Rail Innovation Shaping the World’s Largest Networks

Learn more about the various innovations occurring in the rail industry around the world to meet increasing demand and tackle climate change.

In the mid-90s, the designers of the Shinkansen wanted to make their trains faster. But every design they had come up with would also make them noisier.
Emerging from tunnels at high-speed and with great force, the trains would create a sonic boom – not an ideal situation for the urban environments
they would be travelling through.

This is where innovation came in. Rather than following the same design ideas they’d been previously working with, they tried something different.
Taking a page from nature’s book, they emulated the shape of the kingfisher, a bird that dives at high speed from air into water with hardly a splash.

It was the shape of the kingfisher’s bill that allowed it to cut so cleanly into water. And so the Shinkansen nose was designed based on this shape.

This was over 20 years ago. And in that time more innovations have been incorporated into the rail industry to create the networks we know and use today. And more are coming every year. That’s why we’ve listed some of the key innovations that are shaping the world’s largest networks today. Keep reading to learn more.


The rail industry is undergoing a digital revolution, with almost every process being digitised. This includes signage, onboard communications, journey analysis and even maintenance. Driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), these systems allow for the real-time capture and storage of crucial data, allowing rail operators to identify problems and facilitate preventative maintenance before they cause delays.

For example, the metropolitan rail network in Melbourne has implemented a range of digital systems connected to the IoT including rail temperature monitoring, which reduces delays across several lines, improving the network’s overall efficiency. High capacity signalling will also deliver the capability for higher train frequencies in the future, further enhancing the passenger experience.


The rise of digitisation comes hand-in-hand with automation. Drones are already being used to identify problems and assist maintenance workers. They can also provide additional security by offering a view of trespassers or other threats in vulnerable sections of a network.

The next step is the implementation of driverless trains. We can already see an example of this implemented by Metro Trains Sydney with the new North West Rail Link adopting a driverless train line. Train networks will be able to deliver a more predictable experience while also maximising capacity. This is crucial, as many metro systems around the world are currently struggling to match increased demand.

Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining firms, is pioneering its driverless AutoHaul system on a 1700km route in Australia as a cost-saving measure. As the firm’s drivers currently earn up to $224,000 per year, it makes financial sense to instead invest in an automated system.

Cyber security

All industries suffer from cyber crime and high-profile hacks in today’s modern era – and the rail industry is no exception. In fact, there was a ransomware attack on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency only recently, which took all of the network’s ticketing systems offline on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

But it’s not just ticketing that can impacted. Rail operators are at risk of having the increasingly large data sets they harvest (including technical, passenger and financial information) be targeted by cyber criminals. Worse still, they can be at risk of losing control of the trains themselves – a risk that’s only heightened with automation.

That’s why many networks around the world are investing in advanced cyber security measures to ensure data privacy is maintained, and the safety of the network remains in the control of rail operators.

Alternative energy sources

Climate change is having an impact across the world, especially in the transport industry. The days of diesel trains are numbered as rail operators seek to cut reduce carbon emissions. Fuel sources that are being explored outside of electricity include hydrogen fuel cells.

France’s Alstom is pioneering the use of hydrogen to power trains with its Coradia iLint EMU-challenger. The train’s fuel cell powers an electric motor, with excess energy stored in a lithium-ion battery. Alstom claims this system is the world’s first 100% emissions-free train unit.

Faster, stronger – better – trains

Another impact climate change has on the rail industry is the infrastructure. Increasing average temperatures are leading to tracks expanding and buckling under intense heat. This only leads to more regular repairs, speed restrictions, delays and disruptions.

To combat this, new steel developments have been implemented. These materials are longer lasting and have improved the strength-to-weight ratios. Not only does this improve resilience to extreme weather, it’s also better for the environment.

What’s next?

With population growth and a focus on renewable resources, it’s likely that the rail industry will become more even heavily relied upon over time than it currently already is. As a result of increased demand, there’ll need to be even better efficiency. This will likely lead to even more innovations and technology enhancements.

If you want to keep on top of what these changes are, be sure to subscribe to our blog for further updates.

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