The Underground Future – How Technology Can Transform The Subway


When you imagine the future of trains, you probably see sleek, shiny, high-speed trains
whipping across miles at nearly the speed of sound, huge Maglev rail systems or
Hyperloops that will neatly solve all transportation problems.
But the reality is that our existing networks will be just as necessary, if not more so, than
new solutions to get from here to there efficiently and cost-effectively — that includes
subway systems that are often hundreds of years old like New York City’s. Such
systems need to embrace technological innovations, which the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority (MTA) is trying to do with its long-running program of signalling upgrades, as the New York Times recently reported.
Future technology is not just something that will improve subway efficiency and user
experience, it’s also a vital tool to help underground railway systems deal with exploding
urban populations and ancient infrastructure.

Mega Transport for Megacities

Between 70 and 75 percent of the world’s population is predicted to be living in urban
areas by 2050, leading to a huge growth in megacities (10 million people or more) and
mega urban regions (100 million people or more). New York, for example, is expected
to become a megacity in the next couple of decades.
In China, city planners are anticipating creating a huge 10,000 square mile urban region
in the Pearl River Delta, from Guangzhou to Shenzhen. They have already started
spending around $240 billion earmarked for integrating transport, energy, water and
telecommunication networks across the delta.
That kind of growth will place an enormous strain on transportation systems, with the
total amount of urban miles traveled expected to double by 2050, according to Arthur D.
Little’s and UTIP’s study, The Future of Urban Mobility 2.0.

Off the Roads and Onto the Rails

In these dense, sprawling megacities, roads will simply not be able to cope with the
demand for transportation. On the other hand, rail transport, which relies on density to
function efficiently, will be the obvious solution.
However, subway systems first built over a hundred years ago are already struggling
with overcrowding and legacy infrastructure.
“Metros are trying to improve capacity utilization by exploiting unused capacity, but
whether this is enough is questionable,” said Dr. Taku Fujiyama, Lecturer at the Centre
for Transport Studies at University College London.
“Coordinated integration with other transport modes may help, but in the end it has to
link with city development and national-level investment plans,” he said.
In 2016, the MTA released an image of a new open gangway train design it hopes to
test that could boost capacity by 10 percent. But the prototypes are still years away,
expected in 2020 at the earliest.
In the meantime, expansion by adding new lines is taking place as much as possible in
cities with already dense networks like New York, which is in the midst of its Second
Avenue expansion, aided by equipment and services from Turtle & Hughes.

Driverless Talking Trains

In addition to expansion, there are two technological innovations in particular that could
help improve the efficiency of their networks – smart signalling and greater automation.
Driverless trains are already in use across the world, frequently for short straight runs
from terminal to terminal in an airport for example. London, Paris, Dubai, Sao Paulo and
Copenhagen are just some of the cities using driverless trains on their metro rail
There are many benefits to automation, including the reduction of weight and cost by
eliminating the driver’s compartment, but the standout is increased efficiency.
Automation on the Paris Metro has enabled trains to run every 85 seconds, a feat that
could be replicated on underground systems in the United States.
As the Internet of Things proliferates and more “smart devices” spread across cities, rail
efficiency can be increased even further. Future trains should be able to “talk” to each
other and to the rail line, sending and receiving continual updates on their own and
other vehicles’ locations, weather and other adverse events to allow them to operate
more closely — and faster — than with human operators.
Smart devices will also be able to feed information about passenger numbers and
station overcrowding into the system, allowing the network to respond where possible
with additional trains where and when they’re needed.

Retail Technology

This kind of technological enhancement requires a huge amount of investment, as does
expanding the existing network. That’s why the railway and subway stations of the
future will look a lot more like airports than they do now, with extensive commercial
development to help pay for bringing stations into the 21st century.
Commercial development could include traditional retail outlets or futuristic virtual shops
like the one set up in 2011 in Seoul, South Korea. The Homeplus shop is on the
platform of the subway and customers can use their mobile phones to scan the QR
codes of over 500 items and then order them online. If the order is placed before 1 p.m,
it will be delivered the same day. Shops like these fit easily into subway stations and
could even be built into the trains themselves.
New York is already planning an extensive revamp of train interiors as part of its $27
billion, five-year MTA Capital Program to renew and expand the network that will
include WiFi, USB chargers, full-color digital customer information displays and digital
It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be cheap, but technology has the power to make
subway systems across the world a valid and vibrant solution to future transport problems.

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