Europe Should bet on Rail Innovations to get Passenger Levels Back on Track

Europe Should bet on Rail Innovations to get Passenger Levels Back on Track

Last week, a federal judge in Florida ruled the obligation to wear a mask on aircraft and other forms of public transportation to be unlawful. The decision, which reversed a proposed extension to the mask mandate by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was taken after several European airlines – such as British Airways, Virgin, KLM, and easyJet – had already decided to do away with the regulations.

While the COVID-era restrictions may now be falling by the wayside, the pandemic has also had a long-term impact on the way commuters choose to travel. One of the main shifts has been a marked reduction in the use of public transport – such as buses, trains, and metros – which has been largely driven by passengers seeking to limit their chances of getting ill, especially when ventilation systems are lacking or social distancing cannot be enforced.

In Europe, the trend away from shared transport has been especially pronounced. According to statistics compiled by CityTransit, public transport usership in Europe’s main capital cities are yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, with passengers in Paris being 55% compared to before COVID, Brussels at 62%, Barcelona at 69%, and Berlin at 70%.

The decline in public transport use has also corresponded with an uptick in the number of personal vehicles found on the roads. Indeed, “the car is actually the winner from the pandemic situation”, according to Professor Meike Jipp – Director of the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Center – while “the big loser is the public transportation system.”

The EU bets heavily on rail

For European decision-makers at the Commission, who have already committed to drastically cutting emissions and pursuing more environmentally conscious policies as part of the Green New Deal, the increased use of private vehicles is a less than welcome setback. This is because, if the European Union (EU) is to keep its promises on the environment, part of the emissions cuts must come from the transport sector.

As a result, the EU has built its post-COVID transport strategy around an improved European rail network and services, in order to entice reluctant commuters back and convince them to abandon their vehicles. By early 2021, with the pandemic still in full swing, the European Commission had already presented its ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’. Among its main goals, the strategy sets out to “shift more activity towards more sustainable transport modes” by doubling high-speed rail services by 2030 and tripling it by 2050. More recently in December 2021, the EU Commission renewed its proposals by publishing a detailed Action plan aimed at strengthening long-distance rail services and achieving sustained growth in commercial rail use.

Improving the service through innovation

For Europe to successfully get people to ditch their cars in favour of the train, however, it must actively address the concerns that are currently keeping them away. Among them is a growing demand for greater safety, both inside and outside the train. According to an assessment contained in this year’s report by the European Union Agency for Railways, several countries had undergone “possible deterioration of safety performance” in respect to one or more safety targets.

In the midst of the poor performers is – perhaps surprisingly – France, whose rail network was found to be more vulnerable to the frequent presence of trespassers. This type of problem, however, persists only due to what Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean characterised as the “slow uptake of digital technologies”, which could rapidly improve the European network’s safety.

For what it’s worth, the EU could actually take inspiration from the United States, where parts of the rail network have already implemented advanced automated systems to increase track safety. In Florida and Nevada, such solutions have been offered by Remark Holdings, a NASDAQ-listed American company, through its Smart Safety Platform (SSP) platform that detects unauthorised intrusions on the track through computer vision artificial intelligence (AI). The use of the SSP system has led to a marked reduction in the number of incidents in what were previously some of the deadliest corners of America’s railways.

Ensuring passenger comfort

But rail safety is not the only area where European rail should make rapid improvements. It is just as crucial to start addressing the safety and comfort concerns of passengers who have been dissuading from public transport for fear of contracting COVID. Once again, cutting-edge tech may prove to be the most effective solution, Europe only needs to look across the channel for an idea of what that could look like in practice.

In the UK, South Western Railway (SWR) have started trialling artificial intelligence to power a real-time capacity monitoring tool that enables customers to avoid peak travel times. Another artificial intelligence-based innovation that is being mooted is the use of real-life data and machine learning models to forecast and simulate occupancy rates, which would then be used to optimise train scheduling according to passenger demand. Both innovations would unquestionably increase the attractiveness of rail travel by offering more tailored and less crowded train services.

Back to business

With the pandemic having had the effect of encouraging Europeans to adopt less sustainable travel habits, and with inter-city travel in Europe still mostly cheaper by airplane than by rail, more needs to be done to make train travel – the more environmentally friendly option – more attractive to passengers. In the pursuit of this goal, the EU should remember that technology can be a powerful ally. With artificial intelligence providing opportunities to make rapid safety improvements and offering passengers a service better tailored to their demands, its widespread adoption across the European network could be the key to getting passengers to embrace rail travel.

Image credit: Pimthida via Flickr

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