the industry in the coming decades, disrupting traditional models of rail transport. With this in mind, we take a look at some of the new ideas and plans in the industry to see what the future landscape might look like, and how technology could revolutionise the railway system.

Digital signalling and autonomous trains

Digital signalling is a big step in modernising Britain's railways. Traditionally, signals at the side of the track control the movement of trains on the network. Digital signalling moves the technology into train cabs giving both drivers and operators location, speed and fault information relating to every train on the network in real time. If there is disruption, the digital railway will be able to advise the control centre of the best options to get the service running again, minimising delays.

In the UK, the Network Rail Digital Railway Strategy was announced in May 2018. It will see modernisation across the network with all new trains and signalling being digital or digital ready by 2019. The investment programme includes replacing existing trackside equipment with European Train Control System (ETCS) in-cab signalling systems and state of the art control centre systems.

Digital signalling will allow trains to run closer together, therefore running more trains on the existing network and increasing capacity. Digital signalling is also a potential first step towards the use of fully automated trains, as Automatic Train Operation relies on data from the ETCS to set the speed of the train. Although there are already driverless trains in the market, they are mostly used in metro systems, and still have a driver or attendant on board. Fully autonomous trains will require similar sensor technology as driverless cars to know what is on the track in front of them and to make decisions for themselves.

Currently Alstom, Thales and SNCF are testing fully driverless trains. In May 2018 Australia's Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator approved fully autonomous trains at mining company Rio Tinto's business. The system, which transports iron ore from the mine to port facilities along a 1,056-mile network with 16 mines and four port terminals, started running part of the track autonomously in October 2017 with a driver on board to monitor operations. It is expected to be fully autonomous by the end of the year.

Closer to home, March 2018 saw the UK's first automated mainline train make its debut, with a Thameslink service from Peterborough to Horsham switching to computer control through London, albeit with a driver still in the cab to monitor safety and close the doors at the stations. Automated trains may reduce costs and provide more space for passengers but moves to introduce them are likely to be met with resistance from driver's unions.

Hydrogen trains

Hydrogen trains, or hydrail, use onboard hydrogen as a source of energy and are usually equipped with batteries or capacitors to improve efficiency and reduce the amount of hydrogen storage required on board. Hydrail is seen as a cleaner alternative to diesel trains.

The concept has been around since about 2003, but only in the last few years has it started to see major development. Diesel and bi-modes are popular in European countries without full electrification, as a cheaper alternative to infrastructure works. However, with environmental issues high on the agenda, including EU targets to cut emissions to eighty per cent below 1990s level by 2050, governments are increasingly looking to cleaner alternatives to diesel.

In the UK, the Government has committed to ending the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2040. Minister for Transport, Jo Johnson, called for this to be echoed in the rail industry with the withdrawal of diesel powered trains. We may see the first hydrail trains on our tracks in the near future: in May 2018, Alstom announced that, with Eversholt Rail, it is to convert its fleet of Class 321 electric trains by fitting hydrogen tanks and fuel cells to them.

The likelihood of the introduction of hydrogen trains in the UK seems to have increased after the Transport Secretary's 2017 announcement scrapping electrification plans for several railway lines.

Other countries are also looking to hydrogen. Germany has already invested in Alstom's Coradia iLint, announced in 2016 and based on an existing diesel bi-mode, it is currently undergoing testing on German railways. In Canada, Ontario Metrolinx is investigating operation of a hydrail system and in March 2018, Austria's Zillertal Railway announced that Stadler had won a tender for a contract to replace existing diesel with hydrogen trains, again as an alternative to electrification of railway lines.

Stadler have said they expect to produce a prototype by 2020 with the remaining four vehicles delivered by 2022.

However, hydrail may have its limitations. Representatives from the freight sector have expressed concerns that while the technology may be suitable for lighter passenger trains, use for heavier freight carriage is untested and therefore complete removal of diesel trains may hinder freight transport.

Additionally, hydrogen trains have not yet been tested on a large network scale and a study by the Ontario Metrolinx found that 'the implementation (of a hydrail system of this scale and complexity) presents a different set of risks as well as benefits, as compared to conventional electrification'. While the wheels are in motion, it may be a while before hydrogen trains are a commonplace mode of rolling stock.


The Hyperloop, which involves pods travelling in a tube under low air pressure conditions while using magnetic levitation to glide above a track using electric propulsion, was first mooted by Elon Musk in 2012. The idea is an open source technology that is free from copyright, so it can be developed by any company or individual, and there are several companies in the marketplace developing the concept.

One of the more high-profile of these, Virgin Hyperloop One, ran a competition to select ten potential routes for their service, and two of those selected are in the UK, so it appears that Hyperloop may be on the agenda for future UK travel.

Hyperloop is designed as a super high-speed transport system, with the potential to provide for speeds of up to 700 mph, cutting journey times dramatically – Richard Branson has claimed it could transport people between London and Scotland in just 45 minutes. It differentiates itself from other modes of mass transport, as it will offer an on-demand service with no fixed schedule, passengers will simply turn up and make their journey.

While still at relatively early stages, there have been a lot of developments in Hyperloop over the last year: Virgin Hyperloop One have partnered with a UAE based port operator to build a Hyperloop cargo delivery system; Hyperloop Transportation Technology have built a test track in France; and most recently Dutch company Hardt Hyperloop announced in May 2018 that maritime equipment supplier Royal IHC were collaborating with Tata Steel and construction group Koninklijke BAM to support them in developing an international standard for Hyperloop.

It is yet to be seen how Hyperloop will be classified and regulated. In the UK, it is unlikely that it would be regulated as a railway under the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), but it could be that the ORR's remit is amended to allow regulation of Hyperloop or alternately a new regulatory body for Hyperloop and similar transport could be created.

Passenger technology and experience

Quicker and more frequent trains are a step in the right direction for customer satisfaction, but the reality is that customers now expect technology to be reflected in their commute or journey, through onboard Wi-Fi, sufficient power supplies and so on. Rail is already in competition with aviation for short-haul destinations, but to truly be comparable and competitive, rail services must offer similar levels of service to airlines and airports.

For example, train stations in Luxembourg, Netherlands and Switzerland offer drop-in workspaces where business travellers can hold meetings, print documents and conduct other business on a flexible and short notice basis.

As commuters become more and more time conscious, train stations (and in particular metro stations) will play an important part in 'life admin'. In the UK, the redevelopment of several major stations has resulted in improved station facilities including supermarkets and parcel delivery/drop off points for commuters on the way home.

In Ontario, Canada, commuters can order groceries online before midnight and collect them on the way home the next day from selected metro stations. In South Korea, virtual supermarkets appear on the subway wall; customers can scan the code of products they want to buy before 1 p.m. and they will be delivered the same day.

Journeys of the future will also need to be more integrated to engage customers. Where rail has always allowed people to work, rest or otherwise make the best use of their time while travelling, driverless car technology will allow passengers to do the same with car journeys. Rail systems will need to match up with taxis, or similar modes of transport, to provide an end-to-end hassle-free journey, with one payment covering the whole trip.

An early example of this can be seen with Virgin Trains recent partnership with Uber, which will give Virgin customers the option to receive a text reminder to book a car to align with the start and end of their rail journey. Both parties clearly see this as a starting point for end-to-end journeys, with an Uber spokesman saying the partnership is: 'An exciting first step towards offering customers an easy way to combine train and car travel at the touch of a button.'


Due to advances in technology, the size of the market in which rail competes will include not only other mass transport providers such as coaches and airlines, but also driverless cars and potentially Hyperloop.

Rail needs to stay relevant in the marketplace to retain a competitive edge. Speed of service plays an important factor in customer satisfaction, and the increase of capacity due to the introduction of digital signalling and driverless technology is likely to help here.

Rail providers should look at how they are able to work with other modes of transport to provide seamless end-to-end journeys, which are bookable through hassle-free app based systems, and to ensure that train and metro stations become a hub for commuter commerce. On longer journeys, as high-speed services become more readily available, rail has the opportunity to compete with the aviation market, but cost and passenger experience will be crucial.

Zara Skelton is Senior Associate and Jennifer Cranston is a Trainee at Dentons.

This article was originally published in the July issue of Rail Professional here on Pages 35-36.

Dentons is the world's first polycentric global law firm. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2015 Global Elite Brand Index, the Firm is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality and value in new and inventive ways. Driven to provide clients a competitive edge, and connected to the communities where its clients want to do business, Dentons knows that understanding local cultures is crucial to successfully completing a deal, resolving a dispute or solving a business challenge. Now the world's largest law firm, Dentons' global team builds agile, tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 125 locations serving 50-plus countries.

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