If we look backwards as far as we’re looking forwards, to the late 1970s, most of the advances we now enjoy in railways (not to mention in information communications technology) would have been unthinkable. In an age of rapid economic, political, social, environmental and technological changes, exercises in strategic foresight are not intended to predict the future with complete accuracy. Rather, the idea is to explore possible futures based on current trends and trajectories as well as weak signals. Looking ahead to 2035 requires us to think in conceptual terms in the hope of pushing the boundaries of creative thinking. The rail industry is often thought of as conservative; however there is a need to proceed with foresight, to embrace creative thinking beyond projecting the present into the future.
This thought-piece focuses on the passenger and user experience. The journeys imagined here are intended to generate a conversation about the future and provide the big picture context for future planning and decision-making by the rail industry and by governments. They are also intended to set out a forwardlooking and inspiring vision for rail. With the increasing pace of technological change, perhaps the more imaginative scenarios will come to fruition. The case studies indicate trends taking place in rail. They are early signs of possible directional change, and reveal directions in which the future could be heading. Whether these become more widely implemented remains to be seen.
While the specifics may be difficult to forecast, a number of macro-drivers will shape the world in which rail operates. These megatrends will have far-reaching implications for transport in general and rail in particular, and provide the context in which the railways of the future will operate. They will present challenges, but are also likely to spur innovation to meet these challenges.
Advances in technology, for instance, will have wide-ranging and unknown impacts. But we can reasonably expect some major advances in how railways operate: more driverless trains, realtime monitoring of rolling stock and infrastructure, improved accuracy of passenger information, predictive maintenance planning, and most importantly, seamless journeys integrating with other modes of transport. To move forward with innovation, it is vital that decisions are made, not solely on past experiences, but also on future possibilities and preferred outcomes. The future of rail is something that will be created, not entered into. So to achieve the desired vision for rail, those in the rail industry and government should be asking themselves: if this is the role we want rail to play, how do we ensure things are in place for this to happen?
According to the International Transport Forum, by 2050 passenger mobility will increase by a staggering 200-300% and freight activity by as much as 150-250%. This means that smart solutions will need to be implemented to provide adequate transport capacity for growing volumes of goods and people. The incredible pace of technological change in transportation makes it difficult to forecast the future with accuracy. However, trends point to intelligent, more integrated systems for moving passengers and freight. For transport, advances in Information Communications Technology will have far-reaching impacts, making it seamless, and more efficient, comfortable and eco-friendly. Machine-to-machine (M2M) technology will increase efficiency by using sensors embedded in a wide array of objects and systems to automate tasks and deliver real-time analysis and monitoring. Increases in computer power and the ability to handle the processing of large amounts of data in real time, will lead to more effective use of big data. Big data and the Internet of Things will allow transportation modes to communicate with each other and with the wider environment, paving the way for truly integrated and inter-modal transport solutions.
"Big data and the Internet of Things will pave the way for truly integrated and inter-modal transport solutions."