Looking Toward the 21st Century Railroad

August 3, 2021

ITS America had three students join our Summer Intern program in 2021. Max Read, who worked alongside our policy team, recently completed his junior year at the University of Edinburgh majoring in Economics and Politics.

Viewing railroads as transportation of the past is a common misconception – they are an integral part of our present. Today, 30% of all freight in the United States is carried by rail. In countries such as India, China, Japan, and members of the EU, rail is crucial to intercity passenger movement. For all the increased focus on automobile transport, the train is still a very relevant piece of the transportation puzzle. Additionally, rail has an important place in the future of mobility and the past decade has seen a renewed focus on rail construction. In the United States, a new high-speed line in California is under construction. Plans for high-speed lines in Florida, Texas, and Nevada are not far behind. In Britain, HS2 will be one of the largest transportation projects in the nation’s history. Japan is building the Chuo Shinkansen, the first ever intercity commercial maglev train. In the past 15 years, China has built enough high-speed rail to wrap around the circumference of the earth.

Trains hold key advantages in the world of modern transportation. As nations embark on decarbonization, rail has taken the spotlight as a practical and clean solution. Rail emits only 2% of global emissions, far lower than its modal share of both passengers and cargo. The emissions from rail can be further reduced through widespread electrification of lines and developing a cleaner energy grid. Local and regional rail development can reduce the need for commuter traffic, decreasing emissions through reduction of automobile usage and reduction of congestion. Long-distance trains and high-speed rail can take pressure off air travel, where electrification is not currently feasible.

A truly 21st-century rail system will rely on data just as much as physical infrastructure. Digital twinning is the concept of modeling complex real-world phenomena in a digital environment. The digital twins are constructed using sensor data and technical specifications from real-world systems. A digital twin can be used to monitor the system in real-time and, perhaps more importantly, to simulate alterations and shocks to the system. Such a simulation could be used to model changes to a timetable or the effects of natural disasters on the rail network. Digital twinning has even been used to model and optimize the flow of passengers through a station. Taking cues from the reliable and convenient Japanese Rail Corporation, British railway company Greater Anglia (a company which, I can say from personal experience, is neither reliable nor convenient) piloted digital twinning along the popular route between London and Cambridge to improve service. The digital twin approach, coupled with big data, can allow rail operators to utilize automated timetabling, allowing more efficient use of limited rail resources.

Automation is another opportunity for heavy rail. Today, dozens of metro systems make use of automated train operation (ATO). While automation is easy in metro systems where rights of way are clear, automation on more complicated systems are not far off. In 2018, the company Rio Tinto piloted autonomous trains on a long-distance line in a remote corner of Australia, and the U.S. government took notice. The same year, the Federal Rail Administration struck down a proposed regulation requiring minimum staffing on trains. Automated trains increase efficiency, reduce the potential for accidents, and increase speeds. Automating the railways could bring advantages to America’s trains, including greater efficiency, safety, and speed. As with other forms of automation, there are also concerns about the effect on jobs. However, limited evidence from automated metro lines in Nuremberg and Paris suggest that automation doesn’t necessarily reduce staffing. Nevertheless, these are issues which need to be addressed if we are to improve our rail networks.

The new era of transportation also allows us to solve the pressing issue of last-mile transportation. No matter how convenient trains are made to be, some Americans will be disinclined to take the train because many American cities are generally not optimized for mass transit. Micromobility is a promising solution to this. Instead of relying on walking, travelers can use scooters, bikeshares, or other options to cover the remaining distance more effectively. Mobility on Demand (MOD) is another promising solution. The Federal Transit Administration has taken notice of this, funding a number of MOD pilot programs across the country. Mathematically, solving the first mile/last mile problem is a game changer; increasing the effective distance to a transit stop increases the functional coverage of that stop by a factor of three (or a factor of pi, to be specific).

While there are many futuristic solutions to rail, we must remember that many of the most pressing solutions are not futuristic at all. 99% of America’s railroads are not electrified. The Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most vital artery, relies on Civil-War era infrastructure. The Acela, America’s closest thing to high-speed rail, can only achieve its top speed on a short stretch of track in Connecticut; multiple chokepoints and poorly optimized track alignments keep speeds low and the number of journeys insufficient. To build a truly 21st century rail network, the United States needs to make long- term investments in our infrastructure.

Max Read is an Economics and Politics student at the Univesity of Edinburgh.