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            Rail transport is the transport of passenger and cargo railcars that run on parallel rail tracks supported by concrete or timber beams to maintain a consistent gauge. Railways are also equipped with a large network of signaling and telecommunications equipment to ensure that rail journeys are safe.

            The railway revolution started in the late 18th century. Finally, in 1803, an inventor named Richard Trevithick made the first steam – powered locomotive with a 12 mph top speed. Ever since, it has changed transportation dramatically, being able to replace horses effectively since a train set can carry many more people and goods per journey. Steam locomotives became dominant throughout the 19th century, until electric and diesel engines replaced the steam ones gradually starting from the 20th century.

 

The current railways

            A railway consists of two segments. The first one is called the rolling stock, which are assets that can move such as locomotives and passenger and goods carrying railcars. The other one is referred to infrastructure, which consist of “fixed” assets such as tracks, train stations, signaling equipment, etc.  Although building a rail network is capital – intensive, it is energy - efficient. A train set can trim the number of buses on the roads because 50 railcars in one train set can accommodate about 750 tons of freight and pulled by only 3 to 4 locomotives, equivalent to 75 road trucks. Thus, a train can save energy compared with other forms of land transportation since it requires 50 % less energy to transport a given tonnage of passengers and cargo than does road transport.

Diesel locomotive, Indonesia
24-08-06_1713.jpg
Photo by: Aldi Yuristian

            Electric trains can save much less energy than their diesel counterparts since fossil fuel is only needed to power the electric power grid lines. However, track electrification is extremely costly in the construction stages. Hence, electrification is commonly implemented in high – density rail routes.         

            The demand for rail travel on electrified routes also needs to be high and consistent. Routes that do not have such demand are usually partially electrified or not at all. To prevent the need for passengers to change trains, they are best served by electro – diesel trains that can be run by an electric engine if power supply sources such as overhead wires are available or a diesel engine if not. Such trains operate on routes that the operators either do not have adequate budget to electrify the entire routes or consider total electrification uneconomical.

            The number of tracks on the route that trains run along varies according to the rail traffic along that route, or in some cases, the operator’s budget. A low traffic only requires a single rail line, or single track, because it obviously the most economical to build. A double-track rail line, commonly for higher rail traffic, can carry more passengers or freight in a given amount of time than a four – lane road. Thus, railways use space more efficiently. Nowadays, the traffic can be controlled by computers and electronics systems, though many countries still use mechanical signaling systems.

 

Right of way

            Railway tracks are built upon land owned or leased by the railway operator. Reducing the route length and grade may require cutting as well as adding bridges and tunnels since trains require large radius turns and modest grades, increasing the capital expenditures needed significantly. However, this can significantly reduce operating costs and allowing higher speeds. Due to the fact that building a rail network is generally more expensive than that of a road network, many railways are usually built for routes where there is a great demand of travel and cargo haulage.

The French TGV
tgv-tgvawr3.jpg
Source: http://thetransitcoalition.us/PicturesWeb/OtherSystems/pages/TGV-tgvawr3.htm

High – speed rail

            Continuous technological innovations in engine, locomotive, and railcar designs have enabled trains to run much faster today, in which many of them can run at 200kph (125 mph) or faster. Referred as high – speed trains, they are made available to be more competitive compared to other forms of land transport, and can even compete with airlines. Some of them, particularly the Japanese Shinkansen and the French TGV, are able to run so fast that (around 300 kph) dedicated railway lines for them are needed. Some of the other countries that have such lines include Germany, Spain, South Korea, and recently, Taiwan.

             So far, only China is operating magnetic levitation train (maglev) revenue services, due to its requirement for the high - cost, specially - designed tracks containing magnetic fields. In Asia, Japan will follow suit by planning to operate maglev trains between Tokyo and Nagoya starting from 2025, the time when the existing high - speed trains running on conventional tracks have reached its technological limits.

            The first high – speed rail network was built and opened in Japan in 1964. Prior to that, most passengers were drawn from the railways to road and air travel due to technological improvements in road vehicles and aircraft and the availability of cheap oil. Even if a highway does not impose any speed limit, most cars still cannot compete with a high – speed train that runs only within the lower – limit for high – speed rail (125 mph). In comparison with air travel, a journey of 650 kilometers or less by airplane might be less competitive compared to high – speed rail journey due to the airport security measurements, whereas train stations do not impose such measurements and trains commonly terminate at central locations. High – speed trains also provide less waiting times, fewer modal changes, and generally more seating space.

            High – speed trains also beat other modes of transport on energy consumption. A high - speed train consumes less energy per passenger mile than a car or an intercity bus, making them more environmentally friendly.  Such trains can also help reduce congestion on highways and airports, thus helping other modes of transport. In fact, a good public transportation system requires seamless connection between all modes of transport.

            Despite of various advantages high – speed rail has, its operations is economical under certain conditions. High – speed lines should be built between cities with high population density and demand for travel between them, such as TokyoOsaka in Japan and ParisLille in France. Passengers must be able to connect to other modes of transport seamlessly to make high – speed train travel to be effective. It is best to focus the business traveler market segment since business travel has a much higher frequency than the leisure market, which tends to be seasonal.

           

Some issues and their solutions

            Due to their capital – intensive nature, the condition and size of railway systems and networks can vary differently from one country to another. Besides requiring a relatively large amount of capital if compared to building road networks and the large number of stakeholders (the government, private entities involved and/or affected, and taxpayers) usually involved, railway constructions require prudent planning from the government and other parties involved. Political factors can also determine whether a railway project can be carried out, delayed, or even cancelled.

 

Tilting trains

            In some countries or regions, improving the existing railway infrastructure is difficult. For instance, countries that have a meter – gauge track width (1,000/1,067 mm) encounter difficulties in increasing the speed limit of their rolling stock since they do not have sufficient funds to build rail lines that have standard – gauge track width (1,435mm), which is adequate enough for high – speed rail travel, and trains running along meter – gauge tracks can only run safely up to 120 kph.

X2000 tilting train in Sweden
tilting_train.jpg
Source: http://www.o-keating.com/hsr/X2000.htm

             The problems of having the meter – gauge rail network and/or tracks with many curves have been solved by enabling the rolling stock to tilt from 5 to 8 degrees when negotiating bends. Tilting trains, thus, are able to run 35 % faster on bends than conventional trains, thus enabling high – speed rail travel. The first tilting trains used mostly mechanic systems, or passive tilt, that has caused nausea among most passengers. This has been solved by implementing computer systems so that the degree that the train needs to tilt can be calculated to give a smoother tilt. Some industrialized countries like Italy, Great Britain, and Switzerland operate more tilting trains than high – speed trains that require dedicated rail lines.

 

Variable – gauge axle

            The use of different track gauges by different countries and regions have made continuing a rail journey somewhat difficult when a train has to run along tracks with different gauges. For instance, passengers and cargo in a train running along a 1,067 mm gauge have to be allocated to a different train if there is a change of gauge, called a break – of – gauge, along the route. Therefore, TALGO, a Spanish rail engineering firm, has invented the variable gauge concept which the wheel axles of some of its rolling stock products are able to adjust their width, with the aid of a special guide, to a different track gauge.

Copyright 2007 - Aldi Yuristian