In rural areas, keeping trains on the rails seems impossible due to high operation costs. Many lines shut down, leaving empty tracks and abandoned stations behind. Could we reinvigorate this infrastructure for a completely new type of mobility service?
In many regions, the use of railroads goes down a vicious circle. Especially in the countryside, the scattered network and relative low demand are putting profit at high risk. In an attempt to improve viability, train frequencies are reduced, decreasing the system’s attractiveness, leading in turn to a lower occupancy. This evolution continues up to the point where lines completely stop to operate.
The Italian Piedmont region alone closed over 340 km of railway since 2010, while many other lines were subject to a decrease in frequency. The unpowered single tracks remain spread-out over the land as relics from a bygone era. As of yet, the government have failed to provide a viable solution to the problem and opted to provide the stations to business opportunists in an attempt to revive the struggling rural areas.
Although Piedmont is mentioned explicitly, the Railpod project is not a contextual study. The region is solely used as a contextual framework: a set of systemic conditions to frame our visions of the way we move around, the spaces where this happens, and how things could be different in a near future.
Autonomous technology is on the rise, however its implementation in busy traffic situations remains rather complicated. The technology is gradually being successfully used in environments with a low level of complexity: highways (constant speed, single direction, constant movement) and shared public spaces (unpredictable human behaviour that is mitigated by low speeds). An obvious third scenario becomes railways: a closed system of controlled parameters. Autonomy on rails alleviates in large the economic problems associated with manually operated lower frequency railways. The reduction in staff combined with the use of local solar energy solutions dramatically increases the railways’ potential for renewed sustainability.
Railpod serves as more than a vehicle, it can become a complete service with a scope far beyond routine mobility. It provides the potential to revive the countryside areas by allowing direct access to previously desolate places, thus reactivating the abandoned infrastructure. The renewed rail network can create a complex exchange between rural areas and cities, along with exciting possibilities for tourism and business.
The project envisions users of many walks of life: the tech-averse granny on her daily market run; families opting for a daytrip to the country; millennials organising events in exciting new locations, or the visiting explorer wishing to do it all for the very first time.
Because of the many stretches with single tracks, often also lacking the overhead line, the service would function mainly as an above ground metro line. Along with carriages of common width, the project also imagines a narrower vehicle that makes use of a single rail, which would allow two-way movement on a single track. This would exponentially increase the logistic possibilities provided by the service. With autonomous tech deployed in full, pods could redistribute themselves effectively to cater to specific demands.
To keep the authentic identity of the countryside intact, interventions at the stations are kept to a minimum. In many cases, rural towns have been developed around the stations. By simply reactivating these buildings, their social central context within the town could be restored. The stations will keep some basic operational features in place.