Innovation on rails, and the tram of the future

Jul 30, 2021

Wiesbaden, the fashionable regional capital of Hesse, has rejected the option to build a tram network. Against that, the trendy Federal capital city of Berlin is planning and opening ever more routes. Comparing the two cities reveals that things are moving forward with trams, even if not always everywhere. The innovations set to influence the tram in the next decades are as exciting as 140 years ago, when the first electric tram started operating in Berlin.

Wiesbaden had stopped running trams in 1955 – like many West German cities at that time. It marked an era coming to an end whose decline had started in the USA at the end of the 19th century: With little public passenger transport, and lots of private transport. Only a few decades after Werner von Siemens had started running the first electric tram in Berlin in 1881, as a mode of transport it was facing an early demise.

But from the 1980s on, a renaissance in trams and in the entire public transport sector started in many larger European cities. However, developments rarely move in synch everywhere: Thus at the end of last year, in a local referendum, the residents of Wiesbaden rejected bringing the tram back. Meanwhile, other cities are taking different approaches: Osnabrück voted in favor of building a tram network. In Munich, Nuremberg and Augsburg new lines are being opened, even if they are attracting criticism. Kiel is probably "shortly" to take a decision to resume running trams. Berlin regularly develops new routes in its already-extensive network of trams and underground trains, such as the extension to the M10 line to the main rail station in 2015, or the plans for a further three routes. And in some cities, such as Karlsruhe or Kassel, the tram is becoming the link between the city and the surrounding region: Thanks to suitable current collector engineering, trains are able to use the tram networks as well ("tram-train system").

The tram network in Berlin is growing. © Unsplash/Gilly

Crammed with innovation

The renaissance is also leading to the trams themselves becoming ever more modern, and crammed with technical innovation. For example, Siemens has equipped tram stops in Sacramento, the federal capital of California, with capacitors. These short-term storage devices, known as supercaps, briefly supply the tram cars with electricity, meaning that the power supply via the overhead power line is reduced. It is a first step towards battery operation.

Bombardier is equipping some vehicle types, such as the "Talent 3", with a similar system, familiar from e-cars and known as recuperation. When the tram brakes, energy is stored which is used again as the vehicle speeds up, thereby potentially saving up to 30% energy overall.

Very Light Rail vs Tram

As battery performance increases, questions are being asked about overhead lines in general. The latest Bombardier generation can manage up to 100 kilometers on a single battery charge. The charging process is then relocated to the stops. A number of studies have concluded that battery-operated trams demonstrate excellent cost-benefit ratios and perform better than other types of trams. Above all, building the route is cheaper, because less cable needs to be run and track construction is more straightforward.

"Light rail" or "very light rail" systems work using the same principle. They operate with a smaller capacity and at lower speed than conventional trams, but are often faster than the bus because they often run on a separated route. However, their greatest advantage is the low costs of construction. Building the "very light rail" routes in Coventry (UK) is reportedly six times cheaper than building a conventional tram system. Coventry Council estimates a cost of around GBP 10 million per built kilometer, as against up to GBP 60 million. That's a massive saving.

A tram in Warsaw. © Adam Borkowski

The train in the Cloud

Cloud computing doesn't stop at the tram either. For instance, Bombardier is offering Cloud solutions that help operators to manage their tram fleet. Using real-time data and analyses, it will be possible to make accurate vehicle load factor predictions in future. In normal times, train drivers appreciate good train scheduling, short waiting times and trains that are not overly full. In the coronavirus pandemic, precise fleet management is becoming ever more important, in order to keep the risk of infection as low as possible.

Siemens, too, is looking to move rail transport increasingly into the Cloud. Here, the main emphasis is on controlling the trains on the route. For instance, rail operations with their decentralized signal boxes may soon be controlled centrally using a Cloud-based system. Computer control should then lead to greater safety on the tram network. Michael Peter, CEO Siemens Mobility, recently commented on this in an interview with Handelsblatt newspaper: "Signal boxes in the Cloud are a genuine quantum leap for the rail industry, because they digitalize signal engineering and make it Cloud-enabled."

Taking the train to the future

The demand for sustainable mobility will increase in future. And transport by train is amongst the most sustainable modes of transport: Estimates suggest that the global market for train technologies will grow from EUR 177 bn to EUR 204 bn by 2025, according to a study by the corporate consultants Roland Berger. The trends illustrated here are just the most significant technologies. In the years ahead, a lot is set to happen in rail travel.

(Stage photo: © Unsplash/Nathalia Segato)

The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.