Photo credit (banner): Alstom_Coradia Polyvalent pour Regiolis

Shaping the rail system of the future

Tomorrow’s trains will be driverless, connected and emission-free—and we’re building them today. We spoke with Corinne Talotte, Director of our Tech4Rail innovation accelerator, about the breakthrough technologies that are making rail more sustainable than ever.

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6-minute read

Why did SNCF launch the Tech4Rail programme in 2016?

We’re counting on innovation to do a lot—boost performance, safety and reliability, improve customer service, make the rail system more competitive, and tap all of its potential for saving the planet. With Tech4Rail, we’ve deployed a four-step method that accelerates the innovation process from drawing board to pipeline.

What are the four steps? 

Identify emerging technologies that can make rail more competitive. Combine them with SNCF’s own practices to prioritize the most useful projects and focus on developing them. Co-create with in-house and outside partners, and work on projects in consortiums that link rail stakeholders with players from highly innovative sectors, such as the automotive, defence and aerospace industries. The fourth step—and it’s a big part of our DNA—is to use phase 1 pilots to find out as quickly as possible whether a solution actually works on the ground.

That’s what you’re doing with driverless trains, isn’t it?

That programme addresses a number of challenges. We’re pursuing two aims at the same time: improve performance and increase the capacity of our existing lines. Automated systems will optimize train speeds, and that in turn will increase the number of trains in circulation, improve on-time performance, save energy and make operations more flexible.

What progress have you made?

We expect to have two driverless train prototypes by 2023—one for freight and one for passengers. In 2019 we tested early prototypes for a remote driving system, with an eye towards using it to shuttle trains between maintenance centres and stations. The project also includes the engineering work we need to detect obstacles. And we’re doing it all with partners in industry and support from Railenium, System X and other technology research institutes

What are the other building blocks for the rail system of the future?

Driverless trains will be the heart of the future rail system we’re creating with our counterparts in Europe, but other building blocks include continuous geolocation of trains, which will open the door to digital signalling, better operations and better passenger information. We’re studying this with partners in aerospace and the French armed forces.  We’re also working to improve our operating tools and make level crossings safer by enabling them to communicate with automobiles.

Will tomorrow’s trains be emission-free?

We’ve committed to reaching that goal by 2035.

Hybrid regional trains would cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 20%—and we wouldn’t have to change our operating model. That’s a real benefit.

Corinne Talotte, Director of SNCF’s Tech4Rail program

More broadly, how are you working to reduce energy consumption? 

Everything we do is focused on making the rail system greener, improving our operational performance and rolling out fossil-fuel alternatives to power our TER regional trains.

That would include hydrogen trains and hybrid TERs?

There’s no magic bullet. We’re working on a mix of technologies so we can offer each region a solution tailored to its mobility needs. Right now Tech4Rail is focusing on three kinds of solutions, with support from partners in industry, French regional governments and the French State. The first is hybrid regional trains. They would cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 20%—and we wouldn’t have to change our operating model. That’s a real benefit.

How would that work?

We would modify four-engine trains by replacing two of the engines with batteries, which optimize power consumption by recovering braking energy. Starting in 2021, we’ll test the first hybrid Régiolis train under actual operating conditions, and passenger service will begin in 2022.

There’s also the hydrogen train, which would replace diesel over the long term. With this option, there are big technical hurdles to overcome. We can’t deploy hydrogen trains until we have a distribution infrastructure, and we’ll have to share it with buses and other forms of transport.

But there’s another critical area for progress: we can combine rolling stock innovations with infrastructure innovations to improve performance and optimize our operating costs. For example, if we put batteries on trains, we can consider partial electrification of lines, which would reduce investment costs in the long run.

What other big projects is Tech4Rail working on?

In 2020 we launched a major programme to develop a more modular, more frugal rail model, and the first application will be small local lines.  The technologies we’ve developed at Tech4Rail are now maturing, so we can imagine a design-to-cost rail system tailored to lines with less density. Once again, we’re using our trademark approach—working with partners in industry and institutions to co-create solutions, and then experimenting with them on the ground.

Looking beyond the technology, don’t people play an important role as well?

Clearly we need to rethink the role of people and decision-making processes in systems that will soon be partially automated. But it’s two sides of the same coin: human beings and human cognition are inseparable from the technologies we’re developing. And even as we pursue all of these innovations, we can’t lose sight of what matters most: making it easy for passengers to use our services. If we’re going to reconcile these two aspects, now is the time to develop the skills and expertise we’ll need tomorrow.