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In the Automated Nano Transport System (ANTS) project, independent drive units can be combined with almost any kind of functional structures and autonomously find the route to their destination. © Designworks

Research project

Project Future Train

Intercity trains like the ICE are now part of our everyday lives. But how will tomorrow’s trains look – are entirely new concepts imaginable? Siemens engineers and researchers from the Technical University of Rhineland-Westphalia (RWTH) in Aachen are collaborating on the train of the future.

When Siemens and the RWTH put their heads together to imagine new kinds of trains, this is far more than a marginal note in the newspaper: In the aptly named Future Train project, the engineers and researchers are working on nothing less than the future of rail travel. Their work focuses on new technologies, innovative materials, development methods and manufacturing processes. Further key aspects include the development of multimodal mobility concepts for the holistic integration of rail and individual transport.

“At the forefront of this cooperation are two paths for the onward development of rail transport,” explains Jürgen Schlaht, Head of Innovative Technologies Mainline Transport at Siemens. “On the one hand, we and the RWTH are looking at the evolutionary advancement of the classic railway – in this case with a particular focus on even more efficient development and manufacturing methods. Highly integrated plug-and-play modules can allow us to reach a previously unattained combination of process simplification and cost reduction on the manufacturing side, while also adding to our flexibility to meet specific customer requirements.

ANTS: revolution for rail transport

The second path of development, meanwhile, requires a certain amount of imagination: the Automated Nano Transport System (ANTS) project calls for an even greater standardization of technical solutions for extremely customizable rail vehicles. Using 3-D technologies for flexible manufacturing, these vehicles will be highly automated for autonomous operation on the existing rail network. In other words: ANTS aims to revolutionize rail transport.

“We have developed a holistic approach that we call the Advanced Business Innovation Model (ABIM),” says Schlaht. “This is a user-oriented analysis that we can employ to strategically determine what requirements the various stakeholders have and how they can be integrated with one another. Working with the RWTH, we are currently reviewing the database and fine-tuning the forecasting capabilities.” In the ANTS projects Schlaht expects this approach to lead to wellfounded answers to the basic question of what benefits stakeholders such as passengers really expect from a rail vehicle of the future – for example comfortable journeys, greater flexibility and the most individual options at an affordable price. Compared with cars as a mode of transport that scores highly on unrestricted and direct access to destinations, simple journey planning and a protected private sphere, today’s trains are not quite up to scratch. So how can they fulfill these criteria better in the future?

The ANTS concept: modular thinking

At the core of the ANTS project are traction units of just twelve meters in length, operating largely independently and consisting of two modules: the drive unit and the functional structure. “You can think of the drive unit as an elongated bogie,” explains Schlaht. “Just four wheels and a frame, except it’s twelve meters long.” This is also where the drive motors, converters and motor control are installed, along with distance sensors, a 360° camera, environment sensors and more. “Given an appropriate energy source, such a drive unit could simply start driving.” These mobile units can be combined with almost any kind of functional structures: fixings for 40-foot containers, simple car bodies with seats, fast-food restaurants with a sun terrace – the sky is the limit. Jürgen Schlaht: “We can also imagine a future where the desired structures can be created using an online configurator and then manufactured within a few days using 3-D printing.”

A new level of flexibility

The concept as a whole therefore brings a great deal of flexibility: the independent drive units are completely identical in every case, so they can be manufactured cost-effectively in large numbers. The functionality, on the other hand, can be individually tailored to a large degree by the user. You might call it “train on demand” – order today and have it delivered next week. “The necessary technology is already available,” affirms Schlaht.

But the really special feature will be the “ANTS intelligence.” Where there is a higher volume of passengers or goods to transport, the short, individually deployable units organize themselves into a longer block train for the shared part of their journey. They each know their destination and guide themselves toward it without a driver, separating from the swarm when their rail routes diverge. “In this way, ANTS can make better use of the railway infrastructure and increase rail capacities,” explains Schlaht. “This is entirely new territory – and it’s an extremely exciting development.”

ANTS trains autonomously seek the best route

Today’s trains generally operate according to a schedule: they are coordinated from control centers and optimized to make connections with other trains. With the exception of highly frequented light railway and metro services, which set off within a few minutes of one another, this means many routes have large idle periods between the scheduled trains where the track is not being used. The ANTS units could simply “book slots in between,” says Schlaht. “Driving autonomously, the vehicles can communicate directly with switches and safety systems, select their own route to their destination, and effectively determine between themselves which unit or which block train may use a certain section of track in that moment.”

Intermodal door-to-door connections

In the future, even conventional train stations could become less relevant. “If we want to motivate people to take the train instead of their car for longer trips, we need to make their journey to the train more convenient as well,” says Schlaht. It is a compelling idea: travelers begin their journey at their front door with an autonomously driven “robot taxi” or “robo bus” and travel in comfort to the next ANTS station, which is comparable to today’s bus or tram stop. Here they board one of the compact ANTS trains and continue on to their destination via light rail and mainline tracks.

For the moment, these remain ideas and visions to explore for the Siemens and the RWTH researchers. Nevertheless, they show that railways still offer unforeseen potential for development – and are in no danger of being sidelined.

Eberhard Buhl, Munich, Germany
Picture credits: © Designworks