Tech

Get on Board: Futuristic Train Tech America Should Adopt

Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

For decades, trains were out of style. They had their golden age of luxurious sleeper cars and journeys full of panoramic views, but with the dawn of commercial flight, they turned into utilitarian conveyances, something you schlep to work on every morning.

That’s changing. New technology has transformed trains into a viable competitor to increasingly cramped and punchy air travel, and there’s a chance that developments on the horizon will make terrestrial transportation all the rage again. Here are some of the coolest things happening in train tech, from trains that drive themselves to buying tickets with just your sweet face.

FLOATING TRAINS

Magnetic levitation -- "maglev” for short -- removes friction to propel (floating!) trains faster than they can run on wheels. The technology has been around for several decades already, with test runs in places like Birmingham in the UK and on a short track in Berlin where it was dubbed the “M-Bahn,” short for “Magnet Bahn.” But East Asia is where the concept has really hit full speed -- no, literally full speed. Most recently in 2004, a maglev track was opened in Shanghai to connect Pudong Airport to a major metro terminal outside the city. The 19-mile journey takes about 7 minutes to complete at speeds of 268 MPH.

The Shanghai maglev is currently the fastest commercially operated electric train in the world, but there’s an evolution on the horizon that has the potential to leave it in the dust: The Chuo Shinkansen. This new maglev bullet train is poised to hit a maximum speed of 314 MPH, finishing the 178-mile trip between Tokyo and Nagoya in a paltry 40 minutes. We’re still almost a decade away from its commercial deployment -- officials are targeting a 2027 debut -- but once this new bullet train starts floating its way through Japan, expect plenty of other routes to open soon after.

Why we should get it: This country has huge swaths of pristine, gorgeous terrain just begging for a train line that doesn’t cost twice the price of a plane ticket and take two weeks to arrive. By rocketing people around at airplane speeds, we’ll clear a ton of traffic off the highway, while making the journey as gorgeous and fun as the destination -- something flying just can’t do.

TRAIN TICKETS THAT RECOGNIZE YOU

Facial mapping technology has made some serious leaps in recent years beyond your Snapchat filter, and it has the potential to change how we pay for train tickets in the not-so-distant future. A company called Cubic Transportation Systems presented a truly gateless entry system at a transportation summit in May of 2017 that uses a mix of Bluetooth and facial recognition software to speed passengers onto trains. The company claims metro systems could double the amount of customers it processes per hour and the impacts could be even greater for places like New York where you still have to swipe through a turnstile to get onto the subway. Hey, if it’s good enough for your phone then it’s good enough to get you a train ticket.

Why we should get it: No more waiting in line behind an entire family of tourists who can’t figure out how to board while your rush hour train slips away in front of you.

Riley McNeal

DRIVERLESS TRAINS

Autonomous cars aren’t the only technology revolutionizing how we move through the world, trains are getting the driverless treatment as well. Removing a train conductor doesn’t have quite as many complications as taking the wheel out of a driver’s hands: Trains are moving on a fixed track and the majority of heavy rail infrastructure won’t deal with pedestrians or other obstacles that need to be identified quickly.

Relative simplicity aside, autonomously operated trains have a chance to drive efficiencies through the roof by reducing the need for large physical gaps between trains to ensure a safe braking distance and eliminating operator error that leans towards the overly cautious for obvious reasons. Several major cities already have driverless trains in operation including Line 4 in São Paulo, Line 10 in Shanghai, and Kelana Jaya Line in Kuala Lumpur.

Why we should get it: Scaling up efficiency would make commuting in and out of the ‘burbs an immensely improved experience, savings hundreds of thousands of hours lost to transit, and possibly even alleviating the soaring price of urban real estate in major US cities.

Rocardo Gomez Angel

AN INTERNET OF TRAINS

Like most transportation modes, trains are rolling fountains of data. We’ve only started to tap into that data set, but tech companies like Siemens are beginning to explore how to use train sensor data to do things like fix cars before they break down, improve the fidelity of arrival times for passengers and transportation officials, and spot any infrastructure issues before they start to affect operations and slow trains to a crawl. One cool idea that’s come up as this data is analyzed? A fleet of drones that can repair trains as they’re moving. Now that’s efficiency.

Why we should get it: So we can finally get that Snowpiercer train that never stops, but also because in addition to preventing delays and shutdowns, fixing problems before they erupt will mean lower taxes and ticket prices. It’s always cheaper to maintain than repair.

ROLLING HOTELS

Sleeper cars have always been the definition of opulence, but the brand-new cars on the Shiki-shima train that travels between Tokyo and points north might be the most luxurious rolling stock in the world. There’s a dining car with a menu designed by a Michelin-starred chef, a glass-walled observatory car that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, a passenger lounge with live music, and a two-level suite that includes a pair of twin beds and a private dining room. If you have an extra $12k lying around, go ahead and treat yourself to an unforgettable rolling experience.

Why we should get it: Because we deserve better than a neck pillow and a seat that drops back four inches. And because adding a super-premium luxe option for the peacocks among us will make train travel more affordable for everyone else.

Michel Paz

IN THE LOOP

Elon Musk may be having a rough few months, but his sci-fi solution to the world’s transportation issues hasn’t lost any steam. Several Hyperloop tests have been completed in the last year, including a team from the Technical University of Munich that hit 290mph on a 0.75-mile track, a new speed record.

A fully-operational Hyperloop will hit speeds of greater than 700mph, making the journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco a mere 30 minutes long. Those speeds are possible because Hyperloop cars will be propelled through a vacuum-sealed tube, reducing the air resistance acting on the pods to virtually nothing. The cars would then “float” about the track using passive maglev technology, an unpowered version of what other maglev trains currently use. The vacuum-tube technology behind the Hyperloop has been around in one form or another for more than 200 years, but this contemporary iteration is a promising development that has the chance to change the way we move.

Why we should get it: To obliterate world speed records for trains, to innovate the future, and to put America back on top of innovation. You’re on notice, world!

MODULAR TRANSIT... IN TRANSIT

One consistent criticism of high-speed trains is that they inevitably leave certain population centers in the dust. Meanwhile, in order for the systems to be efficient and fast, you need to reduce the amount of stops the train makes so that it can reach, and maintain, top speeds. The superfast TGV in France is a prime example of that planning logic: It bypasses several mid-sized cities on its way out of Paris in order to reduce trip times to places like Lilles and Dijon. But what if instead of slowing down the trains, you simply let people on and off where they want?

A concept developed by the industrial designers at Priestmangoode proposes building linkable metro cars that would “catch up” to high-speed rail cars and let passengers disembark onto local services without slowing down the train significantly. It has the chance to bring high-speed rail service to more cities than previously thought, and shrink the distances between us even more.

Why we should get it: This is as close as you’re ever going to get to the movie thing where you leap from a moving train onto another one. Oh, and the efficiency gains in fuel, time, and personnel costs while getting to your tiny local stop are all obvious.