Train travel: back to the future

What if the future of mobility depended (also) on an innovation that has been around for two centuries?

When we think about the transportation of tomorrow, flying cars, self-driving vehicles, hoverboards and electric bikes come to mind. But also super-fast trains. A few years ago, Elon Musk unveiled the Hyperloop project: a conceptual high-speed transportation system that, granted, resembles more a gigantic tube in which pressurized capsules will ride on air cushions than an actual train. In Japan, “bullet trains” have already broken the world record of rail speed, maintaining a top speed of 600 km/h for 11 seconds. They rely on a technology called Maglev (magnetic levitation) which limitates frictions: the trains actually levitate ten centimeters above the rails thanks to a magnetic field. These innovations prove that the good old locomotive is still more pertinent than ever for short, middle and even long distance travel — after all, twelve years ago, French train company SNCF had everyone fooled with their fake transatlantic tunnel project.

Faster trains and flexible stations

The first ever electric locomotive started working in 1894; in 1975, steam locomotives disappeared in France. Today, the train is a cleaner, more ecological means of transportation than planes and cars for middle and long distance travel. While there is definitely room for technical innovation (like high-speed or self-driving trains), what will truly make the train the means of transportation of the future lies more with the experience. Train travel remains expensive; over the past few years, train companies have been making more and more of an effort to make the experience more enjoyable and efficient by installing power outlets, making WiFi available onboard or offering entertainment that matches what long-haul flights have long been proposing. Another key area for development is the stations, which are increasingly becoming hangout spots rather than places people just pass through. Train stations of the future should be “relatively pleasant, brighter, and have more customer amenities,” says Paul Skoutelas, National Director of Transit and Rail at architecture firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, to Gizmodo. One reason for that is that stations will be a very important node in the mobility of tomorrow. Intermodality develops thanks to apps and services (SNCF has announced that they have a “personal travel assistant”, that will handle every step of the commute, in the works), but it becomes physically real in and around stations, where all mobilities converge and interact. Initiatives like the Interrail (a train pass that is valid in 30 European countries) or start-ups like Trainline (that make it easier to plan a train trip across borders) do contribute to building a sense of having a European train network. But if it is to develop, this network is bound to rely on busy stations — there are 71 that welcome more than 30 million passengers a year — where hopping on and off a train, a bus, a bike or a hoverboard will become more natural than ever.