How can we reactivate thousands of kilometers of discontinued railroads?
SCOPE: Research & definition
DOMAIN: Other vehicles, Infrastructure, Services
In many rural areas, the use of railroads is going down a vicious circle. As rural population decreases, demand for railway services steadily goes down. In turn, train frequencies are reduced, hence less attractive, bringing down occupancy rates even further down. In fact, to the point where these lines cease to be economically viable and must be stopped, leaving in their path empty tracks and abandoned stations. In face of this, we set for ourselves the challenge to explore what could be done to reinvigorate this decaying infrastructure.
With 340 km of railway closed since 2010 and many lines seeing their traffic steadily and steeply decline, the Italian Piedmont region provided a great contextual framework to explore the opportunities that new types of vehicles and services could create on top of this fading infrastructure. We started by generating realistic fictions, narratives that go beyond the predictable but remain within the realm of the plausible, exploring in a comprehensive and systemic way the broad mobility domain, from people, businesses, institutions and technology to vehicles, infrastructure and services. In turn, this material enabled us to run a first high-level, yet tangible, exploration of the solution blocks that emerged.
Several scenarios emerged, showing the potential to create new demand for moving people, goods and services to, from and within rural areas on the basis of an existing even if dying railroad infrastructure. The solution that sprang, technically feasible with current off-the-shelf technologies, is both a new type of vehicle and a range of new services. Dubbed Railpod, it creates new revenue & partnership opportunities while minimizing operating expenses (through the combined use of autonomous technology, solar technology and full digitization of the experience) as well as capital expenditures (through maximizing the use of single, often non-electrified tracks, and limiting the need for physical stations).
Railpod is a concept that carries the potential societal benefit not only to help revitalize declining rural areas, but also to do it with a minimal environmental footprint and to promote and demonstrate fully zero-emission power in action. It is a perfect example of what mobility is all about, a complex and systemic interplay between vehicles, infrastructure and services on the one hand, and people, businesses, institutions and technology on the other. And a domain whose future cannot be derived simply from incrementally improving the present, but one that requires a radical and critical exploration of what might be, converging then gradually towards what can be.
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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.