The future of train travel: Biometric tickets, sensors and drone repairs could spell the end of delays and strikes

Forget the strikes and delays of British train travel. Instead, distract yourself with a dream of an innovative transport utopia. 

That’s what the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has done. The organisation representing Britain’s 23 train companies has set out a blueprint for railways in the digital age, envisaging smart carriages that chat to each other to cut delays, drones hovering over tracks to assist with maintenance, and biometric, fingerprint-based ticketing. It’s a compelling vision of minimal delays, train tracking that’s accurate to the second, and no more barriers when you reach your destination. 

Nor is it all tech fantasy. Some of the advanced ticketing techniques have been trialled by Chiltern Railways between Oxford Parkway and London Marylebone, with RDG claiming 100 different tech pilots are on the way across the UK’s network over the next few years. 

In reality, though, the complicated and often poorly funded nature of British railways means that upgrading the tech isn’t an easy process. “It’s too complicated, too devolved, too fragmented,” said Christian Wolmar, the author of a series of books on the subject and a leading expert on British networks. 

He noted that costs would have to be shared across the government, Network Rail (which runs the infrastructure), and the private operators in charge of train services. “That’s a big barrier to the introduction of anything radically new and all-encompassing across the network.” 

With that depressing thought in mind, we assess the RDG’s plans and challenge the tech hype. After all, no-one wants to send Britain’s trains — and the 1.7 billion passengers they carry annually — down the wrong track.

Internet of Trains

The RDG wants smarter trains, connecting them in an Internet of Things style. So the same connected sensors the tech industry has shoved into everything from coffee machines to wine bottles. 

With trains, the idea isn’t actually so foolish. The RDG describes trains with two main, related features: connected carriages that are “aware of themselves and their surroundings”; and those that can move about the network autonomously, but under supervision from rail staff. That includes resolving conflicts at junctions, with trains transmitting to each other when they’ll arrive at a junction to help optimise crossings. The combination of sensors and autonomy would allow trains to run more closely together, increasing capacity. 

 It’s a step towards self-driving trains, which are already being trialled in Germany. Deutsche Bahn has run automated trains on a test track, and believes they’ll hit parts of its main network by 2023. The Internet of Trains is already a reality in Italy, where Trenitalia has kitted out its superfast Frecciarossa trains with hundreds of sensors, which keep watch on components for just-in-time maintenance. 

But changes aren’t easy to roll out across a whole network, in particular our own complicated one. To illustrate this, consider signalling technology – a key ingredient for smarter trains. As Wolmar notes, upgrades for this tech have been in the works for decades. “The biggest smart technology would be signalling technology that’s all in cab, so you wouldn’t have external signals,” he said, referencing the ERTMS level three system, which promises to boost the number of trains on the railway. “But we are nowhere near that and it’s been talked about for 20 years. It’s much more difficult than was originally thought… It’s feasible on small-scale metros with one line up and down, but not in use on multipurpose railways with complex junctions.”

Alongside that Internet of Trains, RDG suggested robots could help maintain equipment, drones could give a bird’s eye view of tracks, and maintenance decisions could be made by artificial intelligence. That buzzword-soup of ideas may sound unlikely, but ships and planes already use robots and aerial drones for maintenance, so it’s not swallowing too much hype to argue they could affect railways just as are in other industries.

Biometric tickets

A simpler place to start is ticketing, with a solution to the snaking queue of travellers waiting to pick up their tangerine paper tickets from out-of-date machines. RDG has low-tech ideas to simplify ticket sales — better machines alongside overhauling prices to offer the cheapest option automatically — but in its longer-term roadmap suggested that paper tickets could eventually be ditched in favour of smartphone apps or even biometrics, such as fingerprints. 

By using Bluetooth, phones could open gates without passengers needing to fumble around in their wallets or pockets, which RDG believes would help speed travellers through to their trains. Of course, that assumes the travellers have a smartphone, have the app, and have Bluetooth turned on, so is unlikely to wholly replace paper or card tickets. 

“There’s lots of different companies, there’s 2,500 stations, there’s an enormous amount of different fares, there’s 20 different train operating companies — it’s an immensely complex task,” Wolmar said. “The idea that we’d all be able to have something on our mobile phone that would get us from a suburban service from Woking to London and then up to Birmingham on an intercity service is probably a long way off.” 

It’s particularly tricky because not all gates at stations use the same technology. “In the Netherlands, there’s one overall player and they’ve managed to have a ticket that’s in use for buses and all integrated stuff, but they can’t do that here,” Wolmar said. 

Further down the line, the RDG predicted apps could give way to biometrics such as fingerprint or iris scanning — although we’re not sure we would want to tap our fingers on the same scanner as every commuter on our train. Such ideas are already in use in Dallas for light rail transport but using facial recognition, similar to a system in use at airport customs controls, noted Merritt Maxim, an analyst at Forrester. 

“The main benefit is speed, in terms of being able to allow faster access into an area,” he said, adding that “there’s a convenience factor, [because] users don’t have to be fiddling in their purse or pocket for a ticket”. He warned, though, that speed-boost claims are based on marketing from tech companies rather than hard evidence.

Of course, any time savings only occur after travellers have signed up for a system. What about one-off tickets from tourists, visitors or those who don’t commute very often? 

“The critical part of any biometric system is the enrolment process,” said Maxim. “For users buying a one-off ticket, they’re unlikely to be willing to go through a lengthy biometric enrolment process.”

Moreover, he noted that some people can’t use biometrics — a small proportion of the population’s fingerprints aren’t readable — and others will simply refuse to sign up. “Biometrics isn’t a universal approach, so there’ll always be some segment of the population that will need alternatives, so companies will still need to maintain alternative approaches,” he added. 

Growth mindset

Like any future-focused organisation, RDG needs to ensure it’s not falling for tech hype. And, as Wolmar notes, technology for technology’s sake isn’t the answer. 

“All these things are helpful, but none of them get around the problem of maybe too many people on the train in the morning,” he said. “They might relieve it a bit…but it doesn’t get around the fundamental problem.” 

Not all the innovations RDG has in mind are far-fetched or even high-tech — and many are about building capacity. One idea is a new type of seat that allows as many as 30% more people to sit on their commute, with a staggered design to give travellers a bit of privacy, too.

Other ideas include building cheaper trains for lightly used areas, better monitoring of train location for to-the-second timings, and double-decker trains where they fit existing infrastructure. 

Better maintenance, more trains on lines, and getting passengers through gates and into their seats more quickly will please commuters and train operators alike, but the promised upcoming trials are key to understanding how useful they’ll actually be. To keep the use of tech on the right track, the Rail Delivery Group and train operators must be willing to say no to new tech if it isn’t truly useful to passengers.


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