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What innovation means to us

Carole Desnost, SNCF’s Director of Technology, Innovation and Group Projects, shares her vision of innovation and looks ahead to the future of rail.1

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5-minute read

What are your areas of research and innovation, and what do they tell us about the train of the future?

First of all, let’s make that trains of the future—there’ll be more than one. Needs vary dramatically from one community to another, and meeting them is deeply important to the people of France. Getting back to your question, the trains of the future will be decarbonized, driverless and connected. To invent them, we’ve built teams that include cognitive science experts, physicists and energy engineers, as well as specialists in localization and artificial intelligence. Our results are very concrete. We’re working on everything from the passenger experience—good station acoustics, comfortable seats and “liveable” trainsets—to overarching issues such as traffic flow, safety, on-time performance and flexibility. And of course we’re working to make rail greener and more economical than other transport modes. Tomorrow’s rail system will hinge on finding the right responses to these challenges.

Rail is often described as green transport. What are your top focus areas?

This is the big issue for the future, with an exciting path ahead. Let’s take one example. Many of our trains—including all our TGVs—already run on electricity. But meeting SNCF’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 sets a very high bar for our industrial innovation effort. We’ll need a mix of technologies to succeed, so we’re moving ahead on all fronts: dual-mode trains, hybrid trains, battery trains, biofuel and hydrogen.

We’ve heard about driverless metros and Google Car. Where do driverless trains fit in?

Technologically, their complexity puts us much closer to the driverless car, because we have an outdoor system that spans long distances. And we have tremendous potential because we can make our infrastructure a lot smarter. We’re already working on this at multiple levels and on multiple time horizons, but what really matters is the big picture. With smarter infrastructure and more autonomous trains, the whole system will perform much better, both economically and environmentally. And I’m not just thinking about freight and main lines. We also have extremely promising projects in new mobilities, too.

What about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and tube train? Are you following in the footsteps of your US counterparts?

Absolutely—that’s a really exciting area of innovation. We’ve been working with the Virgin Hyperloop start-up for 5 years now. Compared with us, you could say they started from scratch—or nearly. It’s not rail. It’s not air travel. The technologies are still being developed, and the use patterns haven’t been invented yet. As we track all of this and work with our partners, we’re challenging ourselves in new ways, which is critical in our work. And because SNCF is a rail operator, we’ll be able to have our say and contribute our expertise when the hyperloop dream becomes a reality.

We want to make shared alternatives to private cars available everywhere, with rail as the backbone.

Carole Desnost, SNCF’s Director of Technology, Innovation and Group Projects

What innovations will we see in the near future?

The modular TGV, or TGV M, will be running by 2024. It’s already attracting a lot of interest in France, and it’s packed with innovations at many levels. But there’s another little revolution that we and our partners are spearheading—hybrid trains, battery trains, biofuels and hydrogen trains. All of these are “on track” now. We plan to roll out the hydrogen train in 2025, and it will need a whole new infrastructure. That’s right around the corner. A trainset has a 40-year life, which means sustainability and continuous transformation have always been part of the mix. In rail, planned obsolescence is unthinkable! That’s not how we work.

What’s your vision of innovation?

In the 21st century, we need to think of rail innovation as resolutely open. We need to stay ahead of social trends, of course—that’s the alpha and the omega for us. But we also need to anticipate technological advances. Our sector doesn’t have enough scale to stand on its own, so we make progress by working with the automotive and aerospace industries and with international partners. And there’s a third pillar: for rail, innovation means optimizing costs. “Frugal innovation” is more than a buzzword. It was our guiding principle when we suggested new ways to electrify lines, and in some places, our ideas cut costs in half. Mobility has enormous potential for innovation in general, and we’re now seeing renewed expectations for regional rail. That makes it a particularly fertile area.

The modular TGV, or TGV M, will be running by 2024.

There’s been a lot of talk about “small lines.” Does your research focus on them?

Yes. For example, we’re working on modular, lighter solutions as well as micro-station concepts, and connected modules for rural and peri-urban areas. We want to make shared alternatives to private cars available everywhere, with rail as the backbone. We believe strongly in a multifaceted vision of innovation that can take us into this new century.

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1 This interview originally appeared in Issue 3 of Chut magazine.